Maria Bamford: "Don't hurt yourself with comedy."
By Candice Wheeler @thediceler
Everyone remembers their first show at Acme. I was spolied because mine was Pete Lee – a hilarious, carefree guy from Wisconsin with the BIGGEST heart. The night was like nothing I had ever endured before. Descending down the stairs into the quant, cozy basement of the North Loop’s Itasca building felt like something out of a storybook. I brought along Nate, the friend I always seem to laugh the hardest with, and I’m so happy I got to experience my first Acme show with him. After downing a couple “Bob Hopes” in the atrium, we settled into our seats in the club as “Where is my Mind” by the Pixies jolted through the speakers. Everything just felt fun, and most of all, it felt right. It was one of those moments in my life where I felt I was exactly where I was meant to be, and can’t imagine I was alone in that thought.
As I sat there in awe of the courageous performers in front of me, I wondered what their first time at Acme was like. Though I didn’t have a clue, I knew that they couldn’t have been any less euphoric than my own first time as a comedy fan. For Minnesota born comedian Maria Bamford, her first time jitters dissolved as soon as she settled into her own safe space at Acme – the green room.
“I know I was very nervous,” Bamford said. "I was relieved that there was a friendly green room of comedians’ signatures on the wall and glad that there was good ‘policing’ of the room.”
Now, about 15 years later, Bamford has established herself well in the comedy world through stand-up, acting, producing, and voice acting in a variety of cartoons including my favorite Nickelodeon show growing up: CatDog. (Where my 90s babies at??) Most recently, she’s found success on Netflix with her own series Lady Dynamite and new comedy special Old Baby – two must-see spectacles for any die-hard Maria Bamford fan!
Maria Bamford's up-front personality and tell it like it is attitude is very inspiring to me. Luckily last when she was in town for her University of Minnesota Keynote speech, she gave me some awesome words of wisdom that will probably help me out now more than ever in my career:
“Get the check up front,” she advised.
Maria Bamford graduated with a BA in English at the U of M in ’93. Most of all, she was glad she finished her degree and noted the value in finishing something -- not just college specifically. She said she chose to study creative writing because it was the easiest thing to do in her eyes – something that would require what she described as “the least amount of bummer.”
“I had a short story writing and a playwriting class that both made me realize that they were NOT what I wanted to do,” she said. “That can be extremely helpful.”
Instead of having much U of M contact in school, Bamford said she was more of a “loner” and focused primarily on taking the classes she needed to finish her degree. She broke through creatively by doing one-person shows on her own as well as improv at Stevie Ray’s Comedy Cabaret. She started out in what she called a bit of a “bust era” in comedy with only a few places to perform. In addition to Stevie Ray’s, she graced the Comedy Gallery often, along with a variety of performance art venues like the Southern Theatre.
Though Bamford never had the chance to perform at Acme while she lived in Minneapolis, she said she always heard of it as a great community.
“I’m always delighted to hear the stories about Louis Lee through my good pal Jackie Kashian," she said. "I went to a Chinese seafood place in Vancouver on his recommendation!”
Bamford made a point to talk about how much the comedy scene has changed from when she first started out, and though she doesn’t have a personal experience with homophobia or racism, she said there was definitely a more male sensibility back then.
“I don’t remember many people signed up at open mic, or as many as there are now,” she remembered. “There were “ALL FEMALE” nights where the women comics are ‘ghettoed’ into a group. And that still happens, I’m sure, but with the increase in voices from many young comics, I feel really hopeful that things won’t be so straight and white and male. And I put myself in that group. I would be happy to be replaced by people whose experiences we haven’t yet heard."
One of the things I appreciate most about Maria Bamford is how open and honest she’s been about the things she’s been through in her life. She’s seemed to use her comedy as an outlet to understand herself and her work, and I think that is the strongest thing any person in a creative field can do.
“I guess I haven’t seen any downside to telling people everything,” she said. “That way you don’t have to remember everything or hide anything. Everybody already knows.”
Maria Bamford attributes her success over the years to the immense support she received through groups, family, friends and other comedians – though not always in that order all of the time. Not to mention the many self-help books she recalls borrowing from the Hennepin Public Library in Uptown. Speaking of her parents specifically, Bamford described them as "lovely humans," and said she strives to be more like them in her own life: “They are much less selfish than I am!"
I just finished watching Old Baby before I interviewed Bamford, and that special specifically made me admire how comfortable and unbothered she is performing in front of people. She makes it look easy, but said it wasn’t always that way.
“Now, people are more likely to know what they’ve come to see, but when I started out, I definitely had some harder times with crowds who were (not happily) surprised by the headlining act," she said. "I definitely don’t want to perform for people who don’t want to see me - I’m not for everyone. Don’t hurt yourself with comedy.”
When thinking of the moments that led to major turning points in her life, Bamford said she was given a book called The Artist’s Way by former Minneapolis – St. Paul comic Frank Conniff. But as far as doing anything over or any other way: “I wouldn’t change anything - I’m here today!”
It's nice to hear some real talk directly from someone who fought her fears and truly made herself into something great. As a young person, it's comforting to know that more than any amount of success, the thing Maria Bamford values most are the human relationships she’s made throughout her life, and that’s a piece of advice we should all focus on. Oh, and don't forget to get the check up front, too.
Frank Caliendo: "Louis Lee has always been a guiding light in my career."
By Candice Wheeler @TheDiceler
Appearing at the Woman's Club tomorrow night, all-star comedic impressionist Frank Caliendo has a talent like none other -- a special technique of creating that is stemmed from the antics and behaviors of others, but is uniquely brought to life through his own trademark style. From famous actors, to sports anchors and goofy politicians, Caliendo can impersonate just about anyone in the limelight, and with his deep connection to Minneapolis and Acme Comedy Company specifically, I asked him to share his story of how this all came to be:
"Back then there were clubs here and there, and lots of bad one-nighters," Caliendo remembered back to starting out in the comedy scene. "The first time I ever went up was at a dance club they had shut down for a talent show. I was supposed to host; I had never done anything on stage before. I would tell you more, but I don't remember much more. The trauma has erased it from my memory banks."
After around eight months into his comedy career, Caliendo had a big opportunity that led him to travel from Milwaukee to Minneapolis. He was to comepete in the Aspen Comedy Festival Contest held on none other than our beloved Acme stage.
"Going to perform at Acme was like 10 steps up from most places," he said. "AND Louis gave you free food... comics LOVE free food."
When Louis first told me Frank Caliendo was coming to town, I could hear how impressed he was with this very special impressionist. He described him to me as if he was his own son -- a solid connection that holds true on both sides of the relationship.
"Louis has always been a guiding light in my career," Caliendo said. "He's always been a good friend."
The first time Caliendo met Louis, he remembered seeing him standing in the back of the room, laughing at things and then walking away like Pat Morita as Arnold on "Happy Days." Since then, he's attributed his success greatly to his friendship with Louis.
"He's always had thoughts and ideas that he's shared with me. Usually it takes me about 20 minutes to figure out what he's told me, and then I take that advice and do the exact opposite. It's system that really seems to work well."
Caliendo has another Minnesota connection that he speaks highly of, a man who's been sort of a "guiding light" in my own career, radio Hall of Famer, Tom Barnard of 92 KQRS:
"When I first got on the air, he told me I was great. What's not to like? He actually talked to me as a person and did an interview. So many people just want me to be a jukebox, so it was a blast."
My first year at KQRS, I went to Vegas with the Morning Show and I remember Frank making a special appearance on the show during the live broadcast from the Golden Nugget. It was a great experience and I'm hoping he'll be able to join our show live in the near future.
"There are so many [memories]," Caliendo remembered of his time spent with the KQ Morning Show. "The vegas trips are always a ton of fun, but I'm usually half asleep during them. They seem to go over well... but I don't remember much. Ha! It's like the slogan, I guess."
Frank said he thinks Midwestern sensibilities make comdey the most fun, and that's one of the big reasons why his connection with Minneapolis is special one.
"Minneapolis is one of my favorite places," he said. "Now, I say that about everyplace I go, but I mean it when I say Minneapolis."
I am always curious about what comedians find funny and what they like about comedy. For Caliendo, he says smart writing and sharp delivery are the qualities that make a performance great:
"Some people try to teach with their comedy. I'm not one of those people. I'm about helping people get away; for them to see some silliness. I want people to feel good after having seen a show. As far as what I find funny: timing makes me laugh. Usually when I hear a good line of a good joke I say: "that's good" or "I wish I had thought of that." But a well timed line - that's where I blurt out a laugh."
As far as what keeps him motivated in the entertainment world, there's always a focus on trying something new for Frank Caliendo.
"I've been working on the acting side of things more now, trying to learn that skill set. I always had these amazing opportunities to audition for things but I never did because I didn't know what to do. So, I have been working hard on trying to figure that world out."