Photo: Robyn Von Swank

Maria Bamford on Relatable Material, Consistent Comedy and Bentzen Ball Debut

Maria Bamford is doing well.

Aside from being so funny it’s almost unbearable, the comedian has also made a name for herself discussing the intricacies of daily life with mental illness – perhaps what she is best known for to casual fans and longtime comedy devotees alike.

The fine line between grace and acceptance paired with the absurdity of life in one’s own complicated brain that Bamford toes in her work has elevated her from funny person to relatable human as she carries a comedic torch for mental health issues.

Material for her new special includes marriage and religion – “my favorites,” she notes – and other topics she’s been known to ruminate on. But mental health leaves the spotlight, as she’s been in a place of healing lately.

“I have run out of material,” Bamford says of her mental health-focused work. “That’s a blessing, and yet that’s been a cash cow. I’ve worked my way out of a job, but that’s okay. It’s better to make less money and feel fantastic.”

When someone shares about one specific – and intense – aspect of their lives, it’s easy to box them in and not look outside that one facet. When I ask Bamford if she feels she’s had a hand in the necessary sea change around mental health conversations, she’s quick to remind me of the others who paved the way – Jonathan Winters in the 60s, for example.

While she’s certainly opened channels for better and funnier conversations around the topic today, Bamford has kept busy over the years with plenty of other topics and projects, too. She’s been subject and star of the well-loved Netflix series Lady Dynamite, lent her pipes to voice-over acting, and even done advertising, something she says she will most likely pass on in the future.

“[Ad agencies] pay you a lot of money for a reason: that you will not have strong opinions about things in public. And I love to have strong opinions in public, unfortunately.”

She says there are certain things she chooses not to do anymore.

“I have a semi-retired lifestyle. It’s lots of standup, [which] is a wonderful schedule for somebody who’s on antipsychotics. I get a good 12 hours of sleep every night.”

She has, however, been hard at work on her new special. With some comedians capitalizing on timely topics, there’s something reassuring about seeing a creative force like Bamford focus on consistent themes. It’s proof that some parts of the human condition will never go away – and will always be funny. She says she’ll use the bulk of the material from her new one-hour special at Brightest Young Things’ beloved comedy festival Bentzen Ball later this month.

“I took about three years to write [the special], and I address the usual topics that I’ve always addressed. I don’t seem to change over time, unlike most human beings. Some people say, ‘Oh, I’d like to transform and become new and different and better than I was.’ Not me.”

Though semi-retired, Bamford is still in high demand. She’s been at the top of the Bentzen Ball team’s wish list since the comedy festival’s inaugural run 10 years ago. Bamford quips that it’s probably just been a decade-long scheduling conflict, as she’ll “go anywhere.” She really means that – her display name on Twitter reads, “I’m probably available!”

“I’m an attainable goal of a comedian,” she states. “It’s weird that it hasn’t worked out before because I’m available, usually.”

It might be fate that’s leading her to Lincoln Theatre’s stage to kick off this year’s Bentzen Ball, though. She’ll be joined by her friend and frequent collaborator, fellow comedian Jackie Kashian, who performed at the first Bentzen Ball a decade ago.

“We’ve been friends for over 20 years now,” Bamford says, speaking in great admiration of Kashian’s work. “She started doing comedy a few years before I did in Wisconsin, and she’s always been a headliner in her own right. She’s been on Two Dope Queens and Conan, and she has two great podcasts.”

Bamford speaks with excitement for her Bentzen debut, saying it’ll be unbelievable to fill up the venue.

“If we show up within a half hour of showtime and have our hair combed and are pleasant, I think that that’s really going to be the surprise,” she laughs.

When you take into consideration the cosmic coincidence of Kashian’s prior appearance at Bentzen, Bamford’s relationship with her and the fact that Bamford is perhaps the biggest win for this year’s festival lineup, you could consider their appearance alone an achievement. But given Bamford’s lasting reach – and willingness to share her story openly and hilariously, regardless of what aspect of her story she’s telling – it’s sure to set the tone for an incredible 10th run of the comedy festival.

Maria Bamford kicks off the 10th annual Bentzen Ball with Jackie Kashian on Thursday, October 24 at 6 p.m. at Lincoln Theatre. Tickets are $35. For more on Bentzen, visit www.brightestyoungthings.com/bentzen-ball-2019.
To find more of Bamford’s work, visit www.mariabamford.com.

Lincoln Theatre: 1215 U St. NW, DC; 202-888-0050; www.thelincolndc.com