The voices in her head

November 7, 2013
(Natalie Brasington)
(Natalie Brasington)

On Maria Bamford’s new comedy album, “Ask Me About My New God!” she jokes about the questionable power of prayer and her preference for worshipping celebrities. But she’s not worried about being struck down by lightning at her D.C. show Saturday, which happens to be at Sixth and I Historic Synagogue.

“My mom, who is quite religious, always says that doubt is the surest sign of faith,” says Bamford, 43. “So I guess I’m the most religious person there is.”

A gifted mimic, Bamford takes on the voices of her Midwestern family in her stand-up, and she communicates a clear affection for them. Even less sympathetic characters — such as the L.A. agent who thinks it’s time for you to consider Botox — come through as fully realized people. This talent has helped win her a cult following and a stint as an unhinged Target shopper in holiday ads that ran from 2009 to 2011.

“I’ve gotten to where more people say hi in airports and in the local cafe,” she says. “It’s great ’cause that’s the reason I got into show business, so that people would say hi to me. That’s really the ultimate goal.”

The comedian has recently found an even larger audience, thanks in part to appearances on “Louie” and “Arrested Development,” though she’s long been known to comedy insiders. Her first online series, 2009’s “The Maria Bamford Show,” won raves for wringing laughs out of a downbeat premise: Bamford is forced to move back in with her family after she has a nervous breakdown onstage. In the first episode, she’s almost catatonically depressed and unable to get out of bed.

The show is fiction, but it’s based on Bamford’s real-life mental health problems. She’s been institutionalized and diagnosed as bipolar, and she struggles with a variation of obsessive-compulsive disorder characterized by persistent, disturbing thoughts, like “What if I killed and ate my parents?”

“It’s a real disorder,” Bamford says.

She found peace through medication and therapy, and encourages everyone with mental illness, especially creative types, to seek help.

“It’s only helped my writing and acting,” she says. “Things are different. I’m a more mellow person. I might work more slowly at times. But it’s nice to have a fairly normal life and not feel terrible all the time.”

Sixth and I Historic Synagogue, 600 I St. NW; Sat., 9 p.m., sold out; 202-408-3100. (Gallery Place)

Sadie Dingfelder is a features writer for the Washington Post Express.
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