Early in the first episode of Lady Dynamite, the groundbreaking new series just released this May on Netflix, comedian Maria Bamford steps into the office of her fictionalized manager, one Bruce Ben-Bacharach (played by Fred Melamed). A portly, balding fellow, eager to please (and to show off his new "Hollywood power desk" and "sexy Hollywood power boots"), Ben-Bacharach is ready to help Bamford grab her career by the horns after a six-month reprieve.
"Now that you're back in town, you tell me exactly what you want to do," he says. "TV show, movie, world comedy tour — and I'm gonna take a real shot at getting it for you."
Shaking her head as he speaks, Bamford answers cautiously.
"I would like to do less, not more," she explains. "That's the thing. I'm gonna be less ambitious, or maybe not ambitious anymore. I wanna work a little, but just smaller things — less pressure. Stand-up at a bookstore. Or alone in my living room. Or at a vintage eyeglass shop."
Reassuring her fretting manager that he hasn't done anything wrong, Bamford explains her motivations: "I'm just trying to get some balance in my life."
The series, which was co-created by Mitchell Hurwitz (Arrested Development) and Pam Brady (South Park), is a surreal, boundary-busting comedy based loosely on Bamford's real life. Heavy on flashbacks (the series takes place across three separate-but-connected timelines), it focuses on the comedian's struggle with bipolar disorder and return to work in the wake of a six-month stay in recovery. The show has received heaps of praise for its portrayal of mental illness.
"I may miss out on stuff because I am maybe erring on the side of — what's that called when you lack ambition?" Bamford says during a recent telephone interview with RFT in advance of her June 19 appearance at Helium Comedy Club. "I prefer, instead of calling it lazy, to call it 'contentment.' I think that's less judgmental if I use the word 'contentment.'"
Though she says that work is "a wonderful part of life," she stresses that it "isn't the end-all be-all." At a time when 'busy' is trending, especially in the increasingly multi-hyphenate entertainment world, Bamford stands out as an advocate for focusing on your mental health rather than pushing it to the brink. And with the success of the series, she just may find herself the poster child for what so many of us don't even know we need: a work-life balance.
"I think I can do about two things a day," she says. "I have, myself, been multi-tasking a lot. But it's like, when I have too much stuff to do, I don't enjoy the one thing I'm doing. I'd like to enjoy at least the one thing I'm doing."
Stand-up is a physically and mentally demanding job, and the hours are wretched. Sure, it's based on jokes — what could be so difficult about that? But the job isn't just about cracking wise on stage anymore. It's a Netflix special or a podcast, a web series, a trending tweet or Vine, maybe even a book. You stay up late for your show, then get up early for the radio spot, or maybe even to field interviews. And each night you're performing, you're an amped-up version of yourself, pouring your thoughts, feelings and ideas into a microphone. Regardless of the day's events or the amount of sleep you've had, you are expected to take the stage as your best possible self. It can be exhausting, and it's no wonder Bamford prefers not to give it 110 percent.
"Whatever feels good to you, do that," she says. "There's plenty of people who are happy and extremely work-oriented. But I'm going to hedge my bets at twenty percent."
"I'm very busy," she adds. "Drinking coffee, getting agitated, working out and then falling asleep. That takes up at least three hours a day."
Beyond her upcoming appearance in St. Louis, the existence of Lady Dynamite could itself easily serve as contradiction to her own thesis — Bamford concedes that starring in a TV show is "one of the most ambitious things you could possibly do." But certain accommodations made the strenuous filming schedule more bearable, including shuttle service each day to and from the set.
"I didn't have to make any decisions," she explains. "If I didn't come to the door, the bus driver would come to the door and knock for me and say, 'Hey, get out of bed. Time to go.' It was a dream come true, really."
Bamford is not shy about broaching the topic of her real-life diagnosis of bipolar II disorder in her stand-up act and through the show. The latter has been roundly celebrated for portraying mental illness in a balanced way. This was no accident.
"My vision was wanting to create something about being hospitalized that's not the end-of-the-world type of thing," she says. "It's not that embarrassing. It doesn't have to be embarrassing. It can be something that everybody talks about."