It’s hard to find a more authentic actress and comedian than Maria Bamford, who weaves her own experience with mental illness into her candid and hilarious stand-up comedy. Among numerous acting roles, Bamford is known for her Netflix show, “Lady Dynamite,” in which she writes, produces and stars. The comedy is loosely based on Bamford’s life and reveals the scope of her humor and creativity. A prolific voice-over artist, Ms. Bamford has voiced characters in countless animated TV shows, including Netflix’s “BoJack Horseman.”
ABILITY Magazine’s Chet Cooper spoke with Bamford (between bouts of laughter) via Zoom while she took a break from her comedy tour. Bamford shared much about the highs and lows of her mental health journey and how good mental health care can be hard to find. She discussed her views on different treatments and how medicine can be the best medicine.
Chet Cooper: So, you like being on the road?
Maria Bamford: That is a great question—yeah. Well, I’m not sure. My family is very much a family of “doers.” I almost feel bad somehow. Like I should be working all the time. Stand-up allows for that because it’s an hour at night. (laughs) It’s not like I’m working full days. But I think I’ve been traveling a little too much. I’ve been feeling it lately. I had a show a couple months ago where—I’m on Depakote (an anti-convulsant), and—We are talking about disability stuff, too, right?
Cooper: Actually, we’re a fishing magazine, so it’s a—
Bamford: Oh, my God, I’m so amazed! Well, I caught my first— (laughs)
Bamford: I’m on Depakote, which is a mood stabilizer. It makes me kind of tremor. And as I’ve gotten older, my tremors have gotten a little bit worse, especially if I’m under stress. I got to this Rhode Island show at the last minute; I was tremoring so hard that I fell offstage into the audience!! (laughs). I said to myself, “Hmm, you know what, kid? Maybe you ought to step back for a sec”. Now I’m taking Propranolol, which lowers your blood pressure to stop the shakes a bit. But then that feels kind of weird. I already have low blood pressure, so it’s like I’m very cool and calm before shows now. (laughs)
Cooper: (laughs) So rather than having a standing ovation, you had a falling ovation?
Bamford: (laughs) Exactly! Yay!
Cooper: And the audience loved it so much you have to keep it in the routine now? (laughs)
Bamford: I was so glad that people felt positive enough about the show to catch me, you know? (laughs)
Cooper: Oh! What’s that called when you jump into the audience, into their arms?
Bamford: Crowd surf?
Cooper: Yeah. So, you’re starting it in the night club scene, knocking over tables, drinks are flying—
Bamford: Yeah, comedy mosh!
Cooper: (laughs) Yes, I like that!
Cooper: Even though you said a minute ago that you’re only working an hour per set, there’s so much other stuff that goes on, especially in travel, from hotels to planes to TSA, baggage, etc. How much to pack or not pack?
Bamford: Yeah. And then I’m sure everybody else has this.—There’s the mental part. I feel like travel is stressful with all the ongoing news and the scary stuff on the Internet. I think everyone is feeling stressed. I mean, the thing is that you’re not alone if you have any anxiety. Everyone’s anxious now. It’s a lot, it’s just a lot.
But it’s lovely to talk to you. That’s something that helps me on the road to calm down, to—
Cooper: —talk to Chet?
Bamford: I talk to you, Chet. I tried to call you before, and it’s weird. Do you travel for work? It looked from your picture that you’re a public speaker.
Cooper: That’s one of the few times that somebody took a picture of me as a public speaker. So, I thought—let me turn on my video so you can see how I really look. Just a second.
Bamford: Oh, wow! There you go!
Cooper: I don’t like myself. (laughs)
Cooper: I’m turning it off!
Bamford: Oh, no!
Cooper: Do you want it back on?
Bamford: Yes, I love seeing your face.
Cooper: I don’t.
Bamford: I think you can take your own face off if that bothers you.
Cooper: It’s like, right now you are larger than my face, which is great. I appreciate looking at people when I’m talking to them, but typically I’m behind the curtain, a Wizard of Oz type of thing.
Bamford: If you ever want to hide, there’s the Hide, if you put your cursor over your face, it’ll give the option to hide Self View, and you can just see your full face.
Cooper: I put my cursor over my nose, and now it looks like I’ve got an arrow on my nose.
Bamford: Oh, boy!
Cooper: I’ve seen several things you’ve produced. Your Netflix show Lady Dynamite I thought it was brilliant. Not only was it interesting with the mental health component, but funnier than all get-out. I’m not one to praise comedy that much, but you were great.
Bamford: I appreciate that because you’re very funny yourself, my friend, I appreciate that.
Cooper: I don’t know if you know my history. I did some work with National Lampoon, so we had lots of comedy writers around. They were brilliant. Most of them were introverts, some of them tried stand-up. It was always fun to watch them on open mic nights.
Bamford: (laughs) Yes!
Cooper: As you know, that’s so different than just writing comedy. So, I have a taste of what really is brilliant and funny and quirky and bright and stand-up. You’ve got that in spades.
Bamford: Oh, thanks! I’m embarrassed, I should have Googled you.
Cooper: We could take a minute…?
Bamford: (laughs) I give you much respect, Chet. I am a lazy layabout.
Cooper: (laughs) That’s so funny! Are you actually going to look me up?
Bamford: Yes, of course, I’m doing it right now, oh, my God!
Cooper: (laughs) I notice your eyes are moving around the screen. It comes up with my disability-related background. I don’t think it talks much of my time with the Lampoon.
Bamford: Oh, awesome! Wow! That’s super-cool! Wow! Wait, do you—are you the publisher of ABILITY Magazine?
Cooper: Let’s get back to you. In all the work that you’re doing, you’re writing, you’ve got animation voiceover, and you’re doing this extended stand-up tour.
Bamford: I wonder about it. Chet, do you ever have a boring story that you find yourself telling over and over about your life? My story is, God, I work a lot! Why am I working so much? I’m the one who says yes to it. But oh, why am I working so much? It’s such a tedious story. I’m boring myself with this. I think it’s some sort of low self-esteem where I think that I’ve got to say yes to everything. And I enjoy work, but there’s some—I felt sad—the meds that I’m on can make me very sleepy. So, when I am sentient, I like to make up for all the time that I sleep, which is about 12 hours a night, and somehow be a better person. It’s kind of crazy. I don’t practice what I preach in terms of, like, it’s OK to do nothing! Give 20%! Sit around! I try to do that, but I’m always hustling.
Cooper: Have you always been like that? Or do you think it might be the way that you are counterbalancing the medications you take, knowing that the meds drop you, so you’re drinking more caffeine or whatever it might be, and then you’ve got such a creative brain, you’ll say, “I’ll run with this”?
Bamford: For sure. I am drinking a nitro cold brew as we speak. I know I have that fear. If I’ve missed a day of Depakote, I’ll have a flurry of ideas, and it’ll be like, “God damn it!” (laughs)
Bamford: I was out of town, and I ran out of meds. I was off of meds for two days, and I just remember feeling so energized! And then realizing, “Oh, I’m so mad! I miss the surge of ideas.” Eventually it becomes a surge that’s a combination of horror, anxiety, and rage. But the first day off meds is good! (laughs)
Cooper: (laughs) The reality that you can’t get it all done, you’ve got so much—is that part of the sliding down, the reality of, “I’m not going to be able to do all of this”?
Bamford: Yeah, even with making the TV show, I had talked with some friends who are differently abled. I don’t know if you know Gaelynn Lea? She’s a singer-songwriter. She won the NPR Tiny Desk Concerts.
Cooper: Oh, yes.
Bamford: She’s from Duluth, Minnesota. Oh, my God, talk about a person who is not depressed! She’s a light, just—yeah, everything I wish I could be, an extrovert. She has a wheelchair, and she’ll have people invite her to come perform, and there will be no wheelchair access. That was, I mean, a little bit offensive.
For the (“Lady Dynamite”) TV show, which was all about mental illness, there was a lot of talk of, [in a low voice] “Yes, we’re definitely going to have you get enough rest, Maria,” But as soon as the show starts happening, I don’t know if you’ve ever worked on a TV show, but it’s insane. The hours for a lot of shows at the very least are 12 hours a day. But a lot of times it’s 16, 18 hours a day. And even if it’s union, there are penalties unless you come back in 6 hours. You don’t get sleep.
That started to happen to me on the first day of shooting. It was like, “Oh, Maria, you’ve got to come back 10 hours after this 12-hour day because we’re starting to fall behind.” And I’m like, “Oh, you see, if I don’t get 10 or 12 hours of sleep” —because I would sleep the whole 12 hours— I was gone. I would fall asleep in the car and then I’d go to sleep as soon as I got into bed. And as soon as I woke up, I’d get in a car and go back to the set. And even that was on the edge of being enough sleep for me.
So, every day for at least the first month I had to tell them, “You guys, I’ve got to go. I’m leaving now” And even though I was one of the executive producers of the show, I still had to fight for the time I needed. And that was hilarious. Everyone wants to be the person who makes things accessible or makes things more diverse or have more women or whatever, but when it comes to actually making the changes—Well, change is uncomfortable. That was interesting. And despite how everyone was just lovely on that show, because of the meds I’m on, I barely remember parts of it. I don’t remember a lot of it because I was so tired.
Cooper: I think it’s on Netflix, you could watch it if you forgot.
Bamford: (laughs) Yeah, I know, I should watch it again. I wasn’t sure if I should watch it.
Cooper: Be careful, there are some adult scenes, there’s a naked woman.
Bamford: (laughs) I do remember that day! I was like, I always thought it would be funny. Because women are always naked on film in sexy ways, but not in funny ways. And I remember seeing Borat and I just loved the scene of the man running nude.
Cooper: Was it the Armenian?
Bamford: Yeah, the big guy running nude everywhere, and I was like, “That’s great.” I wanted to bring that joy to my own production.
Cooper: You didn’t have any modesty issues with doing it?
Bamford: No, I mean, I’m old! And that’s the thing. It wasn’t a sexual thing. It was kind of just like a ridiculous goofy thing. It wasn’t like I was—maybe somebody could see it as sexual. I was more seeing it as the human body is ridiculous.
Bamford: And one thing with TV, too—at least every time I’ve played someone on a show¬— they always give me huge breasts, like, that’s a part of the character. (laughs) You’ve got to be a C-cup! (laughs)
Cooper: (laughs) That’s not in your contract, that’s them?
Bamford: Yeah, it’s really strange. Anyway, it was meaningful to me. I’m sure everyone else was horrified. My husband was on set. That made me feel good because he thought it was hilarious.
Cooper: Whenever I see people who are able to do that, especially knowing how a set is. With so many people on the set, I always think I just couldn’t do that. I still wear my underwear in the shower.
Bamford: What if you see something?
Cooper: I’ve taken the mirrors down in the bathroom.
Cooper: I think it was brilliant. The reality is, like you said, the human body, we’re just so bizarrely conditioned.
Bamford: Yes. In the second season (of “Lady Dynamite”), because I was so exhausted, they had a little tent set up for me. Between takes, for the five minutes they take resetting cameras, I could lie down with a sleeping bag. That made a huge difference for me, even if it was just 10 or 15 minutes. I didn’t have to socialize or be sitting and staring. I could just close my eyes and lie down. That was a wonderful thing, and it was very helpful during the second season.
Cooper: Essentially, they provided accommodations then.
Bamford: Yeah. That was really great. They also picked me up from my home so I wouldn’t have to drive, which could be seen as a fancy thing. But, for me, it would not have been good for me to drive.
Cooper: No, “fancy” would have been if you stayed in the bed, and they just carried the bed into a van. That would have been fancy.
Bamford: I would not mind that. What was interesting, and I’m sure people talk about this—People went out of their way to mention to me, “Yeah, I only had six hours of sleep. Man, I’ve worked in this industry for 40 years. You just don’t sleep sometimes.” And I’m like, “Mm-hmm, I hear you, Marty, I hear you.” (laughs) Because I look OK—but I was asking for more sleep. Which I would think could be seen as lazy or not being a team player or being a princess. That was my fear. No one said that outright. But I just—some of the Teamsters, when they were driving me, they’d be like, “So you’re goin’ home already?” (laughs)
Cooper: (laughs) Are you able to just jump right into REM when you do those naps?
Bamford: Pretty much, yeah. Seroquel, which is the anti-psychotic I’m on, is pretty powerful. Even when I take it at night, the residual effects of it kind of stick a little bit through the day. So, if I lie down in the late afternoon, I will conk out immediately. I don’t know. I know my case of bipolar or whatever it’ll be called next year—straw hat disease, maybe—isn’t as severe as many people experience. I feel embarrassed. I subscribe to bp Magazine for bipolar. One of the main complaints in the letters to the editor is why do they keep doing features about celebrities or people in show business who have bipolar? Why don’t they have a ‘regular’ person who’s living their life?” And I’m like—
Cooper: Oh, a real person!
Bamford: A real person. And that’s their point. Because show business is very laissez-faire in terms of—
Cooper: I get what they’re saying, but yeah.
Bamford: When I called my manager and said, “I’m going into the psych ward,” he said, “Oh, yeah, I have a couple of clients who are bipolar. Just call me when you get out.”
Bamford: Like, it was not an issue at all on some level. I totally get that my ‘beacon of hope’ abilities are limited. (laughs).
Cooper: Can you talk about the experience of going into the psych ward? I don’t think I have ever asked anybody that question before.
Bamford: Oh, well, like all healthcare, it’s not as great as you’d hope. (laughs)
I’ve seen breast cancer wards where it’s all pink, and I go, “Well, that looks nice!” I have been hospitalized when I did not have insurance before, and that’s rough. Hospitalization can retraumatize you, especially if you’re having behaviors. There’s a great lawyer and professor of law, Elyn Saks, who experiences schizophrenia. She’s written a lot about mental health, the law and how people should be treated when they are brought in ‘5150’ (or against their will). Because often people can still be belted down and all the stuff…
Bamford: Yeah. The bummer part of it is that it feels bad. It feels like it increases your feeling of isolation in terms of there’s something wrong with you. They’re understaffed. It’s not great. One thing that was great about it for me is it provided a sense of safety for my family and friends that I was being watched by somebody, and they could be off 24-hour duty of, “Hey, I wonder if Maria’s gonna kill herself tonight.” That was a great relief. And I think it is also a good thing to acknowledge that something is really wrong, that I’m genuinely feeling that this level of health is unacceptable. That was good. And then it got me in touch with an outpatient treatment program, Glendale Adventist, a hospital that took my insurance.
But hospitalization is definitely not the end all-be all for many people. Some people try to avoid it, especially because of the cost. I got mine paid for by insurance. But man, if you end up getting the $30,000 bill, which would be terrifying. Inpatient stays are usually very depressing. They are hilariously depressing hospital wards.
Cooper: I love that term. “Hilariously depressing.”
Bamford: Like the puzzle doesn’t have all the pieces (laughs) The magazines are stacked up and they’re from 1977. Come on, guys! This is like an addict saying, “I know I’m crazy,” but the TV. There’s no mute mode and it’s playing Ultimate Fighting Championships. It’s like a reminder of how bad a state you’re in. (laughs)
Bamford: Gray rubber curtains around your bed, I guess in case you fling your own feces somewhere. Actually, I’m not sure exactly what those are for. That’s the issue. And I feel for the mental healthcare workers; I’m sure they’re exhausted. And then—because you’re mental and the hospital staff, I’m sure, are burnt out on their jobs, there’s a sense that even if you ask for something —if you say, “Hey, when is my psychiatrist coming? Hey, could I have a packet of graham crackers?” It’s like, (pause) “OK. Cuckoo!” When I was in one facility, they took away my purse, which, OK, all right. But I had to get the purse back because the in-house psychiatrist would not see me unless I gave him cash.
Cooper: He’s out of pocket, yeah.
Bamford: And I was like, isn’t spending irrational amounts of money on something that’s useless a warning sign of mania? (laughs) Anyway, I had to argue with the nursing staff to get my purse back. I wasn’t very cognizant; I wasn’t speaking very clearly at that point.—I don’t know if I am now. (laughs)—But I finally got it. I was like, “The doctor wants—he needs money,” and they’re like, “Oh, OK!” (laughs)
And another funny thing about facilities, sometimes they’ll have in the advertising or somewhere in the facility itself, there will be a list of activities, like yoga at 5:00pm, breathing at 2:00pm, Jerry comes and sings a song at 1:00 p.m. None of that happens. None of it. This happened at a couple of places I was. I thought “Why do you have this up here? Why is it on the website that you have Caring Gentleness at 7:00 a.m. every morning, 12-Step groups?” And they say, “Oh, yeah, we don’t do that anymore.” So, take it down! Just take it down! (laughs)
Cooper: So, they keep it for PR purposes for marketing and then they say it’s been cut when you ask?
Cooper: And that’s been in more than one facility?
Bamford: More than one facility has done that. And then when I said, “Oh, gosh, OK.” And again, I am agitated and a big weirdo, and I’m sure I’m not giving the best impression, but I’m like, “Oh, oh, oh, OK, OK.” And then the nursing staff was like, “This is a hospital.” And I’m like, “Yeah, I know, it’s just that you guys have the poster up. But, OK, I’m the asshole? OK, I’m sorry!” (laughs)
Cooper: (laughs) “But I’m here for the yoga!”
Bamford: (laughs) [calmly] “I thought this was a yoga retreat.”—with a lot of Tater Tots. That’s another thing, there’s always a lot of carbs at mental health facilities. Lots of greasy carbs to calm you down.
Bamford: Yeah, it’s an interesting gaslighting that’s very funny.
Cooper: You think carbs have a calming tendency?
Bamford: Oh, my God! I’d assume so. I went to an outpatient program twice, and after lunch every day they’d come out with a big tray of yellow cake, with thick frosting, and we’d all have a giant slice of it and then go into the afternoon groups. (laughs)
Cooper: Huh! The food is not the same as in a regular hospital?
Bamford: Yeah, I mean, I think you could make healthier choices, but there were a lot of chicken tenders that were well lit. (laughs)
Bamford: I don’t know. It was very helpful for me to go into a psychiatric facility, but I also want to acknowledge that it can be a harrowing experience as well. And if you’re black or brown and you call for an ambulance, sometimes the cops show up. That is an experience I have not had, but I’ve had friends who have had that experience. If you are in a major city, they sometimes have mental health emergency units that will come out instead of the cops or an ambulance, which I think can be more helpful.
Cooper: So maybe instead of calling 911 trying to find a direct line to mental health?
Bamford: Yes. I have a friend who, after calling 911, had all these cops show up, they drew guns and shot at their dog. Oh, no. It’s often not the greatest experience.
A friend of mine was having a psychotic break, and I drove them to a psychiatric emergency clinic in LA. My friend is black, and on the big-screen TV in the waiting room, the George Floyd news was just breaking. It was basically a snuff film of someone being killed in real time over and over and over again, showing in the waiting room of a mental health facility. And I was like, “You guys! You guys! Can we change it to the Cartoon Network? Can we just turn this frickin’ thing off?” My friend did get help there and was hooked up with meds. And it did eventually work out, but the staff is just overworked. It can be a little crazy, the whole situation.
Cooper: The waiting room was not reading the room.
Bamford: (laughs) Yeah! Yes!
Cooper: My question about your hospital experience is—were you on your meds or did you get off your meds before? And then you just knew you needed to go in?
Bamford: What had happened is that for a number of years my psychiatrist kept saying, “Hey, you should go on mood stabilizers. Hey, you’re talking a little fast.” And I was like, [fast] “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.” (laughs) “You don’t get it. I’m funny.”
So then at one point, I was starting to feel bad. A friend did an intervention on me, saying, “Hey, sometimes you’re not totally making sense. You seem a bit obsessed.” At the time, I was doing commercials for the Target Christmas campaign. And although it was a mental illness issue–there’s always some basis for it in reality. I didn’t want to do commercials is what the reality was. It was going well, but I started to get obsessed that it was a bad thing to do and that I was a bad person. Anyway, I did all this stuff that was rather obsessive to try to figure it out ethically.
Bamford: That’s when I went into the hospital the first time, to switch meds, to take some time to switch meds because I wasn’t feeling good. And then everything fell apart.
Cooper: That’s clever of you, knowing that when you switch meds things could get bad or spiral. I’m aware of situations where psychiatrists are constantly trying to make those tweaks to help the patient. It’s still not a perfect science, as you know.
Bamford: Oh, God!
Cooper: I understand no one can fully know each person 100%, and that’s why they keep tweaking the meds for each individual patient. That’s clever of you, knowing that you’re iffy anyway and you’re going to change—but that’s an expensive process. It’s good that you have family support around you, but like you said, you also don’t want them to have the burden of watching you 24/7.
Bamford: And for me, it was very much a pride-control thing, too. “Oh, I’m just going to take care of this, and then it’ll be done.” You know? Yeah, meds are a huge part of it. You don’t know how they’ll affect you. The first ones they tried for me were not good, and then it ended up creating a crisis because I went back to work so quickly. I was on a medicine called Lamictal. One of its side effects can be cognitive. It can make it difficult to talk or think. I was supposed to do some shows in Chicago, and I just wasn’t able to talk or think clearly. So, I had to cancel the shows at the last minute because I was just not able to go on. I kept thinking muscle memory was going to kick in, but that did not happen. That’s when I went into the hospital the second time.
I went through an outpatient program after that, a second time. Then finally I agreed to try Depakote, which my psychiatrist had been suggesting for me. It’s an older drug prescribed for manic depression, and it had worked for my mom. My mom had bipolar. I didn’t want to take it because—and this is going to be gross, heads up—because one of the primary side effects is weight gain. Miss Prissy Pants didn’t want to do that, but I finally was willing to take it.
Cooper: Had your mother gained weight with it when she took it?
Bamford: I don’t know. She took it for so long. She was on it for, like, 40 years, so I don’t know. The third time I checked myself in—No, I didn’t. I was like, “I’m OK.” Anyway, somebody took me in. Then I got on the Depakote, finally. And although I didn’t feel better, I was supposed to just be there for 72 hours. But then—and this is something very funny about psychiatry— you are asked to tell some doctor your medical history. I told the staff psychiatrist my medical history, and I’m sure I was a little speedy and mental. But I was telling him everything. I told him about the specific type of OCD I have, which is Intrusive Thoughts OCD. It’s something I got help for. So, I was over it at that point, but I was just telling him because he asked my medical history. The staff psychiatrist was an older man. And he was like, “I don’t know what that is.” And so, I tried to explain it again, probably in a maniacal, pressured speech way. And he was like, “Well, it sounds like you’re a danger to society.”
Bamford: He admitted me to the psych ward for 10 days. And he signed a thing holding me for 7 more days. And that’s what the psych ward is like in terms of the powerlessness it can cause.
Just because this older doctor doesn’t know about this certain type of new development in mental health, you can’t get out. Not everybody knows about the different OCD variants, but you can’t explain it to them. That was very funny—in retrospect. (laughs)
Bamford: I don’t know what the equivalent in physical health would be. Maybe, “And then I did my knee in, but it’s fine now.”
Cooper: “Is it? Is your knee fine? Does it hurt when I do this?”
Bamford: Yeah, exactly. “We’re going to have to keep that in a cast. You cannot leave the facility.”
Cooper: That’s the problem with psychiatry. It’s saved so many people’s lives, but the history of treatment also has a dark side.
Bamford: I think it’s interesting to read about people who are now choosing to live with their symptoms asking, “Why is psychosis a side effect of my illness? And why do I have to be medicated for that?” I read a powerful article about ayahuasca, a plant-based drink used by the indigenous people of South America. Shamans there use it to heal people during religious ceremonies.
Cooper: Is it psychedelic? Mushrooms or something?
Bamford: Yeah, it’s like that. I think it lasts for about 24 hours. I guess they’re saying it helps with PTSD, addiction and depression. I guess when a person has gotten ECT (electro convulsive therapy) or meds and nothing’s worked, some people say ayahuasca sometimes works for at least a short time.
Cooper: I want to get into a little bit of you as a young person. I know you said your mother had… are you OK?
Bamford: Just a minute. I’m going to pour more coffee into my coffee cup, even though it probably seems like I don’t need any more.
Cooper: (laughs) You know what it says on the bottom of your cup? It says, “Help me, I’m being held captive.”
Bamford: (laughs) No, I’m at the delightful Hampton Inn. It’s so wonderful.
Cooper: Do you have a range of places you typically stay? Do you ever get to stay at the Ritz Carltons of the world?
Bamford: At this point in my career, things can change at any moment. I never know when the gravy will begin or end. I am paid well enough right now that I will cover the cost of my own hotel stays. I always go with Hampton Inn. At fancier hotels, you usually pay extra for wi-fi, breakfast, coffee, etc. Hampton Inn has free coffee! You’ve always got a pool. It’s always accessible. They always have a dipper. They always have a gym and the “pour a cup-o-waffle breakfast” too.
Cooper: Free parking too!
Bamford: Yes. That’s what I like to do. Anyway, you were talking youth.
Cooper: When did you realize that you were having some mental health issues?
Bamford: I had a little notebook, and I called them “The fears.” I would write down things that I was thinking. I stopped being able to sleep at night at around 8 or 9 years old because I started having the Intrusive Thoughts OCD fear that I was going to harm people. That’s called harm OCD. It’s a thing. You can get help for it though. There are many different types of OCD. There’s POCD, pedophile OCD, fear that you’re a pedophile. People who start avoiding things, you avoid your own children because you’re afraid. There’s sexual orientation OCD, where you fear that you’re not the sexual identity you say you are. Whatever humans worry about, there’s a type of OCD for it.
It started to really affect me. I was also able to ameliorate fears and also depression, just feeling down. I think when I was around 10, I developed bulimia. On some level I think the eating disorder behaviors medicated me. It helped me to manage my mood. I think back, and I remember the first time I told my mom, “I can’t sleep at night because I’m afraid I’m going to hurt you guys.” She was like, “OK, all right.”
Cooper: (laughs) I shouldn’t laugh, I’m sorry.
Bamford: No, no. It was hilarious. She goes, “It’s OK if you’re gay.” I thought, “Is that what that means?” Anyway, she sent me to a Christian therapist. Which was, again, so funny. I would just fall asleep on the therapist’s couch because that was the only time that I was able to sleep. But she gave me one of the most disturbing books I have ever read in my life. It was an allegory. It was popular in the ’70s. “Hinds Feet on High Places.” The main character was a little girl called “Much-Afraid.” And guess what? Much-Afraid is “crippled”, she’s unattractive, her family hates her, and no one will help her. — What!?!
And then the local shepherd comes in, guess who that is? Jesus Christ. He comes in and says, “Hey Much-Afraid, if you do everything I tell you to do, I’ll make you beautiful, abled and we’ll get to go to this place where you won’t have to see your family ever again.” It’s such a bizarre book. I cannot even—It was like a V.C. Andrews book, but with none of the plot.
Bamford: I think the next mental health thing happened when I was 16 and very depressed. My parents got calls from school saying, “Hey, your daughter’s sleeping all day at school.” So, my dad did something that helped me. He enrolled me in Dale Carnegie training courses on how to win friends and influence people. I think I must have gotten into some sort of hypo-manic phase because that really flipped a switch. They have little games on how to talk to people. You learn to use their names and complement people like, “Chet, I love that shirt on you. God, that’s a cool color.
Cooper: Nice of you to notice.
Bamford: I learned all these, sort of systems of how to create—not actual intimacy—but it’s kind of the same. It was kind of like playing a video game. And I did that for the rest of high school, and I was able to keep it together. But then it all—Well, I called a suicide hotline after my second year of college, I think. And then I got into 12-steps groups, and that helped me stop the bulimia. That helped a lot to stop that behavior. And then I got on meds for the first time.
Cooper: So, your grades were, OK? Once you went through Dale Carnegie you weren’t sleeping as much in class?
Bamford: It was kind of like surges where I’d be like, “I’m a great student.” At artsy things, I got better grades. I wasn’t a terrible student, but I also wasn’t a great student. I liked public speaking. I always ran for office. I liked being a brain-dead megaphone.
Cooper: “More nap time! More nap time!”
Bamford: (laughs) Yeah! I think my campaign speech for one year was, “I’ve been here the whole time!” (laughs) And I had been. (laughs)
Cooper: What did you take?
Bamford: Mostly literature classes. I just liked to read. That’s something I could do. I took rhetoric, but that meant disagreeing with people, which is uncomfortable.
Cooper: I don’t agree with that.
Bamford: Well, exactly, and that’s OK. (laughs) I ended up getting a degree in creative writing from the University of Minnesota. I went through treatment for mental health as well as eating disorder issues in an outpatient thing when I was 19. That was a funny insurance story.
I was still under my parents’ insurance. At the time, my dad worked at a clinic. A fellow doctor there, a friend of our family, was the insurance administrator. He called me at college and said, “So I hear you want to do this outpatient treatment thing. You looked great at Christmas! You looked great!” I thought to myself, “Is that a new diagnosis, looking great at Christmas?”
Cooper: (laughs) Some things people say or maybe even what they think, who knows? I did read that your father was a dermatologist, and your mother was a therapist. What kind of therapist?
Bamford: Marriage and family therapist. She studied to do that after we left the house. Would have been great to get some of those details earlier. But no. And she really learned a lot and really changed. You know when somebody’s able to change, she was able to. She had never been able to apologize when we were younger. She had episodes of—it wasn’t straight-out—it definitely wasn’t mania, but it was this hyper-cleanliness around the house. Like, the idea that you’ve got to have the sheet between yourself and the quilt. So, while you’re sleeping, make sure the sheet stays there because your skin has oils, Chet. Your skin has oils. That level of—should I not come home? (laughs)
Cooper: (laughs) You can come home, but leave your oils behind?
Bamford: Am I leaving a slick everywhere? It was really wonderful that later, after going through school, she was able to say, whenever she did something that somebody was hurt by, she’d go, [sighs] “Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry.” It’s a hilarious way to apologize, but it is an apology, so that’s good.
Cooper: I remember that one of my grandparents in New York, on my father’s side, all of the furniture was sealed in plastic. Do you remember those days?
Bamford: Of course.
Cooper: Did your mother go through that stage?
Bamford: She didn’t do that, but I had this feeling, a sense I got, that I was kind of a grime. Like, my presence was dirty. Like she was saying, “So if you could just sit over there?” (laughs). I don’t know how true that was, and that was probably only in my own mind. She had a certain standard for cleanliness, and she had eating disorder stuff too. Like, she monitored our bodies and her own body weight. My mom wrote down her weight I think every day of her life. I think even when she was dying, which was very strange.
Cooper: I don’t know how to put it, but you seem to have a self-awareness in that you know that there’s something odd and you’re going to take some positive action. Where other people would just spiral in the oddness and not seek some other form of reality.
Bamford: If you mean—I don’t know. You mean self-absorbed?
Cooper: Self-awareness, not absorbed in the negative sense, I guess I was getting at whether you’ve done any work. I was wondering if you’ve done any work where you are evaluating your thought processes?
Bamford: Oh, for sure. But I almost feel like therapy and stuff can have a religious bent to it, in terms of people saying, “Oh, have you done the real work?” Sometimes people can get judgmental, thinking if you had more self-knowledge you’d feel better. I live in LA, where it’s like, “Well, you’re feeling bad. Have you really ironed out the resentments you have towards your grandfather?” I love emotional sudoku. I love the “Dungeons and Dragons” that is a 12-step program. I love all that shit, where it’s like, “Oh! Maybe I’m changing myself.” Probably not. I’m probably the same person. (laughs)
Cooper: So, you said you did 12-step?
I’ve had experiences with people who are spiritual or who have emotional intelligence and sometimes it becomes, like, competitive. (laughs) Or there’s a feeling I get from some that that’s the only answer to overcoming an illness. An actual mental health thing. I do tons of that stuff. I love that stuff. Yay!
But I also think those therapeutic needs can be met in many other ways too. If you have good people in your life, you’re getting feedback from them, and you’re feeling supported, that counts. It’s all good. I think sometimes it’s like, “You’ve got to go to a mental health provider or a NAMI [National Alliance for the Mentally Ill] group.” I don’t know if that’s for everybody.
Cooper: I think the reason I started thinking about your self-awareness was because you mentioned that your mother got a degree in family therapy & counseling and she did grow and was able to say, “I’m sorry.” I was thinking about how we can sometimes look into ourselves.
Bamford: And change it, for sure. That was amazing. I didn’t think my mother would ever change on that front. It’s difficult for people to change. For example, I still illegally park. I love to do it. I’ve done some writing about parking habits. It’s that gambling feeling, a sense of excitement, of entitlement. Why shouldn’t I be able to park here? Because there’s a fire hydrant, Maria. Or it’s because I’m a sloth. I don’t want to find parking. Or it’s being miserly, I don’t want to pay for parking. I do pay for it I guess, through tickets. (laughs) I’m OK with that.
I haven’t been able to get myself to change. So, it’s amazing to me that anybody is able to change their perspectives.
Cooper: How did you get involved with voiceover and animation?
Bamford: I don’t know. I worked as a secretary at an animation studio, and that’s how I got my first voiceover job. I think because I do different voices in my stand-up. I think stand-up can help in terms of having a good sense of humor and having the ability to improvise or add something. I think that’s why I’ve gotten voiceover roles. It’s my favorite. You are alone in a booth. There’s just a voice telling you what to say. They’re usually very kind and complimentary because it is Los Angeles, and it is show business. So, they’re like, “Great, Maria! Can we do that again?” (laughs)
Cooper: (laughs) “Perfect! One more take.”
Bamford: “Perfect. Seventeen more takes. We love it. Again, could you pace it up?” I love it.