making it

Maria Bamford’s New York Fantasy Camp

Illustration: Samantha Hahn

This article originally appeared in Making It, a newsletter featuring conversations about craft, cash, and compromise, with Emily Gould. Sign up here.

Maria Bamford’s new memoir, Sure, I’ll Join Your Cult, has everything in it that most memoirs leave out. She tells you how much she got paid to write it, first of all: $250K, divided into four payments, one contingent on a paperback that may or may not happen, and minus taxes and commission, of course. Then she tells you how much she paid professional editors to help her write it: $50K. There’s even a chapter where she breaks down a month of her professional earnings, profit, and loss: She brings in about $53K but comes out in the negative because of taxes, expenses, and employee salaries. She wanted to include more numbers, she said, but her editors at Simon & Schuster steered her away from including any additional spreadsheets (too bad, in my opinion). And to top off all this financial disclosure, she also gives the info I crave most when reading any book, memoir, novel, or self-help manual — the contents of her medicine cabinet. Voilà: 50 mg of Seroquel, 1,000 mg of Depakote, and 40 mg of Prozac.

The reason for all this radical transparency is linked to the book’s theme. Bamford details the various “cults” that she has participated in over the years, which include four different 12-step programs (Overeaters Anonymous, Debtors Anonymous, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, and Recovering Couples Anonymous) as well as less official ones, like the cult of mental-health care and the cult of success. Via this tour of self-improvement modalities, we learn about the stages of Bamford’s career, her spectacular mental breakdown in 2010, what it took to make the Netflix TV show (Lady Dynamite) about her spectacular mental breakdown, and how one time she accidentally sort of killed her elderly pug, Blossom. It’s a lot to fit into 267 pages, but Bamford manages to keep it flowing. After I finished it, I was eager not just to meet her but to see her do new material live, which I did at the improbable hour of 10 a.m. in a packed room at the Brooklyn Comedy Collective’s satellite space in medium-deep Bushwick.

After an opener, Maria came onstage bedecked in large, dangly heart-shaped earrings, glittery-red eyeglasses, and neon-green nails. The tremor from her Depakote was obvious as she held the mic but somehow not distracting. She did a set she’s been workshopping called “Pooping It Out.” Money was a theme here, too. She told us she and her husband have a net worth of $3.5 million, thanks in part to the recent death of her father, and told us they give 11 percent (“One percent better than Christianity!”) of their cash to charity. The kicker: “Could we give more? YESSSS!!!” Then she asked the audience if they’d ever worked for free. A beautiful girl in the front row responded with an emphatic yes, saying a cabaret she’d performed at hadn’t paid her, but she still planned to work there again. Maria offered to hire her as an audience member and handed her a $100 bill on the spot to the crowd’s overwhelmed delight.

Several hours later, after we’d both had time to recover, I met up with Bamford in a café in Dumbo. She’s there early and has already ordered an espresso, delivered by a charming but incompetent waiter whom she is flagrantly polite to every time he messes something up, which is a few times during our date. After he brings water for just her and not me, we trade stories of being incompetent wait staff ourselves. She’s had every odd job imaginable for reasons that will become clear later on. Now, she’s staying in the neighborhood with her artist husband of nearly seven years and another friend, in an Airbnb ($350 per night for a total of $11,000). The brownstone represents something Bamford calls New York Fantasy Camp. She is fascinated that there’s a cake shop across the street that’s open til 2 a.m. and people just go in there and get slices of cake whenever they feel like it. In Altadena, where she lives, every slice of cake represents a drive.

In person, Bamford has the same mannerisms and squeaky voice and perfect timing that she has onstage, and it’s hard not to feel that she’s doing a mini-show just for me. This is something she does. When she’s workshopping new material, like now, she prefers either a warm room — “people who’ve come to see me, who know what they’re getting” like this morning’s early-bird special — or a method she’s worked out over the last five years that involves recruiting individual audience members via Twitter.

Photo: Bruce Smith

“I’ll tweet out, ‘It’s 5 p.m., I’m in this zip code. Does anyone want to meet me for coffee? I’ll buy coffee.’” Then, when whoever responds arrives at the designated coffee shop, she’ll sit across from them and do her set, watching how the Twitter person responds but mostly just giving herself a nonnegotiable incentive to say the words in her notebook out loud in public. I ask if she’s afraid of getting murdered, but she says she scans the people’s Twitter feed in advance, which seems as good a way of doing a background check as any. So far, everyone has been nice, and she has remained alive. She’s run the material she performed in Bushwick about 60 times in this manner, and onstage it felt natural, honed, with a subtle note of not really giving a fuck. If Bamford bombs, she says, she’s not quick to blame herself anymore — some people get her thing, and some don’t. “I’m old, I have someone who loves me at home, who’s like, ‘You’re great,’ so I think that takes the sting out of being rejected if I’m rejected.” After all, she points out, she’s the one who has to hear the material zillions of times, so the most important thing about it is that it’s hilarious to her. “I do care about people, but I’d rather have something whether people are attracted to it beyond me trying to say, ‘Oh, this is funny.’ If it’s not funny to you, my Lord, keep moving!” She laughs at herself and stirs more sugar into her espresso.

The cults in her book seem to have done some good in getting her to this place of radical self-acceptance. I’m most curious about her decision to write about the groups in her book whose names end in Anonymous, whose guiding precept she’s decided to break by writing about them. Her attitude towards anonymity is respectful but casual: “I feel like, I’m in it, so I have the right to speak about my experience.” After all, she says, in L.A, everyone already knows who’s in what recovery group: “Hey guess who’s headlining at the AA comedy convention? It’s Roseanne B., or whatever.” Plus, she’s had her own anonymity broken so many times — crowd members shouting out, “Hey, aren’t you over at the anonymous meeting?”

She also chafes at the culture of recovery in L.A. where famous people gather at closed meetings, which is counter to the precepts of the program. If people in her groups are upset at her … “Who knows? I’m sure they’ll find out that I’ve written a book. Maybe, probably not. I mean, that’s the thing, nobody cares.” Plus, at the meetings, “12-steppers make for an easy, warm crowd.” I don’t challenge any of this, even though part of me wants to — I’ve had it drilled into my head that anonymity is sacred, though I agree with Bamford that people break it all the time. But our date is going so well that I don’t want to poison it by being the least bit confrontational; there’s something delicate about her that makes me feel like she could clam up on a dime if she felt threatened. It’s probably because all that 12-stepping has actually given her good boundaries.

Bamford’s especially involved in Debtors Anonymous, which helped her get out of the financial mess she found herself in at the beginning of her career. She was focused on stand-up and didn’t have a day job, plus she’d racked up $5,000 in medical debt, the result of an allergic reaction to drugs prescribed to treat a nasty STD. With the help of her sponsor and her PRG (that’s Pressure Relief Group, a mini-meeting of fellow debtors who offer support and practical advice weekly) she managed to dig herself out of the hole, but it took eight years and the development of a total immunity to the idea that being a temp or receptionist is somehow degrading. Even after she was earning more from stand-up than from temping, Bamford continued to temp. “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,” she writes. Now she’s in the position to hand out $100 bills to audience members in a bit about how impossible it is to get paid. In the café, I ask why she thinks this bit is funny — it is, but for reasons I don’t totally understand. “I don’t know!” she replies, seeming a little prickly for the first time. There’s not much that makes Bamford uncomfortable, but I can tell she feels protective of her stand-up, more than anything else we discuss.

Financial stability couldn’t protect Bamford from losing her marbles completely following the death of her beloved pug Blossom (you will have to read the book for the full story) and a moral quandary over doing ads for Target, about which she wrote to the New York Times’ Ethicist advice column, leading to getting fired from doing ads for Target ever again. A leading indicator of her ensuing mental collapse was inviting everyone she’d ever emailed from her Gmail account to a Christmas party at her house. Cue: her entrance into the cult of mental-health care, which included a diagnosis of bipolar II and three inpatient psychiatric hospitalizations. “My mind/body had become a vibrating wire of electric psychic pain,” she writes memorably about how she felt on the eve of hospitalization No. 3. But things stabilized after that final stay: “In a deep and what feels like a lasting way, [meds] have allowed me to maintain what I understand now to be a ‘baseline’ mood.” She still wants to stop taking them, thanks to their debilitating side effects, but knows that when she does she feels “great at first and then quickly, ampedly unstable.” Being on meds that Bamford compares to being on a steady, daily drip of Benadryl has made it hard to work at times. On the set of Lady Dynamite, Bamford had to take naps in a pup tent between takes.

But today, Bamford is energetic. She also has ambitious plans for her time in New York — she’s going to take a clown class at the Brooklyn Comedy Collective (to the joy of everyone else in the class, I’m guessing) and go to an art opening to ogle the outfits the art people are wearing — she’s hoping for “weird shoes made out of horse hooves,” and stuff like that. Afterward, one hopes, she’ll get a late-night slice of cake. Whatever happens, it’s a certainty that she’ll add it under “entertainment” on the detailed profit and loss spreadsheet she keeps, inspired by her program, and deduct it from that month’s earnings.

Maria Bamford and All Her Cults