If Lady Dynamite hadn’t already been chosen, Under the Radar Comedic Genius Maria Bamford Finally Got Her Own Show, and It’s About Time would have been an apt title for Maria Bamford’s new Netflix series rolling out today. Adored by the likes of Judd Apatow and Stephen Colbert, who declared her his favorite comedian on Planet Earth when she appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert last January, Bamford has been killing it with her stand-up for years.
Bamford, who was a member of the Comedians of Comedy Tour in 2005, which she embarked on with Zach Galifianakis, Patton Oswalt, and Brian Posehn, is known for cleverly and unashamedly weaving her mental health issues–she has long dealt with obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety, and depression and was diagnosed with a form of bipolar disorder a few years ago–into her routines. If you aren’t familiar with her work, listen to her live album Unwanted Thoughts Syndrome and watch the web series The Maria Bamford Show as well as Maria Bamford: The Special Special Special, a comedy special she shot in her living room with her parents as the audience–they’re all great Lady Dynamite prep.
Executive produced by Bamford, Mitchell Hurwtiz (creator of Arrested Development who cast Bamford as meth addict DeBrie Bardeaux in season 4), and South Park writer/producer Pam Brady, the semi-autobiographical Lady Dynamite has Bamford playing a version of herself living in a version of her life. In the opener, we are introduced to a sweet, optimistic, and slightly insecure 45-year-old comedian who has returned to Los Angeles after spending time back in her native Minnesota where she lived with her parents while being treated for a mental breakdown. (Like her Lady Dynamite alter ego, Bamford went home to live with her parents in Duluth back in 2011 after she had a breakdown.)
With the uniquely talented and charmingly vulnerable Bamford at its core and a cast that includes Fred Melamed, Ana Gasteyer, and Lennon Parham, Lady Dynamite is not a traditional comedy in any sense. There are over-the-top, fantastical sequences–the first episode opens with a shampoo commercial parody; characters like a cop played by Bamford’s friend Oswalt routinely break the fourth wall to give her advice about what she should and shouldn’t be doing on the series; and the show flips back and forth in time from the present where Bamford is trying to get work with the help of her agent (Melamed) and dating and just trying to get along in the world the best she can to the past, where we see what went down when she was back home in Minnesota with her family (Mary Kay Place and Ed Begley Jr. play her parents) trying to get her head on straight.
Bamford, who just minutes before sitting down with Co.Create learned that she is going to have to pony up $573 to get rid of the termites that are chomping away on the house she bought with the money she earned from Netflix for making Lady Dynamite, starts talking about having a positive but realistic attitude when “taking” meetings in Hollywood, what it was like for her to entrust the writers of Lady Dynamite to tell her story, and why she regrets playing the manic shopper desperate to “win Christmas” in those Target commercials.
It was Hurwitz who reached out to Bamford a few years ago and asked if she had any ideas for a series of her own that he could pitch to Netflix, which had given him a development deal. Bamford was happy to meet with him, but she didn’t have huge expectations.
Nothing against Hurwitz. It’s just that Hollywood has never really known how to best tap into the talents of this quirky performer, and Bamford has been working in show business long enough to know that meetings don’t necessarily lead to tangible projects or even long-lasting relationships. “It’s a lot like the ghosting process that happens with online dating. You have this intense meeting with somebody where it’s like, ‘You’re amazing! This is genius! Fantastic!’ Then you never hear anything again,” Bamford says, acknowledging that sometimes she is the person saying all the flattering things and then doing the ghosting.
The fact that you can’t count on anyone in Hollywood to provide opportunities makes Bamford especially thankful for her base in stand-up comedy. “It’s very personally empowering as a businessperson. I can just write my own material, and I’m out there. All I need is a microphone, and even if nobody paid me, I could always do secretarial work, day jobs, to support myself while doing my creative work. So it’s pretty helpful to be self-employed,” she says.
Back to that meeting with Hurwitz, he didn’t ghost her after Bamford told him she would like to do a show inspired by her real-life experience of starting over and intentionally slowing down after experiencing a mental breakdown. In fact, that first meeting led to other meetings over salads that Hurwtiz always insisted on paying for, and those salads weren’t cheap, Bamford says, pointing out that a kale salad can cost anywhere from $20 to $25 on the west side of Los Angeles. “I certainly offered [to pay] because I have dignity,” she cracks. “But he always wanted to pay, so I just accepted that. I accepted the largesse.”
After plying Bamford with salad, Hurwitz brought South Park alum Pam Brady into the discussions, and she joined him and Bamford as executive producers of Lady Dynamite, and, well, you know how the story ends–they sold the show to Netflix.
Bamford could have been a staff writer on her show, but she decided to leave the writing of Lady Dynamite up to a team of writers led by Brady because she doesn’t believe her skills lie in long-form scriptwriting. Still, as a stand-up comedian used to writing all of her own material, Bamford, who would visit the writers’ room to tell the writers stories from her own life that could be incorporated into the show, admits that it was hard to give up that kind of control at first. “I was super scared. Very scared,” Bamford says.
She even asked her husband–artist Scott Marvel Cassidy–on more than one occasion whether she was doing the right thing staying out of the writing process beyond visiting the writers to share anecdotes, and early on in the process, Bamford did try to rewrite a Lady Dynamite script. “It was just awful,” she says of her rewrite. “I put so many words in it. It was like a Charles Dickens novel.”
After looking over her mess of an attempt at retooling a script, it was then that Bamford realized she needed to embrace the interpretation of her generated by the show’s writers even if it wasn’t always really her–this is a fictionalized version of her and her life, after all.
So what’s not real? “I seem to be very easy at giving blow jobs [on the show],” she says. “There’s like five blow jobs I give out throughout the series. I was like, ‘Okay, number one, that is not my forte. Number two, you really need to give respect, space, and time to that particular art form!’ “
What does match up with real life is the onscreen Bamford’s regret over appearing as a hyped-up, super-competitive shopper in an advertising campaign–the storyline is clearly inspired by the crazed shopper the real Bamford played in a series of Target ads a few years ago.
Bamford had fun making the Target spots produced by Portland’s Wieden + Kennedy, and she says she was extremely well paid, but she is sorry she did them. “On a person level I am–at least the story I always told myself–is that I was a nonconsumerist. I don’t think people should buy more,” says Bamford, who carefully budgets her money, drives a 10-year-old Toyota, and wisely invested the money Netflix paid her to do Lady Dynamite in the aforementioned house with a temporary termite problem.
She is also not okay with Target’s anti-union stance and felt like a hypocrite after she made the commercials. “They make everything overseas, super-cheap without unions, and everyone’s nonunionized over here, but I was a union worker who was making not only union wages but much more than that,” she says. (Target is indeed notorious for being anti-union and even shows anti-union propaganda videos to employees. One, screened by Salon in 2014, warned employees that a union “would change our fast, fun, and friendly culture, with their way of doing business.”)
Beyond her not being okay with pushing people to buy, buy, buy and supporting a company known for being anti-union, playing Target’s intense shopper created an unexpected complication–Bamford started drawing audience members to her stand-up performances who had no idea what they were in for. “So many people would like the character and then come see me do stand-up, and it would make for a very awkward show when a group of ladies had come in like ‘We love our Target lady,’ and I’ve got a half hour on suicide,” Bamford says. “I felt terrible. Comedy clubs are expensive, and you’ve brought all your friends, and you’ve got to buy drinks, and then you’re trapped there because it’s difficult to move around because the seating is notoriously sort of squashed. It didn’t ruin people’s lives, but it didn’t feel good.”
For all of these reasons, Bamford is turned off by the idea of appearing in ads in the future. “Not that anybody’s asked me, but I wouldn’t take an advertising campaign ever again,” she says.