Maria Bamford writes affectionately about cults, all things considered. She’s very familiar with them, thanks to tours through more than a few.
The 52-year-old, who Marc Maron called the best working comedian last month, has been open about her finances and mental health struggles for decades now. Her memoir, Sure, I’ll Join Your Cult: a Memoir of Mental Illness and a Quest to Belong Anywhere, out this week, touches on many of the same topics as her stand-up: mental health, the cult-like nature of many organizations all around us, and the pain of everyday existence. She provides her current meds stack, down to the milligrams, and a long list of pharmaceuticals that she tried before she dialed in what worked for her. Bamford also lays out her total financial assets before page 10.
Bamford is a rare type of comedian. She prefers to be done with her stand-up duties before noon—and she has the clout such that clubs that will oblige her. (This month, she has multiple 10 a.m. shows at the Brooklyn Comedy Collective.) And in the book, she writes in-depth about her early experience with OCD, her Bipolar 2 diagnosis (real Bamford heads will know she calls it the new Gladiator Sandal), visits to the psych ward, and—with plenty of warning for those who want to skip—suicide. Bamford breaks the cardinal rule of several support groups—she talks about them—in detail, so you might take away some useful tips without ever stepping foot into a meeting (though she’d probably recommend that you do). And even in recounting the most harrowing moments of her life, Bamford writes with her signature humor.
GQ caught up with Bamford on a call, as two pugs continuously entered and exited her room.
GQ: It’s interesting the definition that you went with for a cult is “a social group defined by its unusual philosophical beliefs.” There are others that have a more charged or pejorative definition. Why did that one resonate with you?
Well, sometimes I speak without thinking and have often had pressured speech about things that I know nothing about. And usually it's about a belief system or something that I'm adhering to that I'm not even conscious that I'm adhering to it. And so that's why I like the idea of cults: I often don't question what I'm a part of. Whether that is a socio-economic system or whatever. But I find it funny, and that helped me create a whole structure for the book—trying to belong in a certain group.
These groups seem like an idea buffet where you can take what's useful to you, and leave the stuff that you find to be bogus. What did you find most helpful-slash-appealing about these different groups, and what were the things that were recurring in terms of themes that you found problematic or just annoying?
Yeah, things I like about the groups that I'm a part of—which are open mic comedy and standup comedy—I find that radical acceptance of wherever you're at is very appealing to me. The negative side of that is that sometimes there can be well-crafted hate speech being presented, and that sucks. Now, my 12 Step stuff—again, it's the total acceptance of wherever you're at. Everyone's just like, 'Yeah, have a seat!'
Obviously, 12 Step is Judeo-Christian—it's not super-welcoming to everybody. It was mostly white, for the most part, and it's worldwide, so it's not everywhere—it's not for everybody. But I think because I was raised Christian, some of this stuff kind of floats over me and [I go] 'Ahh, I don't care! Who's got the Fig Newtons?' If it were in a different tradition, where I felt less comfortable with the words, then I probably would be like, ‘What the fuck?’
The negative side of it—to me—is the lack of welcoming for somebody who isn't all-in. Like to go, “Hey, I'm just here for harm reduction. I'd like to stop doing heroin, but I can't right now.” You know, like, well, what can you do? I think I have a problem with 12 Step where it's demonizing people who aren’t adhering to sobriety. I think that's unhelpful.
Something that comes across so many times in the book is transparency. In a financial aspect— I watched a commencement address you gave [at University of Minnesota College of Liberal Arts] where you completely focused on negotiation.
Yeah, and what I didn't get. I could have gotten more money. God damnit! If I had been a better negotiator and held out for one more week, I could've gotten 15 grand. [Bamford got a $5,000 speaking fee, which she donated to a graduating student.]
That's still pretty good. But in the book, there's a pretty in-depth accounting of the finances, but you wanted to include even more detail. Why was that important to you?
I love attention. Let's just say that. From Baby J, I really appreciated John Mulaney saying that at the end of his special. 'If I can just get enough attention, now I'll be fine.' So I think that's the unattractive part of me. But also, it's all I have to give. There's no reason I shouldn't be more open. Because I've been surprised how people still don't pay openers. Not always, some people are paying people well, but it's like the fact that when I ask a club, ‘What are you paying opener?’ And they're paying what I got paid 30 years ago to open for people.
Maybe someone will negotiate for more the next time. Maybe it gives other comedians the information of like, ‘Hey, if someone's good, if they're getting 45 bucks a ticket at a club, and they're doing seven shows that week, they're making—with all the merch, after-show pictures, meet-and-greets, they're making about 40 or 50 grand, so you asking for $1,000 or just $600, they might actually be grateful for you asking them if they like you as an act. And that's the other thing: people don't always know that the reason someone picked them as their opener is because it's of serious value to them.
I have a manager, an agent, I still have to negotiate for myself. There's certain things that I can only do myself, that I feel really uncomfortable [if I don’t do.] So anyways, a lot of it is I'm just virtue signaling what a great person I am. Which is monstrous. Apologies all around.
That's something that comes up often now, virtue signaling, but everybody's doing a performance. You might as well perform something good.
[I follow] a couple people on Instagram. I'm just like, ‘Oh my God. Yeah, you give that destitute family a whole new house and a crutches for the kid.’ Yes. Like, Like, Like, Like, Like! I have no problem with it. There's the Jewish tradition of a mitzvah, where it only counts if you don't talk about it.
I've never been able to manage mitzvah.
I looked for that Ethicist column you mentioned it in the book. I think I found it from October 2010. It starts, it starts off, 'I am a celebrity broadly speaking spokesperson for a company that I've always loved,' which was Target.
Something in there from the Ethicist's response seems to be like a recurring theme in some of your concerns. ‘The more influential your post, the greater your moral responsibility.' That sounds like what you were talking about, and getting younger comedians that information.
Yeah, I've got nothing to lose. I've got nothing to lose at this point. I hope, anyways, I feel embarrassed of that because I was kind of mental at the time when I was doing it, but that's definitely my obsession. I was doing that job. I love Target. I was just at Target yesterday. But it became untenable.
The only reason I do stand up is so I can talk about whatever the hell I want, that's the real luxury of the art form. And then to suddenly sign up for something where I've agreed to silence myself, then I'm not even having a good time. You know, maybe the money's worth it, but also, it did feel bad. I definitely sold out, in terms of my beliefs in order to get a cash cow. And it was really fun to do the character. I mean, that's the strange thing, it's something I didn't [like]— mass production, non-union, union-busting, all that stuff is a part of Target and many models of consumer corporations, whatever. But yeah, definitely took that money. And yes, I think that was what I was questioning at the time and got very mental about it. Oh, my Lord. I drove...[saw a] a priest. Very strange.
How did you go about writing the book?
Well, I hired an editor who had written a book before who had written a mental health memoir. Daniel Smith, who wrote Monkey Mind, and then I also hired Ashley Ray, who is a really funny stand-up and podcaster. I was encouraged to just go in a chronological way, and I think the whole theme of yearning to belong came up during that process. I mean, it's a much longer process than you would hope and that sometimes it is painfully boring. It's just like all the rest of life: sometimes you're not that into it.
If you were to start a cult, from the greatest hits of what you've absorbed, what would its purpose be?
Oh, man. Well, I wouldn't want to start a cult, because I gotta tell you: once you get a group of people together, you get into Robert's Rules of Order, you get into management, paperwork. I'm kind of a one-man-band. I'm the one and only member. I don't think I have that kind of chutzpah or definitely don't have the energy to start or even think up a proper cult. But I'm willing to visit any belief system in the Brooklyn area, if asked. Especially if there's free food.
You've placed an emphasis in the book and in a recent speech at the International OCD Foundation speech about getting “shitty-ass help.” For someone like you who has the resources to pay for services, it was cool to see you recommending and using the free ones. Can you explain what shitty-ass help looks like?
It can be talking to the person right next to you. Making eye contact with whoever's in your coffee shop, or see how they're doing? Obviously, when I have been severely depressed, sometimes those things haven't been helpful or possible.
But I just want to acknowledge that even when you go for help, it may not be great. So I think there's these, at least for me, the memes, sometimes on social media are like, [doing white woman commercial voice] 'Hey, you. Ask for help!' Just lots of great graphics. Like you're doing something super fun. The reality is, it's usually understaffed, everyone's exhausted. And there's Ultimate Fight Championships playing in the in the background. So I think telling everybody around you, even if it exhausts them.
I have been mental, and then I've had friends who are mental and we are a pain in the ass. Nobody wants to hear about it. Nobody, nobody wants to hear about it. And yet, you know, keep talking like a spray of spray of words. Words instead of bullets, people. But yeah, like, outsource it to the group. Even if you're getting weird, at least everybody knows where you're at. The amount of suffering people go through is real, so I want to acknowledge that. At the same time, I talked about calling Hertz rent-a-car because the suicide hotline had a 45 to 90 minute wait. Maybe if you have a friend or family, like do something ridiculous, mix it up, because the Hertz rent-a-car lady, she was super nice to me. And very pleasant. And it was it was a nice experience on the phone. I mean for those 15 minutes, I didn't kill myself. So there you go. That's a win.
There's peer advocacy out there more often than we think. I do love open mics for that reason. I feel like that's a group therapy setting. And that's the thing I like about it. Like some people are like, 'Should these people be sharing this?' Yes! Holy Christ. I'm so glad that guy did his rhyming act that was not only misogynist, but body positive. Getting it out here. Like he's not saying that at home alone to his wife or whoever. You know? I don't know. Outsource it to people and Taco Bell. Everybody in Taco Bell is just waiting for their order. I was at Jack in the Box, and there's a big line inside and yeah, everybody just wants to chit chat. My friend Jack Kashian says, ‘Mumble in any direction. You'll make friends.’
Who would you hope finds this book entertaining or useful?
Oh, I mean, just anybody who likes a memoir, if they want to feel like they're not alone with intrusive thoughts, OCD, or not being good at things? But it probably won't be for everybody. But there are a few pictures you can stare at. that's fun. And and then put it back. PUT IT BACK. And get Shoe Dog by Phil Knight. Shoe Dog. That's the story of a winner.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Originally Appeared on GQ
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