The many voices of Maria Bamford

RAGHAV MEHTA | Updated 11/13/2013

Inside Minnesota-bred Maria Bamford's comedy of dysfunction.

Maria Bamford sounds frazzled.

“I’m so sorry, I’m so disorganized,” Bamford said by phone from her home in Los Angeles, just back from performing a standup gig in Anchorage, Alaska. “I get home and I get a bit discombobulated and everything goes to hell in a handbasket.”

That shouldn’t sound surprising for anyone semi-familiar with the comedian’s rather neurotic persona. The 43-year-old Duluth-reared comic is famous for her spot-on impressions and absurdist brand of humor, and over the course of two decades she has evolved into one of the most revered and original comedic voices of her generation. A favorite among the comedy intelligentsia for quite some time, Bamford now finally seems to be in the midst of a commercial breakthrough.

Recently she’s earned high praise from filmmaker Judd Apatow and appeared on standup kingpin Louis C.K.’s Emmy-winning series “Louie.” You might also recognize her from her recurring role as De­Brie Bardeaux on the latest season of “Arrested Development.”

“The character wasn’t too far from myself, which says something about me considering she was a methadone addict,” Bamford said.

Bamford — who returns to Minnesota to headline Acme Comedy Co. for five nights Nov. 19-23 — is in a league of her own, stylistically. Her comedy teeters on performance art, equal parts absurdist and self-effacing. Employing her reliably dexterous voice, she creates characters that are so well-defined you can picture their faces. The bulk of her material draws from the darker corners of her reality, as she delves into her crippling mental health issues, the often bleak and shallow nature of show business, and her loving yet occasionally dysfunctional family.

But despite her mounting success, Bamford seems remarkably humble. Over the phone, she is candid, sweet and personable. Her responses are punctuated with nervous laughter, and she’s devoid of the air of grandeur or self-assuredness that is typical of comedians of her stature.

It’s a quality that her longtime manager, Bruce Smith, noticed immediately when he first met with Bamford 13 years ago.

“I was struck by how docile, friendly and pure of a personality she was,” Smith said. “There was nothing about Maria that played to the aggressive side of show business. There are very few people who approach it in a gentle manner.”

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"My family [plays a game] called ‘Joy Whack-a-Mole,’ ” Bamford explains on her latest album, “Ask Me About My New God!” “What happens is, somebody brings up something they’re really happy about and the other person tries to slam it down!

Her family remains the central theme in Bamford’s standup, especially her relationship with her mother, Marilyn, a retired family therapist. This summer Bamford launched a web series titled “Just Ask My Mom” — a faux-advice show in which she plays her mother. Her family portrayals can be brutally honest and revealing, which her parents say has generated some discomfort over the years.

“There are some things where I remember it differently but, you know, you can’t fight about that stuff. It’ll drive you crazy,” Marilyn Bamford said. “It can be mortifying, but it’s funny.”

“There [are] things that are true that maybe I should be embarrassed about,” added her father, Joel Bamford, “but they just make you laugh so hard.”

Maria is a 1988 alumnus of Marshall School in Duluth. Although the comedian routinely refers to herself as an introvert, her mother recalls that Bamford was a relatively active member of her class, socially and academically. In her senior year she was the Winter Frolic Queen, class president and member of the National Honor Society.