Maria Bamford Was Doing Socially Distant Comedy Before Coronavirus

The comedian spoke with VICE about her latest special, doing one-on-one comedy shows, and getting Zoombombed.
April 8, 2020, 7:55pm
Maria Bamford Standup Special Weakness is Brand
Screenshot via Amazon

Maria Bamford's normal voice sounds like what many of our inside, quarantined voices probably sound like: slightly erratic, grumpy at times, and then suddenly arguing with other people who aren't actually there, playing both roles in the debate. She's a fitting comedic narrator for our shut-in times.

The 49 year-old's comedy brain and style is on full display in her latest special, Weakness is the Brand, released in January 2020, in which she talks candidly about mental health, married life, and using cultural issues as romantic role playing scenarios.

In one apparent impromptu bit, Bamford comforts an audience member for trying to participate in a question she's thrown out, despite not having an answer prepared. In an infomercial-ly voice, Bamford says, "And by helping, sometimes we harm." In another voice, she replies to her, "I should know, I'm a white woman!" She often pops into other voices, including this one, which is rather Karen-esque. Bamford was not aware of the "Karen is a slur" controversy, but told VICE, "If that's the case, 'Steve' needs to step up because I've heard a lot about a guy named 'Steve,' who was not a cool dude."

Though her last special is filmed in front of a traditional audience, Bamford has been performing for small and socially distant crowds, most notably in her 2014 special, The Special Special Special, which she performs for a crowd of just her parents, and sections of Old Baby, a 2017 special performed across multiple venues, such as park benches and bowling alleys. She'd also been meeting fans, one-on-one, to run bits at coffee shops, by posting her current zip code and available time on Twitter.

VICE caught up with Bamford this week on a Zoom call, because that's how people communicate now.

VICE: First of all, how's it going? How are you doing in shut-in time?
Keep it together, keep it together, keep it together. (laughs) Doing good. Yeah. Just trying to have some kind of structure to the day. I was already an introverted-type person, so I did spend time alone, but it's been a challenge even for an introvert.

How has the response been for the new special?
Oh, very good. I mean, it seems positive, of course. I think it's the nature of the internet that the positive is all directed towards you. I mean, I'm sure I could find the negative somewhere on YouTube. But it has been very positive. First I was doing Zoom shows one on one, which is what I've done before. And then I thought, 'Oh, you can add 100 people; so I was like, 'Oh, that's great.' I think I did maybe like 8, I was just doing them every day so however the thing's been going on, and then I got Zoombombed!

It would be so much more powerful if they did it slowly in a build-up over time. Like if it was just a flash to violent anal sex videos. Just where you're like, 'hey, what?' And then bring in the racial slurs like a little bit. Like, 'Hey, guys, come on, shut it down.' And then go personal into 'ugly old slut and a whore,' which you just have to be curious about, because how can you be a slut and extremely unattractive? I mean, it does happen, but you think there's some attractiveness there. I mean, if you're getting that much.

So the issue is that they're bringing out all the courses at once when they should be-
Yeah, they're closing as they start. (laughs) I mean, they didn't ask for a critique. And maybe I should keep my thoughts to myself.

Weakness Is the Brand was filmed in front of a traditional live audience. How does that feel, when your previous work looks like it was performed with social distancing rules in mind?
They were just the rules of how much I could handle at the time. The reason I did it for my parents because I was too tired, I didn't have the energy to do a big show, I just felt like that'd be overwhelming. And then the reason I did it for different amounts of people on a second special [_Old Baby_], I just think it's funny how it's all in context, whether people consider something stand up comedy.

I had a friend who always tells me this story. Well, not always. Once a year, she'll bring it out. She'll say, [shifts to Karen voice] "When I first met you, it was like 'oh you're a comedian, ok good for you.' And then went to go see you at an open mic and I was like, 'Oh, well, good for—yeah. I mean, I guess everybody has hobbies.' And then I saw you this other show, and there were more people there and I was like, 'Oookay.' Then I saw you in New York, and a thousand people people in the audience. I was like, 'you really have something here.''"

I'd say roughly counting, that's probably the voice you use outside of your normal voice the most. How would you describe that voice?
Well, it's a part of me. So it's a part of me that is a 50 year old, privileged white lady who just, you know, (goes into the voice) 'You know what I've stopped doing? I've stopped eating sugar and white flour. And I have SO much energy right now. I mean, can I tell you?' (in a whisper-yell) Shuuuut uuuup! I think it's a voice that's just lower so that people listen. My own voice is high and squeaky for the most part and I've heard, irritating to some.

Can you tell me when you decided to first try out meeting people in person to run jokes like at coffee shops?
Human beings for the most part, I would say, —let's go with 96%— are lovely. And I'd worn out my friends in rehearsing my bits for them. They're like, 'yeah, I've heard it. I don't care if you pay me 75 bucks. I cannot hear that nonsense again.' And so I just thought, 'Oh, I need to rehearse. I can't do it by myself, who might enjoy this or at least might pass the time for them? Maybe someone within five miles of my zip code that I'm currently standing in. Especially if I buy them some food, would they sit through this?' It's been a really lovely experience for me because I feel somehow more connected. You can talk with somebody, meet somebody very easily. I mean, everybody's very interesting, human beings are inherently bizarre, and I get to rehearse.

I need to remember how to do my job otherwise I will forget. I wish I were a genius. But that is not the case. So and yeah, I just did it once off Twitter and it was so fun that I just kept doing it. The last one I did was right before quarantine came down in New York City with somebody in Manhattan, at a diner. We met and we did the elbow touching thing which I don't think people even do that anymore.

Did you run more than one show to cut together the special?
We did two shows. And I think it's mostly from the second show, because the first show they didn't have the air conditioning and it was so hot, I was just dripping sweat.

Have you seen anything encouraging that other comedians are doing in terms of experimenting, not being able to do spots in person?
Well, I've been super inspired by a bunch of lady comics I talk to on my text feed, just helping each other. I've definitely gotten some help. Carmen Morales is a comic, she's my neighbor, and she taught me all this stuff about Zoom and hosted the show for me yesterday so that I wouldn't get Zoombombed. Ian Abramson is doing the thing for SNL writers out of a job so he made a series of short videos put together, and I know they just had the benefit for Comedy Gives Back. John Krasinski's Good News Network, that's wonderful. I really thought that was so funny and lovely.

To pay to go see a show online, which of course isn't everything a live show is, is very gracious and kindly, hearing the laughs is so, so nice. I refunded a bunch of people's money from yesterday's show because some people couldn't hear because of the laughs because other people didn't have their headphones. Anyways, I'm not understanding the science of it, or the technical parts of it. But I guess the thing is, I can only have a shill. I'm gonna have one person laughing who has headphones on. They're going to be my Ed McMahon or my plant.

Maria Bamford's newest special, Weakness is the Brand is now available for purchase all major platforms.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.