July 18, 2013
Guest: Maria Bamford
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. It almost makes me uncomfortable to laugh at Maria Bamford's comedy because so much of it is about really serious problems she has: OCD, bipolar disorder, suicidal thoughts. She's been hospitalized several times. But I have to laugh because she's that funny. She's done some really odd Web shows. The oddest is probably her program "The Special Special Special," which was her doing her act in her living room with her parents on the couch as her only audience.
In addition to her standup comedy, she's done a lot of animated voiceover work, and you may have seen her on the new Netflix season of "Arrested Development," playing a recording meth addict named DeBrie who becomes involved with Tobias. She was on two episodes of "Louie" last season. Now she has a new CD called "Ask Me About My New God" that also comes with a DVD of her two Comedy Central specials.
Maria Bamford, welcome to FRESH AIR. It is such a pleasure to have you on the show. I want to play something that's from early work that that you did.
MARIA BAMFORD: OK.
GROSS: And this is from a 2007 show that's actually on DVD along with your CD. And this is your anxiety song. It's called "My Anxiety Song." So let's hear it, and then we'll talk about it.
(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY PROGRAM, "MY ANXIETY SONG")
BAMFORD: This is "My Anxiety Song."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY ANXIETY SONG")
BAMFORD: (Singing) If I keep the kitchen floor clean, no one will die. As long as I clench fists at odd intervals, then the darkness that's within me won't force me to do anything inappropriately violent or sexual at dinner parties. Woof. As long as I keep humming a tune, I won't turn gay.
(Singing) They can't get you if you're singing a song, yeah.
GROSS: That's Maria Bamford. I really love that. How many of those anxieties are actually yours, how many of those compulsive behaviors?
BAMFORD: Oh yes of course. Yes, no, those are mine. I - when I was about nine years old, I stopped being able to sleep at night because I had fear that I was going to kill my parents, you know, act out violently in some sort of taboo way. And it's even hard for me to say now, act out sexually, towards something, somebody and so wanted to isolate so that I would not be around people at all and would stay up all night making sure that I just wouldn't fall asleep, and somehow lose control and fearing I was going to do those things.
And just to explain, that is a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder. What it is, it's the equivalent of, you know, washing your hands, thinking that you're going to be dirty or that you're somehow dirty, but it's with thoughts. So as soon as you try to not think of the thought, the thought pops up again so - because most of us have weird thoughts floating through our heads every once in a while.
I know there's - I heard a comedian once say, you know, my dog looks kind of sexy today.
BAMFORD: You know, like things where it's - that's wrong. But usually nobody thinks twice about that. You just kind of go oh, that's weird, and then you pass it. But if you are an anxious person and somehow on high alert, you think oh, I just thought my dog looks sexy. Well, that must mean I, you know, I am somehow a dangerous person who - you know, sort of this spiraling effect.
And I'm of course not any sort of expert or physician, but I did get help for it. I went to an OCD specialist. And within two weeks, I was 35 when I went, it was gone. Something that had plagued me for my entire life was gone.
GROSS: How did that happen?
BAMFORD: He - they did this technique called flooding, where you - the particular one was I recorded, you know, my worst fear of what's going to happen, you know, I am chopping my friends and family up into chunks and bits. And I do a joke about it. I don't know. It sounds terrifying now, with the way I say it, but I do a joke about it, saying, like, the therapist says - the OCD therapist is so, have you ever not wanted to go to a religious institution because you worried you'd lose control, run up on the altar, take a crap and yell I am a promise keeper?
BAMFORD: Um no, no. Have you ever not wanted to go to Sea World because you're worried if you're left alone with a baby starfish you'd try to kiss its poop hole? Oh God, that sounds familiar, but I'm not placing it. Have you ever not wanted to spend time with friends or family because you worried you'd chop them up into chunks and bits, and have sex with the chunks and bits, and put the chunks and bits on a Cobb salad and feed it to your parents? All the time, God. Aren't you ever listening?
BAMFORD: Anyway, I mean, it's like those are the thoughts. You know, people have some weird thoughts. And - but flooding, what they do is they have you read out loud in the present tense of your worst fear happening. You just listen to it over and over and over again. And, you know, it really limited my life. I did not spend a lot of time with people because I was - felt afraid. And standup was very good for that because I - you can spend time with people, but they're safe, and you're amplified and lit.
And it's a very structured environment, so - but no, no, I am freed by the miracles of psychology and science and all that stuff, I mean if there is a science. We don't know if there is a science, but if there is.
GROSS: So you know, maybe it's a sign of my own self-absorption, but my unwanted obsessive thoughts tend to be about things that are going to happen to me as opposed to dangerous things I'm going to do to other people.
BAMFORD: Oh interesting, yeah, yeah. I mean, everybody has their own special, special snowflake, thumbprint anxiety.
BAMFORD: What is yours? Do you feel comfortable sharing? You don't have to share.
GROSS: Probably not, but...
GROSS: But I always worry about things that are going to - by getting hurt, about, you know, suffering and pain and things like that. I worry about hurting people's feelings. I don't worry about physically doing harm to them because I just don't feel like I'd even have that in me. That's not an - it's like of all the bad impulses I have, that particular thing isn't one of them.
BAMFORD: Well, that is the weirdest thing. Like they said, or one of the things the physician I went to said, that people who have any type of OCD are the people who are least likely to have any violent tendencies or any predatorial tendencies or any, you know, like the person who's washing their hands 18 times a day or 1,800 times a day is the person least likely to not be clean.
BAMFORD: You know, like they're going to be some clean people despite the fact that that's all they worry is that they're somehow filthy. So yeah, it doesn't make any - it doesn't make sense.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is comic and actress Maria Bamford. She has a new comedy CD, which is called "Ask Me About My New God."
You did a comedy special that was just Web only, that you called "The Special Special Special." And I've never seen anything like it. Your family, your parents make an appearance in this. So the setup is it's shot in your living room. The only people in the audience are your parents, who are seated on a couch. Your name is up in lights on the wall, lights like in that kind of 40-watt bulbs that you use in a lamp or something.
GROSS: And there's a pianist there, Wayne Federman, he's at the piano, like playing intros, and you even have a warm-up comic, played by Jackie Kashian. And so I want to play the opening to "The Special Special Special." And it opens as a lot of, like, HBO comedy specials do, with, you know, the comic talking backstage behind the scenes about what the special is and why they're doing it. So first we're going to hear that, you know, fake interview, and then we'll hear the setup to the show. Here we go.
(SOUNDBITE OF WEB PROGRAM, "THE SPECIAL SPECIAL SPECIAL")
BAMFORD: The reason I decided to do the special here was because it is free to perform in your own home.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: We are the Maria Bamford special. Are you guys psyched? Are we all psyched?
BAMFORD: Sure, I've done television shows. I've been in a few seconds of certain movies. But the people I'm really creating things for are Joel and Marilyn Bamford, my parents. I do know their names: Joel and Marilyn Bamford.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It's Maria Bamford, performing live in her own living room in Eagle Rock, California. It's "The Special Special Special." Tonight's only audience members: Maria's parents.
BAMFORD: It's going to be a special special special.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: All right, and we're ready. Let's hear you laugh. Let's hear you laugh.
And the clapping, that's right, we're ready to begin. Wayne, let's get some music going, get Maria out here. You know her from birth, you've known her for a long time, since the very beginning. Let's have a big round of applause, a big Eagle Rock welcome, for Maria Bamford.
BAMFORD: Yeah, (unintelligible), Wayne Federman. Yeah, Eagle Rock? Thanks so much for coming, mom and dad.
GROSS: That is really so amazing. What gave you the idea of doing a comedy special in your living room for your parents and recording it?
BAMFORD: Well, I felt embarrassed to say this, but it was an act of slight laziness, where I was like - you know, I hadn't been feeling - I hadn't been feeling well the year prior, and I didn't want to do a big crowd. Like crowds kind of - because the bigger the crowds get the more nervous I get. I actually am very comfortable with a half-filled room of people who are slightly disinterested and are irritated at a Barnes & Noble.
BAMFORD: And I just wanted to read magazines. And now there's a comedy show? So yeah, I am more comfortable with that, and my parents are so supportive. They are also extremely inexpensive as talent.
BAMFORD: And it is true that the people who it makes me feel the best when they laugh are my family and friends, and when they laugh, I feel great, whereas you have a room of 300 people, and because that's what I pull, that's what I draw right now...
BAMFORD: That's a great feeling, too, but it's - I think, for me anyway, you know, a much richer experience to - if I get my dad to laugh, that is delightful.
GROSS: So was the laughter fake, or was it real?
BAMFORD: No, I think it was - I mean, I think it was real. I think sometimes - I'm sure sometimes they're just kind of staring and being supportive. I can't imagine that there isn't some aspect of where they're just losing themselves in the idea that their daughter is doing something, and they're just proud that she's functioning relatively well.
BAMFORD: And I think yeah, I don't - I don't know. You'd have to ask them what part of it is - but I know my mom has gotten irritated about certain - because sometimes my mom just writes the joke herself. She couldn't find me in the house once, and an object at rest stays at rest. I'm in a corner curled with my bristles to the outside.
And she called my sister in a panic and said Maria has disappeared, and I'm worried she's killed herself, and I have a hair appointment in town. Which - you know, that is so hilarious. And, you know, you wouldn't dredge the shallows. I mean, she got very upset that I was going to say that. But then once she heard it a couple times live, and people laughed, she was fine with it.
Or she just says oh, I never said that.
GROSS: Did she really say that? Did she really say to your sister I'm afraid your sister's killed herself, and I have a hair appointment?
BAMFORD: Yes, yes.
GROSS: And what did your sister say?
BAMFORD: My sister told me.
BAMFORD: I think she left it on the voicemail. So she didn't have a chance to respond, except to say why don't you check the bed, mom, check the bed.
BAMFORD: She's probably in there.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Maria Bamford, and she has a new comedy CD called "Ask Me About My New God." Why don't we take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is comic and actress Maria Bamford. She has a new comedy CD, which is called "Ask Me About My New God." You did a whole Web series about you being in bed depressed.
GROSS: And it's called "The Maria Bamford Show."
GROSS: And the premise was that you'd had a nervous breakdown and went home to Duluth, Minnesota, to live in your parents' attic. And so you were recording yourself doing different characters with your little camcorder, mostly in bed.
GROSS: And I, when I first saw it, I thought, like, OK, is this for real? Like is she really living in her parents' attic? Did she really just have a nervous breakdown? Is she really recording this herself? And of course there's a list of credits at the end, so I knew that wasn't true.
GROSS: But again, like how did you get the idea to do that, and were you living in your parents' home?
BAMFORD: No, no, I think at that point it was sort of a worst fear greatest...
GROSS: Right, that you'd be so broken, you'd be like back home and taken care of by your parents?
BAMFORD: Yeah, because I think I've always been a little on the edge psychologically, you know, feeling like that my brain felt a little bit out of my control. And so I - and I'd always had a fantasy of being on a sitcom, and so I - and I couldn't seem to get on one.
BAMFORD: And so I thought, well, I'll write a one-person show that would just be me in the sitcom, and then that became the Web series. Yeah, it was really, it was really great to kind of act out that scenario because one thing I do miss out, living far away from my family, they're in Minnesota, and so kind of doing impersonations of them allows me to feel close to them and think about what they would say and also control what they would say in a very controlled environment.
GROSS: Another Web series you did I want to ask you about is called "Ask My Mom."
GROSS: And we're going to actually play an entire episode, which is like 90 seconds. These are, like, very, very short, and they're so much fun to watch. So do you want to talk about what the premise of "Ask My Mom" is?
BAMFORD: Yeah, it's just I'd always wanted to do something with my mom because my mom has lots of great ideas and advice, but now she's retired, and she's going on motorcycle tours of Norway, and so she can't - she doesn't have time. And so I thought why not me dress up in an outfit and be her and answer people's questions from a Christian-based, liberal point of view and, yeah, see what she has to say for people because she does have some wonderful - I do love my mom's attitude. So this is what happens.
GROSS: OK, so this is an episode of Maria Bamford's "Ask My Mom."
(SOUNDBITE OF WEB PROGRAM, "ASK MY MOM")
BAMFORD: The older I get, the less I know, the more I ask my mom.
Don't ask me, ask my mom.
Why don't you Google it? Your sister just posted a quote on Facebook: That which has been your deepest sorrow has been your greatest delight.
(As her mother) Give me a break, exclamation point. Got to thumbs-up the grandchildren. You father keeps poking me. Sweetie, can I have your Facebook password?
(As herself) No.
(As her mother) I just want to get in there, see what's going on.
(As herself) Mom, here's a question. I was raised without religion, and I can't get myself to believe. But I'm jealous of the contentment, purpose and peace of mind that religious and spiritual types seem to have. How can I get the same results but without all the hocus-pocus?
(As her mother) Well, you just go to a temple or a mosque or a church or a sit-in, and you just pretend. You just look around and say oh, OK, you know, and then the fact that you don't believe, it makes you even more of a believer, really. All of the prophets doubted. Sweetie, what is your Facebook password? Is it I love hugs?
(As herself) (Unintelligible), no.
GROSS: That's Maria Bamford, one episode from her Web series "Ask My Mom." And she also has a new comedy CD, which is called "Ask Me About My New God." So do you really envy your mother's capacity for faith and wish that you had it?
BAMFORD: Ah, I just think it must be so dreamy, you know, to just - my mom was very structured. She gets up, she does her prayers and eats her oatmeal with blueberries and Greek yogurt, and she, you know, has her prayer list, and then she - and she doesn't worry too much about things, you know, like so-and-so came down with Alzheimer's, and so they're having a hard time, and we're just - you know, I'm just going to take her for frozen yogurt at Scoops and teach her how to upload all her WeightWatchers points into the cloud.
Like I'm taken out by a gas station muffin. I have the wrong muffin, and I'm out for a week, you know. And, you know, I fall asleep and fall into despair and tears, and, you know, she just, she just pops up. She bobs. She's buoyed, constantly buoyed.
GROSS: I love how you do her voice.
BAMFORD: I mean, I think I do do a good job. I mean, I think I'm genuinely becoming my mother. I mean, at some point there's going to be no impersonation, it's just going to be full-bleed, I am her. That's what my boyfriend says. He says you just are your mom right now.
BAMFORD: But, you know, she so - who put weeds in my salad? Oh, it's arugula, oh, I love arugula. Oh.
GROSS: Maria Bamford will be back in the second half of the show. Her new comedy album is called "Ask Me About My New God." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with comic Maria Bamford. Much of her humor is about the things that trouble her most - and there's a long list because she has OCD, bipolar disorder and has dealt with suicidal thoughts. She often talks about her parents and her sister in her performances and does their voices.
When did you start doing voices and what were the first voices that you did?
BAMFORD: I think I mimicked some commercials and I don't actually do many voices, only do about six or seven, some are just versions of higher, lower...
BAMFORD: ...versions of others. So but I think also in standup it helped because my own voice - some have said - is high, irritating, childlike, and so if you can change your voice it did grab people's attention.
GROSS: You've done voiceover work for cartoons, right? Have you done a lot of different characters?
BAMFORD: Yes. Yes. I'm on "Adventure Time," which is a great series on the Cartoon Network. It's a beautiful show - just so weird and creative. And then I've done begin "Word Girl" on PBS, which is coming back. They're going to have "Word Girl," which is a girl superhero who fights off villains with the power of vocabulary. And...
GROSS: Are you "Word Girl?"
BAMFORD: I am not "Word Girl." That is played by someone else, but I play her mother.
GROSS: Do you use your mother's voice?
BAMFORD: No. No. (Voice change) I use a basic, just a proud mother voice, who is just proud and excited and wants everyone to be happy.
GROSS: I love that voice that you do because it's, in some ways you would describe it as a very nondescript voice, but it's not. Do you know what I mean? It's...
GROSS: It's like the essence of a certain mainstream Middle American voice.
BAMFORD: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I think I felt like a bit of a weirdo sometimes so that sometimes that voice helps, you know, as sort of a counterpoint to what - like I worked as a secretary for a long time, so I would have, sometimes would have female bosses who were, a female boss who acts like they're your friend. But (Voice change) Hey, I'm having a party at my house this weekend and I really want you to come and meet some really cute, really available men at the door. Park their cars, take their coats and speak only when spoken to...
BAMFORD: ...'cause I see us as partners, as equals, even though I earned what is it, 850 percent more than you do and you spend 12 hours a day here stuck in this office while I drive aimlessly around the city looking for caves and tunnels for where I can call you with my cell phone.
GROSS: I'm trying to imagine you as somebody's secretary.
BAMFORD: Oh, yes. No, I was very quiet. I was not a...
GROSS: Were you performing at the time?
BAMFORD: Oh, yes. Yes. I'm very passive-aggressive, which is so why I was very quiet at work and then talk about work outside of work.
BAMFORD: Yeah. Yep.
GROSS: One of the things that you did when you were young his you went to Dale Carnegie classes - self-improvement classes.
GROSS: What was his famous book? "How to Win friends and Influence People."
BAMFORD: Influence people. I was extremely depressed, and my dad, I was having trouble with falling asleep because I was staying up all night...
GROSS: Trying to prevent yourself from doing bad things?
BAMFORD: Bad things, and had developed sort of an eating disorder in order to kind of I think deal with my brain chemistry. I would, you know, binge on huge amounts of food and then tried to starve and I think that is, you know, you develop all these sort of addictions to try to manage - or that I feel like is part of what happened. And so, I was sleeping all day at schools. My dad took me to the Dale Carnegie 18-week course at the Duluth Public Library that's shaped like an ore boat in the basement and we went with many different salespeople and business people of the city. And we learned the four C's: Don't criticize, condemn or complain. Compliment. The sweetest sound to a person's ear is the sound of their own name, Terry. And that you act enthusiastic and you will be enthusiastic. And it was really a cognitive behavioral program, like it helped me enormously...
BAMFORD: ...at the time.
GROSS: Did you do the things they suggested, like repeat somebody's name a lot when you were talking to them?
BAMFORD: I did, I did it all the time. I did it my entire senior year. I, and in that way I think that's how I got my first boyfriend. I was nominated to - I won the Winter Frolic Queen crown. I think generally, because I started doing all these weird techniques and because everyone was in high school I think nobody picked up on the BS factor of it. And I think it was sincere, you know, I was so desperately sincere. I tried to use the same tactics when I went to school out East and it did not go over at all. I remember my roommates - I was going to Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, and they were from New York. And they were, like, why do you keep saying our name? Like why?
BAMFORD: They were just totally on to me immediately and they were completely weirded out by the whole thing.
GROSS: So then what if you couldn't use the Dale Carnegie techniques anymore? What did you do to try to more comfortably relate to people?
BAMFORD: Well, I fell into a deep depression. I think I...
GROSS: That always helps.
BAMFORD: Yeah. That helps. And then I did started doing standup around at that time and got involved in improv and theater and that helped. I...
GROSS: Well, tell me more about how you started doing standup.
BAMFORD: They had a talent show and I had always done - run for office in grade school, high school because it involved doing a speech. And I just loved, every time I got to do a speech I really enjoyed that. I just enjoyed it and I enjoyed people, yeah, I enjoyed that feeling. I had been trained to play classical violin from the age of three through the Suzuki Method. And my mom said when I was three years old and I got up on stage and I just started smiling, like I just really enjoyed it. And I think there is something about, I love structured social environments, you know, where there's rituals and, you know, I love the support group where, you know, everyone's timed in how long they can talk, like, ugh, I just give me three minutes and one minute for wrap-up and I feel comfortable. I just, I love that. So I got involved in that and so then when the opportunity came up to do a talent show I was like, oh, I'll just do a funny speech and then they said, oh, that's standup and I was like hmm, OK. Well, then I guess that's what I'm going to show up for and began doing that.
GROSS: Who are some of the comics that influenced you early on?
BAMFORD: My dad and I and my sister, we'd always watch "Saturday Night Live." So we saw Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy. So that's what we listened to in the car and on the record player and just listened to it over and over again. I didn't really even understand the jokes but I didn't even think of it as a possibility. Even as I was doing it, I didn't think I was - what I was doing, you know, because there just was no one in entertainment in my family and, you know, there were just weren't as many women doing it and it wasn't an option. It was either you be an actress and I just didn't really know what it was.
GROSS: My guest is Maria Bamford. Her new comedy album is called "Ask Me About My New God!" We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: My guest is comic Maria Branford. She has a new comedy album called "Ask Me About My New God!"
If you're just joining us, my guest is comic Maria Branford. She has a new comedy CD which is called "Ask Me About My New God!" You feel very comfortable on stage but you have anxiety before a performance?
BAMFORD: Oh, my god. Yeah. I'm trying to work on that now. I don't know why that I still seem to go down some sort of rabbit hole of doubt and genuine terror. That is somehow, you know, when I thought that, you know, once you had more success that you'd feel more buoyed or you that you'd feel more confident. But, in fact, my brain has the gift of switching it around to saying, oh, now, now people are expecting something, now you're really going to let people down. And so I'm trying to, you know, do all the right more reasonable thoughts, like, I can stand on stage for an hour and do work that I've prepared and it's OK if there's a variety of responses.
BAMFORD: Like they teach you in some of the outpatient treatment for, you know, how to create more reasonable thoughts rather than catastrophic and/or hyper - is it hyperbolic thoughts?
GROSS: Hyperbolic. Yeah. Mm-hmm.
BAMFORD: Hyperbolic thoughts, which that's what Los Angeles runs on; I am an angel.
GROSS: Have you learned to deal with hecklers? Since you're prone to depression and prone to violent thoughts, when somebody is like...
GROSS: ...you know, saying nasty things about you when you are performing or booing or, you know, being rude in some way, what's it like for you?
BAMFORD: Well, it doesn't, it generally doesn't happen as much. I think with the Internet you really can draw specifically your crowd, which is a good and a bad thing.
GROSS: Sure. Well, people are coming to hear you now, but I guess earlier when it was like an open mic night or something.
BAMFORD: Yes. And any night in Los Angeles where, anywhere, anywhere where people don't know what they've come to see I can get booed. And I love the United States and that we're a free democracy and everyone is able to speak their minds, and so I think that is the excitement of live performance that people can say, I'm unhappy. You know, like I'm uncomfortable and this isn't what I wanted. So I'm trying, I'm still not very good. My knees will shake. You know, I will have a sense of righteous rage come inside of me if somebody says something, you know, like get offstage, you suck, or I try to say something that doesn't mean just because - I've heckled people. And heckling is just I think sometimes wanting to participate and wanting to just, you're frustrated and you just feel like, uh, this is weird and uncomfortable and somebody's got to say something.
GROSS: I want to play another track from the new CD. And this is called "Joy Whack-A-Mole," and it's something your family used to do you've defined as this game.
GROSS: So why don't we hear this bit from your act and then we'll talk about it.
(SOUNDBITE OF CD, "JOY WHACK-A-MOLE")
BAMFORD: This is a little game you can play with your friends and family. I hope you do if you don't already play it, just leave you with it. It's just a, my family would call Joy Whack-A-Mole.
BAMFORD: What happens is that...
Somebody brings up something that they're really happy about and then the other person tries to slam it down.
BAMFORD: Played it with my dad and it was like dad, check out this new top. Woo, it's very nice. Yeah. Guess how much? Oh, I don't know, 50 bucks. No, five. Geez said that's a good deal. Yeah, you got that right, it's like five bucks. How did they do it? Oh, I was reading about that, slavery.
BAMFORD: Yeah. And you put the manufacturing out of these countries there's no labor laws, human rights violations, no environmental protection and then they pass that savings on to you.
BAMFORD: That's a pretty sweet coat though, dad.
GROSS: It kind of skims the profile.
BAMFORD: My mom is truly the king of this game, though. She's very good at it. Mom, Amy had her baby. Oh, that is great news, honey. I mean it's not the greatest news for the 600,000 kids in foster care in this country, but...
BAMFORD: ...she wants a fresh one, huh? Geez.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Woo.
BAMFORD: Everybody wants one that looks like them. It's so selfish.
BAMFORD: Mom, I'm doing a show tonight. Oh, sweetie, I have a joke for you. A friend of mine is just a hoot. She said you could use it. And coincidently, she was in foster care. She had been airlifted out of the Sudan in the late '90s because she had been be-armed and be-legged by the janjaweed, the horseback militia. Anyhoo, she loved to do standup. She's hilarious but she can't uh, uh. And...
BAMFORD: It's really a hospice situation, just a matter of time. But the priest comes in and he asks her would you like us to light a candle for you in the chapel? Well, she says, sassy as you please, tele-typing through her eyelids, well, how many candles you got? Because so many horrible things have happened to her. And keep happening. Sweetie, have a good show tonight. What you do is so important.
GROSS: That's Maria Bamford from her new CD "Ask Me About My God." You play Joy Whackamole with yourself every time something good happens.
BAMFORD: Sure. Oh, sure.
GROSS: Undermine it. Yeah.
BAMFORD: Oh, Maria, you're on FRESH AIR with Terry Gross. Um, you're no longer underdog status so people are going to hate you.
BAMFORD: (whispers) Because you're on Terry Gross with FRESH AIR. It's a negative to every positive. Now I'm a winner, Terry. You've made it official. I'm a winner.
GROSS: I've conferred that status.
BAMFORD: Yes. Oh, yes.
GROSS: As only I can.
BAMFORD: Yes, yes.
GROSS: So do you talk about all of this with your family? Like, before you do something like Joy Whack-a-Mole, do you call your parents? Or before you do anything in which you're going to be doing the voices of your family do you call them and test it out and make sure, like, are you OK with this?
BAMFORD: No. I don't. I mean, I will tell them jokes just because I like to hear them laugh. But now that my parents have so many different phones it's hard for them to hear things. So it's a very frustrating joke performing context for them. And then the last time I did a joke for my dad, my dad said: Oh, geesh. No wonder you're still single. And they don't get to hear the jokes unless they have positive feedback and laughs. That's the agreement.
And so sometimes, yeah, I don't tell them the jokes. And they're so busy now. Since they've retired they're learning how to make shoes. They're going to Esalon, that place where you nude hot tub and talk to an empty chair that represents your dead mother. I don't know, they're busy.
GROSS: Is it hard to imagine your parents naked in a hot tub?
BAMFORD: Well, I didn't go visit them up there. It's up in Big Sur and, you know, they have their lives and they like to celebrate the body and, you know, I'm a - you know, my mom - I mean, the great thing about my mom is she did affirm that, you know, sexuality is important and, you know, your father lost confidence after the prostate surgery but then he went out and he bought himself a used Dodge Caravan and we are back in business.
Anyways, you can always be sensual up until your 90s, you know. From what my mom has sent me and according to clippings in the AARP magazine. So we're never off the hook, Terry.
BAMFORD: There are tools. There are unguents, lotions, potions. Get on it.
GROSS: Maria Bamford, it's just been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.
BAMFORD: Thank you so much for - it's been such an honor and a pleasure. I feel so excited. Thank you.
GROSS: Maria Bamford's new comedy album that comes with the DVD of her Comedy Central specials, is called "Ask Me About My New God." You'll find a link to her web series, "The Maria Bamford Show," on our website freshair.npr.org. The revelation that the new novel "The Cuckoo's Calling" by Robert Galbraith was really written by J.K. Rowling turned the book into a bestseller. But is it good? Our book critic Maureen Corrigan weighs in after we take a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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TERRY GROSS, HOST: The literary event of the summer is something that's caught readers and reviewers by surprise - a debut mystery novel by one of the world's most famous living authors. Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Call it: "The Mystery of the Missing Book Sales." And I don't think we'll be needing to bring Sherlock Holmes in to solve this one. In April, a debut mystery entitled "The Cuckoo's Calling" was published. It appeared to be written by an unknown British writer named Robert Galbraith, who was identified on the book jacket as a former military cop, now working in private security.
The novel received some good reviews - Publisher's Weekly, for instance, called it a stellar debut - but, an unknown author trying to break into an overcrowded genre needs more than approving clichÃ©s to make an impact. In the U.K., a mere 1,500 copies had been sold. By last week, the novel was deader than a firecracker stand on a rainy Fifth of July.
Then, the Sunday Times of London received an anonymous tip via Twitter that Robert Galbraith was actually a pseudonym for J. K. Rowling. The Times, in checking out the tip, ran "The Cuckoo's Calling" through forensic stylometric software and found a strong match with Rowling's Harry Potter books. As soon as the news of Rowling's ruse broke this past Sunday, sales of "The Cuckoo's Calling" soared.
The novel has shot to number one in Amazon online sales and an additional 300,000 hard covers have been rushed into print. Signed first editions of "The Cuckoo's Calling" are selling for around $1,000 on eBay; I think my unsigned first edition probably got packed off in one of the shopping bags full of unwanted review copies I donated to the library a few weeks ago.
So, like hundreds of thousands of antsy J.K. Rowling fans who can't wait for the hardcover, I downloaded the electronic version on my Kindle. And you know what? The library is welcome to my review copy and whatever funds it may raise. "The Cuckoo's Calling" falls into that vast middlin' range of fiction that I mentally shelve in the I've read worse, but I've read better category.
I couldn't even find a memorable quote from this novel. The only really distinctive thing about "The Cuckoo's Calling" is its title, which comes from a Christina Rossetti poem. Rowling has written a respectable urban example of what's been called the "Mayhem Parva" school of British detective fiction: The story takes place in a circumscribed setting, it's full of oddball suspects, and the killer is affably lurking in plain sight throughout much of the action.
Rowling's private eye hero is named Cormoran Strike: He's an ex-military policeman who lost a leg in Afghanistan. We meet him in the archetypal dumpy office where he passes his days staring into the bottom of a bottle and running to fat. Think Hagrid in a trench coat.
Strike's fortunes change when he hires a young temp secretary named Robin Ellacott as his Gal Friday. Also stumbling through the deus ex machina door is a client whose sister, the famous model, Lula Landry, has died after falling from the balcony of her apartment. The client insists it was murder and hires Strike to find out. Investigations ensue.
Rowling tries to bring a more contemporary edge to this novel by featuring a beautiful biracial victim and delving into the demimonde of high fashion and hip-hop royalty, but the world here still feels curiously dated. In fact, the first time we glimpse Robin, the young secretary, she's bedazzled by getting an engagement ring affixed to her finger by her stodgy fiance.
Throughout much of the story she serves coffee to clients, makes cow eyes at Strike, and tidies up the office loo. The most intriguing unsolved mystery in "The Cuckoo's Calling" is why, in this post-Lisbeth Salander age, Rowling would choose to outfit her female lead with such meek and anachronistic feminine behavior.
No matter, Rowling is laughing all the way to the vault. Another Cormoran Strike novel, in what is already shaping up to be a blockbuster series, is set to come out in 2014. My advice is if you want to read a really spectacular detective story about a victim falling off a balcony, read Michael Connelly's 2011 novel, "The Drop," now out in paperback. His hero, "Harry" Bosch, is to detectives what Harry Potter is to boy wizards: the top of the line.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "The Cuckoo's Calling" by Robert Galbraith, a.k.a. J.K. Rowling. If you'd like to check it out for yourself, you can read an excerpt on our website freshair.npr.org where you can also download podcasts of our show. And you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.
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