Maria Bamford does ‘Special Special Special’ for her parents
Maria Bamford shuffles across her Eagle Rock kitchen, shoulders hunched and arms slack at her sides, as a video crew of nearly two dozen mills about.
“‘Scuse me, ‘scuse, um, ‘scuse …" comes her meek, trembling voice.
The sink is piled high with dirty dishes, the floor strewn with empty pizza boxes, script notes and a mess of filmmaking equipment. Bamford’s blind pug, Bert, scurries by just as a smoke alarm goes off. The scent of freshly burnt cookies fills the room.
Just a few days before Halloween, Bamford is shooting her newest comedy special, an hour of stand-up in her living room for a rapt audience of two: her parents.
“She’s the most unique, bizarre, imaginative comedian out there right now,” says filmmaker Judd Apatow, a longtime fan who says he hopes to cast Bamford soon in one of his projects. “She makes me laugh hard. Out loud.”
Apatow may still be searching for the right role for Bamford, but she’s already the centerpiece of the new video service Chill Direct, launched last week on the L.A.-based social media site, Chill.com.
Marc Hustvedt, Chill’s head of entertainment partnerships and an executive producer of Bamford’s new special, says that she was the perfect comedian to launch the new platform, which he and others at Chill call “Pinterest for video.”
“We’re trying to establish a new way of distributing comedy, and Maria is so untraditional and quirky,” Hustvedt says. “What works on the Internet is when the audience feels an authentic voice coming from the comedian. Maria is so personal; she puts all of herself into it.”
Bamford’s first two stand-up specials aired on Comedy Central, but for “Maria Bamford: The Special Special Special!” she’s taking a chance on Chill Direct. Other comedians have bypassed more traditional cable outlets and taken distribution into their own hands; but rather than release her latest special as a $5 download on her personal website — as Louis C.K. successfully did in 2011 followed by Aziz Ansari, Jim Gaffigan and Rob Delaney earlier this year — Bamford is using Chill Direct to help her market the special as a $4.99 download. The service allows comedians, filmmakers and other entertainers to sell their content directly to their fans.
Less than one week after the release of Bamford’s special, Hustvedt says: “It’s exceeded our expectations. It’s selling like crazy. It’s already profitable.”
Directed by Jordan Brady, “The Special Special Special!” pushes the DIY concept so far — Bamford’s living room is set up like a homespun nightclub, with a makeshift stage, red velvet curtain as backdrop and her best friend, Jackie Kashian, as opening act — that it’s almost a parody of the self-distribution trend she’s embracing.
Bamford calls it an “anti-special”; and one of the show’s executive producers, Bruce Smith of OmniPop, says that it’s meant “to show all the exposed wires behind the scenes of a comedy special — the tech problems, warm-ups and interruptions.” It’s as meta as it gets.
Bamford, with her second pug Blueberry nestled beside her on the living room couch not long before the special’s release, is more humble about her reasons for sticking so close to home. “It’s cheaper. There’s a degree of laziness in it,” she jokes. “And really, on some level, everything I do is for my parents anyway, so why get a theater and 400 people involved when I can just cut to the source?”
Suddenly she perks up and waves jerkily at the big picture window, her blond, loopy curls bopping up and down. A figure has appeared on the front lawn of her 1920s bungalow. “Oh, hi,” she says, “that’s the flier guy.”
There’s a sweet, 1950s “Leave It to Bamford” quality about the scene, punctuated by the framed, vintage maps and muted landscape paintings that dot her shabby-chic living room walls. A lawn mower groans in the background. “Yeah, where were we?”
That sort of gentle, disjointed thought stream characterizes Bamford’s comedy. But it’s no stage persona. The frequent nail-biting and high-pitched voice come out even in the privacy of her home. That cohesion of identity gives her routines a personal edge that can feel so raw and honest — as if her ego were short-circuiting on stage — it can be hard at times to watch.
Then there are the bottomless well of characters she channels through many voices on stage, including Food Network’s Paula Deen, her mother, a bratty high school nemesis, a pterodactyl, and even her own self-esteem (a pinched, somewhat disappointed sound). She’s lent her vocal acrobatics to a host of animated shows, including “Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness” and “Adventure Time.”
Still, despite having cemented herself as a favorite on the alternative stand-up circuit for more than a decade — she favors L.A.'s smaller showcases like NerdMelt and Hamclown — Bamford has not yet broken through as a household name. There have been appearances on “The Sarah Silverman Program,” “Dharma & Greg” and “Louie,” as well as “The Tonight Show” and “Conan.” And she was featured, along with Patton Oswalt, Zach Galifianakis and Brian Posehn in the 2005 documentary “The Comedians of Comedy,” and the subsequent six-episode series on Comedy Central. Mainstream audiences know her as the manic, red-track-suit-clad Christmas kook in Target’s holiday ads. But the big, breakout movie role still eludes her.
Bamford doesn’t seem to mind. “I could bomb, or nobody’s there, and I could care less,” she says of her stand-up. “I find it creatively satisfying to write material and say it out loud in a public place, whether or not anyone’s listening.”
To work out material, she strolls the sidewalks of her tree-lined neighborhood, scribbling in a notebook and talking out loud to no one in particular — oblivious to, or unfazed by, curious gawkers. Auditioning, however, even in front of one or two people, is terrifying to Bamford — a sad process she says she refuses to participate in. She now does offer-only projects.
That sensitivity may speak to the dark side of Bamford’s comedy. Growing up in Duluth, Minn., she wrestled with mental illness as early as age 10. She speaks openly about her depression, anxiety and OCD on stage, partly as an attempt to de-stigmatize it, she says.
In “The Special Special Special!” she addresses suicidal tendencies and a recent bipolar II diagnosis (“It’s the new gladiator sandal of mental illnesses”) not to mention stereotypes and mischaracterizations facing those suffering from such disorders. “Schizophrenia is hearing voices, not doing voices,” she insists.
Bamford’s childhood was plenty happy, she says; she played the violin from the age of 3 and in elementary school ran for student office every year just so she could make funny speeches. Nights were spent watching “Saturday Night Live” with her sister, Sarah, and listening to Eddie Murphy and Steve Martin recordings.
But there was also an incident of swallowing a whole bottle of Tums. “I kinda knew it wouldn’t do anything,” she says. “It was more for the drama, a cry for help.”
She also suffered as a kid from persistent OCD. “Unwanted Thoughts Syndrome,” she calls it. “I’d stay up all night worried I would kill my family,” she says. “It was intense.”
At 35, Bamford underwent treatment for her OCD, and says she no longer suffers from the condition. She’s now 42. But last year she was hospitalized three times.
“I wanted to off myself,” she says. “It’s been a chronic thing for me — despite medication and positive thoughts and constant Dale Carnegie training!”
On the flip side, her struggles have beefed up her material. Comedy, she says, is therapy. In her critically acclaimed 2009 Web series, “The Maria Bamford Show,” she plays herself after a fictional nervous breakdown that caused her to return home to live with her parents — she plays every other character in the series too. She filmed the five-minute webisodes — which originally aired on the now-defunct comedy website SuperDeluxe and have since developed a cult following on YouTube — at her parents’ home in the Midwest. Last July, the series was screened at the Museum of Art and Design in New York.
In the new special, Bamford’s parents sit transfixed, laughing on cue, while their daughter performs. Her father Joel, a 71-year-old retired dermatologist, once opened for Bamford at a motorcycle club in Duluth. Her mother Marilyn, a 68-year-old family therapist, appeared in her Web series auditioning, unsuccessfully, to play herself.
“It took me five years to watch it,” Marilyn says on the night of “The Special Special Special!” taping. “I was so nervous.”
Bamford’s fourth album, “Ask Me About My New God,” will come out on Comedy Central Records in February. She also has an upcoming, recurring role in the Netflix reboot of “Arrested Development,” which comes out this spring — though she’s not at liberty to reveal anything about her character. Bamford’s career clearly has momentum.
“Yeah-yeah-yeah-yup,” she agrees, nodding her head vigorously, sending the spokes and wheels of her earrings, a flea market find, spinning. “My parents are proud.”
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