Talking with Maria Bamford About Stand-up, Her New Special, and Her Role in ‘Arrested Development’
Maria Bamford has been one of the funniest and most original stand-ups going for years now, and she’s been keeping busy with a whole slew of TV and web projects lately too. In addition to voice acting in shows like Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time, Nickelodeon’s The Legend of Korra, and PBS’s WorldGirl, Bamford had a recurring role as herself on Louie last season and will be popping up in Arrested Development‘s new season in the spring. Best of all, she has a new self-released stand-up special coming out that she performed in her living room with her parents as the only audience members. Keep an eye out for the special, which Bamford is releasing November 28 on the video site Chill.com. I recently had the chance to chat with Maria Bamford about her early days as a comedian, her new projects including her Arrested Development role, and why she bought 30 pumpkins from a pumpkin patch.
Who were your favorite comedians growing up?
Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, and Saturday Night Live. Those were the main ones that I grew up with, yeah. I listened to them with my dad.
Do you remember specific albums that you would listen to?
All the Steve Martin [stuff]. Let’s Get Small… I’m not remembering, of course, all the names… Cruel Shoes, Wild and Crazy Guy. And then, the first Eddie Murphy album. Not Delirious where he’s wearing a red leather outfit.
The one where he has a flower on his head on the cover?
Yeah, yeah. It’s kind of goofy when he talks about… [Eddie Murphy voice] “Why’d you put your dick in the sink?” It’s great. Me and my dad would listen to them in the car.
So, when was your first time onstage?
I was about three. I played violin… I did violin recitals.
But in terms of comedy…
The first time I did stand-up, I think I was 19. I did it in college a couple times, but I don’t think I really started doing it until I was about 21.
What city were you in at the time?
Was there a big comedy scene there or just a couple clubs?
Yeah, there were a couple clubs and theaters. You could kind of do whatever you wanted to do. I mean, it’s still the same.
Do you still keep in touch with any of the other comedians from back then?
Yeah, yeah. One of my best friends is Jackie Kashian, who I’ve known for 20 years.
So, you guys were doing open mics together?
No, we did some shows together. I didn’t know her as well back then, mostly because I was more shy. But then, she moved to L.A., and then we got to be closer friends and stuff, as that happens.
Where did you move from there? Did you move to New York or…
L.A. I just moved here. I’ve been here since ’95.
What was that comedy scene like, with the alternative scene booming with Bob Odenkirk and David Cross and those guys?
Yeah, I remember going to see those shows, and it was really neat… I was just doing open mics and stuff, so I didn’t really know what was going on in the scene at all. I was just meeting other comics who were at the same level I was, so I didn’t really know what was going on. [Laughs] I’m not sure if I know what’s going on right now.
[Laughs] How has your act changed since you first started performing, comparing what you do now to what you did when you started out?
I think it’s slightly more personable. It’s more chatty. It seems to be more theatrical.
Did you always do a lot of characters?
Yeah, I only do like 7 to 11 characters that are quite similar. [Laughs]
[Laughs] Do you actually keep inventory of those characters or do you just know it’s roughly 7 to 11?
Well, I said 7 to 11 because I think if someone were a harsh judge, they might say, “Hey, wait a minute, that grandpa voice sounds a lot like your grandma voice!”
Where are your favorite places to perform?
I still like open mics and places where it’s mostly empty where comics are just there watching. I like that because you can just focus on new bits. That can be really nice. Yeah, I think that’s my favorite. I like booked shows in L.A. where it’s a smaller crowd or mid-week shows… I like those shows better ’cause there’s not as much hype, at least in my head.
And do you still book [the L.A. stand-up showcase] What’s Up, Tiger Lily?
I don’t do that. Myself and Melinda [Hill] started it, but Melinda did everything, and I just showed up. But now, it’s booked by Jazz Ponce, and they let me go up sometimes… Beyond showing up, I don’t think I did a ton. I don’t always show up there because that show’s pretty packed a lot of times, and I like a quieter, non-attended show… I feel more comfortable trying new stuff.
How often do you cycle through your material? Some comedians will do an hour a year. Do you do anything like that?
It seems like I have a new hour every five years. I’m not an hour-a-year person, but I wish I was. I think that’d be really great. I mean, there’s tons of comedians who do that, and I think it’s really courageous.
But I feel like that’s a fairly new trend.
Well, [in] the UK and Australia – [British accent] in the Commonwealth – you have to have a whole new hour every year. The comedians have to have a whole new hour for the festivals… So, it seems like those guys for the past 30 years have had that.
Do you have plans for another web series any time soon?
Uh, no. [Laughs] Thanks for asking. I’m doing a direct-to-fan download thing… It’s a comedy special, and the only people in the audience are my parents.
Did they enjoy the show? Did you kill?
We haven’t done it yet. Yeah, I dunno how it goes.
Do you have any other projects you’re working on? Have you been doing a lot of voice acting lately?
Yeah, I do a couple voices on Adventure Time, a couple voices of Legend of Korra from The Last Airbender series for Nickelodeon. I do some on this web series “Superfuckers.” I have a tiny part in Arrested Development. I’m just livin’ my life. I bought a bunch of pumpkins today. [Editor’s note: This interview took place before Halloween.]
That’s cool. At a pumpkin patch?
Yeah, a pumpkin patch. I went there, got like 30.
Yeah, little baby ones. I give ’em out to people whether they want them or not… Some of them were two dollars, some of them were five dollars, dependent on the size.
I think I’m all out of pumpkin questions. I don’t have any more pumpkin follow-ups.
Get to the meat of it!
Yeah, people are gonna say I let you go easy on this pumpkin issue. So, How’d you get started voice acting? Did somebody approach you after seeing your stand-up or was that something you pursued?
I worked as a secretary at Nickelodeon. One of the guys [was] making a show, and he asked me to audition for it. So, I got a job through basically being a secretary at Nickelodeon. [Laughs] That’s how I got a job.
What’s the process like for those recording sessions?
It’s super easy. You just go in and do a voice and read it and then leave. It’s pretty delightful. Usually, it’s funny. They write something funny and the people are super nice. You get union wages. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s all positive, as far as I can tell. [Laughs]
[Laughs] That’s great. Do you get to improvise ever?
Yeah, you get to improvise sometimes. Not always but sometimes, they’ll do one take and let you do a take where you just say whatever you want. I do it like that a lot. It’s fun.
Can you talk at all about your Arrested Development role, or is that something that’s supposed to be hush-hush? I don’t wanna get you in trouble.
I don’t know, I don’t know. But it’s fun. It’ll be fun. It’s gonna be great. I just got to see a little scene or whatever, but it was so exciting. It’s such a funny, elaborate, awesome, incredible show, so that was just fun to see some of the actors work. That was really neat. I got to see a scene with Will Arnett, and he just did a beautiful job. And Mitch Hurwitz was so lovely. It’s just amazing to see them work. It’s really just neat. That was neat.