Stand-up comedian Maria Bamford has been a leading voice in erasing stigmas about mental health, not only speaking frankly about her own defects onstage, but also being forthright in a web series (“The Maria Bamford Show”) as well as in her own Netflix series, Lady Dynamite, which over two seasons fictionalized her real-life comeback after multiple hospitalizations in 2011.
So it’s no surprise that she would go on to redefine the term “open book” when writing her first memoir, Sure, I’ll Join Your Cult.
How open is she? In chronicling her quest to quell decades of intrusive thoughts, anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation, Bamford describes childhood experiences trying to fit in through playing violin via the Suzuki method, and attending Dale Carnegie sessions with her father. She called a suicide hotline when she was 20, turning to bulimia in the wake of a college breakup, and the person on the other end of the phone steered Bamford to Overeaters Anonymous. As an adult, the comedian breaks her anonymity to share her experience, strength, and hope working various 12-step programs, including OA, Debtors Anonymous, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, and with her husband, Scott, Recovering Couples Anonymous.
She also hilariously informs readers of potentially triggering passages by putting them in bold Comic Sans font.
And Bamford, who went viral in 2017 after disclosing how much the University of Minnesota paid her to speak at her alma mater for graduation during her commencement speech, isn’t afraid to dish on what Gallery Brooks, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, paid her to write this memoir: $50,000 up front, another $50,000 upon publication, and then another $50,000 if it gets a paperback edition.
Why Bamford Avoids Traditional Comedy Clubs
Comedy fans may well have seen Bamford on social media soliciting fans wherever she happens to be at the time to become impromptu audiences (her 2017 Netflix special, Old Baby, took this conceit and ran with it), and in the book, she offers another explanation for eschewing comedy clubs.
“I go where the love is. But I don’t want anyone who doesn’t know exactly what they’re coming to see coming to see me. That means: goodbye, goodbye, ‘great crowd’ at a bar in my neighborhood! Hello, Zoom one-on-one show for a stranger I met on Twitter. Hello, whoever is willing to meet me in a Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot and laughs at everything I say! Yes, I’m sure my comedy suffers for it. I know I am limiting my work by keeping myself safe from rejection. But that’s okay. Life is short, and it’s more fun to spend it where you’re welcome.”
How The Artist’s Way Beamed Bamford Up
As a young comedian in Minnesota, Bamford got turned on to Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way by another then-unknown comic, Frank Conniff (Mystery Science Theater 3000), and doing those workbooks helped propel her to her first big break, and an eventual move to Los Angeles.
“‘The Artist’s Way’ helped me have the audacity to try things I probably wouldn’t have considered before. I was an ‘actor.’ I was a ‘comedian.’ I auditioned for parts I saw in the paper; I signed up with a commercial acting agency (a scam) that profited off of clients they represented as ‘everyday models’—which is not a real thing. (They tell you, ‘You have an everyman look,’ and then charge $1,500 for headshots.) I performed my video/character-based show that may or may not have been comedy at coffee shops at 5 p.m. And after two years of performing around the Twin Cities, I applied for a job as a costumed character for a live-show version of Star Trek at the Mall of America. I LOVED AUDITIONS BEFORE MOVING TO LA!”
Why Maria Impersonates Her Mother
Of the many voices that have become central to Bamford’s stand-up act, she says impersonating her mother started as a way to deflect her mom’s criticism of her looks and weight.
“In response, I learned to imitate her voice and began repeating, onstage, some of the things she had said that bothered me the most. My mom had such a strong personality that it never occurred to me that these impersonations might hurt her feelings.”
When Her Day Job And Her Comedy Overlapped Awkwardly
Bamford’s step-work with DA helped her find steady employment in Los Angeles, even if it wasn’t always glamorous. Such as answering phones at a reception desk for Nickelodeon.
“I was at Nickelodeon for one year and I was voted Employee of the Month the same month I got fired. After being fired, I won a voice-over role on their new series, ‘CatDog.’ They gave me a severance of two months pay and with that, I was able to move to a nicer neighborhood, get a dog, and begin earning more from stand-up than from temping. But I would still do anything for cash. I’ve answered phones for comedy development executives right after having pitch meetings with them. I worked eight hours at NBC4 reception after doing ‘The Tonight Show’ the night before. The weatherman walked by and said, “You were on Leno last night!” and kept walking. The gradual change into being a full-time performer took about as long as it took me to pay off my medical debt — eight years.”
Why Bamford Stopped Shilling For Target
For a few holiday seasons, Bamford also served as the commercial spokesperson for Target, which made sense for her finances and her Minnesota roots, and made her much more of a household face. But she says learning about the conditions of Target employees concerned her enough that she wrote to The New York Times’ Ethicist column in 2011, asking if she should continue pitching products for a company she no longer supported.
“The Ethicist column runs. An exec at Target (who is also a friend) calls me and asks if I wrote the letter. I lie and say it wasn’t me. I have a feeling he knows it’s me, and I am never asked to do Target commercials again. WOO-HOO!”
How Bamford Bounced Back From The Psych Ward
As Bamford has joked about in her sets and specials, she found herself institutionalized three times in 2011. At the first facility, the doctor looked up her Conan set from 1999 on his computer while he was meeting Bamford for the first time. At her second facility, a therapist cornered her and suggested the comedian try getting up at different clubs. Fortunately, her third intake took.
“Around one year after stabilizing from my third hospital stay, a weird thing happened. Right when I was really bored with telling my own story, someone else became excited to tell it.”
That someone was Mitch Hurwitz, who had previously hired her for a supporting role on his show, Arrested Development. Hurwitz and Pam Brady helped bring Lady Dynamite to life for Bamford in 2016. The show lasted two seasons on Netflix.
Why Bamford Suggests Calling Anyone—And She Means Anyone—For Help
Finally, she makes sure to include the suicide hotline numbers for readers to call if they feel down and out—if that seems like too much, she offers a humorous and effective workaround.
“Call AT&T! Call Dominos! Call an anti-abortion “clinic”! See if they’re pro-life for your life. All of their literature says “Life is a gift.” Have someone who answers their phone prove it to you. Yes, none of these are good and could be crap. But you deserve that free, shitty-ass crap help.”
If you or a loved one are struggling with suicidal thoughts, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by dialing or texting 988.
For more, listen to Maria Bamford on The Last Laugh podcast.