If there’s one thing Maria Bamford is best known for, it’s her truly unique voice.
And not just her distinct speaking tone, which she often seamlessly flips onstage to an array of character impressions, ranging from her own Minnesotan mother to celebrity chef Paula Deen. Or her numerous voice-over roles on hit animated series like Adventure Time, BoJack Horseman and Word Girl.
What she’s really known and revered for is giving a voice to people living with mental health issues by candidly confronting her own struggles with anxiety, depression and obsessive compulsive disorder, all while finding the hard-wrought humor deep within it.
So it’s somewhat surprising to hear that at this point in her career, she’s grown tired of her own voice.
“Well, I hope I’ve worked my way out of a job,” Bamford said when asked if she thinks of herself as a trailblazing comedian. “I am a 47-year-old white lady with a mental illness and my voice has been heard and I’m grateful. I’m bored with my own voice now and I can’t wait to hear the voices of others, of which there are so many coming up that are so bright and strong and speaking to experiences that need representation in our country and the world.”
Bamford named several rising comedians, including Michelle Buteau, Subhah Agarwal, Danielle Perez, Janine Brito, Melissa Villasenor, Aparna Nancherla, Nicole Byer and Rhea Butcher, many of whom would likely cite Bamford as a strong influence. She eagerly embraces the future of comedy, especially if the future is female.
“There are women in your community doing stand-up who are great and need your support,” Bamford said. “I am the past and they are the future!”
No stranger to scouring the past and speculating on the future, Bamford is the star of the Netflix series Lady Dynamite. Semi-autobiographical, the show centers around her comedy career, her developing relationship with now husband Scott Marvel Cassidy, and her tumultuous time working an ad campaign for Target. Jumping from her adolescence to a surreal future, each episode encapsulates the erratic tendencies of Bamford’s comic style while exploring the harsh truths that came from her own series of nervous breakdowns back in 2012-13.
“The show was a once-in-a-lifetime boon and a chance to work with extremely talented and hardworking people,” Bamford said of Lady Dynamite. “It was cathartic, in that it was a real dream come true.”
Last year, she followed Lady Dynamite with her latest stand-up special, Old Baby (also available on Netflix), where she defied convention again by staging her show at a series of venues, including her yard and a bowling alley.
“I wanted to employ more people and I also wanted to show how the perception of jokes changes when the amount of people watching it changes,” she said. “Is it funny if you are in a forest and no one is there to laugh? I would argue, yes.”
Currently, Bamford is following up Old Baby by writing a blog (onehour.blog) where she hopes to develop a new hour of stand-up material in an even more direct and interactive way.
“It takes me five years to write a new hour,” she said. “I’m enjoying blogging because it feels like I have a little show going on that’s just about process and I can share those frustrations and victories with other artists. Even though I have a lot of comedian friends, it can feel lonely to write and develop new material.”
Long pushing the boundaries on comedy and comedic presentation, Bamford has made her own way for nearly 30 years. Since breaking through in the 2000s as part of The Comedians of Comedy — a group of alternative-comedians that also included Patton Oswalt, Zach Galifinakis and Brian Posehn — she has built a solid cult following, both online and onstage.
Yet it’s been her honesty and vulnerability about her mental health that has really endeared her to many and put her in the unlikely place of having to face her own mental frailty as part of her comedy “brand.”
“Fortunately, it’s a brand I can sort of live up to, but I guess there is the danger of people always expecting material that’s about mental illness and I don’t have as much that I’m writing about now,” she said.
“I write what I know and that is usually what is happening in my brain. And in my comedy anyways, it’s the emotional truth as I remember it, but I’m definitely exaggerating for the purposes of laughs. I wouldn’t take my act as a courtroom transcript of events as they happened.”
Wealthy Theatre, 1130 Wealthy St. SE, Grand Rapids
March 10, $32.50
laughfestgr.org, (616) 735-4242