Mental Health and Comedy: An Interview with Maria Bamford

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Maria Bamford

Maria Bamford is a comedian known for her distinctive and surreal style of stand up. She also starred on the Super Deluxe web series “The Maria Bamford Show.” She was part of the Comedians of Comedy tour, alongside Patton Oswalt, Brian Posehn, and Zach Galifianakis. Bamford is known for her voice acting on television shows, such as “Hey Arnold!,” and she currently does the voice for “Hot Dog Princess” on the Cartoon Network program “Adventure Time.”

Maria Bamford Interview

What are your thoughts on the relationship between comedy and mental health? I know you bring it up a lot in your stand up. Is it meant to be therapeutic for you or for the audience?

I do like talking about it because it is something I’m interested in. But I don’t know if it’s something specific to comedians or comedy. I think mental health is part of everybody’s lives and either you’re interested in it or you’re not.

Your last album was titled “Unwanted Thoughts Syndrome.” How would you define that and how does it relate to your idea of mental health?

As far as I know, unwanted thoughts syndrome is a type of OCD, which, at least for me, wasn’t well known. I had this tendency from when I was nine – I probably still have it – but I’ve been able to manage it better  “with CBT, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy” techniques. It’s an actual thing, I don’t know if medically that’s what they call it, but that’s how I’ve found it described in books like The Imp of the Mind and Tormenting Thoughts and Secret Rituals.
That’s a fun title. [laughs]

A fun read. So, yeah I found out about that and that really helped me. It was a torturous thing for myself and I didn’t really get help for it until I was 35 and would not try to avoid contact with other human beings. [laughs] You know, stand-up is perfect because you can have contact with other human beings but there’s a definite rigid structure

But, the idea is that you have unwanted thoughts. You know when you have like some weird random thought like, “Oh my God, my dog looks sexy,” and most people would be like, “Oh my God, that’s so weird,” and then move on, but a person with an OCD type mindset goes, “‘Oh, no! That means something, and then I’ve got to get that out of my mind.”  I think the compulsion is the way when you try to get it out. A compulsion could be washing your hands, but in this circumstance, it would be like some people make a noise or I would grip my fists or avoid getting into that situation where I would have those frightening thoughts.
I wanted to talk about that on stage because I thought it was such a bummer for me. So then if somebody else had it they wouldn’t feel so weird. And if people laughed at it, it also meant that they knew what I was talking about on some level, even if they didn’t have an OCD-level of it. It’s like the idea, “What if I licked a urinal? Oh my God I can’t believe I thought of that! That’s so crazy! That probably says something about me inherently, like I’m some sort of urinal licker. I have to do a complicated tap dance every time I go near a men’s restroom just in case I fell over and I accidentally licked it.” The therapist had me face my fears. [in character] “If you’ve ever gone to a religious institution, avoid it, because you’re worried you’d lose control, rip up the altar, take a shit and yell ‘I am a promise keeper.’”

A common OCD fear is that you’d yell something out. I’ve read about it is the people who are like that, much like the people with the hand-washing OCD, are the least likely people to act out on those thoughts. Someone who has OCD who washes their hands constantly are obviously not unclean. “No dude, you’ve washed your hands like 50 times. If you grip your hands at odd intervals 15 to 17 times and are staying in your room, you’re not going to stab your parents.” [laughs] You know, the odds of me doing that are pretty low if I maintain the same personality I’ve had my whole life.
So, with “unwanted thoughts syndrome,” do you think there’s a sense of guilt with having these thoughts?

Sure, yeah sure.

And I know that you’ve mentioned in your stand-up your religious upbringing. Do you think that might have something to do with it or not?

I don’t think so. My parents weren’t rigidly religious. It was a big part of our family, but it wasn’t super conservative. It was just a “Jesus is a good idea” type of thing. But it could have been something like that. My mom has sort of very anxious tendencies about controlling her environment, which of course I’m observing that as a witness. Things just have to be just so, so maybe that’s a reason. I tend to think things are part biological and then part of where you grow up, but I don’t know, I’m not a scientist. [whispers] I’m not a scientist.

I read in an interview that you mentioned your mom’s a marriage and family therapist. Is that a recent thing?

After I graduated from college, so it’s been about 20 years. But she’s mostly retired now.

Since it is therapy, does that play a role in your stand up?

My whole family is very interested in that. They’re interested in personal growth and therapeutic things. My parents go to Esalen, do you know what that is?

No, what is that?

It’s in Big Sur, and you can be nude and go hot-tubbing and learn different therapy techniques. You can have people talk to you as if they were your grandparents and you finally deal with those core issues, or you drum, or whatever. So, my parents are really groovy. And my sister is totally into that stuff too. Everybody in my family is on board to talk about therapeutic things, or about spiritual things and or some sort of moralizing thing.

So, as you’ve probably noticed, I’ve been asking a lot of questions about mental health but I’ve noticed in a lot of other interviews, that topic comes up a lot. Does it bother you?

Oh no!

Or do you want to have it out in the open?

No, I totally want to talk about it. I’m really excited about it. I’m very interested in that topic. I don’t know, I get worried that maybe either it’s boring to other people or, “Hey, why don’t you stop talking about it? It’s so stupid, just talk about comedy.” But it’s super interesting to me on a personal level. I mean, I could be interested in something else like comic books or something, but this is my thing.

Do you have any new projects coming up? I know you’re working on “Adventure Time.”

I do a voice here and there on it, so once a month I’ll go in and do the “Hot Dog Princess.” I’m working on a new cd, an hour of material. I’m trying to get that together, but that in a nice bouquet. I’ve always had a couple of irons in the fire. I sometimes hate to talk about stuff though because I’m worried I won’t do it, you know. It’s like, “I’ve really got this amazing ballet I’m working on, anyways. It’s all kind of sketched out in my mind.” And then I never choreograph it. So, let’s just say I’m choreographing a ballet, metaphorically.

I had some people submit some questions, if you don’t mind.

No, sure.

I know you’re a pug enthusiast. The first question is, “My boyfriend and I intend to adopt a pair of pugs as soon as we move to a more dog-friendly place. We’ve always planned to name them Mr. and Mrs. Wiggles. Since we have the last names in order, can you suggest potential first names?”

It’s so difficult because I don’t know what age you’re going to get them at. Are they going to be rescued pugs? A lot of older rescue pugs come in pairs, in which case they already have their names. Popular is something like flower names for pugs, or extremely elegant names. I don’t know if they’re black pugs, if they’re fawn pugs, if they’re brindle pugs. You do want a first name for them because they’re both individuals. In order to know, I’d need to know what their jobs were and what their religions were. Blossom, my pug, was Roman Catholic. Bert is Hindu. Then Blueberry, my new dog, which is half-pug, half-chihuahua, is Agnostic. She’s a professional nurse. Bert designs menswear, and then Blossom was of course a chanteuse. Why am I so afraid to name their pugs? I’m just so afraid, I don’t want to give them the wrong name.

Oatmeal and Snausage? Mrs. Peanut and Mr. Butter? Or it could be Piggle-Wiggle and Cuggle-Wiggle?

You know, to be gender specific?

It’s just a lot of responsibility to name pugs. I support her in whatever name she wishes. What’s important is to go with her gut feeling.

The last question is, “Duluth, Minnesota, has been very much a part of your life. It’s also the birthplace of both Bob Dylan and indie rock icons Low. Would you say that they are kindred spirits, and if so, would you have dinner with them?”

Oh, I totally would have dinner with them! I don’t know about Bob Dylan, because Bob Dylan kind of hated Minnesota, right? Didn’t he hate it?

Yeah, I think so.

Yeah, I think he did. From what I remember, he made up a story that he was from the circus. He said he wasn’t from anywhere, which I get — he’s from Hibbing. I’m sure it must have been a rough ride. I would love to. I just feel like I might be so anxious though because of the über-stardom. But Low, I’m totally open to, because I don’t know the vast expanse of their stardom, and so I’m not, although I probably should be, intimidated. I bet Low and I have already eaten together in the same restaurant. [whispers] “Low, are you listening?”  

Any last thought?
Stay in school, finish your degree. It is nice to feel it’s finished. I totally believe in getting jobs and having jobs. I didn’t for the first four years out of college. I was like, “I’m making pizza sometimes, and then I’m busking on the street for change, man! It’s been a year since I paid the rent, but you guys are being really not cool about this!”

Although, there’s people like that here too. [laughs]

It was hard for me to get a job. I got a job as a secretary and temped and stuff like that and took a full-time job. It only helped my art form. I think some people might disagree and say, “Hey, sellout. I guess you just started working for the man.”  But it did help. There weren’t a lot of super-creative things coming out of hungry, or impoverished, or not having meds when I was off my rocker. So, it’s ok to get a job!

I’m still signed up with my temp agencies and I sign up every other year again because you just never know. It’s kind of nice to have that freedom to know, “I can make whatever I want, even if people aren’t interested, even if there’s no money in it.” I can still have a wonderful life.

*edited for length

 

2 COMMENTS

  1. Great to hear a comedian address the topic of obsessive-compulsive disorder…….the more people talk openly about all types of mental illness, the less stigma there will be….and there’s nothing wrong with using humor, either!

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