Maria Bamford has made clinical anxiety a staple of her absurdist comedy for years, but it’s never been more resonant than right now.
“I found a therapist that I love, and this is one time when they go, ‘Oh, no, you’re right, this is actually rational. It’s not all in your head,’ ” she says. “I think I would prefer to have it in my head.”
According to a study last year from the American Psychiatric Association, anxiety levels in the US have seen a sharp uptick. So Bamford, who’s playing Brooklyn’s Bell House this weekend, has a lot of company on that front. “Everybody has these massive anxieties they keep to themselves,” she says on the phone from LA. “If you talk to anybody for more than 10 minutes, they’ll reveal some bizarre paranoia. Like, ‘Oh, yeah, I never go near ice.’ Let’s take a deep dive into THAT!”
‘If you talk to anybody for more than 10 minutes, they’ll reveal some bizarre paranoia.’
It’d be liberating, she says, if people could just say what they were really thinking. “There are certain ways to express your anxiety that are seen as OK, like yelling at customer service people. But you can’t yell out ‘I fear death!’ at the Southwest Airlines gate,” she says. “Or to AT&T, ‘If I can’t get my phone to work, does it mean I’m worthless as a human being?’ ”
The 49-year-old Bamford, whose most recent special is Netflix’s “Old Baby,” has long advocated for normalizing discussion of mental health — and for jettisoning the whole concept of trying to appear “normal.” Her two-season Netflix show, “Lady Dynamite,” is a semi-autobiographical comedy that uses her own breakdown — and her return to her hometown of Duluth, Minn., to recuperate — as a plot point. It also set up her stint as a manically cheerful shopper in Target commercials during the 2009 Christmas season.
Bamford’s high, loopy voice — which she often modulates into sultrier variations during a set — makes her a natural for cartoon work. She’s been in “Adventure Time,” “Bob’s Burgers” and “BoJack Horseman,” and most recently, the Team Coco podcast “Frontier Tween,” a “Little House on the Prairie” riff. “It’s by two writers from the Onion,” she says, “and it seemed like fun, spoofing childhood literature.”
Bamford’s a big reader. She and her husband, the visual artist Scott Marvel Cassidy, even maintain a Little Library outside their house, where neighbors can borrow and donate books. However, she is aghast that it’s currently filled with a single novelist: “It’s really unfortunate when someone just poops out 6,000 of their old Danielle Steels.”
She also spends a lot of her time carting around their elderly rat terrier and pug. “We adopt old dogs because we are slow and sleepy, and would prefer to have dogs who are also at that speed,” she says. “I’m not great at training dogs, but I’m good at picking them up and carrying them places.”
She’s garnered a devoted following over her 20-year career, including admirers like Stephen Colbert, who’s said she’s his favorite comedian. Before taking the stage at the Bell House, Bamford may call on her local fans for a little help: She likes a spontaneous one-on-one practice set.
“When I’m feeling nervous before a show, I’ll tweet, ‘Can somebody meet me in this ZIP code?’ and then they tweet back, and I check out their Twitter feed, and then we text where we’re meeting up. I’ve done this, like, 25 times and it’s always delightful,” she says. “I just did a set in North Carolina — in a Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot.”
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