Maria Bamford Is Just Being Honest — About Her Mental Health, About How Much Money She Makes and About Finding Meaning on a Southwest Flight
Early on in Crowd-Pleaser!, the terrific new stand-up record from Maria Bamford which dropped in July, the comic talks about a friend who got mad at her for telling jokes about 12-step groups — the very same groups that have probably helped keep Bamford alive. Bamford’s response is simple — “Why else be alive except to make fun of things that are important to you?” — but it also serves as an unofficial thesis for the impressive body of work she’s created over the years.
Speaking candidly about her struggles with mental health — among other things, she’s sought help for anxiety and depression, attended meetings for Debtors Anonymous, experienced suicidal ideation and dealt with eating disorders and intrusive thoughts — the 52-year-old performer (who was the star of the semi-autobiographical Netflix series Lady Dynamite) has consistently turned her personal pain into comedy, but not the sort with tidy little homilies and falsely encouraging sentiments. On Crowd-Pleaser!, Bamford takes us on a tour of grief, insecurity, despair, hospice care and incompetent surgeons, her halting, off-kilter delivery often hinting at the emotional tumult going on within her.
If I had any criticism of the album, it’s that there’s no visual component: Seeing Maria Bamford is part of what makes her stand-up so funny but also so gripping, her exaggerated facial expressions and intense eyes communicating as much as her words. And then, of course, there are the array of voices she employs on stage, each of them suggesting different emotional textures and mindsets, one sometimes commenting on another. If you didn’t know better, you’d swear her public persona was highly affected, but in truth, that’s just how she interacts with the world. Bamford is unafraid to show her true self to an audience — and then getting them to find her worldview darkly hilarious.
Crowd-Pleaser! provides us with a glimpse into her psyche, and so does her brand new memoir, which is even more intimate. Out on September 5th, Sure, I’ll Join Your Cult finds Bamford looking back on her life, sometimes incorporating material from her stand-up sets but then blindsiding the reader with a fresh observation so touching and vulnerable that it stops you short. (An anecdote about how she will gradually wander away from her husband Scott at the airport when he’s not noticing is one of the most beautiful encapsulations of the trust and insecurity built into a long-term relationship I’ve ever encountered.) Taken together, the album and the book lay bare her Duluth childhood and her complicated relationship with her parents Marilyn and Joel and her older sister Sarah. There’s a lot of love there, but also the usual family dysfunction exacerbated by Bamford’s mental-health battles. The two works speak to one another, each enriching the other.
The impact of her mom’s death is one of the foundations of Crowd-Pleaser! and Sure, I’ll Join Your Cult, but since then, her father has also passed, and both losses were heavy on Bamford’s mind when I reached her in early August at her Los Angeles home over Zoom. Wearing green fingernail polish, funky cat-eye glasses and a powder-blue hooded sweatshirt, she was open and talkative, although it was impossible to miss the tremor in her right hand as we chatted. She speaks in interviews the same way she speaks on stage — intonation shifting on a dime, different voices emerging, perhaps more willing to meander if a thought gets into her head. (I wasn’t expecting to discuss the poet Robert Lowell or L.A.’s homeless crisis, but I was happy to follow wherever she led.)
Throughout, she exuded such sweetness, but there was also the same unashamed vulnerability that pops up in Sure, I’ll Join Your Cult. In some ways, presenting a Maria Bamford interview in print form is limiting — it’s not just what she says but how she says it that makes her so engaging and original. But like in her book, she cannot help but be brutally honest — complete with dry, deadpan asides and the occasional wisecrack. Below, we talk about what it’s like not to have her parents around anymore, her feelings about sexually-abusive male stand-ups mounting comeback tours, why she doesn’t like bombing despite loving “weird” comedy and what makes her most jealous of other comics.
Crowd-Pleaser! and Sure, I’ll Join Your Cult feel like companion pieces. I wondered if it was intentional that they’re coming out around the same time.
It (just) happened that way. But there are elements (in the book) … (on) the album, I do talk about my membership in 12-step programs, so it’s very complementary. Hopefully I don’t recycle. I always get mad: I remember getting a book by a comedian and going like, “This is just their act printed out!” And I have done a little of that — yes, I have. But at least I put in recycled icons next to it (in the book when I do it).
It’s one of the elements I really love about the book: You make it clear in the intro, basically saying, “Look, some of this stuff is from my act, so just deal with it.”
Yeah, I just figured there’s probably some people who don’t listen to (my stand-up act). Also, I’ve set a low bar for myself — unlike Robert Lowell. I’ve read, I think, three biographies about Robert Lowell, the poet. Some people have high standards of what they want to create — so much so that it takes a long time to write anything. It took me about four years to write this thing — it’s just ridiculous.
Why did you read so many books about Robert Lowell?
He’s an American poet — he was super-alcoholic, kind of a very depressive dude, and then had a number of volatile relationships. But the last one stuck — that lady was with him until he died. I also like the most recent bio about Sylvia Plath (Red Comet) — that’s also very good and really interesting. It seemed like she just was changing meds, and that was part of the reason she may have killed herself — or at least it seemed to me from the biography. Anyways, I love a depressing memoir of an art form I don’t understand. I don’t totally understand poetry, so it helps me distance myself.
I can imagine some people who experience suicidal ideation wouldn’t want to read books about artists like that because it’s triggering. You don’t seem to mind.
I love it. I love to hear how it was terrible and then maybe it got better again and then it got terrible again. I do not want to read a confident memoir: someone whose life has been a delight after a delight — or not a delight after delight, but a challenging time that gave them inner strength. What?
The new album and book discuss 12-step programs, but I was thinking there’s also this cottage industry of inspirational memoirs: “I had one bad thing happen to me, but I licked it — and now you, lucky reader, can learn from my example of how to become a better person.”
I just have a feeling that the next memoir they come out with will be, “Guess what? I didn’t tell you about this whole other thing that was going on — I was doing coke during that one memoir.” Which is beautiful, but I don’t know.
I love a massive before and after picture where somebody’s like, “Before, I was pathetic and estranged, and now I’m connected and beloved.” But I feel like that’s a daily process — that’s pre-Nitro Cold Brew/post-Ben & Jerry’s little pint. I can’t even handle a whole pint now — I used to be able to handle a whole pint back in the day. Now I’m taken out by a little pint — you know, one of those tiny ones that you can get from the gas station?
What happens to you if you have a whole pint?
I keep crying. I will be crying within an hour, talking about something truly insoluble: “Why are (so many people) unhoused?” I think everyone would appreciate that, outside the Department of Social Services in Los Angeles, there is a hundred-person line. I went through the line with a friend the other day, and what happens after two hours of waiting in the hot sunshine, you’re brought into a number of different corridors where they tell you you’re going to the wrong corridor. And then you finally meet, oh my god, it’s the dwarf under the bridge that you are meant to meet, and he says, “Oh yeah, there’s no housing.” Well, yeah, we figured that. That’s when I have a pint of Häagen-Dazs and really call it for the day. We went to Jack in the Box.
I knew your memoir would be funny, but I wasn’t quite prepared for how tender and moving it was — especially when you talk about your late mother. Did that surprise you while you were writing it?
My mom passed away when I was writing. My dad passed away about four months ago. They’re the best, but I haven’t had that feeling of whatever the idealistic thing about relationships is: “Oh, we’re just best friends! Oh, my mom, we talked every day! My husband and I, god, we knew from the first minute…” I’ve never had that experience with anybody. My mom held me at a distance. But I love her so much.
The weird thing is, there was an odd feeling — and this was later after she passed — of relief, just because of the expectations and standards I had going on in my head that were her voice. Hopefully I’ve internalized them and so I can just continue to criticize myself…
(My mom) was so self-critical and she had a high degree of anxiety — she wrote down her weight next to the date. To what end? I don’t know. But I think, in some ways, she was suffering under a perfectionism.
Your mom kept a journal when you were a kid?
She wrote every day. She has hundreds of these journals that my sister has — they’re prayer lists, people she’s praying for. Then sometimes she’ll put down something slightly personal like, “I’m worried about Sarah. I’m worried about Joel’s health.” But mostly, it’s travel stuff and food — she’ll write down what she’s eaten.
She loved to read and she also loved bling. She loved anything that tasted of prestige. She loved show business, but she didn’t want to be in the spotlight at all. She tried writing a book once, and she showed it to some horrible person who said, “Oh, I don’t know where to begin,” or something monstrous, so then she just never picked it up again. But the creative thing she did, she could knit, and also she was a connector of humans. She liked doing that, connecting people.
I’ve had friends lose parents, and they mention that the relationship with their mom and dad doesn’t end with their death — it just changes. Has that been the case for you?
I do feel super-lonely without them here. I’m not a spiritual person, really — I’m very science-based, so I know there’s a place in my brain where I can make her kind of come alive to me. It makes me sad — I don’t feel her presence always, except in memory, and knowing that my mom and my dad in their best moments just wanted me to be happy.
My dad got very depressed near the end of his life, and I don’t know if that was a result of the grief of my mom leaving. He did everything he could to take care of himself. He went to grief therapists — he got on Prozac. He dated — he met this wonderful lady, Mary, they had some good times. Then he just kept losing weight, and he kind of did this Karen Carpenter thing where he was like, “I’m fat” — he didn’t want to get big. It was very strange, because I always thought my mom was the source of (my) eating-disorder stuff — I think my dad had a hand in it, too. Me and Scott put on weight over the quarantine, and he kind of poked us, going, “What happened? What’d you guys do over the quarantine?” — and I was like, “Oh, maybe this is where it’s from.” Anyways, he lost so much weight, and we kept begging him to eat more. And then he got COVID, and within about 48 hours he had passed.
He got very grumpy with us — especially my sister, even though she was doing all the heavy lifting. She was there in town, being loving, being attentive — and he was just like, “Girl, why (don’t) you leave me alone?” Whereas I, pretty princess who’s far away doing nothing, was (treated like), “Oh, Maria…”
You’ve done so much stand-up about the hard things in your life. Have you started thinking of material about your dad’s passing?
Well, I don’t know — I feel kind of ashamed. I think, “Should I do stuff about my parents anymore?” And at the same time, have you read The Giving Tree? Depressing, inappropriate children’s book that should never be read aloud to a child. But I like The Giving Tree, and (comedy) is what I have — it’s all I have to give, really, is this stump and have a seat. (Laughs)
Somebody was asking me (about) doing a whole show as my mother and my dad, just because they are comforting characters. So we’ll see. But, yeah, I miss them terribly. And I get so mad that I didn’t think they were going to die, because they took such good care of themselves. And my mom especially — I couldn’t believe (she got) Stage 4 lung cancer. She never smoked, so it’s just bananas. But that’s what life is: bananas for everybody. I have some new jokes about my mom. Nothing about my dad.
In your stand-up, you’ve joked about Sarah being the more beloved daughter. Hearing that your dad gave her a hard time at the end made me think, “At last! Maria’s on top of the pecking order!”
I feel so bad for my sister, because it really turned a corner when I got a TV show, and then she left medicine and became a life coach. It was like, “Oh, man, I’m sorry — I mean, they’re (still) going to love you, but…” Life coaching is wonderful, too, and my sister has helped me a lot — but, yeah, my mom likes something shiny in her beak, and “physician” really, really did it.
My sister’s so funny. She’s a wonderful person and character herself. She started painting and now she’s selling her paintings. (Laughs) I’m scared that my sister's going to become a comedian — then I’m going to be like, “Ugh!” Wouldn’t that teach me something? I don’t know what it would teach me…
Was comedy a way to help you differentiate yourself from your sister? “I can do stand-up. I can do improv. These things are hard, and I can do it and she can’t.”
I don’t think anyone thought it was hard. Maybe she wouldn’t say this, but when we were younger, I saw (my sister) as an extremely confident person who didn’t really question herself. I know now that probably wasn’t true, that she was much more vulnerable or sensitive than I thought. But, yeah, I did public speaking from an early age — I did the violin, which got me on stage. I think being the identified weirdo of the family, that gave me some prestige, like, “Well, is Maria okay?” That was my diamond for quite a bit: “What is she? Oh god…” (Laughs)
When I began becoming more mainstream — on some level, successful — it felt confusing for me where I was like, “Well, I once was in a hippie cooperative.” (She shifts to her more snooty, polished, deeply affected voice) “And now I’m living in Los Feliz, and I have a pug…”
You just shifted into your sultry “Diane” voice from Lady Dynamite, when you seduce Brandon Routh’s character, who doesn’t know that’s not how you usually speak. Where did that voice originate? To me, it sounds like your impression of how a sophisticated, worldly, confident woman is “supposed” to sound.
Seven or eight years old, I would just mimic commercials on TV. (She does the voice again, with extra elegance) “Pearl Drops tooth polish: It’s a great feeling!” Just to get attention and also get some laughs — I liked getting laughs as a kid. I remember one summer I told everyone that my name was Blueberry and that you needed to call me Blueberry, and that’s the way it was.
(That voice) is like Elizabeth (Holmes) — the whole persona, and then she said, “Oh, yeah, that’s not me.” (Laughs) I mean, that’s just true: If you have a deeper voice — if you’re in a room and it’s all men — your voice will not be heard if it’s female and high. At least that’s my experience — even (around) women, the deepest voice prevails, unless you’re crying.
Early on, my sister and I had the same voice, so sometimes people would say, “Oh, you’re talking like a baby.” And you’re inside your head, so you don’t realize what your voice sounds like. I remember Adam Corolla and Dr. Drew would do their show, Loveline, and (their) theory was, the age the voice a woman sounds is the age she was molested. Well, that sounds compassionate! But it’s like code-switching on some level: “I’m going to get people to pay attention to me. I can belong better if I can change my voice.”
Do you catch yourself talking to people in a different voice when you don’t feel comfortable?
When I first started doing stand-up and moved to L.A., I was probably more theatrical. My voice went higher because I was so anxious. Sometimes you’ll see a younger person being more of a character because (of) fear — just terror — and I know I must have done that, because I was just scared of human rejection. But now I have no ambition. (Laughs)
You’ve mentioned this idea in the past — how you’re not ambitious anymore — but how much of that is a joke and how much of it is how you feel these days?
Well, it’s not true, obviously, because otherwise I wouldn’t be doing this interview. (Laughs) I really would like people to talk to me. It’s a defensive stance — it’s going, “Well, I didn’t want anything anyways!” And there is some truth to it.
I’ve had a number of dreams come true, and the dreams coming true don’t necessarily feel as you thought they would. So… why am I working toward that? (Laughs) Sometimes the outcome of dreams coming true is suboptimal. (Laughs) So maybe I could slow my roll on getting so fast through the goals happening.
What things make me happy? Well, rolling around on the floor, giggling with my friends. What other things are fun? Meeting a giant pit bull inside the Jack in the Box. I love Jack in the Box that they’re letting this giant pit bull with a Raiders jersey in so that I can pet his belly. Those kinds of things might be the thing that I should be going toward rather than trying to get cast in a TV series.
In the book, you mention being happy working in smaller rooms if that’s the size of your audience. Other comics would think, “No, I want my audience to get bigger and bigger. I want to bend them to my will until they get what’s so brilliant about me.” But that’s not your inclination.
That depends on what’s enjoyable to you about any art form. What’s enjoyable to me is doing stuff that is confusing, that you have to think about, that’s funny and ridiculous — probably only to me. Something that I like about comedy is the weirdo-ness of it. Having a lot of people who don’t “get it,” that’s fun for me. (Laughs) This is embarrassing — obviously it’s not true, but I know there must be some grandiosity in it where I go, “Well, the reason my crowds are so small is because those are the only people who (are smart enough to get it).” Which is ridiculous.
I have a new joke: “A comedian brought me up recently on stage and said, ‘Is everybody ready to have a good time?’ I am not a good time. I am an assignment from a therapist. I am a comedian other comedians come to go, ‘Huh...’ I am someone who can fill a room in Portland on a Tuesday.” I think that is a point of pride for me — that was looked down (on) in my family: “Oh, something for everyone. For everyone? It must be not that good.”
My dad had a way of marketing things that made it only possible for no one to participate. He had a first world congress of trampoline jogging in Duluth — I believe maybe three people attended at the local Best Western. He did a second world congress — there was a song written, his friend Tony wrote the song, they performed it on guitar, and I believe there were about six people who participated then. He never did a third world congress. That’s the kind of career I’d like to have: “Where are we going with this?” (Laughs)
There’s something very funny to me with that — but also probably kind of a “Fuck you, I don’t want to participate.” I bite the hand that feeds me, which is unattractive. And look, also, I’m very jealous of the people who are crowd-pleasers (where) people are just like, “Oh my god, I’m dying” who can make an arena explode. Like Howie Mandel, who I opened for and I bombed in front of, I just go, “Wow, I would love that.” There’s some jealousy there. That hasn’t been my experience — I haven’t been able to do that. And so I go the opposite way and go, “Well, I didn’t want to do that.”
And yet, you write in Sure, I’ll Join Your Cult that you don’t “embrace the bomb.” You don’t enjoy the experience of dying on stage in front of an audience that doesn’t get you.
It feels terrible.
How does that square with “Fuck you, I don’t want to participate”?
Stephen Colbert has spoken about that he loved going up at the White House (Correspondents’) Press Dinner. Man, no, thank you. I love the idea of that, and I’ve definitely done that, performed at people. It was (for) a magazine like Psychiatric Today or something like that — the person who hired me was a big fan, nobody else was. I performed at a giant group of therapists about what I think.
I think it just makes me feel sad — although I love watching that as a comedian from the back. If someone’s making everyone uncomfortable, yay, I enjoy watching that. But being the person doing that, just “teaching people a lesson” or having a roast situation, I just don’t have a lot of experience doing that. I don’t know if it’s being raised as a girl in Northern Minnesota where that just wasn’t a thing — we didn’t have a practice of parliamentary debate. But I know when I’ve tried to do it, I just end up feeling really bad. And again, I just feel a huge jealousy (for) people who can do it, because it is beautiful to watch somebody just really make some important points to a not-very-enthused audience.
Do you ever get the sense that your fans worry about you and want to take care of you because you talk so honestly about the struggles that you have with mental health?
If they do, that’s a secondary form of health care — start talking about what’s going on. Get some eyes on your situation. But, obviously, they shouldn’t be worrying about me because I am a multimillionaire who has all the health care possible and all the resources — so, please, take a look at somebody who might need help.
If somebody says, “Hey, Maria, you’re talking too fast” or “It seems like you’re out of your gourd,” then that’s great, awesome. That’s why I talked about (my struggles) in the first place — I would like to know if I seem off. But it’s also condescending if somebody’s like (patronizing tone), “Hey…” My husband said, when we got married, a couple of comics came up to him and said, “You take care of her.” It’s like, I bought a house in Southern California — I think I’m doing pretty good over here. (Laughs)
But does that make it harder to do stand-up if people are worried about you? You want them to laugh, not be concerned about how you’re holding up.
Well, I think that’s also the thing of anybody having a disability. (Lifts her shaking hand) I have a bit of a tremor, partially due to Depakote, but maybe partly genetic, as well as coffee. People are more comfortable seeing somebody who’s drinking on stage, who’s using drugs — somehow that’s okay. Or let’s say somebody’s joking about hating their wife on stage: They might hate their wife. Are you worried about that? Are you worried about several comedians in the industry who are touring right now who are unregistered sex offenders? I mean, the great thing about that, the tour, we know where they’re at. (Laughs)
I would prefer someone saying that they’re getting help. Oh my god, I would love if sex offenders, if you are getting help, talk about it — please. I would love anybody to go on stage and talk about their process of how they started, continued and then stopped (grooming) people (in an) authority-figure position, manipulating them into sexual relationships. I would love to see that addressed on a comedy stage.
And yet, it seems like none of the abusers you’re referring to are doing that as part of their act now. They’re not examining that part of themselves.
(I’m) not more (offended about this) than the sex offense itself, but as a comedian, I just go, “Fuck off. Take this: This is the subject you need to talk about. Is there any way out for people to recover from this?”
I’m not a fan of whatever monstrous, horrible things that seem to keep happening, but I’m not a fan of just locking people up and going, “Okay, it’s human trash now and we just keep them in a ditch.” I would rather something else. Obviously, I don’t know anything — but at the very least, as a comedian, how dare you not talk about it? I get so mad about it. But that’s from a judgmental place — I’m obviously extremely judgmental and I am angry. And it’s not that funny.
I was amazed that you took time during the memoir to actually provide a spreadsheet of your income and your expenses. Putting your business literally out there, what is the impetus for you to do that?
Part of it’s OCD where I feel like I’ve got to tell everybody everything — there’s something about it that’s compulsive, for sure. There’s also an attention-getting factor where I go, “I’m going to share something taboo that people might get mad about,” so there’s that hit of dopamine. It’s defensive, too — it’s like saying, “This is what I’m doing. Is this okay?” So then at least I can get some feedback. (Laughs)
I love open-book accounting. I have really appreciated it when somebody like (Naomi) Judd, who died of suicide, she went bankrupt, and she talked about how she came back from it. She’s taking Southwest all the time. I really appreciated those stories of the reality of money — that it goes out and it comes in.
I definitely have had fantasies like, “Oh, when I get this chunk of change…” But that's the weird thing: With the book, I was like, “Well, of course I’ll write a book — they just said they’d give me $150,000!” Why don’t you read the contract, Maria? It’s $46,000 in the beginning, and then did not think that the next time I would get paid was when I (turned in) the book — which was only “done” when the publisher said it was done. That’s four years later I get the next chunk of change. Then I don’t get the next chunk of change until it comes out on softcover, which could be another three years from now. That’s a seven-year process. Interesting to know, had I read the contract.
Also, in this era of billionaires and hundreds of thousands living on the street, what am I doing in my own little economy? I’d been surprised by my own blindness — I headline different clubs, which I’m very lucky to do, and let’s say I do Portland and I do very well in Portland, so I get $25,000. Take out all the costs, including about 17.5 percent to commissions, taxes, et cetera — maybe I will get, like, $17,000. The middle act will still be only offered by the club around 150 bucks, and that is what everyone was offered 30 years ago. If I don’t know that as a headliner — or they don’t know how much I’m earning — that’s bizarre. I mean, it’s like people going, “Wait, the CEO is getting a billion dollars a year, and then they’re nickel-and-diming me on my hourly?” So that’s the information I’d like to give out — also to tell on myself, “Okay, I want to pay my friend who’s opening for me the best, so $1,200 plus air and hotel, hopefully.”
I don’t even know if (my attitude) is right: What if I earned just as much as the opener, because I don’t need it anymore. I just said I was a multimillionaire — I don’t need it. Why am I so ashamed about (talking about) money? Money is just really emotional for me, even though I have enough of it.
You have a great bit where you discuss the long wait times on suicide hotlines, mentioning that you got through at Hertz much faster. Also, you suggest it might make sense to call the pro-life people since they’re so big on preserving lives. Did you actually ever call one of those groups to see how they’d react to you saying you were having suicidal thoughts?
I have. Now, I called them during an off-hour, so I just got an answering machine. But I would like to do it and I should do it — I’ll do it with my husband and just see how it goes. Because I did call Hertz, and Hertz was very pleasant and they were very helpful, and the lady was very sweet on the phone.
But I haven’t done the research and called (pro-life groups) — but I bet they’d be lovely because they’d be like, “Oh, my gosh, I’m so sorry you’re feeling down.” I can’t imagine they wouldn’t be lovely.
Tell me more about the Hertz conversation. In that moment, were you doing that out of desperation?
Over the quarantine when I wrote that joke, I was generally feeling bad, and so I did try the suicide prevention (line). I texted, and I think (the wait time) was around 45 minutes — I thought that was partly very funny, but then also I was sad. I’m more of a suicide armchair-quarterback — I’m always about the ideation. There’s only one time in my life where I was really frightened for myself and then I was hospitalized — which suggests a lack of commitment in being committed. (Laughs)
When I called Hertz, I wanted to do research for the joke, but also was wondering what someone might say. And she was perfectly supportive. I think that is something when we say “You’ve got to go get help somewhere special” — I think we’re not giving more credit to human beings around us. Everybody has something within themselves. There’s a 12-step group I used to go to, and there would be people in the group who were just looking for a place to sit down. They weren’t necessarily there at all to talk about their feelings — they just wanted to sit down where it wasn’t raining. And I remember talking to somebody after a meeting who had more intelligent, thoughtful things to say to me — like, “You’re beautiful and you’re doing wonderfully. I mean, look at what a beautiful person you are.” Somebody who gave me just as uplifting thoughts as anybody else would.
We all have something to give each other. So just look toward the person next to you on the Southwest flight. You don’t know — they might have something deep to say. Probably not. (Laughs)