Maria Bamford has always lived on the cutting edge of comedy, but the world may finally be catching up.
Over more than two decades as a stand-up, Bamford, 45, has become a cult favorite by blending kooky impressions and expertly written jokes with an overdose of human empathy. She has been open about her mental illness – she has dealt with obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder and anxiety, and has spent time in psychiatric wards – but has managed to turn her struggles into fertile ground for humor.
Now Bamford has brought her worldview to Netflix with “Lady Dynamite.” This offbeat sitcom, created by Mitch Hurwitz (“Arrested Development”), follows Bamford through three eras of her life: “The Past,” when she was thriving professionally but on the verge of an emotional collapse; “Duluth,” a somber look at her postbreakdown recuperation in Minnesota; and “The Present,” in which she is back in Los Angeles, contending with warring friends, gauche talent agents and the indignities of dating as a 40-something woman with a history of instability.
In a phone interview, Bamford discussed why mental illness is so central in her work, the novelty of starring in her own show and what her parents think of “Lady Dynamite.” These are excerpts.
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Q: How did “Lady Dynamite” come about?
A: Mitch had heard my stand-up and then asked me to be on “Arrested Development” for a smaller part – I was called DeBrie, which is a hilarious name. And then he asked me to lunch. I wanted to tell the story of my own experience with mental illness, but I wanted to do it with other people. On my own, I’ve told that story hundreds of times. I also wanted to tell a story of a psychiatric ward, though I don’t think it came across as sad and devastating on the show as it really is.
Q: The TV version of a psychiatric ward is more idyllic?
A: Oh, yes. On the show they show us playing with vision boards and playing badminton, which does not happen in a psych ward, at least not ones I’ve been in. (Those were) low budget – it’s almost as if an art director came in before and said, “OK, let’s make sure half the chairs are broken, and none of the puzzles have all the pieces, and if we could stack Woman’s Day magazines from the late ‘90s right over here, that’s the look.”
Q: For years you’ve addressed your struggles with mental illness in your act. Has there been a cultural shift that allows such topics to now be the basis of a sitcom?
A: I think it is mainstream now. I would venture to say it is almost hack material. Which is good! I cannot wait until material about a transwoman who is also Muslim becomes tired. Where we go, “Yeah, we’ve seen it.” I’m always grateful when people talk about their experience on the planet. It makes me feel so much less isolated and so much more hopeful. I’ve got a subscription to Bipolar Magazine (bp Magazine); it comes out quarterly.
Q: Has your experience with Hollywood been as craven as it is portrayed on the show?
A: Well, I think Hollywood is sort of a mood, or like a virus. It’s not really the people themselves; no one is all that awful. I’ve been writing a joke about Hollywood that it is like having a friend with a drinking problem. Like, you love them so much and if you see them at the right time of the night, they are so much fun and you are best friends forever. And then there’s a crash. And it can’t be maintained. One day you are a star, the next day they are telling you the hot dogs are for principal talent only and the porta-potties are in the back.
Q: You’re the star now. You must be feeling some of the benefits.
A: I did not realize this, but when you are No. 1 on the call sheet it is a dream. People ask: “Do you need a water? Are your hands too hot? Are they too cold? How about your feet? Can we rub oils on them?” It was like being a prostitute around Jesus.
Q: Your pug Bert also stars in the show. How is he adjusting to fame?
A: He wanted to have a Screen Actors Guild card. I told him about the whole thing, where, yeah, it’s prestigious, but you basically have to kick all your earnings from your first check into becoming a member. I just wonder if this is just another level of Bert not being satisfied with what he has.
Q: Your parents factor heavily into your material. How do they feel about “Lady Dynamite”?
A: They are so proud. They called me right after they watched all of them. My dad, of course, showed it to some pals at the lake, which was a mistake. ... I think it was an uncomfortable evening.