I’m A Card-Carrying Member Of Maria Bamford’s Cult
10:53 AM EDT on September 15, 2023
I don’t know how I missed that Maria Bamford was writing a book. There are a handful of artists I follow closely, to the point of googling their names every once in a while to see if they are up to something, and Bamford is one of them. This past week has been a boon. It was during her new interview with Marc Maron that he mentioned her first book, Sure, I’ll Join Your Cult, which came out Sept. 5, and which he characteristically hadn’t finished.
(Quick digression: I realize Maron is a busy guy, but this is one of the things about celebrities joining the podcast game that drives me up the wall. As someone who makes sure I have done the research for every single one of my interviews, no matter how minor, famous people’s access to interviews with other famous people after having often done very little prep, or having had people do it FOR them, is so galling, I can’t even. And the book is a swift read, so that’s no excuse.)
Anyone who knows Bamford’s comedy—a hyper-absurdist self-deprecating journey through mental illness (in this case, OCD and Bipolar II), with lots of impressions—will understand what her memoir is about. If you don’t, the author includes a handy definition: “cult (kǔlt) n. 1. a social group defined by its unusual philosophical beliefs.” Bamford loves a group. Anyone who has had lifelong struggles with mental illness [raises hand] can understand that. A group makes you feel less alone. A group also fills in the holes left behind by a healthcare system that constantly falls short.
Sure, I’ll Join Your Cult is divided into three parts—The Cult of Family, The Cult of Fame and The Cult of Mental Health Care—which play as the three sections of a pretty strong stand-up set. “For example,” Bamford writes in a chapter on her OCD, “you pass an old man on the street and for whatever reason you notice his butt. If you’re normal, you just think, ‘Oh, that was a butt. A boo-tay.’ And you go on to your next thought that involves your own butt or your job title or what kind of car you’d drive off a cliff.” I’ll stop there because the definition of OCD—unwanted rumination—is pretty much known by now and what made me laugh was not that, but the spiraling of the thought into off-handed suicidal ideation.
Bamford is a master at sprinkling this kind of fly-by melancholy into her comedy. I mention that because the way her book is written is the way her comedy is performed. This memoir has a lot of CAPS, a lot of digressions, a lot of PEP and then slow-downs. “Although a constant traveler, I don’t always pick up on the cues that I might be staying in a flophouse,” Bamford writes at one point. “I also take pride in staying anywhere I am put. I never complain or send anything back. I will eat ANYTHING. I will stay ANYWHERE. I WILL COMPLAIN TO NO ONE, much less the underpaid employee in front of me.”
Because so much of her stand-up is voice-based imitation, I was concerned that a huge part of Bamford’s charisma would be missing on the page—the quaver she does for her mom, the mumbling snort for her dad, the polished California sound of the blond know-it-all A-type. But it’s not. If you know her, if you know the kind of people that she is writing about, you just apply the voice in your own head as you read. The intonation, the rhythm, the landing, it’s all there; that voice just happens to be in text form. And of course Bamford’s parents, despite having both died, continue to dominate her story, her mom in particular:
A year before she died, I told her my work was featured in the New York Times and the New Yorker in the same week. Exhausted, she was not exactly blasé, but I had to repeat the news again to make sure she’d heard.
ME: Mom, I’m in the New York Times and the New Yorker. This week. IN ONE WEEK.
MOM: I know, honey, that’s great. [Struggling to breathe.] I’m so ... proud of you.
Yes, I nagged a mortally ill woman for additional recognition after her seventy-six years of service.
This is what’s so impressive about Bamford’s first book. As anyone who writes knows, it’s not a given that your voice will be present in all forms. You may be great at essays, for instance, but can’t sustain it across a novel. Or you may be a poet who suddenly stumbles in prose (this makes me think of filmmaker Noah Baumbach being unable to produce a television series). There are comedians who have written books (Steve Martin, I’m looking at you) where their voice, or what you came to believe was their voice, is missing completely.
And I don’t blame them for it. It’s hard to keep one’s purity of expression in the best of circumstances, but when there are competing demands on it (such as a first book and a deadline) it can be almost impossible. You kind of need to be foolhardy to try anyway. As Bamford writes, “I never hear about what people think of me in the sprawling strip mall that is Los Angeles. You want to speak ill of me about something I said 60 seconds ago? Grab the mic and run the light. You live in MONTROSE, Wendy! I will NEVER see you IRL.”
That means, here and there, Sure, I’ll Join Your Cult inevitably stumbles. Bamford provides a sort of ledger of her income and spending in one part of the book, which is frankly refreshing, though the level of detail does stunt the memoir’s momentum. To Bamford’s ever self-aware credit, she is hyper conscious of the risk she’s taking:
“In addition to revealing the financial details of my book deal, I also wanted to include a profit-and-loss statement regarding my business. I argued with my editor AND my manager about this. MANY TIMES. PERSONALLY, I LOVE THIS KIND OF INFO, BUT NO ONE ELSE IS INTERESTED, ESPECIALLY THE EDITORS. If you don’t care, as you were. AS YOU WERE.”
And while her periodic recipes can be hilarious (“Weight-Loss Recipe 1. Get a prescription of Wellbutrin.”), they can also slow everything down. Bamford does get points, though, for including an icon that flags every instance in which she recycles material. This is the queen of the meta-joke.
I found Bamford through a friend. I remember watching her first web series, The Maria Bamford Show, which she released in 2007 and remains my favorite work of hers, likely because it’s the first one I ever watched. She made it in her mid-30s when she was living with her parents in Duluth after having a breakdown as a successful comic in Los Angeles. It’s incredibly lo-fi, very DIY, shot always within the same four walls, with Bamford playing various characters in various hairstyles, costumes, and positions (as herself, she mostly presents with her face planted in her duvet, looking half dead). The low production value only made it more magnetic for how good it was, for how a stray word here or there could capture an entire personality. “Sweetie, would you put on a little makeup? Just a little makeup for your mother,” she says at one point, in character as her mother. “Honey, when you don’t wear makeup you look mentally ill.”
I fully expected to speak to Bamford for this piece. I expected it because I had been such a rigorous follower of her work for over a decade, and thought that somehow entitled me to her time. I know. This is exactly the kind of shit she writes (and performs) about, the stuff in your head that skews your worldview and that you can maybe laugh at later for not having had an ounce of humility, like the OCD qualities that made me send an email trying to pitch myself after the publicist said she couldn’t do it.
I know Bamford can only work eight hours a day (like the rest of us, even though we pretend we can do more). She has been open about that. And I know publicity sucks even for extroverts—whatever. It’s OK. If anyone could understand my missteps, it would be the twisted mind of Maria Bamford. So far as I can tell, she’d even be happy I’m writing about it.