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Maria Bamford's Mom on Being the Butt of Her Daughter's Jokes

"It's another thing when it's your own family member doing that."

Kathi Valeii

Kathi Valeii

Photo by Andrew Chin via Getty Images

I first heard Maria Bamford's comedy when she did the Special Special Special. You know the one, where she performs in her own living room to an audience of two—her parents? It was awkwardly, uncomfortably hysterical. The kind of awkward that involves impersonating your parents with fine-tuned precision; the kind of uncomfortable that involves poking fun at your suicidal ideation and expecting your parents to laugh. And they do.

For Mother's Day, Broadly had the chance to talk to Bamford's mom, Marilyn, about what it's like to be the mother of a comedian who uses honest and personal material in such a public way.

Broadly: Maria's impressions are hilarious. And she impersonates you—a lot. Would you say it's pretty spot-on or does she get it wrong sometimes?
Marilyn Bamford: Oh, I think she's got the gift. Her sister, to some extent, and as does her father, of doing impressions, but I do not. My friends just are practically rolling on the floor in laughter when they hear her do me and so I know they're spot on. That tells the tale, yes.

(I can attest to the accuracy of the impressions. After enjoying Maria's comedy for years, listening to Marilyn talk on the phone is a level of surreal that is hard to describe.)

What's it like to hear yourself through your daughter's comedy? Are you ever like, "please stop doing that?"
(Laughs) It used to bother me that she would be kind of, what I decided, was inaccurate. And I think it was inaccurate. But, the thing is, both she and her sister embellish. I'm the kind of person that if I embellish what someone says, I feel a little guilty that I've been dishonest. And I don't think that is something that disturbs them at all. They like a good story.

Maria has been open about her struggle with mental illness in her comedy and interviews. She makes a joke about you saying, "I can't find Maria, I think Maria may have killed herself, but I have a hair appointment." But in interviews, she's affirmed how integral you were in getting her into therapy as a child. What is it like to have such personal issues thrust into the spotlight like that?
I've known people whose children have committed suicide—I know how awful that is, so in my mind, it was better to be worried about it and ask, "How are you?" instead of sort of just shoving it under the rug. It is painful, it's scary, it's awful.

I think once she started talking about it, I was interested in what she was trying to do. When I was working as a therapist, I felt like people ought to be talking about mental illness, talking about depression, talking about bipolar illness or schizophrenia or whatever else, because we need to get rid of the shame that's so associated with those illnesses.

But I will say that it's another thing when it's your own family member doing that. And it was another thing when I had a manic episode after getting steroid shots up and down my back. I certainly was mortified that it had happened to me. And yet, I kept saying to myself, "well, this is an interesting place to be." When I had that manic episode, it was hard to normalize it for myself.

Do you think Maria's comedy is breaking stigma around mental illness?
Oh, absolutely, because people are writing her letters and telling her that.

I had a grandmother who died 20 years before I was born, who I'm really quite sure had bipolar illness, and there was nothing for her except to be sent away to a home, there was nothing. I asked my own mother why she never talked about her mother once. She said, quite angrily (and my mother was not an angry woman) she just said, "Well, she spent all of her time in her room." And I asked her that when I was 15, while I was drying the dishes, while she washed. And I don't know how many years later I said to myself, "Oh my gosh, she was depressed!"

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What else do you want people to know about you, motherhood, and being Maria's mom?
Some people write about this and they're so uncomfortable with Maria talking about the family and her situation so frankly. It makes you feel like, "Oh my gosh, they think we're the weirdest people in the book," but actually we're just like every other family that has its struggles and has its times where it can say, "Oh we did well, we did well here on this part, maybe we failed in some other respects."

But one thing I learned as a therapist—and what I did a lot of the time was family therapy—and what you discover, is that every family feels a lot of shame about that because the society emphasizes perfection far too much, I think. And it's not easy to be a parent, it's not easy to be family, sometimes it's not easy to be married.

You read your children are brilliant and you say, "Well, up here in Minnesota, we don't like to brag too much." But I am really proud of the work that [Maria's] done—this work with mental illness because it's something. Everybody's got their niche in the world and their calling, and I don't know if she'd call it her calling or not, but I certainly think of it that way.