Maria Bamford is thoughtfully answering questions by video chat in the staccato rhythms of her standup shows and her semi-autobiographical Netflix series, Lady Dynamite. She self-edits and refines her thoughts as she goes, in a diminutive voice that seems to mask a great deal of earned wisdom about 12-step programs, psychiatric hospitals, and the right dose of meds to make it to a four-show gig in Chicago. (She got ever so close before having a breakdown.) Our starred review calls Bamford’s Sure, I’ll Join Your Cult: A Memoir of Mental Illness and the Quest To Belong Anywhere (Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster, Sept. 5) “laugh-out-loud funny, weird, and touching.” Which it is, in surprising ways that honor Bamford’s emotional generosity, her self-deprecating gravity, and those early years when the Suzuki violin method helped her learn “that if you put effort into something, you get better at it.” Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
How are you feeling about the book—it’s getting some love?
I’m so grateful that it’s done, so relieved. The one thing that I missed was that I perform for laughs. So then when I’m by myself writing, if there’s not someone there cheering me on like a crowd, well, it can feel a little bit odd, a little bit lonely. But I’m insanely grateful that I got an opportunity to write something. Clearly, I’m a comedian more than [she interrupts herself]…Also, you don’t want to be disrespectful to the art form by going, They just told me I could get money if I did this. Sorry.
Is there nowhere in the world where people don’t suffer from imposter syndrome?
I have this great book by Aparna Nancherla [she holds up Unreliable Narrator: Me, Myself, and Impostor Syndrome], which is coming out at the same time. It’s so great. She’s hilarious.
Writing doesn’t always go by chronology. Did yours?
Yes, I began at the beginning with the mental health stuff. That stuff didn’t really start for me until I was around 8 or 9, when I started to have a darker view of the world.
Just a kid. You seemed so alone with those intrusive and violent thoughts.
The good thing about the internet is that we have access to all this information where people can get support online in places that there wasn’t any support. The bad thing about the internet is the isolation and all the comparing and despairing and weirdness.
Isn’t it funny that the isolation appears to be in almost in direct proportion to connectivity? We live in interesting times.
Yes. I have the highest of hopes. I’m trying to have more connectivity. The reason I did stand-up was because it was so isolating. It was very safe. I didn’t have to have much connection with people. It’s weird, stand-up, because it’s a very controlled environment if you want it to be.
The book is funny, yet it also has this beautiful gravitas that feels helpful, too.
One thing that they cut out of the book entirely was, I wanted to do like a financial reckoning. In every chapter, I’d say where I was at financially.
Partly it’s like a type of OCD where I go, I got to tell everybody everything. But also, I loved the idea of it. I read about open-book accounting—where everybody in the company knows what everybody’s making—and I just think that’s wonderful. Also sort of educational, in that I didn’t read my own contract.
That is another thing I don’t do. I get a contract and I go Oh my God, I’m so excited. And then I don’t read it. I thought when I said I was done with the book, they would say I was done with the book. That is not what the legal writing says. The legal writing is very clear: We will decide when we think you are done with the book. It would have been great had I read that to music or underwater or something that made it really hit.
What were some of the harder things to write about?
My sister, Sarah. I felt worried: not wanting to be dishonest by saying oh, our relationship was perfect, but also not wanting to do anything for a laugh. My sister is trained to be a life coach but is also a shaman. And that, for many people, could be a laugh line. But one of the things that I really admire about my sister is her ability to be sincere. To be sincere about anything is…well, kudos.
Yeah, knock yourself out.
Yeah. That’s amazing. My sister has written at least five books now. And she has this hilarious essay out about how she did her own memoir, Swimming With Elephants. It’s about stuff that is not really in my wheelhouse. But she’s hilarious. I love her. She could be a comedian. Anyways, it has a specific point of view, right? And I could understand why people wouldn’t be down with it. But she got invited by a local book club in Duluth [Minnesota, where they grew up] to read from her book and chitchat with people. Well, it turned out, it was a total—what’s that called?—ambush. They said, “Well, we didn’t like the book,” and asked her all sorts of personal stuff. Hey, man, if you’re going to bitch-slap somebody, give them a choice whether to come or not—or troll them online. That’s what trolling is for.
The affection you have for your sis and your parents is apparent, but it’s complicated being written about in a book or talked about in comedy routines.
It’s how our relationship is. When I first started doing impersonations of my sister, she was like, umm, OK. At the time, though, I wasn’t getting any airtime. I was a weirdo. She was a physician, she had four kids. But I think once I started having more people watching videos or whatever, and her character was in a video, then that became more of a concern. About 10 years in, she said, “Please leave me out of you doing your characters.” I have not done that—but she has asked. The reason I haven’t stopped is that she’s written about me in her memoirs. It’s an ongoing dispute. But she still talks to me. We talk every day.
Memoirists write about this a lot: How do we tell our story when it’s entangled in other people’s stories?
My husband has asked me to word something differently because he was like, “I’m not like that about that.”And I was like, “Oh, yeah, you’re right, you’re not.” So, I’ve been wondering: Is there a way to tell a joke where I don’t have to be a victim and I also don’t have to be a perpetrator? Is there something in storytelling where I just lay down the facts and they still arc at some point?
What do you hope for this book?
Well, I hope that we can just have some nice parties, you know? Right? And my full circle hope is that it will at some point be in the Little Free Library in my neighborhood.
Lisa Kennedy writes for the New York Times, Variety, the Denver Post, and other publications.