“I’m Peace. I have a Ph.D. in medieval studies. Which means I owe $200,000 in student loan debt at 49 percent interest rate! Whoops,” Maria Bamford quips as she introduces herself and the other endearingly in-debt characters in her new Funny or Die series, The Program.
Bamford and fellow L.A. comedian Melinda Hill co-wrote the show, which follows the journey of five members of a 12-step, Debtors Anonymous program. The two came up with the idea while carpooling to various Anonymous meetings that they “may or may not” have attended in L.A.
Read the rest of Stephanie’s review of The Program in her column about the best series on the web in the LA WEEKLY. Watch The Program on FunnnyOrDie. And check out with her full interview with Maria and Melinda below.
Can you tell me a little about how you two came up with the idea and when FunnyORDie got involved?
MARIA: I’ve been involved for 24 years with a number of anonymous support groups of various names that do not endorse this project in any way and I’ve just loved all the idiosynracies of the different “fellowships”. In my opinion- that in no way reflects the opinion of any said or unsaid group- they can be extremely helpful and – except for a basket passed around for volunteer donations- can be one of the most accessible free social services/community health services around. That said (or unsaid), it has its hilarious flaws.
So, when I found that Melinda had the same sense of humor about these groups- as well as deep appreciation for them- we just had a ton of fun just making up characters and situations in car rides to and from these groups that may or may not exist worldwide. We both wanted to create something as close to and as respectful (and funny) as we could- to celebrate this special culture of which LA has the MOST IN THE WORLD!
If it helps or doesn’t help- I may or may not have received tremendous support via AA, OA, DA, Al-Anon and SLAA. Oh. And I also LOVE GROUPS. It’s definitely not for everyone and as an atheist, I’ve had some problems with the spiritual part of it, but still manage to get a ton out of it- if in fact I am talking about the organization you may think I am talking or not talking about.
Melinda Hill as Kelsey in The Program, photo credit Mandee Johnson, FOD
Were you pitching ideas to them or did you shop the idea around once you had a pitch?
MARIA: Betsy at FOD was the only person we pitched to and she said yes.
Where did your ideas for the different characters come from and how did the cast come together? Were characters created for actors or did the actors get involved later?
MELINDA: My character Kelsey is actually a melding of 2 characters. We wrote a character who dates for food and is trying to marry rich and another character who is trying to break out of the sex industry and ultimately FOD only wanted 5 characters instead of 6 so we just combined the two. The newcomer (played by Jerry Minor) is written to be the voice of the audience, skeptical and possibly angry about having to be there.
MARIA: The characters were based on (I think) just versions of ourselves. I have said some pretty ridiculous things over and over again and though I try to be “spirituial” (READ: “more self-righteous”) and it’s fun to exaggerate parts of myself (or not exaggerate at all) and put the words in someone else’s mouth.
You have a great cast! Was there a lot of improv on set or did you pretty much stick to the script?
MARIA: There was some improv and some script- I was pretty in love with the words we wrote and -as this is the first work I’ve really done with others- I think I could have been more free with the improv, but hopefully, I will learn.
Any funny moments from shooting that stick out to you?
MARIA: I think the really funny part was realizing that something we talked about in Melinda’s Minicooper now had a crafts services table!
Maria Bamford in The Program, photo credit Mandee Johnson, FOD
How did writing together work? Did you each write episodes, break the story of the whole season, trade episodes or write it in the room together? Was there a notes process with FunnyOrDie?
MELINDA: We wrote in silver lake and eagle rock coffee shops, my living room and in the car. you can actually get a lot accomplished in a car, taking notes on an iPhone and cracking up! as long as the other person in the car with you is Maria Bamford.
MARIA: We have the whole season and we wrote it together.- there were some notes in the editing process from FOD- It was really exciting and we definitely have more to come. But I have a spending plan that I need to earn 100 a month for just personal hair services- ABUNDANCE!- so we definitely will need financial and creative support in order to make more.
How long was your shooting process for the first two episodes?
MARIA: 1 day.
How was working with Amy Rubin and how do you think her voice shaped the show?
MARIA: Amy is great and she had a lot of knowledge with her show Little Horribles- a really wonderful series. She’s so funny and I wish she could have been one of the characters!
I think the show is hilarious, but it also gets at some really interesting thought processes we have in our culture. Why do you think America need a comedy about debtors?
MARIA: It’s weird how- for me- I have this idea that it’s not enough to live within my means. THat somehow- and this has been when I’ve been living below the poverty line, busking for money on the street- or now that I have the cash cow of comedy for milk- there’s always this needling for more or better or throw money at it or money will make things better- even though it so clearly- throughout history has not. I didn’t know how AT ALL how to keep a job much less get a job or to manage money that I earned and a program like DA- if that’s in fact what I used- has/was/might have been extremely helpful to me- to have support on how to live “soberly” around money and work. Again, I have no idea what I’m talking about.
What’s next for the show?
MARIA: WE DON’T KNOW. There is a piece of literature from Business Owners Debtors Anonymous literature that says, “We detached from the business with a renewed commitment to the business.’ Keep coming back!
If you enjoyed this interview, check out Steph’s chat with Melinda Hill about her last web series: Romantic Encounters, also an LA Weekly Web Series Pick of the Week.