All Are Welcome in the Church of Maria Bamford
2017 has been a bumper crop year for Maria Bamford. First she released Old Baby, her hilariously heartfelt hourlong Netflix special that not only packed an emotional punch but also pushed the envelope by toying with the structure of standup specials (the venues in which she performs change and grow, allowing her to deconstruct the performer-audience dynamic). Bamford followed that up with season 2 of Lady Dynamite, her experimental, surrealist scripted series loosely based on her journey of self-discovery. With those two notches in her belt, you might’ve thought Bamford would be ready to kick her feet up.
Well you thought wrong. The beloved comedian is back to close out the year with a new digital series titled Ave Maria Bamford on Topic.com. Part self-help tutorial, part cathartic confessional, Ave finds Maria offering her signature warm but self-deprecating wisdom on how to survive awkward conversations during the holiday season. We couldn’t have asked for a better guide to help us navigate through the anxiety-inducing hilarity of family dysfunction.
Maria hopped on the phone with me to discuss Ave, the progress she’s made writing her new hour, and the true way to find happiness during the holidays.
It’s been such a busy year for you, from your Netflix special Old Baby to another season of Lady Dynamite to your new collaboration with Topic.com Ave Maria Bamford. How are you feeling about everything?
Well, when you say it like that you make it sound so awesome! [laughs] It’s certainly been an exciting year. I’m grateful to have had all these opportunities to make things and it’s been very free. It seems like there’s no notes or limitations on what you can do in TV anymore, or when making the kind of videos I did for my Topic.com series.
How did the relationship with Topic come about?
They just called and asked if I’d be interested in doing a series similar to the one Wyatt Cenac made for them on another topic. It sounded like a wonderful opportunity to make whatever I wanted. So that’s what they did and it was super fun. They let me choose a topic. I decided to do The Twelve Gifts of Desperation over the holidays. I wanted to wear a pope outfit. I wanted to have it in a church. And Topic was just like, “Okay!” [laughs] I hope it doesn’t add to my own idea of grandiose power to do whatever I want.
In Ave Maria Bamford you give advice on topics ranging from mental health to climate change to the appropriate ways to discuss a tragedy during the holidays. Why did you choose these topics to unpack?
The holidays, at least for me, are super stressful. It can be a time of agitated depression. There’s just that feeling of isolation that conflicts with the expectation that you’re supposed to feel wonderful. So if something bad is happening during the holidays in particular, that automatically makes everything feel worse. It compounds those problems. I tried to think of it like, if you are having a shitty time during the holidays, maybe [this series] could help lighten the mood. My favorite thing to do is talk about stuff that maybe not everybody always feels comfortable talking about or bringing up. I hope it wasn’t too glib.
There’s the church-themed production design and the Latin in the title Ave Maria Bamford. What made you decide to pepper religious symbolism throughout this series?
It helps with the whole religiosity theme and that this series is coming out around the holidays. Christmas, even if you’re not religious, is just filled with things that are beautiful. I’m very jealous of religious people. I grew up in an Episcopalian church. I wish I believed in something on some higher level. It seems like those people who do have this calm certainty about them. I wish I believed it was Jesus that came through my pencil and told me what to do in my journal. I tried to believe that, but I just feel like God sounds so much like me. It’s a little off-putting. God seems to have a real strong love of clogs and he’s always just saying, “You’re doing great!” That can’t be true, right? Also, I just thought it would be fun to do. My mom’s a deacon in the church so I thought it would be fun for me to wear a pope hat. Or is it a bishop hat? I don’t even know what the hierarchy is. It’s also a very forgiving uniform, that bishop costume. It’s very comfortable. I didn’t have to wear Spanx!
You’ve never shied away from being fearlessly candid about your struggles with mental health issues, but what makes it refreshing and instructive is how you never romanticize those issues. Do you feel like comedians often glamorize the “tortured artist” cliché?
I hope not to fetishize it. I can see how it might be easy to do that, and I know for myself, when you’re affirmed for talking about something like that — I’ve been affirmed for talking about mental health so a part of me goes, “Oh well, does that mean I gotta keep talking about it even though I’ve been on good meds for the past six years so I don’t have any new mental health crisis chunks to work on and I feel pretty good?” There are probably younger people than myself who have more interesting things to say about it — especially marginalized experiences of mental health, like schizophrenia or borderline personality disorder, which I know is going to be discussed in the new season of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. I hope to step out of the conversation. There are other voices that probably need to be heard rather than myself. I’m 47. I’ve been heard enough.
The topics you tackle in Ave Maria Bamford are parallel with the themes you often discuss on stage. I see that you’re working on a new hour, for which you’ve also started an accompanying blog that documents your writing progress/process called One Hour. What inspired that?
It’s just another way to push myself to write stuff. Personally, there’s this feeling that is it really important [to engage with] that — not out of futility, but just in terms of, does my voice really need to be heard beyond myself as a human being? As a human being, of course, I need to talk to myself and be pleasant to myself and feel creative. But as a comedian? That’s the reason I started this. I think the one thing that could be useful out of this is that, even if the material isn’t groundbreaking, at least I could help other artists and also be helped by other artists. Like a creative community: I’m working on this thing and here’s how I’m doing it. So it’s an attempt to be a writer of control but also to push myself to write something that has meaning. Even if what I created is so bad that all it does is inspire someone else to write something better, then that’s awesome.
There’s a moment in Ave Maria Bamford where you say, “Weakness is my brand.” It’s clearly tongue-in-cheek, but I was hoping you could talk about that line since your vulnerability has been empowering for so many people.
It’s certainly making fun of this idea of what my shtick is. Turns out my shtick, at least for the past several years, has been about mental illness. To be perfectly honest, it has been a cash cow, which is a weird and hilarious thing to say. I’ve never made more money in my life than by being open about a very real and embarrassing thing. I don’t know if that’s pimping myself out or what. Whatever it is, it’s happened. There’s so much stuff about branding. It’s so strange to me. I hear people talk about, “What’s your brand?” What is it you’re trying to put out?” I’ve been asked to do ad campaigns. I was like, “Gosh, I wonder why they’re asking me to do this?” One ad was for a Ford Focus or something, and I was like “Why me? What am I attracting?” I turned it down because I now know that I cannot trust myself to not speak poorly of whatever organization I’m working for. That’s the downfall. So this idea of a person being a “brand” was funny to me.
So is there anything you hope people take away from Ave Maria Bamford?
I hope it can provide a break from whatever horrors they’re feeling over the holidays. Maybe watch it then walk out of the house or apartment you’re trapped in and take a little walk around the block. Say hi to people. That’s really the thing that’s going to make you feel better. I would recommend getting a cup of cold brew and chitchatting with the barista. That’s going to improve your mood more than anything. But if you’re desperate and you’re trapped in a car as I have been in a Dodge Caravan with my family for an hour and a half, maybe turn on your headphones and watch this. You might get a couple laughs as a way to take care of yourself. Do whatever you need to do. Burn some sage. I never want to tell people to watch television. [laughs] Because, I mean, the science is there that it’s not the best thing to do. Laughter is good, but the best thing is to move around and be outside and see someone face-to-face.
Photo courtesy of Topic.com.
Watch the first episode of Ave Maria Bamford here.
Erik Abriss is a writer living in Los Angeles.