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An interview about comedy, hotels, oranges and much more with Cape Fear Comedy Festival headliner Maria Bamford

Maria Bamford is headlining the 10th annual Cape Fear Comedy Festival in Wilmington May 9-12....
Maria Bamford is headlining the 10th annual Cape Fear Comedy Festival in Wilmington May 9-12. (Source: Robyn Von Swank)
Published: Apr. 29, 2019 at 3:52 PM EDT
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WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - Imagine being a lifelong basketball fan and getting to talk hoops with Michael Jordan or loving movies and bending Martin Scorsese’s ear.

That’s what it was like for me when I interviewed Maria Bamford.

While she’s reluctant to sing her own praises, Bamford — the headliner at this year’s Cape Fear Comedy Festival in Wilmington — is arguably one of the best stand-up comedians in the world, and undoubtedly one of the most unique performers the genre has ever known.

And yet, even with years of stand-up savvy from which she can draw and countless hours of practice on stages large and small, Bamford is still not immune to a less-than-stellar set.

She may have put it best when she said during an April 25 phone interview, “(Stand-up is) one of the most democratic things because you can bomb anywhere.”

Bamford will close the Cape Fear festival with 6 and 9 p.m. shows at Dead Crow Comedy Room on May 12. During the interview, Bamford and I discussed comedy festivals, how different one comedy audience can be from another, why things don’t always have to be amazing and more.

Maria Bamford (Source: Robyn Von Swank)
Maria Bamford (Source: Robyn Von Swank)

Tony Castleberry: You headlined the first Cape Fear Comedy Festival 10 years ago and I’m thrilled you’re coming back this year. Do you remember anything about Wilmington or the first Cape Fear festival?

Maria Bamford: It’s on the coast, right?

TC: Yes.

MB: I remember it being on the coast. I’m terrible at memory, anything that happened before two seconds ago. I know I was delighted to be there, which I still am however many years later.

It’s so wonderful these festivals give people another place to perform besides comedy clubs, which isn’t always a place you can get booked.

I don’t know if I have a specific memory. My life is a series of Hampton Inns. [interviewer laughs] I am grateful it’s not a series of Red Roof Inns, which is a different experience. At Hampton, you know you’re going to get, maybe not the best orange you’ve had, but it’s free. It’s a free orange.

TC: [laughs] And you can say you’ve had your serving of fruit for the day and you’re on your way.

MB: You’re on your way. I’m happy with my lifestyle.

Are you a comic? Are there any local comedians we can promote?

TC: We could. I tried stand-up for the first time last April and had varying degrees of success, but mostly failure. I’ve enjoyed it just enough to keep doing it, if that makes any sense.

MB: I think that describes most of my career. [interviewer laughs] You just keep going because it’s just good enough.

TC: Right! The few laughs that I’ve gotten felt so great.

MB: It’s such a good feeling, and then also to be a part of this community and this tradition. I love that, even if it’s not necessarily true about myself. I’m not really a road dog, like, I can’t perform at any venue across the US. In Wilmington, I’m sure there’s a few bar gigs that I would promptly be escorted off stage but we’re all in it together. That’s my favorite thing about comedy. It’s one of the most democratic things because you can bomb anywhere. [interviewer, Bamford laugh]

TC: That’s so true. What I didn’t understand until I did it was, the same set I did in one place that worked really well, I’d tell those same jokes the same way in another place, and get nothing. That blew my mind, Maria. I didn’t know that happened until it happened to me.

MB: Meeting a new audience is like meeting an individual person. So, you have a great interaction with one person when you’re a Target sales associate and you help them find the grocery section.

Then, the second person you deal with, you’re going in thinking, “God, I’m a great Target employee,” and the second person, for whatever reason, is angry at everything you do. There’s a lack of control, which is intermittent reward, which is the thing that all the rats like and that’s what causes addiction, and that’s why we love stand-up comedy.

TC: [laughs] I’m impressed not only with how you’ve worked on your mental health but also with how willing you are to share your struggles on stage. Was it difficult for you to talk about that in your act? Is it still difficult?

MB: I think it’s like what you said (about doing the same set and it being interpreted differently). I could tell jokes for people who are fans, who want me to sign their prescription bottles, who are delighted to hear me talk about anything in that vein.

Then, the next group of people will be like, “You shouldn’t be talking about that. In fact, this is the definition of what I don’t find funny.” It’s a constantly humbling experience to learn over and over again that some people like it; some people don’t.

TC: True, and in the big picture, I think knowing that kind of helps you deal with a set not going well, you know what I mean?

MB: Yeah, and in the scheme of things, it really doesn’t matter. Like, it really, really doesn’t matter. I won’t go into the current bullet points of world news but, wow. [interviewer laughs]

I just did an open mic last night, and it was kind of a party crowd. One guy was all coked up but I was so excited. I was like, “I’m really gonna work on this and edit this new bit” but then it was like, “Nope, I am not.” To try out something I’m really excited about that I’m not real confident in in front of a crowd that has little to no attention span, that’s gonna set me up for having a bad time. (Instead) just do something I can focus on and enjoy doing in front of this type of crowd even if it’s really not my crowd at all.

I don’t want to say people in backwards baseball caps don’t read. I know that’s not true. I know there are a lot of readers out there but they weren’t really falling into my literary references. [interviewer laughs] I tried to kick some Teddy Roosevelt quotes their way. I’m very sure they did not know who Teddy Roosevelt was.

TC: I was talking to a friend today about Lady Dynamite and about how much we enjoyed it. With the benefit of hindsight, are you happy with how the show turned out and with how you ended it?

MB: Yes, it couldn’t have been better. I’ve gotten every opportunity to do everything I’ve ever wanted. I got to do a web series (The Maria Bamford Show) where I got to do everything myself and then I got to do a sitcom where I got to be part of a team. Everyone got to be part of the story. That was really exciting and a different experience and something I know I wouldn’t have had the energy for so I’m grateful that there are these unbelievably talented people who were all interested in working on the same story. It’s amazing that anything gets made so nothing but delight coming from this corner.

TC: 20% is a brilliant album and a brilliant album title. Are you going to give more than 20 percent when you perform in Wilmington next month?

MB: I’m gonna promise you that I might go for just five.

TC: Whoa!

MB: Yeah, you guys are that special. [interviewer laughs] It’s an ongoing theme in my work as a comedian. Have you noticed any ongoing themes in your act?

TC: 100 percent.

MB: One thing is, I like to act as if I’m not trying on stage. [interviewer, Bamford laugh] There is something about those cognitive behavioral exercises where they go, “Why don’t you just show up and do a terrible job?” [interviewer laughs] That has been very freeing to me as a person who gets very nervous for stuff. “Why not be the worst or be the most mediocre?” My question, which is in my new hour, is, “Why does everything have to be so good?”

TC: [laughs] It’s a great question.

MB: I live in LA so it’s a bit of a bubble of nonstop people talking about what genius is. “This is incredible. This is amazing.” I do start to think like, either everything’s amazing or nothing is so I’m gonna choose everything. My entire life when I was growing up in Duluth (Minnesota), I have a feeling was two-star experiences in terms of food and entertainment. I thought it was all fives.

I moved out to California and I was like, “Oh, vegetables are fresh!”

TC: [laughs] They’re not all in cans!

MB: They’re not in cans so I think it’s OK to not be the best and I think that is probably a biased opinion because I know that I’m not the best. I’m arguing for the beauty and the value of things that aren’t that great.

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