Early in the first episode of her new Netflix show Lady Dynamite, comedian Maria Bamford tells her overeager agent that she would like to be “less ambitious,” or “maybe not ambitious, anymore.”
The irony is that Lady Dynamite is undoubtedly the most ambitious project Bamford, one of America’s most compelling stand-up comics for more than two decades, has ever attempted. Her last major comedy special was performed in her living room for an audience of two: Her parents.
As Bamford explains in a phone interview on her way to the airport after a whirlwind one-night trip from her Los Angeles home to New York, she didn’t quite realize how exhausting it would be to create and star in her own comedy series. After being diagnosed as bipolar a few years ago and checking herself into a psych ward, Bamford had decided she needed to slow down.
She stopped traveling internationally and would only go out on tour for one or two nights at a time. And when it came time to shoot Lady Dynamite, she decided to take less money in exchange for a minimum 12-hour turnaround at night.
“I couldn’t do a 15-hour day,” Bamford says, referencing the typical daily shoot time for television shows of this kind. “If we have a second season, I may ask for a 15-hour turnaround,” she adds. “And for my part to be partly played by lizards, a series of lizards,” she jokes, cracking herself up.
“It’s to preserve mental health,” Bamford continues, explaining that her doctor told her the less sleep she gets, the more her manic depression will intrude on her life, causing her to be increasingly more “agitated.”
Like the real Bamford, the Maria of Lady Dynamite boomerangs back and forth between excitable highs and more contemplative lows, weaving surreal hallucinatory scenes and stylized flashbacks into the complex narrative.
When we travel back in time to her stay in the mental health facility, the color palette turns gray and drab. Scenes from the period before her breakdown are shot with bright hues that resemble another Netflix show, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. But unlike Ellie Kemper’s Kimmy Schmidt, Bamford is no bright-eyed sitcom ingenue.
“I have a show?” Bamford asks in the pilot’s opening minutes, following a brief fantasy sequence in which she is the star of a hair product commercial. “I’m a 45-year-old woman who’s clearly sun-damaged,” she says directly into the camera. “My skin is getting softer, yet my bones are jutting out, so I’m half-soft, half-sharp. And I have a show! What a great late-in-life opportunity!”
Lady Dynamite was co-created by Pam Brady, a longtime South Park producer and Mitch Hurwitz, who previously cast Bamford as Tobias Fünke’s methadone clinic love interest in Season Four of Arrested Development.
As Bamford puts it, her show combines the “sauciness” of the former with the “goofiness” of the latter. One could imagine over-the-top characters like Fred Melamed’s needy agent or Ana Gasteyer’s feisty manager existing in the Arrested Development universe while episodes that skewer open-carry gun advocates and the way sitcoms deal with race evoke South Park’s unpredictable politics.
“I was just grateful that anyone wanted to do a show with me,” Bamford says of Hurwitz and Brady, as well as the many comedian friends she recruited to appear as guest stars, including Patton Oswalt and Brian Posehn, who co-starred with her in the legendary 2005 stand-up documentary The Comedians of Comedy.
“To have people that I admire, creatively and personally, be able to do the show was so wonderful,” Bamford says. “I don’t think I realized what hard work making TV is. I don’t know why I didn’t take that in, but now I get it.”
As for why she decided to make her own mental health struggles such a big part of her show, Bamford says, “I feel like, as a human being, one of my main experiences has been that experience.” She reveals that part of what “made it more difficult” for her is that she didn’t know anyone else going through the same thing.
“Whenever I found out that someone, whether it’s a public figure or somebody in my personal life told me that they had experiences similar to mine, I felt so much relief,” Bamford says. “So I think, I would like to provide that for somebody else. It’s definitely becoming less and less of a stigma than it was, which is so great.”
Soon, she hopes mental health will become a “hack premise” for comedians, in the same way that jokes about race and gender have to be a lot smarter now than they used to be. “Oh yeah, I guess you’re bipolar schizophrenic and you’re trans and you’re Korean,” Bamford imagines people saying. “We’ve seen it.”