ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Now a story about a mother and daughter bound through impersonation. Comedian Maria Bamford imitates her mother for laughs on stage. And that got NPR's Alix Spiegel wondering about how that might've affected their relationship. Alix is co-host of NPR's new show about human behavior. It's called Invisibilia. And this week's episode is all about the idea of entanglement, the ways in which we are all invisibly connected.
ALIX SPIEGEL, BYLINE: In her professional life, Maria Bamford often plays her mom.
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MARIA BAMFORD: My mom - I'll tell you a little about myself. My mom told me before I went to my first girl-boy party in the eighth grade, she said, OK, remember what we talked about - gonorrhea, syphilis, herpes, one, two. Watch the cold sores. Date rape is a lot more common than people think. You look so gorgeous. Oh, Jenny's mom's here to pick you up. Well, have a good time.
SPIEGEL: Bits like this are standard in Bamford's act. Sometimes, the version of her mom that she plays is just funny because the mom can be so charmingly upbeat about the horrors of the world that it's hilarious. But sometimes the imitation feel like they're about elements in their relationship that have a darker side, like in this YouTube bit she did.
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MARIA BAMFORD: So sweetie are you taking a shower? Can I just get in their real quick and just show you something? Oh, I didn't know you were naked. Oh, sweetie, listen, if you want to get breast implants, we will support you - not financially, but emotionally.
SPIEGEL: So what happens when you mess in a very public way with an entanglement that's pretty complicated already - the emotional entanglement between mother and daughter - how does that affect things?
Will you tell me what you had for breakfast?
MARILYN BAMFORD: Oh, I had oatmeal.
MARIA BAMFORD: I had Bran Buds.
MARILYN BAMFORD: Greek yogurt.
MARIA BAMFORD: Rice milk.
SPIEGEL: On two different days, in two different states, with the blessing of both, we spoke to Maria and her mom, whose name is Marilyn Bamford, about this. We started with Maria, who said her mom imitations were some of the very first comedy bits she ever did and that, in the beginning, she did them to get a kind of distance or control over her relationship with her mother.
MARIA BAMFORD: For me, it was a time in life of, like, detaching from my family or detaching from, you know, what I think they want me to be. Like, my mom, I remember she did - or what I heard her say - of course, she may have a different feeling of what she said at the time, but she said if you don't wear makeup...
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MARIA BAMFORD: ...Honey, when you don't wear makeup, you look mentally ill. So now, when I go home, I'm certain to wear thick, green eye shadow and a line of lipstick around my lips. Baby look pretty now, mommy?
MARILYN BAMFORD: Oh, it feels like she's got me down perfectly in terms of voice, cadence, vocabulary. You know, she's...
SPIEGEL: And what about the things that you say? I mean...
MARILYN BAMFORD: Well, quite a bit of that is not exactly what I say. The one I think about was the one where she has me saying when you don't wear lipstick, you look mentally ill.
MARILYN BAMFORD: And she and I have gone back and forth about that because I - I know I didn't say it that way. I said you look depressed. I mean, that's my memory of it. On the other hand, she remembers what she remembers.
SPIEGEL: But, still, Marilyn doesn't seem disturbed at all by her daughter's impression of her, even by the things that she feels are misrepresentations of what she said or how she is. She sees the impression as helpful.
MARILYN BAMFORD: And so when I say something like, oh, I don't think I said that, and then we have a discussion about it, it is helpful in the end. But I know there are probably some times where I have chosen not to say anything about it because I'm not sure I want to discuss it or have the energy to discuss it.
MARIA BAMFORD: You know, I think the real reason you're down is because you're 36, and you look 36. And that's hard.
SPIEGEL: Do you learn anything about yourself from watching her imitation of you?
MARILYN BAMFORD: Oh, yes (laughter). I kind of remind myself of my mother. My mother was a believer that you put your lipstick on and you powdered your nose. And I think I see that there in myself and I say, oh, no (laughter). I don't want to be that way. But what can you do?
SPIEGEL: And speaking of inevitable gravity of being your mother, though Maria Bamford started her imitation to detach from her mom, it ended up having the reverse effect. It brought her closer.
MARIA BAMFORD: Like, it cheers me up to think about what she would say about things. Like, I like the idea that she has a certain point of view on life and things are certain or - or if I - if she's not around, I can make her be around. In terms of, like, I would like to be more like her as I get older. Like, I'm hoping that my impersonation just bleeds into - I'm her (laughter).
SPIEGEL: Are you really hoping that?
MARIA BAMFORD: Yeah. You know, I could just be the full-on Marilyn Bamford because she's a very likable person, you know? She's always bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. It's like, oh, honey, we're going - we're in Turkey and I wanted to call you because the hotel next door is on fire and your father is Vining it. We are going to have dinner tonight in the town square and everybody's out...
SPIEGEL: And Marilyn Bamford, in her own way, has experienced an unanticipated benefit from her daughter's impressions of her.
MARILYN BAMFORD: I think that many women my age who are, you know, catching up with 70, you know, feel kind of invisible. So therefore, when you have your daughter doing these really wonderful and gifted impressions of you, it makes you kind of immortal in some way. And that's kind of a lovely thing to happen at this age.
SPIEGEL: Maria had actually never heard this. And when we told her she made three noises.
MARIA BAMFORD: (Making noises) That's really - well, yeah, because my mom is such a delight.
SPIEGEL: Three noises that kind of sum up the entire messy relationship between children and their well-meaning parents. You, the child, feel deep affection and gratitude.
MARIA BAMFORD: (Making noise).
SPIEGEL: But, then, sometimes something mixes in - frustration, maybe.
MARIA BAMFORD: (Making noise).
SPIEGEL: At the imposition of those first emotions. Because to love your parents and to feel frustrated by the complexity and obligation of those relationships, are two realities that are forever entangled.
MARIA BAMFORD: (Making a noise).
SIEGEL: Alix Spiegel is co-host of NPR's new program, Invisibilia. You can hear the program on many public radio stations this weekend, and the podcast is available for download on npr.org and on itunes.com/npr.
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