About a year ago, Maria Bamford lost someone very close to her.
“I’m in a bunch of those 12-step situations — cults -– that are free,” she explained to us by phone recently. “And they always want you to choose a higher power. And so Blossom was my higher power. She was so relaxed, and she knew what she wanted. Did you already hear the terrible story?”
We had heard the terrible story. Being fans of Bamford’s work as a stand-up comic and actress, we had gotten wind of Blossom’s death about a year ago.
“I failed as a human being,” Bamford recalls.
She had absentmindedly moved a ramp leading from the rear of her house down into the backyard -– a ramp habitually used by Blossom, her portly, elderly Pug.
“[She] extreme-sportsed it four feet to her death below,” Bamford says. “I know she would have forgiven me. The reason I [moved the ramp] was because I was anxious and running around without thinking very much, and I know Blossom could have related to that. Sometimes she’d scrape at the door until all the paint came off, because she got anxious.”
She hastens to add that, “had the shoe been on the other foot, I know that as soon as a few hours had passed, she would have eaten me.”
Bamford’s distinct work in stand-up has moved her to front rank of American comedians. Revealing, self-deprecating, and impressionistic with a gift for creating spot-on characterizations, Bamford was part of The Comedians of Comedy tour with Patton Oswalt, Zach Galifianakis, and Brian Posehn, and she’s known to millions as the high-strung star of a series of holiday-themed television commercials for Target.
She has never made a secret of her devotion to her pets. Pugs Blossom and Bert were often referenced in her stand-up material, and they even made it onto the cover of Bamford’s acclaimed CD, Unwanted Thoughts Syndrome. And yet she didn’t become a dog owner until she was 30, when Blossom came into her life.
Bamford’s mom has a fur allergy, which prevented the family from having dogs or cats growing up, but there were still plenty of pets in the household.
“We had many fish that died quickly,” Bamford recalls. “I had hermit crabs, which I earned through political campaigning -– door hanging -– for a school board candidate. She gave us a hermit crab apiece. I named mine Budweiser. And we had two chickens: Kermit and Puddles. We painted their toenails to tell them apart. They were a delight until my mom decided that it was getting cold, and they were stinky, so she didn’t want them in the garage. So we took them to two different farms where they were almost pecked to death -– I could not leave them there. My dad suggested we leave them at an egg farm, an unmarked warehouse in the woods, in a box with no note. He said they’d be fine.”
When she got Blossom in 2000, they quickly became boon companions, traveling together and bonding.
“I did holding therapy with Blossom,” Bamford says, “which is what you do with kids who have attachment disorder. So I’d hold her by the haunches, and we’d stare at each other for five minutes. I’d try to hold her gaze, although she’d try to look away … because it was weird. [Laughter] I felt so much closer to her! And she was like, ‘Wait a minute. Which one of us has attachment disorder?’”
Moving from an apartment into a house allowed her to increase her menagerie to two. In 2007, she got another Pug, Bert, who is, according to Bamford, “the softest dog in the world” –- as well as blind.
Since Blossom’s death last year, Bamford has been rather hard on herself. The self-accusations have included “manslaughter” (in a Facebook post) and “neglect” (in our conversation).
“It’s not murder,” she allows, “but it is neglect. People have told me their stories. Like, ‘I kept taking my dog on a walk without a leash, and this car hit him. I got another puppy, and I didn’t want to put him on a leash, and he got hit by another car. Anyways, I’m on my fifth dog, and I just don’t want to put him on a leash.’ And that has made me feel a whole lot better. If you Google, ‘I killed my loved one by accident,’ you will find many stories of people who have left their babies in hot cars. I mean, everyone’s doing the best they can, but sometimes that’s not very good. I hope I’ve changed, but I don’t know if I have. One would hope that after I neglected my dog I would have stopped drinking so much coffee and started a 45-minute meditation/mindfulness practice every morning.”
But Bamford didn’t have to wait too long before another canine compatriot brought new joy into her life.
“A week after Blossom died, I was in a terrible state,” she says. “I was at a local coffee shop, drowning my sorrows in giant iced coffees, and there was a picture of a Chihuahua who looked overweight, but I realized that’s because the picture was squished down. When I saw her, she was actually quite slender.”
Bamford says that caring for Blueberry, as she came to be called, “is much like having a child who is too much like you. She is thin and shaky, and constantly needs love and attention. It’s like looking in a mirror. Blossom was very relaxed and seemed like she couldn’t care less. She just ate and ate and ate and ate with a joy that I don’t allow myself. And Blueberry eats a little bit like her mama -– little bits, nervously. I’m trying to get her to put on some pounds.”
Her stand-up travel requires Bamford to rely on a small but close group of friends to care for her dogs while she travels to clubs like Helium in Portland, Cobb’s in San Francisco, and Toronto’s Comedy Bar.
Beyond her usual stand-up touring schedule, Bamford has enjoyed a particularly productive and busy year. She guest-starred on Louis CK’s hit comedy series, Louie, and recently filmed a small role on the upcoming fourth season of Arrested Development. She also has a direct-to-fans downloadable comedy special coming out during the holidays.
But the dogs remain a vitally important constant in her life. Last fall, Bamford wrote a powerful, moving memoir of Blossom for Good Magazine, in which she remembered in rare detail the connection she had with her dog.
When we pointed out that a lot of people say that they love their pets but rarely describe at length what the connection is really about, she simply observed, “It’s super-intense, that’s what’s happening. And sometimes you love someone … but you totally fall short.”