Interview: Maria Bamford

The Netflix star’s work is both side-splitting and thought-provoking
Ana Gasteyer and Maria Bamford in Bamford's show Lady Dynamite.
From left: Agent Karen Grisham (Ana Gasteyer) and Bamford in Lady Dynamite. Photo by Netflix: Lady Dynamite.

Maria Bamford’s commencement address to the University of Minnesota’s 2017 graduating class included unflinching words about money—namely the money she was getting for being there. The Duluth-bred star explained how she, a U of M graduate, negotiated up from $0 to $10,000, and then gave the money to a handful of theater arts students in the audience. “Perhaps unlike most people of Norwegian heritage, I love full disclosure,” she said at one point.

“Full disclosure” has meant brave self-exploration throughout Bamford’s successful comic and acting career. Your introduction to her work could have been her intense Target holiday ads, her comedy specials and albums, her movie and TV appearances, her visits to Minnesota Public Radio’s Wits radio show, or her (sadly, not renewed) semi-autobiographical Netflix original series Lady Dynamite. Whatever it was, her malleable voice and boundless creativity probably left an impression. Lady Dynamite’s vignettes jump through different points in her (fictionalized) life and tackle mental illness, personal finance, and the perils of streaming-era showbiz. Even with a show at the Ordway coming up on October 20, she’d prefer to talk up other local comedians instead.

Your commencement speech last year was fun to watch—even before you gave money to some deserving students.

The fee that I was able to get for myself was $10,000, so I gave $2,500 checks to four different kids, all written out to Sallie Mae. They all cashed them, so I assume they all went to pay down someone’s debt. I hope it helped. I assume it was only a drop in the bucket from what I’ve heard about most people’s student loans. I like the idea that if I had negotiated for more money, I would’ve been able to give out more money. That was really fun.

As a Minnesotan watching Lady Dynamite, I could relate to the blue-tinted Duluth scenes.

I had no idea certain people were living in sunshine 24-7 when I moved out to California 25 years ago. I was like, “What?” There are some great things about living in a colder climate. We did spend a lot of time reading. I don’t know if it’s survival, but people do show up for each other a lot. In Los Angeles, it’s a very expensive city to live in, so the reason some people are called flaky is because it’s an extraordinary amount of effort just to live here. It’s not easy to show up to everything. Whereas, in Duluth, [in a thick accent] “It’s a straight shot. We’ll head over tonight.”

What do you love about living in California?

I love the hopefulness of L.A. People are always saying, “It’s totally possible, you can do anything. Just visualize it.” That can be different from the Midwest, where we’d say, “Well, I don’t know about that. I mean, ya might just wanna settle down and think about it for a second.” I do love Duluth, though. My mom and my sister live there. I’ve spent so much time in MSP Airport waiting to go that last leg to Duluth and hearing them saying, “We can’t make it.” Or if there’s one plane left, and there’ve been three flights canceled, everyone’s rushing the door. There are some erratic moments at the airport for people trying to get to Duluth.

How will you remember Lady Dynamite?

I felt really grateful that I could work with such wonderful people and tell a story that meant something to me. It made me feel useful. I don’t have as much energy as I did pre-bipolar meds. Which is a good thing. I’m very stable emotionally now. I felt super great the past seven years, but I’m kinda sleepy, and that made for miserable days shooting the series being the main person. It’s a 16-hour day on the short end. So, I’m good. It was the best of all possible worlds. Now onward and just enjoy supporting other comedians coming up the pike.

Which comedians should we be watching?

My friend Jackie Kashian, who is coming to open for me. She’s originally from Milwaukee and she is a terrific comedian in her own right. She does a podcast about standup with another comedian, Laurie Kilmartin, called The Jackie and Laurie Show. They have a female comic of the week. It feels exciting how many women are coming up. People of all gender identities, and they don’t have to talk about it in their acts. I don’t have to be like, “I’m a lady—let’s get that out of the way.” It feels like there’s much more diversity where you don’t have to make whatever your diversity is the issue.

A portrait of Maria Bamford wearing a black dress and bow against a brick wall.
Duluth-bred comic and actress Maria Bamford is coming to the Ordway. Photo by Piper Ferguson.

Anyone you have your eye on in Minnesota?

A ton of great comedians are in Minneapolis. [Acme Comedy Company owner] Louis Lee is a great supporter of the comedic arts. I wish I had a specific comedian to plug. Go to the open mics at Acme. My husband did it the last time we were in town. We met a lot of nice people and saw Tim Harmston with Mary Mack, his wife. They’re a dynamic duo. She does a comedy show called Meat Raffle. It sounds fun. Maggie Faris is a really hilarious comic who has been working for years in Minneapolis.

Which comics spoke out in your behalf early in your career?

Patton Oswalt gave me a hand. I was somebody he had to find. He said in the [The Comedians of Comedy] documentary that we were close friends. I didn’t know him super well. To go out of your way is very nice. A lot of people did it for me. Just so that you know, there are tons of comedians that need the publicity much more than I do. It’s not hard for me anymore. I’d rather help others. Now I’m on easy street.

What’s your next pursuit?

I always have lots of irons in the fire, excited about new jokes, and I have a whole new hour I’m touring with now. You just keep going, no matter how embarrassing that may be. There’s nothing spectacular, just keeping on.

It can’t always be spectacular. Sometimes it can just be pretty good.

For me, even if it’s not good, it’s OK. Just keep going. Poop it out. That’s my rule.

Digital Extra: U of Maria

Comedian Maria Bamford reflects on her Duluth roots and doles out cash to recent graduates during her 2017 commencement address at the University of Minnesota.