In both her standup routines and now in her Netflix series Lady Dynamite, comedian Maria Bamford normalizes topics like bipolar depression, hospitalization, and obsessive thoughts.
I’ve been a loyal fan of comic Maria Bamford’s ever since watching her ingeniously frank and vulnerable web series The Maria Bamford Show. In it, she highlights her personal struggles with depression and anxiety while acting as herself and a panoply of other characters—including members of her quirky Midwestern family, who feature prominently in much of her comedy.
Created in 2007, the low-budget series springs from the comedian’s self-proclaimed worst fear: moving back to Minnesota to live with her parents after a mental health crisis. Life imitated art a few years later when—having been diagnosed with bipolar disorder II and hospitalized for severe depression—Maria did in fact find herself back in Duluth.
Coming full circle, art imitates life in this year’s scripted comedy series Lady Dynamite. The “Netflix original” is loosely based on the period around Maria’s bipolar diagnosis and post-hospitalization recovery. The first season cuts back and forth between Duluth and Los Angeles, illness and wellness, hospitalization and high-end real estate acquisition, depression and hypomania, success and failure, love and loss.
Like her character, Maria lives in L.A. The 46-year-old now shares a home with her husband, artist Scott Marvel Cassidy, and their three pugs, Blueberry, Betty and Arnold.
Maria has been labeled a “cult comedian,” an “alternative comedian,” and “a comedian’s comedian.” (Marc Maron described her as “the best comic in the country,” and Stephen Colbert introduced her as his “favorite comedian on planet Earth.”) Maria’s alternative comedy has hit the mainstream, however—so much so that you can stream her on your service of choice.
There’s the 2005 Comedy Central documentary The Comedians of Comedy, which follows Maria, Patton Oswalt, Zach Galifianakis, and Brian Posehn on tour. There’s her 2012 stand-up solo concert Maria Bamford: The Special Special Special!, performed in her living room before a captivated audience of two: her parents.
Then there are her recurring guest roles on shows like Louie and Arrested Development. After launching her stand-up career at age 19 in Minneapolis, Maria branched into acting in her late 20s. Her face may be most familiar to the general public from Target’s Christmas ads a few years running.
She’s also lent her versatile voice to a dizzying roster of animated characters on Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time, Nickelodeon’s The Legend of Korra, the PBS series WordGirl, and many other series.
And now, of course, there’s Lady Dynamite. The show has received acclaim from the likes of the New York Times (“a layered, surreal sitcom of mental illness”), Variety (“an amusing combination of humane wisdom and goofy wit”), and Rolling Stone (“easily one of the most unique, dynamic shows of the year so far”).
If you haven’t seen it yet, be warned: Lady Dynamite is bona fide binge bait. I started watching on a Saturday morning with the intention of catching one or maybe two episodes. Six hours later, I was still on the couch.
What I love most about Maria isn’t her inimitable comedic genius or her seemingly endless array of hilarious voices. Rather, it’s her singular comedic voice, boldly shattering stigma and discrimination with every note. By finding the humor in her experiences with bipolar and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), Maria is helping to change the way our society views mental illness.
Talking with Maria in person (or rather, by phone) is like absorbing one of those word-heavy, Neo-Expressionist Basquiat masterpieces. At once on point and all over the place, precise and chaotic, Maria’s speech is in itself a work of art.
Here’s some of what she had to say during our hour-long conversation, edited for length and clarity—and her sometimes salty language.
Question: You weren’t diagnosed with bipolar II until you were 40. What was that like?
I was surprised how prejudiced I was against myself. They tell you it’s the brain chemistry also working its magic, but I was really surprised at how resistant I was to going on a mood stabilizer, taking any time off of work, acknowledging that I needed to be hospitalized.
I remember my psychiatrist said, “You’re talking way too fast. You need to be on a mood stabilizer.” And I was just like, “What are you talking about?” I was just so angry. I didn’t want to go on the meds. It wasn’t until it got bad enough to where I was starting to feel unsafe by myself that I reconsidered.
Q: How are you doing now?
I’ve been diagnosed with bipolar II for roughly the past five years now. I had seen tons of psychiatrists and when I think about it, I’m sure had I been on [mood stabilizers] a lot earlier, I would have been able to miss out on a bunch of major episodes of depression.
And at the same time, I think, “Well, you know, I’m really happy with my life, with what my life has been.” So it’s kind of hard to say . . . but now I feel much more enjoyment in life.
Q: What does self-care look like for you?
Music, exercise and reading. I meditate every day, and I go to a bunch of 12-step fellowships. I get a ton of help there. I’ve been to DA [Debtors Anonymous], UA [Underearners Anonymous], SLAA [Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous], Alanon, AA [Alcoholics Anonymous] and OA [Overeaters Anonymous] as a visitor. They have online and phone meetings, and that makes it easy if I’m out of town.
I don’t believe in God, but I believe in the miraculous human spirit of transformation when people help each other. And it’s free!
Friends and family are hugely helpful, and I’ll always call my psychiatrist if things get dicey. I get all the help that’s on offer. … I hope that if I had a relapse, I’d have the courage and willingness to go into the hospital.
Q: Speaking of hospitals, I love your idea of creating a travel guide app for psychiatric facilities!
Oh, yeah! I don’t have the energy or the time, but I’m all for anyone who wants to take the idea and run with it!
When I checked into [a psychiatric facility] in Pasadena—of course it is a hospital, a psychiatric setting, and I know it’s not going to be like a Shangri-La, but they did say on their website that they had a swimming pool and that they had yoga and all this stuff. And they did not. So yeah, it would be great just to have something like a hotels.com for psychiatric facilities.
Q: Was it like the hospital scenes in Lady Dynamite?
There were no games, there was no group, there was no vision boarding, there was nothing. Like you are sitting there with a tower of Family Circle magazines from the late ’80s, covered in dust.
Q: So true! They always have the worst magazines! By the way, I was thrilled to read that you’re a bp Magazinesubscriber.
I think I’ve gotten it for three years now, and I just love it. My favorite features are where they interview just regular people living their lives, showing that recovery is possible even without every possible advantage in health care and support.
Q: I’m curious: What’s your take on the adult coloring book fad? People seem to find it meditative and even therapeutic.
I’m just so grateful that anyone is doing something solitary and peaceful. I think that it’s just a really safe way to be creative, you know. And I think it shows how much people want to be creative, but they feel overwhelmed by this idea that you have to be good at it. I mean, remember paint-by-numbers?
Q: Of course! Who could forget!
Well, that has been around for a long time, and I think, yes, it’s relaxing, and yes, it’s a safe way to feel creative and to feel like, “Well, I’m gonna make something that somebody’s going to find at least somewhat attractive.” So there’s not as much painful risk involved.
Like, my dad just took a watercolor class and the [crap] that he got from his fellow watercolorers, ladies in their 60s, was unbelievable. Like just saying, “Uh, yeah, you have to put a background on that,” and, “You might want to keep painting that over and over again.”
And he’s like, “No, I just want to paint this boot.” And he painted his boot, and we framed it. He sent me Boot, and then he sent me Clock, because he painted a clock as well.
But there’s just a tremendous amount of peer pressure with creativity. People can have very strong opinions and can be nasty, even people from Duluth! … Of course, my dad didn’t feel it, but I felt so enraged on his behalf. I was just like, who are these [witches]?
Q: At one point you were seeing a therapist weekly. Is that still the case?
My husband and I see our couples therapist. I’ve been in therapy since I was 11, so I feel like if there’s an issue, then my husband and I go to couples therapy and then I go to all my groups, and I think that’s enough.
And everybody, all my friends and family, I’ve told them, “Hey, if I start talking too fast and want to get in touch with the Pope, call a purple van and have ’em take me to doggy day care, ’cause I need to be boarded for the weekend.”
Q: Speaking of the Pope, I know your mom is quite devout. How has she reacted to your lack of faith?
She’s a very liberal Christian. She’s like an Eileen Fisher Christian. She’s wearing long [skirts]; she’s wearing a pop of color in her glasses, and buying organic. That’s the kind of Christian she is.
But yeah, I’m sure she would love it if I were more interested. It’s so funny because our whole family is all into different philosophies of how life works. I’m more into the 12 steps, my dad’s into this thing called “core values,” and my sister, she does life coach stuff.
I believe in human beings. I feel like it’s amazing that we all come up with ways to help each other, and that anything has ever been discovered. I mean, it’s a miracle that I’m alive today. I’m sure I would’ve Virginia Woolf-ed it many years ago had I had no medical intervention.
Q: Your comedy has done so much to destigmatize mental illness and address social issues. Do you consider yourself an activist?
Well, I don’t know. I feel like in order to be an activist I’d have to have a stronger work ethic and more training and wear meaningful T-shirts every day. But yeah, I know I was born sliding into home plate.
My parents paid for my care and education up to the age of 22. I have had every advantage possible, and it’s still been hard, so I just cannot even imagine how hard it would be [without those privileges] … you just start to realize, “Oh, this really is biased.”
Q: Do you think being a woman in the boys’ club of comedy has helped make you more sensitive to injustice and discrimination?
I’m sure that it has because [the discrimination] is so shocking, and you feel like, “Oh, am I imagining it?” Like, am I imagining it that none of these guys will talk to me at this club even though I’m working here, too? This was when I was starting out. It’s just not very flattering hearing, “Great set. Uh, are you doing anything later on? I’d love to give you some notes.” And I’m thinking, “You know what? I don’t think I really want any of your notes.”
Q: Do you have a regular creative routine?
No, I don’t. I wish I did. One thing that has helped me is to rehearse with friends, fellow creatives. I’ll “bookend,” which means I call or text before and after doing just five-minute segments of rehearsing. Because I seriously will not do it if it’s a giant chunk of something. I’ll just never start, so now I’ve started just doing five minutes. I’m sure it will go to one minute at some point.
But just to feel like I’m celebrating it with somebody else makes it more fun. Because now that I know that the money and prestige isn’t fulfilling or that it doesn’t really make a difference creatively, the main thing is just to keep going and just make it more fun.