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Maria Bamford Needed Help — With Her Mental Health, and Making ‘Lady Dynamite’

Maria Bamford Needed Help — With Her Mental Health, and Making 'Lady Dynamite'

If there’s one unifying theme to today’s pop culture, it’s that most taboo subjects, from sexuality to religion, are no longer out of bounds for open discussion. For “Lady Dynamite” star Maria Bamford, that means free reign to explore her own struggle with being bipolar.

“Lady Dynamite” stars Bamford as a version of herself, looking to restart her career after being institutionalized in her hometown of Duluth, Minn. “It’s no Hallmark movie of the week,” Bamford said.

That’s because while Hallmark might not shy away from tackling such subject matter, it would never dare to be as post-modern and mind-bending, self-reflexive as “Lady Dynamite.” The comedy follows shows like “You’re the Worst” in unflinchingly focusing on the issue of mental health, but on a scale beyond nearly anything that’s come before.

READ MORE: Exclusive ‘Lady Dynamite’ Season 1 Poster Gets Inside Maria Bamford’s Head

Bamford shot the show last summer in a Northeast Los Angeles studio, where her L.A. neighborhood (Highland Park) was re-created on stage. Carrying a new sitcom is high pressure for anyone, but for Bamford, probably best known for her head-turning guest star work in the fourth season of “Arrested Development,” it’s been a particularly challenging learning process.

“Stand-up, I really liked it because of the control,” she said. “You can do whatever you want, say whatever you want. I’ve never worked with other people, so it was really exciting to collaborate. And terrifying. I mean, relatively. There are much more things that are much more terrifying. Such as ISIS.”
It helps that “Arrested” creator Mitch Hurwitz is executive producing. “Lady Dynamite” came out of conversations with Hurwitz, who had a development deal with Netflix. He then brought sitcom veteran Pam Brady on board as a co-creator.

“I had a lot of free salad on behalf of Mitch Hurwitz,” Bamford laughed. “We started talking about what the story could be, and I had a bipolar experience and I was like, ‘Well, I’d like to tell that story. Yeah, that would be interesting for me.'” 

The show also attracted a who’s who of comedians to guest star, including Patton Oswalt, Sarah Silverman, John Mulaney, Tig Notaro, Adam Pally, Ana Gasteyer, Jenny Slate and June Diane Raphael, all of whom were drawn to Bamford and the show’s unconventional take on her life.

Figuring out how to make a television show wasn’t necessarily easy for Bamford, even on the page. “I got really anxious and I was like, ‘Oh! I want to rewrite an episode.’ And then we read it out loud and it was so clunky. The way I’d written it, it was like, giant monologues! Like David Mamet. It was definitely not good.”

She ultimately came to enjoy the experience “of learning to trust somebody else… I’m so protective of my own ideas, of like, ‘[laughs] I think I know what’s…’ And then it’s like, oh, you know, it turns out that [the new idea is] hilarious.”

Part of Bamford’s original motivation for making the show, she said, was to create an easier schedule for herself. That took an ironic turn: “What matters to me is no international travel and [being able to] work less… But in doing this, I succeeded in creating a twelve-hour day. Which is hilarious. I think it’s very funny. We’re going to write that into the script — the episode [where] I slowly don’t have the energy to do my own show.” 

READ MORE: 7 New Netflix Shows to Binge Watch in May 2016 (And the Best Episodes of Each)

As Indiewire visited the set of “Lady Dynamite” last summer, Bamford was filming a scene featured in the show’s first full trailer, in which she accidentally stumbles into the wrong audition. Rather than try to recreate the exact same energy from take to take, Bamford hit different notes of awkward and brash each time.

It was conceptually a funny scene, but at the time and out of context, a bit perplexing. Now, there’s something about it which just makes sense, and speaks to the power of comedy, especially for people who feel out of sync, for whom unfortunate choices or personal setbacks can lead to a special sort of greatness. If only because it allows an open discussion of these issues.

“I feel that it’s helped so much for me,” Bamford said, “The cover of People magazine with Catherine Zeta-Jones or Demi Lovato saying, ‘I’m bipolar!’ I was like, you know, that’s so nice to know that about people. Like, okay, so, being hospitalized isn’t this devastating, horrifying thing. It’s like, oh, it can just be like appendicitis or something. I’ve appreciated it when people have done that, so I’d like to do that as well.”

Also, Bamford looks at this area as her wheelhouse. “It’s the material I have, frankly,” she laughed. “It’s a little bit of sloth. Light sloth. ‘Maria, why aren’t you telling a story about exploration in Antarctica?’ That would take research, you guys.”

“Lady Dynamite” Season 1 premieres Friday on Netflix.

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