For alternative comedy fans, Maria Bamford's many-voiced, stream-of-consciousness performances are well-known. Casual viewers may recognize her criticizing Louie CK's sexual prowess on his show or strategizing her buying in Target's Black Friday commercials. Bamford's girlish voice belies her maturity and years of experience in the business. Her material has touched on topics as lighthearted as suicidal depression and as serious as Paula Deen.
In her most recent stand-up special, she performs a set in her house alongside her pug Burt in front of an audience of two: her mom and dad. Her web series is a cult hit, she's one of Rolling Stone's 50 Funniest People Now, and she's returning to SF Sketchfest this year to commune with her fellow comics and fans.
You've been coming to San Francisco for Sketchfest for five or six years now. What keeps you coming back?
Well, in L.A., a lot of comics live here, but we don't get to spend that much time together because we've got to drive 45 minutes home, or do another set. So in San Francisco we can hang out, go for dinner — the community aspect of it is really lovely, as well as seeing people's shows that you don't normally get to see a longer version of. And I can learn about comedians I didn't really know much about, and there are different panels, things like that. I think it's like a convention, but I think it's more fun than that. The T-shirts are really much better than at a convention.
Have you looked at the schedule yet, are there any other shows you'll be excited to see?
I'd like to wait to be surprised. But I love Will Franken, and I'll probably go see him, I really like him, he's from San Fran. But I'm hoping to be surprised. When you get there, you get a gift bag, with a schedule and a badge and maybe a red rubber nose or something that would be appropriate.
Sketchfest has gotten a lot bigger since it started; have you noticed any changes in the types of comedians or the types of audiences it's attracted?
It's hard for me to say. It has gotten so much bigger. The last time I was there, there was all this food backstage. There was cupcakes, beer, vegetables. ... At the beginning of the festival, there was nothing backstage. Now maybe they'll have a nice reception or something. I always think of it in terms of food. It seems like it is blowing up, in terms of the food selection available for comedians backstage. Once you start getting vegetables backstage, you know things are going great.
I read you started doing stand-up in college. What first motivated you to get up on stage and perform comedy?
I always liked being on stage, like in grade school. I'd done some acting and stuff, but that was always frustrating because I could only say what someone else had written down.
Why did you stick with it?
I think because the good outweighs the bad overall. It's been a positive experience for me creatively and community-wise. I love jokes, I love laughing. And the solitude of it really appealed to me over time, you can spend a lot of time alone. That's less interesting to me now as I get older; now I like to have groups of people surrounding me at all times. But I think it's not unlike any other relationship, where there's going to be good times, and there's going to be some hard times, and it's not always falling in love. Sometimes you just make it through another show. But I think overall I've received enough positive affirmations with work offers that I'm inspired to keep going. I've also looked into going to graduate school, but then I could never find anything that I was interested in.
You had this web series, The Maria Bamford Show, and you addressed these personal serious issues, with your family, mental illness, and these issues come up in your stand-up sometimes as well. Have you always been drawn to performing about serious personal issues or did that come about gradually in your comedy career?
I think I just like to talk about whatever's interesting to me or what I was really thinking about at the time. So I don't know — mental health has affected me personally, and through my family and stuff like that, so that's become the thing that I feel very interested in. We'll see what the next thing will be — next year I could be really interested in topical subjects or video game jokes, maybe that'll be my thing.
You've done a lot of voice work in cartoons. What's drawn you to that kind of work?
I feel like some people don't like my voice; I've been told I sound like a baby. So that was an impetus to change my voice. It's a fun thing to do. My first voiceover job I got because I was a secretary at the [Nickelodeon] animation studio, and so one of the animators gave me a job. So I think proximity to the work is what helped me get into that. I was right near the printer.
What was that job?
It was called Catdog and I voiced a character called Shriek.
In your latest special, The Special Special Special!, you performed for your parents, in your house, instead of for a larger audience. I know you said it was because it's cheaper that way, but I imagine there was some creative motivation for that choice as well?
Yeah, well I like the idea of doing something super simple. I thought that was the fun part. And I guess there was some sort of laziness to it, like, "I don't want to get costumes together, find a space." But I also do believe, why put all these financial and organizational limitations on making something? Might as well make it as easy as possible. ... I think it's just much more empowering than going to pitch meetings and having to tell someone about the idea, and then hopefully, maybe, they might want to do it and maybe not.
I could do exactly what I wanted to do and had a minimum amount of people involved, which I find helpful to me. I'm sure there are people who are better with group process than I am. But it was nice to just ask one other person, rather than 25.
Then you offered the Special! online for just $5. There's this new trend for comedians to sell their material online directly. Does this seem like a viable model within which comedians can still make a living?
For sure. For me, it's super great. If you're already starting to build an audience, and you've got 10,000 people who will buy your special, and they really love what you do, then chances are they're going to pass that forward.
The [Special Special] Special[!] earned for me in the first two weeks three times what I've earned in the past doing a special. And not that it's all about the money. But I think it's also really nice; it makes it easier for people who are really fans. Otherwise, fans will have to get Netflix, or they'll have to get cable, go to a show and buy a CD.
And I know some people are saying, "Well, there's going to be no more comics who can play any room, because everyone will be so individualized." Which you know, fair enough. I am a wild orchid of comedy, so I can only do well under specific conditions. ... There are people who I think can do any room, and do stadiums and thousand-seat theaters, and then there are people like me who just perform for my parents.
For the full interview, in which Maria discusses dog-walking and the return of a certain cult comedy series, go to sfweekly.com/exhibitionist.