Maria Bamford Channels Her Mom to Advise You

The comedian, who stars in the new Netflix series "Lady Dynamite," helps solve our listeners' pug problems, hairdresser dilemmas, and more... with a little help from her Mom (sort of).

(Photo Credit: Piper Ferguson)

Rico Gagliano: Each week you send in your questions about how to behave, and here to answer them this time is Maria Bamford. She is one of the comedy world’s most beloved and original voices — and is also, by the way, a master at using her voice.

In her web series, “The Maria Bamford Show,” she played dozens of people in her own life, from her high school tormentors to her very Minnesotan parents. She is known for upending comedy standards, like by speaking pretty candidly about her struggles of anxiety and depression in the midst of a comedy set.

Maria’s new project is a candy-colored, hilariously absurd, kinda-sorta-semi-autobiographical series called “Lady Dynamite.” It just premiered on Netflix, and, Maria, it’s a joy to have you.

Maria Bamford: Thank you so much for having me on this program, [rolling her R’s] Rrrrrico.

Rico Gagliano: Thank you. And Brendan as well, right?

Maria Bamford: And Brendan.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah; hellooo.

Maria Bamford: Well, the thing is, is I can’t see you.

Rico Gagliano: That’s right, Brendan is in another studio today.

Maria Bamford: But that doesn’t mean that you’re not there. It’s just like God.

Brendan Francis Newnam: But you could roll the “dan.” Brrrrendan.

Maria Bamford: [Rolling her R’s] Brrrrendan. [Lowers her voice] Or I could say it in a…

(Photo Credit: Natalie Brasington)
(Photo Credit: Natalie Brasington)

Brendan Francis Newnam: Oh, wait.

Maria Bamford: In a more serious way — [much more seriously] Brendan.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Oh, that was your public radio voice!

Maria Bamford: That’s my public radio voice!

Rico Gagliano: So why aren’t you hosting this show? That’s our first question.

Maria Bamford: The thing is… fundraising, it’s very difficult. I’m not very good at getting people to give me money.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, that’s not true, because you have this new show on Netflix, and we want to talk to you about it.

Maria Bamford: Well, it’s all through… when you’re passively disinterested. You know, have you had that experience where — in show business or in life — whenever you want something, then nobody cares? But then, when you don’t want it, then everyone’s interested.

Rico Gagliano: Yeah. So, you didn’t look for this show? It just appeared, kind of?

Maria Bamford: Well, it’s funny. Like, yeah, I wasn’t feeling very well. You know, I’d just gotten over a breakdown, a mental breakdown. And I was like, [in a mopey voice] “If somebody wants to buy me a salad in Brentwood, I’ll go. OK. Oh, we’re going to have another salad? OK.”

Rico Gagliano: And, suddenly, you had a TV show.

Maria Bamford: Well, it was kind of very surprising, you know, just because… show business is like a friend with an alcohol problem. You love her so much, but you just don’t know what her mood’s going to be from day to day. [Drunkedly] “You’re the most beautiful! You’re so pretty! You’re the… get away from me!”

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, that’s part of our question, is you openly struggle with anxiety, and yet you’re returning to show business. Which seems like the last place someone would want to be who has an anxiety problem.

Rico Gagliano: And that’s kind of what the show is about.

Maria Bamford: Yes. That is what it’s about. Because I do have fantasies of becoming an administrative assistant at a non-profit… as if that would solve things [laughs]. I’ve actually done that — I have been an administrative assistant — and it’s just as anxiety-provoking as show business. But it’s for eight hours. It’s an eight-hour show.

Rico Gagliano: Yeah, rather than show business, which is about a half hour a day.

Maria Bamford: It’s about a half hour a day. You get in, you get out, if it’s a bad show, forget about it!

Brendan Francis Newnam: They shoot it in real time? That’s interesting. I had no idea.

Maria Bamford: Yeah [laughs].

Brendan Francis Newnam: So, in this series, one of the characters is your Minnesotan mom.

Maria Bamford: Yes.

Brendan Francis Newnam: You’re known for doing this amazing impression of her, and, in fact, in your web series, you portrayed her…

Maria Bamford: Yes.

Brendan Francis Newnam: But here, you had to cast someone else to do it…

Maria Bamford: Yes!

Brendan Francis Newnam: So, what were you looking for when casting that character? What is the essence of your mom?

Maria Bamford: Well, just somebody who felt warm and… it was funny, because Mary Kay Place is also Episcopalian, and also has, like, a lot of energy like my mom. So when they first met, they spent about two hours together, alone, at Mary Kay Place’s trailer, just chit-chatting. Chit-chatting about spirituality and things like that.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Were you jealous?

Maria Bamford: Not at all.

Rico Gagliano: Well Maria, maybe you can bring some of your mom-ly wisdom to our listeners’ etiquette questions.

Maria Bamford: Oh, yes. Should I answer as my mother?!!

Rico Gagliano: Maybe she could chime in after you!

Brendan Francis Newnam: She can show up. What is your mother’s first name, in case she shows up?

Maria Bamford: Her name is Marilyn Halverson Bamford.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Wow, that’s very Episcopalian-sounding.

Maria Bamford: [Imitating her mom:] Well, originally, I was raised Methodist, which was with the, you know, little cups of grape juice passed around. But then I became a deacon in the Episcopal Church, and I am a licensed marriage and family therapist, though I no longer practice. But I love to give advice.

Rico Gagliano: See? So there you go. Your mom is eminently qualified.

Brendan Francis Newnam: We’re going to ask this first question to Maria, though.

Maria Bamford: Yes, of course.

Passive-aggressive pug pal problems

Brendan Francis Newnam: And it comes from Andrew in Harrisville, Rhode Island. Andrew writes: “Dear Maria, if you’re a pug owner, and a friend says they don’t like pugs, how appropriate is it to not kick them out of your life? I feel guilty having a friend who says they don’t like Pugs. Is holding a grudge and being passive-aggressive towards them a fair enough compromise?”

Rico Gagliano: You’re a big pug fan.

Maria Bamford: OK: In 2004, I declared it the “No Friend Left Behind Act.” So I say you let them have that experience of not liking pugs. You’re not always going to be having your pug. There’s some severe, Draconian NDA laws — No Dog Allowed laws — that are still enacted. So, you’re going to have times when you’re without your pug, and you’re going to have your great friend.Who, yeah, is shitty about Pugs.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So, you’re offering pug-hate amnesty?

Maria Bamford: Yeah. Just don’t bring up the pug! Just, like, talk about things that you have a good time with. Do you go to the Trina Turk outlet store and look at pants? Is that something you guys do together?

Rico Gagliano: Andrew’s not here to respond, but I’ll bet he does.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, what if you’re with that friend, and a pug walks by, and they say something mean about that pug?

Maria Bamford: OK. Well, that’s disrespectful.

Rico Gagliano: Maria, your face just turned on a dime.

Maria Bamford: Yeah. I think then you can say how you feel. Say, “Hey” — and of course, you say “I” statements — “When you diss pugs in my presence, I feel hurt.”

And that’s uncomfortable. And that’s what intimacy is built on, is discomfort. Rich intimacy.

Brendan Francis Newnam: All right.

Rico Gagliano: There you go, Andrew. Good luck.

Handling chatty hairdressers

Brendan Francis Newnam: Good luck with that. So, this next question comes from Sheel in St. Louis.

Maria Bamford: Sheel?

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah, S-H-E-E-L.

Rico Gagliano: It’s a cool one.

Maria Bamford: Beautiful.

Brendan Francis Newnam: And the question is: “What should you talk about with your hairdresser?”

Maria Bamford: Wow. OK, well, this is what happens with me with hairdressers. What I do is I switch hairdressers almost every month.

I cannot bear to tell them that I don’t want to talk at all. I never want to talk. I just want to read my booky-book. I’m getting sleepy with all the chemicals. And although I love this Netflix product, “Grace & Frankie,” I don’t know if I need to hear their interpretation at that time of what’s going to happen in the next season.

I just say keep switching hairdressers. It’s like switching shampoo, switching up your shampoos so you don’t get too much buildup. You don’t want to get too much buildup.

Rico Gagliano: Emotional buildup.

Brendan Francis Newnam: I think that’s a good answer for Sheel, but what would your mom say?

Maria Bamford: [As her mom] Well, I have a wonderful hairdresser, and his name’s Jesse, and he lives half the year in Palm Springs. So, I don’t always see him, but I would just say, “How are you?! Tell me what is going on in that incredible life of yours!” He’s a gay man, and he also teaches Pilates. And he is just fun.

Brendan Francis Newnam: [Laughing] Wow, we should have him on to do etiquette next time!

Rico Gagliano: Yeah, or your mom! How about both of them?

Maria Bamford: She… oh, my God! My mom is a dee-light.

Rico Gagliano: Really?

Maria Bamford: I want to be a slow bleed into my mother. I have the suit. I just have to put on about 20, 30 more pounds, which would be very easy.

Because she’s such a happy lady. She enjoys things so much. [As her mom] “Oh, gosh, I was just down at the liquor store at the end of your block, and there was a darling guy, Singh! He’s Punjabi! And he had these beautiful blue eyes! It was like, I talked to him about… we went to Turkey, and I just told him about our trip, and we just laughed! We just laughed!

Disclosing mental illness to dates

Rico Gagliano: There you go, Sheel. You can either chat up your hairdresser like that or change your hairdresser monthly. Here is something from Anonymous in Brooklyn, New York, and he asks, “How do you reveal your mental illness to a potential boyfriend or girlfriend?”

Maria Bamford: Well, I prefer to just have it available on iTunes.

I mean, everybody, we all Google each other as soon as we start dating. I mean, by the sixth date, people seem to have — if they have some web presence — they’ve looked it up, right?

Rico Gagliano: Right. So you’re saying, just make that part of your web presence, so they find it on their own?

Maria Bamford: You could make it part of your web presence.

Or, I would say the third date is not a bad time to bring out your medications necklace — you know, that has engraved on it your full prescription — and then you say…

I don’t know, just bring it up! Because I think it is important for people to know that. Because some people are not on board. I had a gentleman who I dated for two months, and he knew that I had those issues, but I think he knew about them as though they were…

Rico Gagliano: …Like, “adorable?”

Maria Bamford: “Well-written.”

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah, part of your character. Like you’re just a great actor, yeah.

Maria Bamford: But when I actually said, “Oh gosh, yeah. I think I’m having a mood problem right now. I’m going to go see my psychiatrist,” he was like, “Oh, God! Oh, is this a thing? Oh, no!”

Rico Gagliano: This is reality.

Maria Bamford: So, I think it’s good to say it date three. Let him bow out early. Because everybody’s got something!

And I say, if you have somebody who tells you what their stuff is by the second or third date? Like, who knows what their deal is? That’s amazing.

Rico Gagliano: Oh, right, instead of you having to excavate it over the course of years or something.

Maria Bamford: Oh, my lord!

Brendan Francis Newnam: Or, just, you’re with someone who actually has self-knowledge.

Maria Bamford: Yeah, and says, “Here are the things about me that are not the greatest.”

You know, like, one of the things that was so romantic to me: My husband shared with me exactly how much debt he had. He shared his credit report. And I was like… I was so relieved that he knew what that was.

Rico Gagliano: Sure.

Maria Bamford: Like, so many people are completely in the dark about it. Just somebody who’s clear on what’s going on, that’s a relief to me.

Rico Gagliano: By the way, what date was that, that he brought out the credit report?

Maria Bamford: [laughing] I think that was three months in.

Brendan Francis Newnam: It was the honeymoon!

Maria Bamford: Yeah. Because I love that kind of stuff. I listen to “Marketplace.” [Maria sings a few bars of the “Marketplace” theme song.]

Rico Gagliano: Sure. I think he could sense that in you. He was like, “This is a lady who’s going to appreciate it.”

Maria Bamford: Yeah. I do my own bookkeeping, and I’ve been audited by the IRS. Guess what, they owed me $25 bucks! Ka-blam!

Rico Gagliano: Nice.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Hello!

Rico Gagliano: That’s because you listen to “Marketplace.”

Brendan Francis Newnam: I-R-hell-yeS!

Rico Gagliano: There you go.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Thank you, Maria.

Rico Gagliano: Thanks, Maria, for telling our audience how to behave.

Maria Bamford: Thank you for having me.