At the end of Maria Bamford’s last special, Local Act, she did something most stand-up comedians are loathe to do: she stopped talking. Instead of having the last word, she invited people from the crowd to take her place on stage to tell some jokes while she watched, laughing freely.

“The thing I love most about comedy is that it’s democratic,” she explains. “At open mics, everybody gets three minutes even if they’re doing hate speech, though hopefully that’s not going on. It’s a place to go that’s free and I’ve benefitted from it for professional and mental health reasons. Life, in my opinion, is horrendously unfair. So, I was like, why not say everybody gets to do a comedy special? Who gives a shit?”

Comic Maria Bamford.

Comic Maria Bamford.

Bamford is now firmly established as an icon of alternative comedy with appearances in offbeat cult classics like Arrested Development and Portlandia and her own loosely autobiographical Baby Dynamite. Both Judd Apatow and Stephen Colbert have nominated her as their favourite comic.

The 53-year-old comedian has earned her place in the pantheon by circumventing the clichés and norms of her art form: she filmed a special with an audience of just her parents, and another in which she performed in a front yard, a bowling alley and, finally, a packed theatre where she invited everyone to join hands in a childhood game called ‘One Big Blob’.

Her stand-up is wildly inventive, constantly shifting tones and bouncing between ideas at breakneck speed. Bamford’s ability to change from one colourful voice to another is always a feature; her uncanny gift for mimicry has also seen her carve out a parallel career as a voice actor in animated series like Big Mouth, Adventure Time and BoJack Horseman.

Talking over Zoom from her Californian home, where her handsome rescue pug Muffin sporadically leaps into view, she explains her upcoming Australian tour will reprise some of Local Act as well as brand new routines. “There’s some classic mental health experience stuff that I continue to be interested in. And I’m excited about my 10 years of marriage, but I don’t have any huge jokes about that. Perhaps by the time I get there, I’ll at least have a couple of good faces to make about it.”

Bamford also expects to return to a recurring fascination, personal finance. Just as her work has been radically honest around her mental health conditions and treatment, she’s been unusually transparent in disclosing how much she earns and pays collaborators (those who took the stage in her special earned US$1200 each, if anyone’s asking) and even broke down the total net wealth of her and her husband in her recent memoir, Sure, I’ll Join Your Cult.

It’s been an eventful five years since Bamford last toured Australia, but she has vivid memories of the “Shangri-la” she found in our comedy festival circuit. “I had no idea what arts funding can do for a nation,” she recalls of that visit. “I immediately felt these were my people. I’d never experienced anything like that wide variety of comedy; it was exquisite.”

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