In 2010, Maria Bamford did a series of commercials for Target in which she played a homemaker who was just a little too into Christmas. As the public started recognizing her from the spots, the standup comedian began questioning the ethics of advertising and consumerism. Had she done something morally wrong by taking such a job? Her thinking became obsessive — which was part of a manic episode that eventually led to a breakdown and hospitalization. She talks about her struggles with anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder in her act, a set of problems she refers to as “mentals.”
Bamford, 48, has been performing for audiences since the 1990s. She has grown from a cult figure with a quirky online presence to a borderline household name with a Netflix series, Lady Dynamite. She gained acclaim for performing an entire standup act, The Special Special Special! (2012), in her parents’ living room, with them as the only audience members, while she was still recovering from her breakdown. In her act, she often channels voices of those who give her life advice, from employers and well-meaning older women trying to fix her up, to her own sister, who happens to be a professional life coach. The petite blond with a perpetually stunned expression moves from mousy and shy to blandly chipper to aggressively happy in the space of just a few minutes. Her voice might be a whisper, a growl, or a yelp.
Bamford headlines the inaugural CloudTop Comedy Festival, which features more than 50 local and national comedians, as well as a rising star showcase, improv shows, and a workshop with The Second City. You’ll find CloudTop events at venues throughout Santa Fe from Thursday, Sept. 12, through Sunday, Sept. 15. Bamford performs at 8 and 10 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 13, at the New Mexico Museum of Art.
In an email exchange with Pasatiempo, Bamford’s stage voice rang through in her use of capital letters to emphasize certain enthusiastic points, such as her belief that “SANTA FE MUST CONTINUE HAVING A COMEDY FESTIVAL THAT GROWS EXPONENTIALLY, SUPPORTING LOCAL TALENT AND ATTRACTING VISITORS FROM ALL OVER THE SOUTHWEST!”
Five questions with Maria Bamford
Pasatiempo: You are headlining Santa Fe’s first major comedy festival. What are your thoughts on comedy festivals, generally?
Maria Bamford: I am extremely biased, as a comedian being paid well to come to perform at a festival in Santa Fe, but I LOVE COMEDY FESTIVALS IN SANTA FE! I am grateful for comedy festivals, as [they are] an alternative to the older comedy club/casino model. Festival crowds are fans of the art of comedy, in general, rather than people coming in to be entertained, generally.
Pasa: As a seasoned stand-up comedian who has been on the road many times, do you have any advice for the aspiring and emerging comics who will appear at the CloudTop Comedy Festival?
Bamford: I am not a “road dog.” I don’t do well (I bomb) on a sports bar “comedy night.” The only reason I’ve been able to have a long-term career has been the advent of the internet and the growth of alternative venues like comedy festivals. My only advice is the advice I’d give myself, which is enjoy meeting other comedians and eating whatever sponsor swag (donuts?) that is available. Also, if you didn’t make the “cut” to be in the festival and are a local comic, MAKE YOUR OWN FRINGE FESTIVAL! That is the great thing about comedy: You can make your own venue anywhere, and no one can say you don’t belong. They can say you don’t, but you have an amp and a spotlight you bought online and you are doing a show in the corner of a coffee shop — so you can’t hear them. Use your rage at the machine to book a midnight live-streaming Santa Fe Super Secret Comedy Festival of One.
Pasa: You talk a lot about your struggles with mental health in your act. Do you feel like you give audiences a better understanding of what it’s like to live with mental illness?
Bamford: It’s really out of laziness that I talk about mental health. It’s just what was happening and I didn’t have to think up any subject matter to talk about.
Pasa: Does talking about mental health in your act help you with your own struggles?
Bamford: It’s helped me a ton. It’s made me feel slightly useful in that people who’ve enjoyed it have said it’s been good to laugh about mentals. And then, of course, when people tell me they have had similar problems, I feel much less alone and more motivated to take care of myself (stay on my meds). If I had another episode, I think I’d be quicker to ask for support this time. Or I hope I would.
Pasa: What is one thing that always makes you laugh? Are there any topics you would never joke about?
Bamford: My family and friends always make me laugh. The best laughs are with people I love and even the ones by myself, but I love to laugh. I’m an equal-opportunity laugher, and I love comedy so I enjoy the slightest attempt at comedy. I don’t think there’s anything I wouldn’t joke about, but, for me, it’s been important to have some personal experience with it. Joking about or satirizing something I have no experience in or punching down is something I try to avoid, but I know I have failed and been ignorant and irresponsible before. And like everybody, you just try to learn. Is that really funny to me? Or am I getting a laugh from being clever at someone else’s expense?
Thank God for the internet, a place of love and healing, where we can guide each other to be better people through judgment via CAPITAL LETTERS. ◀
▼ Maria Bamford performs at the CloudTop Comedy Festival
8 p.m. and 10 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 13
New Mexico Museum of Art, 107 W. Palace Ave.
▼ Festival runs Thursday-Sunday, Sept. 12-15; venues vary
Single tickets $10-$30, evening pass $55, weekend pass $150, VIP pass $350;
All shows 21+ unless otherwise noted; see website for complete schedule
and venue information