The Weird, Scary and Ingenious Brain of Maria Bamford

Maria Bamford has a mantra of sorts, and here it is: Do the work. Three words, three syllables. An easy, orderly thing. She tells it to herself when she wakes up in the morning, whether it’s at her bungalow in a middle-class neighborhood on the outskirts of Los Angeles or at a Holiday Inn in Boston or a Marriott in Bloomington, or any of the other highway-side hotels she hits for one night before moving on. Do the work. It’s a stay against paralysis, against the descent of dread. It’s less dramatic than “seize the day!” more affirming than “stop overthinking everything!” It is functional, and that’s what she’s trying to be. Do the work. She repeats it on airplanes, in taxis, on the long walks she takes to calm her nerves before a show. Sometimes she amends it to: Just do the work, the “just” a reminder that she’s not, after all, performing surgery on babies. There’s another, more refined version, too. Do your bits, she’ll tell herself, resigned to the idea that this may always be a struggle. Just do your bits.

It should be simple, even if it’s not. Because she’s a comedian, and comedians do bits.

The first time I met Bamford, one evening in May, she was at a theater in Boston, about to step in front of an audience of roughly 600 people. She had been rehearsing her bits all afternoon, silently delivering jokes as she speed-walked alone along the Charles River, internally running through the intricacies of her timing as she browsed a couple of bookstores in Cambridge, thinking up a few chummy Boston references she could throw in to her 60-minute monologue. Now, dressed in black pants and a quilted North Face pullover, Bamford paced a small room backstage, her layered blond hair mussed and a little spiky, her blue eyes downcast as she avoided chitchat. What she was feeling, she’d later tell me, was “terror.”

You would think that stage fright, at this point in her career, wouldn’t be an issue. Bamford is 43. She has been doing stand-up comedy since her early 20s, when she was living in Minneapolis, a two-hour drive from her childhood home in Duluth. She has put out three well-received albums, twice done sets on “The Tonight Show,” landed a guest role on the third season of “Louie” and has had two half-hour specials on Comedy Central. Judd Apatow has described her as “the most unique, bizarre, imaginative comedian out there right now.” Last year, she appeared in the Netflix revival of “Arrested Development,” stealing scenes as DeBrie Bardeaux, a freakish, endearing meth addict in recovery. Mitchell Hurwitz, the show’s creator, calls Bamford “a genius” and “a real artist.” He adds, “Real artists talk about things that nobody else talks about, and talk about them candidly.”

Things Bamford likes to talk about candidly include the fact that she has disabling bouts of anxiety and depression, that she has contended with a form of O.C.D. called “unwanted thoughts syndrome” and that during her childhood, those unwanted thoughts came in the form of constant worries she might kill her own family or sexually molest animals. And while her comedy routinely traverses more everyday subject matter — she mimics her stalwart Minnesotan parents with devastating precision; she deftly does bits about emojis, online dating and her deep lack of interest in cooking — all of it seems anchored, one way or another, in Bamford’s psychological fragility. When she does her stand-up, when she acts on television and most notably in several web series she has written and starred in, she plays an exaggerated version of herself — a tremolo-voiced woman with a stunned expression, trying to navigate a world of people whose confidence is appreciably higher than her own.

In her work, she describes having done stints at inpatient psychiatric units and also the diagnosis she received a few years ago of Type-II Bipolar, an increasingly recognized variant of bipolar disorder. (“It’s the new gladiator sandal!” she will declare onstage.) Narrating the particulars of her psychology, which also include a history of binge-eating and having suicidal thoughts, Bamford displays little in the way of anguish and nothing resembling self-pity. She appears before audiences simply as vulnerable, as someone whose ongoing presence in the world is not entirely assured. She likens herself in temperament to a daffodil or an orchid, capable of wilting if the conditions aren’t perfect.

In Boston that night, she stood in the shadows at the edge of the curtain, watching a local comic, a tall woman with a swaying Afro, perform a warm-up set for the waiting crowd. Every time the other comedian delivered a joke, Bamford guffawed loudly from the wings, an odd, overdone warble that split the darkness, offering encouragement to the lesser-known act. Comedy, like most businesses, is baldly hierarchical. Bamford herself is only midway up the ladder, a headliner but not a superstar. She wants more, but then again she doesn’t. Just do the work.

The audience was now applauding. It was her turn to go on. Her jitters revved, as they always do. Smiling almost sheepishly, she began the 15-foot walk across the empty stage, toward the puddle of light with a microphone at its center. She looked, in that moment, like a woman who would either crumble or roar.

The minute Bamford lifted the microphone, her nervousness morphed into something more potent and focused. She began with some lighter material about making a ceramic dog for her father and a Vine video she could play anytime someone complained she wasn’t good at expressing her emotions. (She acted it out onstage in jerky, six-second bursts: “I love you . . . O.K.? I love you . . . O.K.?”) From there, she ran through an exuberant and juvenile riff on farting, including a lot of vivid sound effects, and then eventually she rounded the corner, as she almost always does, to talking about suicide. (“Is anyone thinking of suicide?” she asked the crowd, sounding merry. “Well, don’t do it, it’s not the season for it.” She then crinkled her face into a childish pout. “And people will be so mad at youif you do that.”)

Much of Bamford’s work examines the relationship between “people” — generally well-intentioned friends and family — and those who grapple with depression or anxiety or any other challenge to the psyche. Her act is a series of monologues and mini-skits performed rapid fire and often without regard for transition. Deploying a range of deadpan voices, she mimics the faux-enlightened who hover around the afflicted, offering toothless platitudes (“You just need to get out in nature”), bootstrapping pep talks (“It’s all about attitude. You gotta want it!”) or concern warped by self-interest (“You’d think you’d just stop vomiting for me and the kids”). The humor of any given moment relies not so much on punch lines as it does on the impeccably timed swerves of her tone, the interplay between Bamford’s persona and those of all the people who don’t get her. Often, she is demonstrating helplessness on both sides. “We love you, Maria,” Bamford says, imitating her 69-year-old Midwestern mother, Marilyn, in one of her recorded performances, heaving a fed-up sigh. “We love you, we love you, but it’s hard to be around you.”


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Bamford is a small person, narrow-shouldered and spindly legged. Her speaking voice is also small and a bit quavery, lending a charming uncertainty to anything she says. Wrapped inside the wobbliness, though, is an earned authority. Bamford talks about mental illness the same way Sarah Silverman talks about being Jewish or Louis C.K. talks about being divorced, with the flippant knowingness of an insider. Occasionally, the sharper pieces of her agenda poke through. One of her more jarring bits is about war veterans. She points out that more than 7,000 U.S. veterans die of suicide every year. “Which is funny,” she says, breaking into a giggle as a predictable hush falls over the room, “Because you’d think they’d die over there, but they come home. . . . ” The audience quickly explodes into laughter — not because it’s funny, but because it’s funny coming from her.

After the show, a crowd lingered late in front of the theater, waiting to speak with Bamford. She is frequently approached by people who view themselves as part of her tribe, who want to talk about their own diagnoses and tell their own tales of being misunderstood. In making light of the hidden struggles and deep absurdity that accompany living with, or close to someone with, mental illness, she appears to have planted an appealingly honest flag. She gets mothers who say, “I have a daughter just like you,” and daughters who say, “I have a mother just like yours.” She gets people — a lot of people — who say that her frank talk about suicide has made a difference to them personally.

The next morning, Bamford climbed into my car, holding a takeout salad she’d brought from the hotel, an early lunch for the ride ahead. We were going to Albany, about 160 miles away, where that evening she was due to put on another show. Ticket sales, she’d heard, had been slow. As it is with many comics, the specter of bombing always loomed. “I don’t know,” she said as we pulled onto the Interstate. “You may see it tonight.”

I told her I thought the Boston performance was great, but she waved off the compliment.

“It was good,” she said. “I mean, yes . . . , but I was slightly disappointed with myself.”

When I asked why, she fumbled for words. “Just psychologically . . . ,” she began, and then trailed off.

Close up, Bamford is milder than she is onstage. She has a thoughtful and friendly demeanor, but it’s edged with a certain nervousness. The verbal acrobatics that pump energy into her monologues, you soon realize, are not flashes of spontaneous genius but rather the product of huge amounts of time spent in focused rehearsal. (When she’s developing new material, she will pay friends $75 an hour to listen to her practicing bits over the phone.) In casual conversation, words come less easily. Bamford often appears to rethink her sentences midway, leaving many of them unfinished. Some of this may be attributable to Depakote, the mood stabilizer she takes daily. It’s one of a number of concessions she has made in the name of stability. Thanks to the medicine, she also now needs at least 10 hours of sleep each night, she says, “and also another hour to nap.”

When it comes to stage fright, Bamford laments that there seems to be no remedy. She enjoys performing, but only after the fact. Even just thinking about doing stand-up that night made her panicky. “I think I’m going to start working with a coach,” she added. “Just to get some daily support.”

She is, if anything, a dutiful seeker of help. One night in 1990, when she was a sophomore at Bates College in Maine, experiencing a period of despair, she wolfed down a huge amount of food and then called a suicide help line. Ever since, she has maintained faith in support networks. She has participated in 12-step programs for eating disorders, money problems, sex and intimacy struggles and addiction, though substance abuse has not been an issue for her. She just appreciates the company, and also the honesty. “I think 12-step programs are genuinely cognitive behavioral programs,” she told me. “You are out of isolation, and that helps you think differently about things.” When traveling, Bamford looks for local support-group meetings to visit. Otherwise, she attends them by phone. She has found a sense of community in online chat rooms and is a vocal fan of, a website that gives advice about psychiatric medications. (In addition to the Depakote, she also takes Prozac for depression and occasionally beta blockers to calm a tremor in her hands.)

She sometimes talks about her brain as an entity not entirely in her command, as something unruly and perhaps best understood from a slight distance. “My brain wanted me to think,” she will say, describing unhealthy perceptions, or “My brain wasn’t doing so great,” recalling a darker time. Her brain, she has found, behaves best in controlled settings, thriving on rules and boundaries. Twelve-step programs are good this way. And so, too, curiously enough, is stand-up comedy, stage fright notwithstanding. When at one point I remarked that putting yourself alone onstage before a judgmental audience seemed like a punishing thing to do, Bamford said: “Yes, but for me it’s also a structured environment, and structured environments feel safe. I’m up there in the lights, saying what I want to say, and they’re sitting a safe distance away.”

Most everyone I spoke to about Bamford felt compelled to mention that she’s a deep thinker, an observant introvert who processes everything carefully. “She’s always churning the butter,” was how her older sister, Sarah Seidelmann, put it.

“You know what it’s like?” says Jackie Kashian, a comedian who has known Bamford for about 20 years and sometimes travels with her as an opening act. “It’s like being best friends with Hermione Granger. You spend a lot of time in the library.”

And it’s true. Bamford normally hauls a bag of books and magazines with her when she travels, never knowing where she might find a steadying revelation. She’s a lover of recovery memoirs, psychology tomes and bullet-pointed self-help manuals. She can quote liberally from “The Artist’s Way,” by Julia Cameron. She reads O.C.D. books with titles like “Tormenting Thoughts and Secret Rituals.” She also plows through People magazine as well as lots of highbrow literary writing and is, in particular, a fan of Dave Eggers. (“I sometimes put my name next to his,” she confides in a 2011 video she posted online about books she loves. “Like, what would it be like to be Mrs. Eggers?”)

She is bolstered, she says, by hard facts. A subscriber to AARP Magazine, she enjoys citing studies about health and longevity. A few years ago, after reading in a book that people who feel a strong sense of community have been proven to lead longer and happier lives, Bamford started working to overcome her natural shyness and fear of interaction by saying hello to her neighbors in Eagle Rock, a diverse and partly gentrified area on the northeastern edge of Los Angeles. She bought a park bench and had it installed on the median strip in front of her house. She then spray-stenciled the words “Have a Seat!” on the sidewalk in front of it. To her delight, the bench is often occupied. “It’s like a bird feeder for humans,” she says.

In the car that day, Bamford told me she was reading something called “The Procrastinator’s Handbook,” which was all about overcoming anxiety and just doing the work. She told a story about how a couple of years ago, when she was feeling leveled by depression and anxiety, a mutual friend connected her with the comedian Jonathan Winters, who was at that point well into his 80s. (He died last year.) Like Bamford, Winters was a gifted mimic, known for creating satirical characters. He also suffered breakdowns, spent time as a patient in psych hospitals and as early as the 1960s was hinting at his psychological struggles in his comedy routines. Eventually, too, he was given a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Bamford recalls that when she spoke to Winters on the phone, she was just out of the hospital herself and deeply scared about continuing on with both comedy and life. Winters, she says, offered what turned out to be a useful bit of blunt-force wisdom. “He said: ‘You got a good shrink? Yes? Well then, you just keep going.’ ”

Bamford has a song that she sometimes performs onstage called “My Anxiety Song.” It has no melody. Instead, it sounds more like an incantation, a desperate verbal hum. “If I keep the ice-cube trays filled,” she chants, “no one will diiiiieeee.” She continues, in a monotone, “As long as I clench my fists at odd intervals, then the darkness within me won’t force me to do anything inappropriate or sexual” — here, she drops her voice a couple of notes — “at dinner partieeeees. . . . “


This, she is saying, is the agony of O.C.D., the skewed sense of cause and effect that first began to plague her when she was about 10. According to the National Institutes of Health, about 2.2 million adult Americans contend with some form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. It’s not uncommon for the symptoms to appear during childhood. Bamford is patient when explaining the particulars, aware that when she jokes about having wanted to chop up her family into bits or imagining what it would be like to lick a urinal, it can make her sound weird and also scary. But she makes a distinction: It’s the thoughts that are weird and scary, not the person. And while most of us are prone to having fleeting notions that would qualify as inappropriate, in the mind of someone with O.C.D., they are more likely to lodge themselves and repeat. The thoughts don’t tend to inspire action, only fear. It’s like having a homegrown terrorist in the brain.

During her childhood, the thoughts kept her from sleeping. As her anxieties combined with exhaustion, she began to isolate herself, contemplating suicide as early as middle school. At some point, she shared her fears with her mother. The whole family — Bamford, her parents and her sister — went to counseling for a while, with mixed results. “We weren’t in the golden age of psychotherapy in Duluth,” recalls Marilyn Bamford, who was then a stay-at-home-mother but later became a family therapist herself. Maria remembers going to the therapist and “mostly just taking naps on her couch, because I was so tired, and it felt like a safe place.”

Her compulsion for violent thoughts felt so shocking that she was afraid to share them, even in therapy. She finished two years of college in Maine and another year at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland — feeling “supercompulsive and superdepressed the whole time” — before transferring to the University of Minnesota, where she majored in creative writing. At 22, she was prescribed antidepressants, which helped only somewhat.

Throughout it all, she was drawn to performing. As a child, Bamford showed talent as a violinist. She acted and sang in school plays. In her early 20s, she shaved off all her hair and moved into a feminist housing collective in Minneapolis, holding down a job at a pizza place while doing what she calls “hippie performance art” in coffee shops and black-box theaters, mixing violin-playing into her act. To earn extra money, she busked on the street with the violin. “I was really just trying to express myself,” she says. Being a baldheaded woman, she sees now, was an unconscious ploy to ward off intimacy and keep her struggles hidden: “People are like, ‘Oh, you’re a weirdo, I’ll stay away.’ ”

During this period, Bamford met Jackie Kashian, who performed at open-mike shows in Minneapolis, where Bamford would sometimes surface, thin and hairless and carrying her violin. “Her material was always sideways,” Kashian remembers. “She wasn’t examining the same topics a lot of other people were examining. It wasn’t going to be: ‘Hey! Airline food!’ or, ‘How am I gonna date more?’ It was usually like, ‘There’s this weird thing happening in Sudan.’ ” Club owners often perceived Bamford as “too smart for the room,” she says, adding, “Sometimes that’s just a polite way of saying ‘I don’t get you.’ ”

It wasn’t until she was in her mid-30s, after moving to Los Angeles, that Bamford finally found an O.C.D. specialist who was able to treat her unwanted thoughts using a technique called “flooding.” She was instructed to write down her compulsive fears in exacting detail, then to record herself reading them out loud and, finally, to play them back for herself, again and again, until they stopped causing her anxiety. Most of her fears were about harming other people or forcing herself on someone sexually. She recalls the flooding exercise as “horrifying and painful,” but potent in what it accomplished. While she continues to contend with other psychological challenges, the unwanted thoughts, she says, still sounding amazed, “just went away.”

Over time, too, Bamford has managed to build a stronger bridge between herself and her audiences, largely through truthful self-disclosure. She talks about wanting to commit suicide, calling it a “[expletive] idea,” one of her many stupid thoughts, like buying day-old raisin bread in bulk and freezing it. “My experience is so embarrassing,” she says. “But I’ve learned that it’s O.K. to be yourself. . . . It’s better than pretending that it’s not there.”

Bamford understands that her condition is most likely steered by genetics, or as she sometimes phrases it onstage, “Mentals run in the family.” “My great-grandmother lived her whole life in an attic,” she told me. “Maybe there were other reasons, but my mom seems to think, from her letters and stuff, that she was massively depressed.” Her father, a retired dermatologist, has also cycled through periods of depression. And in 2010, Marilyn Bamford landed briefly in the psychiatric ward of a Duluth hospital, having gone off Depakote, which she’d taken for decades to combat seizures (it’s prescribed for epilepsy and bipolar conditions), and started showing signs of mania. “She was calling the pope and emailing my manager, telling him I was in danger,” Bamford says. “It’s really scary to see someone you know change so quickly like that.”

Her mother’s hospitalization seemed to confirm something Bamford had long suspected about herself, that despite the fact she was now a reasonably well functioning adult with what was starting to look like a sustainable show-business career, there remained a lingering capacity for meltdown. Any gathering clouds were not to be ignored. “I said to my friends, if I ever start talking too fast, please just take me to the hospital,” she said. She had even done a kind of comic rehearsal for it, filming a 2007 web series called “The Maria Bamford Show,” in which a depressed comedian named Maria Bamford — played by Bamford — has a nervous breakdown and moves home to Duluth, tended to by her parents (also played by Bamford), who come off as bumbling, endearingly idiosyncratic and unwittingly critical. The series is hilarious and unusual, and it boosted her cult following.


In 2011, things were going well professionally. Bamford was getting regular voice-over work on television. She had starred in a popular series of preholiday ads for Target, playing an overhyped shopper. She was booking stand-up gigs as far away as Australia and playing larger and larger venues in the U.S. But her mind, as she puts it, had become like “an untethered jackhammer.” Her energy soared and crashed. After one of her two dogs, a pug named Blossom, took a tumble off her back porch and died — something for which Bamford blames herself, having removed a ramp connecting the porch to the yard — her mood went permanently black. “I could not find any comfort at all — just nothing, and for months,” she says. “I felt terrible, and my brain felt terrible. In the past, I’d always been able to be like, ‘Oh, I’ll write in my journal or read my self-help book, or I’ll call people and get out of this mood,’ ” she says. “But it wasn’t a mood. It was like, ‘Yeah, I’m gone.’ ”

Over the course of about 18 months, she was hospitalized on three occasions, for periods ranging from three to seven days, each time checking herself into the psych ward of a different L.A.-area hospital. “I thought it was the responsible thing to do,” Bamford says now. The hospital stays were in part a way to switch her medications under supervision (she received a Bipolar II diagnosis during her first admission), and in part meant to keep her from committing suicide, which she says had gone from being a vague idea to something that felt like a foregone conclusion, a rational next step.


A family photo from 1984. CreditFrom the Bamford Family

Bamford’s sister, Sarah Seidelmann, visited her at Glendale Adventist hospital and says she felt taken aback by the number of patients who seemed lost in schizophrenia or were practically catatonic with depression. “I remember thinking, Oh, my gosh, all these people look terribly dispirited,” Seidelmann says. “These aren’t the people who can help you get better!” Seidelmann, who lives in Minnesota with her husband and four children, is a certified life coach. Her website asks, “Are You Ready for an Absurdly Fantastic Life?” She is also a recurring character in her sister’s stand-up routine, depicted as a hyperalert, finger-chewing realist who sees every problem as innately solvable and who often aggressively tries to redirect her sister’s negative thoughts. (In one skit, when Bamford says, “I’m worried I’m too old to be in show business,” the stage version of Seidelmann spits out an instant dismissal: “Hmmm. Betty White, Dame Judi Dench, Joan Rivers. . . . You’re not old enough!”)

According to Seidelmann, Bamford’s imitations of the family and their various blunders are biting in ways that can be painful — “My father cried, the first time he saw her doing him onstage,” she says — but they can be illuminating, not just inside the family but also inside a world rife with struggling people. Bamford’s comedy swims with paradox. She skewers the culture of self-improvement but relies on it, too. She pokes fun at the people who blithely misunderstand her, but also credits them for giving her love and shelter. (“You’re horrible,” she thinks about a friend who visits her in the psych ward and says all the wrong things. “But can you come back tomorrow?”) She addresses the loneliest of gulfs, acknowledging the confounding intimacies of living with and in proximity to mental illness — the whipsawing, humbling forbearance required from everyone involved.

Seidelmann, when I talked to her on the phone, got choked up, recalling seeing her sister pale and quiet and surrounded by a lot of hard-luck cases in the linoleum-floored psych ward in 2011. “My first instinct was to say, ‘Dude let’s get you out of this place,’ ” she says. “But Maria was trying to tell me something different. She was saying, ‘I feel safer here than I do at home.’ ”

Last month, I went to a meeting with Bamford in Los Angeles. It wasn’t a support-group meeting, but rather a business meeting, at a sprawling Beverly Hills office complex that’s rapidly being taken over by Netflix. As the company grows, there could be opportunity for someone like Maria Bamford, whose sensibilities don’t readily bend to those of network television but whose appeal with certain, quirk-loving audiences is well established. For the last few months, Bamford had been talking with Mitchell Hurwitz, the “Arrested Development” creator — a comic maverick in his own right — who had recently signed a development deal with Netflix, which came with an office and a mandate to launch new series.

“We’ve been drinking bottled water and eating salads and thinking out loud,” Bamford told me. “It’s how things get done in L.A.” She was dressed that day in jeans and a blue-green blouse, and when we met, in the sunshine outside the Netflix headquarters, she also wore an enormous wide-brimmed black hat. Something about it, the big, drooping hat sitting atop her thin-stemmed body, reminded me of how she likened herself sometimes to a flower, how vulnerability and resilience can coexist.

These days, Bamford credits the Depakote with keeping her stable. She sees a therapist weekly and a psychiatrist every three months. She no longer feels suicidal and remarks on that often — “It’s incredible!” she says — as if she has finally, after 33 years, shaken a persistent head cold. Following the hospitalizations, she says, it took almost eight months before she felt well enough to work at anything resembling a regular pace.

There’s a sweetness attached to her newfound balance: Bamford is in her first sustained romantic relationship, with an artist named Scott Marvel Cassidy, whom she met in early 2013 on, advertising herself under the user name Hogbook. (“I used to have a profile that suggested I was fun-loving and happy,” she says. “But Hogbook felt more honest.”)

When Bamford and I walked into Hurwitz’s office that day, he embraced her warmly. Hurwitz is effusive and has a quick-moving wit. The show they were discussing would be based roughly on Bamford’s life experiences, including, possibly, her stays in the psych ward. “I guess what I want to do is make mental illness feel more normal, more like a regular thing,” Bamford said. The question was how to develop the central character and give her a compelling narrative arc. Hurwitz mentioned that a few nights earlier he sent an email to Bamford, wondering what the Maria character’s trajectory should be. “What’s she aiming at?” he wanted to know. To which Bamford replied, only partly joking, “Maria don’t do trajectories.”

Conversations about ambition, especially since her hospitalizations, cause her to blanch. She has cut back on her travel, doing only a couple of shows on the road per month. She continues to do voice-over work and has had some small television parts, but she no longer goes to auditions, understanding that her oddball style is unlikely to land her any conventional roles. When she does things now, they are very much on her own terms. Her latest special — called “The Special Special Special!” which she made available for download late in 2012 — was released in May on Netflix. Rather than filming a live theater performance, as most comics do, she chose to stage her act in the comfort of her own living room in Eagle Rock. Lit by amateurish spotlights and with a keyboardist playing music during transitions, Bamford delivers a rollicking 45-minute set to an audience of two — her parents — who sit on her sofa, trying to look appreciative, clapping and laughing even as she mimics them. It makes for a weirder and funnier show and also, as her comedy often does, makes a subtler point about the burden families bear.

Critics have called Bamford’s special “hilarious,” “fearless” and “brilliant.” Riding alongside the compliments is a perceptible whiff of anticipation, a sense that she’s sitting on the edge of bigger things. The question of how hard to push herself, however, openly perplexes her. In our conversations, she fretted over whether it was O.K. to be a marginally productive comic, wondering if, in dialing back her time on the road, for example, she was being self-protective or just lazy. “I look at people who are hustling,” she said on the day we drove to Albany. “They’re working their butts off and doing a great job, and I don’t know if I’m ever going to be that person. I mean, I think there’s a reason I’m not famous.”

Bamford even has a bit about her productivity in her routine: “People want to know: ‘So what are you working on? What’s going on with you? What’s the next page? What’s coming up for you? What’s on the horizon?’ ” she says, adopting the fatuous voice of someone making small talk. “And I say: ‘Oh. I’m done. . . . Yeah, I finished early. I’m actually living in a gravy boat filled with delicious gravy.’ ”

I got to see her do that bit in May after we finally reached Albany that night. Bamford had worried about ticket sales, but the house was full. She’d worried that the comic opening for her, an energetic young New Yorker named Joyelle Nicole Johnson, wouldn’t make it to the theater on time, but she did. Twenty minutes before the show, Bamford sat on a worn couch in the greenroom with her legs crossed, anxiously reading her copy of “The Procrastinator’s Handbook,” which was filled with sentences she’d underlined in ballpoint and drawn big stars next to in the margins. Soon, the stage manager would come to get her and the house lights would dim. Soon, she’d be out there, making her case for the mentals and hearing people laugh in recognition. They always did. Earlier, in describing the stage fright, she told me that she knew that performing wasn’t exactly a life-or-death thing. But somehow, it still felt like an exercise in overcoming.