Stand-up Maria Bamford mines her own troubles for comedy gold

Stand-up comic Maria Bamford, performing at the Lobero on Sunday, says she owes her career to the Internet. Susan Maljan photo
Stand-up comic Maria Bamford, performing at the Lobero on Sunday, says she owes her career to the Internet.
Susan Maljan photo

Maria Bamford’s story is one of keeping at it until it works, no matter what comes in the way — anxiety, depression, attempted suicide and what has been dubbed “unwanted thoughts syndrome” (examples of which might be too disturbing for the average reader). But she has emerged as a stand-up comic who mirrors our own dysfunctional times, her stage persona a stunned version of herself that dives in and out of multiple characters and voices. Yet her jokes do not exist to invoke pity, they are just brutally honest.

When I talk to her over the phone two weeks before her trip to Santa Barbara to play the Lobero on Sunday, she’s “in the back room of a bookstore,” one of the places where she feels comfortable, surrounded by reading material.

Ms. Bamford played Tobias Funke's methaddicted girlfriend DeBrie in season four of "Arrested Development." Natalie Brasington photo
Ms. Bamford played Tobias Funke’s methaddicted girlfriend DeBrie in season four of “Arrested Development.”
Natalie Brasington photo
In conversation, Ms. Bamford is inquisitive and enthusiastic, but she also rarely talks in complete sentences, like she’s starting up her third thought before she’s finished her first one, and the second one is also vying for attention.

One of the central characters in Ms. Bamford’s stand-up is her mother, who she mimics with loving attention to detail. She’s been doing this character since she was 19. “She writes her own material,” says Ms. Bamford. “There’s no work involved for me.”

Viewers got to know this character after Ms. Bamford decamped back to her parents’ house in Duluth, Minn. Having failed to really make it in Los Angeles, she had had a nervous breakdown in 2006 and holed up at home. Three years later she made a series of YouTube videos about that period as a kind of therapy, and it helped her out of some dark places while also gaining the audience she finally deserved. For those who suffer from mental illness, it was a spot-on observation about how family want to help but have no real idea how to do so.

“The Internet is so wonderful,” she says. “It really gave me a career. You can create a fan base specifically for your material, and you don’t have to wait for some giant entity to give you the OK.”

Back in Los Angeles with better meds, more money and more support, she started getting work. Her voiceover résumé grew (she was recently on “Bojack Horseman” as the kid who pretends to be an adult). She continued stand-up, but made sure to not do the grueling multi-city tours. And she also got the role as Tobias Finke’s meth-addicted girlfriend DeBrie in season four of “Arrested Development.” Tobias is played by David Cross and “it was amazing to watch him improvising whole monologues of material. Thank God I didn’t have too many lines. My character was so meth-addicted, I just had to slump over. That’s my dream acting job: less words, more slumping.”

Netflix, which produced that fourth season, also streams her disturbing stand-up hour, “The Special Special Special,” which features Ms. Bamford performing her set in front of her parents at their house. It’s a really uncomfortable watch, as the jokes intentionally fall flat, the subject matter grows dark, and her parents laugh in that supportive way folks do. Nobody else could have pulled off this oddity other than Ms. Bamford.

She currently lives with her “beloved” in Eagle Rock, a suburb of Los Angeles near Glendale. The locals know her house from the bench she installed outside, which is painted to welcome people to sit and talk. And she’s loving her neighborhood. “It’s like any place in L.A., you create your own village. There’s some tension among people who have been here a long time, prices are going up because of (Ms. Bamford breaks into song for the word) gen-tri-fi-ca-tion! . . . So that’s unfortunate. I don’t know what to do but apologize and then at the same time be grateful that there’s a wonderful muffin shop here.”

She has no illusions about how big her career can get. In fact, she says she still has her number at a temp agency. “Hollywood can be fickle, I know that,” she laughs. “And I haven’t called the temp agency to let them know I’m not available . . . Listen, I’ll do anything to get the money coming in. Currently I’m making a living with performances. But if that dries up? Certainly, I’ll clean your house in a heartbeat.”

Maria Bamford
When: 8 p.m. Sunday
Where: Lobero Theatre, 33 E. Canon Perdido St.
Cost: $26-$30
Information: (805) 963-0761, www.lobero.com

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