What’s so funny about mental illness?

MARIA BAMFORD performing at JFL42, Thursday (September 22) and Friday (September 23), 7 pm, Queen Elizabeth Theatre (190 Princes'). $30,.

MARIA BAMFORD performing at JFL42, Thursday (September 22) and Friday (September 23), 7 pm, Queen Elizabeth Theatre (190 Princes’). $30, passes $54.50-$299. jfl42.com. See listing.

Maria Bamford is channelling her inner Elaine Stritch to tell me about her current life.

“Some days are up, the next are down,” she sings in a mock serious, brassy-dame way, paraphrasing the lyrics to Stephen Sondheim’s ode to showbiz survival, I’m Still Here. “I’m definitely in a high zone now,” she tells me in her normal, higher-pitched voice.

This could be a surreal moment from Lady Dynamite, the loosely autobiographical Netflix series about her ups and downs, both mental (she lives with bipolar disorder and suffered a nervous breakdown five years ago) and professional (she’s notorious for turning down work).

But she’s still here, dammit.

Earlier this year, based on the popularity of the series, which has just been renewed, Just For Laughs named her “breakout comedy star of the year.”

We both chuckle about that. Bamford’s been making a good living for well over a decade, not just with voice work and guest spots on high-profile TV shows like Arrested Development and Louie, but with her unique brand of insightful, painfully honest stand-up comedy, collected onto cult albums and comedy specials.

“I’ve been making a living as an artist for 15 years, and that’s pretty incredible,” she says in her distinctive voice, which makes her sound like a kindergarten teacher who gets along better with her little charges than she does with the adults in the staff room.

“I’ve managed to do exactly what I wanted to do, not do anything I’m ashamed of or feel weird about. And can afford a market-rate apartment in Los Angeles and have a dog. That’s an amazing accomplishment in any major city in the U.S. Now all of this is just gravy upon gravy. It’s like layers of poutine.”

That sly gastronomic reference to the fact that she’s going to be doing two sets here at JFL42 encapsulates her off-kilter brand of comedy and unique persona. Raised in the Midwest, she’s got all the trappings of wholesome Everywoman charm dimples, blond hair, a modest demeanour but with a dark streak of pain. She’s like Mary Tyler Moore’s perky Mary Richards to reference another single female fictional character living in Minnesota dealing with depression, dating and drug cocktails. The perfect emblem for our time.

Although it mostly takes place in present-day L.A., some of Lady Dynamite’s boldest moves besides the Werner Herzog-sounding talking dog doing a cabaret act take place in Duluth and are loosely based on Bamford’s own nervous breakdown.

The colour palette for these scenes is intentionally bleak, and Bamford can look decidedly unglamorous a risky move in an industry based on physical appearance.

“I thought I looked too good in those scenes,” she says. “I wanted to make them even worse. My hair’s all braided, which wasn’t happening then. I wanted to wear no makeup, but they have some on me, I guess so I looked like I was at least alive.

“But the fact is most psych facilities are so much more depressing than what’s depicted in the show. You’d need an art director to break four more chairs and take eight pieces out of every puzzle, and not have anyone talk to each other. It’s grim. I think the writers were worried that there had to be some sort of story element, or at least people communicating with each other, so you could have jokes.”

The truth, she says, is that many institutions “act as holding facilities so you don’t hurt yourself or somebody else. They try to get you stable meds-wise. They’re not healing or growing environments.”

Bamford modestly deflects any suggestion that she’s a groundbreaker in dealing with mental illness in her act.

“Back in the 1960s, Jonathan Winters talked about it, and Richard Lewis wrote a book in the 1980s about his OCD and eating disorder issues,” she says. “I felt more comfortable because people like Patty Duke and Catherine Zeta-Jones and Demi Lovato have talked about their experiences. I’m not that brave.”

She’s not even sure there’s a connection between comedy and mental illness.

“I heard a joke by a kid comic the other day,” she says. “He doesn’t think more comedians are depressed, it’s just that comedians talk about it. I don’t think there’s any percentage difference. We’re looking for things to talk about. It’s not as okay to go into your job and say, ‘Hey, guess what insights I learned this weekend about my depression!'” She pauses. “‘Anybody?'”

Bamford’s parents hold a unique position in her work. In Lady Dynamite, superb character actors Mary Kay Place and Ed Begley Jr. play figures based on them with touching honesty. In Bamford’s brilliant 2012 special called The Special Special Special, she performed stand-up for her actual parents, who mostly sat stone-faced during the jokes.

“My parents have always been very supportive,” she says. “Mental illness and addiction run in my family. They’re glad I have a job. ‘Good for you!'” she mimics in a sweet Midwest accent.

“They’ve always done their own thing. My mom went back to school to become a therapist when she was in her 40s. My dad is always learning things he learned how to make shoes, sew, bake bread. They’re creative goofballs. And like most parents, they’re concerned about a few things: Are you making a living? Are you safe? Are you happy? And I am all of those things.”

In fact, with a new comedy album being released this month and Lady Dynamite’s renewal, not to mention her recent marriage, she’s more content than ever. For the past several years, she’s been on a stable drug cocktail consisting of an anti-psychotic, a mood stabilizer and an antidepressant.

“I’ve never been this happy or stable in my entire life,” she says. “After I discovered this cocktail I felt, ‘Oh! I see! This is what life is like for most people. It’s pretty fun.'”

And while she downplays her own role in educating people about living with mental illness, she does hope that one day the issue will become a hack comedy premise in clubs.

“Things have really changed for gay comics and female comics,” she says. “It used to be people’s whole act was about that. You know, ‘I’m a woman, let me explain how women are different….’ Like you’re defensively explaining it all. Now things have changed.

“I hope doing jokes about mental health becomes hack work,” she says. “It’s about inclusivity. You know how you go to comedy clubs and they have pictures of comics up on the wall? It’s still mostly men. So when at least half the pictures are women, and maybe half the pictures are people representing different global experiences, then that will be a great day for comedy.”

Thanks to the honesty and hilarity of Maria Bamford’s act, other comics are coming out about their struggles with depression and mental health

At one point in stand-up Amanda Brooke Perrin‘s act, she cheerfully asks the audience, “So who has social anxiety?”

It gets a big laugh and a scattering of woots, claps and raised hands, mostly because Brooke Perrin herself is being so candid about her own awkwardness. She’s not alone. Comics everywhere are coming out about the subject, making us laugh about something that was once taboo. One of last year’s standout sets at JFL42 was Chris Gethard’s hour-long monologue about his suicide attempts, medication and living with mental illness.

“I can tell that the subject’s being normalized,” says Brooke Perrin about her social awkwardness bit. “People shouldn’t be shamed for it.”

She cites Maria Bamford’s act as one of the reasons why she and so many other comics are comfortable talking about mental health – both in front of a mic and away from it.

“It’s shocking how many comedians deal with depression or anxiety – to the point where when you’re backstage in a green room you can have discussions like ‘What medication are you on?’ ‘Yeah, me too.’ I’ve never been prescribed anything, but it’s definitely helped many people I know. Suddenly we have this thing to bond over. It’s nice to know you’re not alone.”

Shelley Marshall still does stand-up, but for the past several years she’s toured with her solo show Hold Mommy’s Cigarette, which chronicles her family history of mental illness, including suicide, depression and hospitalization.

She regularly performs for doctors and educators. The Canadian Mental Health Association has paid her to do the show for its members.

“A mental institution is sending me money,” she says. “The irony of that is beautiful.”

She regularly performs the show at the Full Bawdy Loft, a performance space her husband set up in their Leslieville home. Talk about dealing with intimate issues. Audiences use the family loo.

But that’s part of her philosophy. After every show, wherever she is, she walks through the audience and engages with whoever wants to speak to her. War vets have broken down at her shows.

“One man in his 40s told me he had lost his brother to suicide when he was 16, and this was the first time he’d ever told a soul.”

Once, she heard someone was out in a parking lot, too shy to talk.

“So I went out there, walked through the grass, and asked, ‘Did you want to say something, honey?’ Imagine the courage it took [him] to come here.”

For many comics, getting an audience to laugh can be as addictive as any drug. And the opposite can be devastating.

“The other night I bombed and I immediately went into beat-myself-up mode,” says Brooke Perrin. “It sucks because you bomb and then you never want to do it again. But you also know that the only thing that’s going to help is getting back onstage and doing well.”

Marshall performs Hold Mommy’s Cigarette at the Full Bawdy Loft (290 Carlaw, unit 202), October 14 to 23. holdmommyscigarette.com. Brooke Perrin’s album AKA Randy was just released (amandabrookeperrin.com). She’s performing at JFL42 September 22, 28 and 29. jfl42.com.

See the rest of this week’s Fall Stage Preview here.

glenns@nowtoronto.com | @glennsumi

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