For most people, being of stable mental health and having a supportive spouse by your side would be a dream come true. For Maria Bamford, it means she has to find something new to talk about on stage.
In the past, Bamford’s struggles with mental illness have proven to be fertile ground for her stand-up material: daring, deeply personal jokes that explore what it truly means to grapple with depression and suicidal thoughts. Finding humor in the darkness of being institutionalized and battling your own mind is quite the feat, and it’s led to Bamford’s reputation as one of comedy’s boldest and most brilliant voices.
Recently, her audience expanded with the release of Lady Dynamite, a Netflix show that follows a mostly fictionalized version of Bamford as she returns to L.A. and navigates Hollywood following a half-year spent recovering from bipolar disorder. Now in its second season, Lady Dynamite has garnered high praise for its ability to incorporate surreal storylines with sincere empathy and plenty of Bamford’s trademarks quirks.
Interestingly, Bamford doesn’t actually write on the show. Instead she collects little observations from her life for the writers to use as fodder. She has also taken to bringing folks from her life — including her husband, Scott Marvel Cassidy — into the writers’ room to help inspire the staff.
Speaking by phone from her home in Los Angeles, she recalls a habit her mother has that found its way into an episode’s plot.
“My mother does this thing where she’ll say, ‘Well, your father is wearing an orange sweater and it just drives me crazy because I just think it sends out a signal,’ ” Bamford says. “Or ‘Your father got a green suitcase, and it looks gay.’ So I told that story about how my mom will say things like that — and it’s very subtle — but then that turned into [a] storyline where my mom thinks my dad is gay and I have to go find videotape on him, which is a much larger, blown-up version of what the real thing is.”
Few things are subtle about Lady Dynamite, which finds Bamford engaged in adventures like trying to patch things up after upsetting Sugar Ray singer Mark McGrath or dealing with the fall-out when her novelty shirts are chosen to be the new uniform for a group of African child soldiers.
Bamford says she tries not to intervene too much when it comes to her on-screen namesake, but makes it clear that they are not one and the same.
“For example, I’m not a giant swearer,” she says. “Also, the idea in the show that I’m sort of the smart one. It seems like I’m always the victim of all these people that are ridiculous and I don’t know if I always see it that way.”
Prior to her Netflix series, Bamford was best known as a stand-up comedian with a knack for unconventional specials. 2012’s The Special Special Special was filmed in front of only her parents in their actual living room. Her latest hour, Old Baby, escalates its settings continuously, as Bamford moves from standing in front of her mirror to delivering material on her front lawn to a set at a bowling alley and, finally, an auditorium.
“It was just more fun to do it that way,” she says of her specials’ tendency to eschew standard structure. “Specials that are in a theater are beautiful, and they’re filmed that way for a specific reason — it’s easier to focus on the material and you can relax more watching something like that because everybody’s laughing and there’s a certain, understandable format, but I just wanted to make something that would be fun to film and where I could give my friends jobs.”
Perhaps even more noteworthy than Bamford’s proclivity for changing settings in Old Baby is the fact that, for the first time in many years, her special contains no material centered on her own mental-health struggles. Over the years, many fans have shared with Bamford just what her work has meant to them — a chance to felt heard and seen, and perhaps even more importantly, an opportunity to laugh about something that rarely feels funny.
So was there any worry that this latest special might leave some fans clamoring for more of the same?
“That was definitely a concern in my tiny world,” Bamford admits. “I’ve been really stable for the past five years. I feel good, and so I haven’t written any new things about mental illness. I think I’ve at least tried to tell myself that it’s OK if I’ve become less popular due to a change in subject material.
“It’s amazing that anyone was on board at all at any point,” she adds. “If I lose fans because I stop talking about mental illness because I feel better, I think it’s OK. It’s a good loss.”
“SF Sketchfest Tribute to Lady Dynamite” with Maria Bamford and more
Sunday, Jan. 21, 1:30 p.m., Marines Memorial Theatre, 609 Sutter St. $35; sfsketchfest.com.
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