As Maria Bamford’s hit Netflix show Lady Dynamite takes a turn in its second season currently under way, the comedian/actor has likewise begun a new phase of her life in Arroyoland — she recently moved to Altadena from Eagle Rock, where the good life sadly turned sour. Although the comedy series based on her real life is set in Highland Park, Maria had in fact been living in Eagle Rock for years, quite contentedly. And then her life became a bit of a horror movie.
“We lived next to a fraternity from Occidental College, it was a rental right next door to us,” Bamford, 47, says as she sips water at her favorite coffee shop, Café de Leche, high in the hills of her new, more serene hometown, Altadena (the café’s Highland Park location is a recurring setting in Lady Dynamite). “The first five years, it was owned by a family, and then they started to rent it out to a fraternity. And then it just got worse and worse and worse. And we looked online and it turns out there is no real way to fight a fraternity, really.
“Because it’s off-campus housing that’s private, the [college] won’t do anything about it — like, campus security can only drive by it… it’s really dumb. Then the LAPD is completely overrun — they’re attending to actual crime. It was not as funny as the movie [Neighbors] — the movie was very good.”
And while that frat horror flick was unfolding in the real world, Maria’s personal experiences were inspiring a boldly offbeat series on Netflix. Lady Dynamite, which co-stars comedy veterans Mary Kay Place and Fred Melamed, premiered May 20, 2016, to much acclaim — Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 97 percent rating. The series has been lauded for one of the key ingredients she and the show’s creators set out to achieve — to destigmatize mental illness. The series orbits around a mental breakdown Maria experienced after she broke into showbiz. (Bamford, who suffers from depression and anxiety, has been diagnosed as bipolar with obsessive-compulsive disorder.)
Lady Dynamite revels in ignoring narrative conventions, like not breaking the fourth wall (it does) and giving three characters the same name. It also jumps around in time, with “Present” segments reflecting recent events of her life in Hollywood and Arroyoland; the “Duluth” segments — she grew up and was hospitalized in that Minnesota city — trace her post-breakdown days finding her way back to a new life; the “Past” chapters go even farther back to her career-building years and successes in the entertainment world. And, as Maria revealed in our interview, the new season also reaches into the “Future” of her fictional character’s life (she hinted at marriage!).
In real life, the series concept was hatched over “many, many lunches” with Arrested Development creator and Maria fan Mitch Hurwitz. Hurwitz eventually brought former colleague and South Park producer Pam Brady into the mix. “So Pam and I met, and we had a really good connection, and it worked out,” Bamford says. “I think it was almost two years of just sort of chit-chatting back and forth. And then we pitched it to Netflix. We didn’t really know we had gotten the show until I found out from a network executive at a whole different thing [at Netflix], like a week later. It was like, ‘Oh, we’re so happy to be working with you!’ And I’m like, ‘Oh? What are we doing?’”
While the series is born from Maria’s personal experiences, she notably has done no writing on the show. “No, no, I don’t. I just come in and I tell stories, and then [the writers] take it and go everywhere with it, wherever they want to go. And that’s wonderful ’cause I’m not really a writer, in terms of scriptwriting. That’s not something that’s been an enjoyable process for me. At this point, I’d rather do standup and just have a fun time. And I think it probably helps the writing process that I’m not there, ’cause it is personal stories…And I don’t think I have the energy to do all that, I just don’t. It’s 12-hour days in an office, where you’re sitting there at a table and making a show. Pam Brady is amazing, and they’ve just done a beautiful job.”
Critics agree. Describing Bamford as “a beautiful wackadoo,” IndieWire called Lady Dynamite’s new season “the perfect antidote to this woman-hating garbage world.” The Hollywood Reporter said the show “mostly remains sharp, vital and groundbreaking.”
Since the topic of mental illness is a key element, I ask Maria how she decided to embrace that part of her life so fully for the world to see. “I think I wanted to be open about it for myself, for selfish reasons, so that if I did get sick again, that somebody would notice. And I would get help earlier. ’Cause I think I have trouble — feeling ashamed [about mental issues]. Even though I grew up — you know my mom’s a therapist, there’s mental illness in our family… my parents were very open and understanding about mental health issues, and I don’t understand why I was so embarrassed, but I was. So at least it’s a self-protection thing — if I can be open about it, then the village, if you will, can rise up and help out, on that level.”
Bamford’s openness has elicited a grateful reaction from people who have been comforted and inspired by Maria’s forthrightness. She has said she hopes that what people get from the show “is that by losing everything, it’s possible to become something better.”
“Yeah, it’s really lovely for me to have people come up and say that they had a similar experience, and that makes me feel useful,” she says. And yet, Bamford acknowledges that her experiences are not what everyone with mental issues undergoes or should expect. “I don’t know if everybody’s meant to do things the same. I understand people not wanting to be labeled, but the bipolar label was helpful to me because it completely described what I had struggled with for so long. I was just like ‘Oh….’ I had read so many memoirs by bipolar people before realizing, really relating to these stories, but going ‘Oh, but I’m not them like that. It’s nothing like that.’ And then I was like, ‘Oh, s—.’ And I also appreciate people like that who are public about their struggles, so that when I did finally put it together, I was like ‘Oh… right.’ And that they were hospitalized, and they were able to move on, and get married and have lives. There’s even a magazine called BP Magazine, comes out quarterly.
Is it good?
“Oh yeah, it’s awesome, it’s wonderful. I get it, it’s delightful. Because I think there really are so many celebrities, or people who have a lot more access to health care than your average person — like, you don’t really need to hear about me having an experience because the real majority of people who experience mental illness are experiencing so little resources, so much more of an uphill battle, in terms of finances and getting help, and taking time off from work. So that magazine focuses more on a regular person’s experience.”
When did you start seeing the red flags?
“It wasn’t until I started just really feeling terrible, it was like feeling terrible enough.”
Were you an adult?
“Yeah, 40. I started having depression and having high anxiety, and not being able to sleep when I was around 11. And then I kind of went all through high school and college. Then I got on an SSRI [antidepressant] and joined a number of support groups, and that was really helpful. But then — and yet I don’t know if it was a hormonal change — but when I was 40, things just got very untenable, where it was like… not working. But I actually, I’ve been feeling so good mentally, probably the past five or six years, I’ve been on a very good medication regimen. So it is funny because I just go, ‘Oh, now I’m out of that material.’”
While Maria says she might be out of “that material,” she makes no pretense about being out of the woods when it comes to her lifelong struggle with a bipolar condition. As we chat on the café’s patio, I mention that I’ve noticed a large number of churches in the area. Maria lights up: “You know what it means for me, though? My favorite thing in the whole world! Which is 12-step groups! I’m an atheist, but I love 12-step groups, so I love a church! I like sitting in the basement of one and chit-chatting with people. I love that, I feel like it’s one of the last free things. I can walk to three meetings, which are within distance of my house. And so that’s great!”
I ask Maria exactly how long she and her artist husband Scott Marvel Cassidy (they met on OKCupid) have lived in Altadena. “Just two months! And we just sold the [Eagle Rock] house. And we called it ‘a noise lover’s paradise!’ to the new buyers, and so they’re psyched and love noise. I’m afraid it had become so bad… I mean, you want to be friends with everybody, but I think that where it’s combined with drinking and machismo — at least for me — it’s a real bummer, it’s just such a bummer. I mean, you can talk to somebody when they’re sober, and they can say one thing; and then when there are 60 people in the back around a swimming pool, and there are hot ladies, it’s a whole ’nother story.”
So you’re liking life in Altadena then?
“Yeah, we’re loving it. We’ve got a pool — we were able to afford a pool because we won the Netflix television show lottery. A wonderful pool and pine trees, it’s really nice.”
These days, both fictional Maria (who experiences “Future” segments in season 2) and real-life Maria are looking forward to what’s ahead. Her comment on the new season seems to portend wonderful things for both the Maria Bamfords we are rooting for: “I love the future – the future was really fun!”