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5-13-17

Maria Bamford: "Don't hurt yourself with comedy." 

By Candice Wheeler   @TheDiceler

Everyone has their own Acme story.

For comics and comedy fans alike, the connection people have with Acme is a special one. To many, it’s far more than just a comedy club. It’s a creative space, a leisure escape from the outside world, and for some, it’s even a second home. Since opening in 1991, Acme has managed to attract and develop the most extraordinary comics in the business, and most importantly, kept them coming back.

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!

When I first found out Bamford was named Keynote Speaker at the University of Minnesota commencement ceremonies this year, I felt a little jealous that she didn’t speak at mine back in 2013. Her up-front personality and tell it like it is attitude is very inspiring to me, and I feel I could have used that kind of encouragement before I was granted my scholarly freedom. Luckily last week, 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 will be exciting for graduates to hear from someone who fought her fears and truly made herself into something great at their commencement. With a world ahead of them, it should be comforting to know that someone like Maria Bamford started out in their shoes, and more than any amount of success, the thing she values most to this day 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.