Maria Bamford, one of the most unique voices in stand-up comedy, has made a career talking about what’s not normally talked about in polite society. She made it a point to use her platform to destigmatize mental illness, to make it something people shouldn’t be ashamed to discuss. Now that her “mentals” are stable, Bamford wants to help people talk openly about money. Her opening salvo to this endeavor was the commencement speech she gave at the University of Minnesota last fall, in which she spent the entire time discussing how much she got paid for giving it.
That speech is the subject of the premiere episode of the second season of Good One, Vulture’s podcast about jokes and the people who tell them. Listen to the episode and read an excerpt from the transcript of the discussion below. Tune in to Good One every Monday on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Why you decided you needed to be paid and how did you pick $20,000 as your initial offer?
Well I’m 46 years old. I did not have a fully funded retirement account. Our living expenses — including retirement — are what I pay myself from my company, Bamfoo Co., which is an S corp. It grosses $13,500 a month, which nets to $7,500 a month. In order for me to perform out of town — to make it worth my while and be able to pay a publicist and 17.5 percent off of the gross in manager and agent fees, to pay for hotel and travel — I need to make about 25 grand a month to pay myself and my employees. One of my employees is my friend Jackie Kashian. They didn’t have an opener situation for the speech, which means by choosing that gig I was missing out on an opportunity where I could play my employee. So I wouldn’t not only pay her but not pay myself. Obviously I’m more concerned with myself. [Laughs.] It also costs money to have my dogs taken care of. That’s $100 a day to be out of town to pay someone to take care of the dog. So those are the factors put in.
And there is just the principle of it.
Also, I think it’s important to get paid. I am an almost millionaire? A millionaire is beyond what you have in assets, so for example even if you own a house outright, the technical definition of a millionaire is someone has a million dollars in cash fluid assets. We have $700,000 in cash assets. My parents, who have just retired in Northern Minnesota have about $2.5 million in assets for retirement. What I’m trying to say is that for me to do a job for free is a bit grandiose. If the University of Minnesota is truly a nonprofit that’s struggling for money — and perhaps the College of Liberal Arts is, maybe they’re not getting any funding from the rest of the foundation, which I know is raising $600 million for a new athletic center — there is a lot of money.
I did some internet research and found out what commencement speakers who were not congressman or public servants are paid between 5 and 100 grand. I realize I am a public servant of some sort, but I’d also prefer to give my money to where I want to give it. Although University of Minnesota was a great place for me to attend and I’m glad I finished there, I’d rather give my money to homeless resources in my neighborhood or directly to the students which is what ended up happening.
Beyond this speech, from reading interviews with you, you seem to be really into money right now. Not in terms of “I want it, gimme, gimme,” but people’s relationship to it.
Obviously, on some level, it might be creepy or bragging, but on the other level everyone has different opinions about money, but they’re very strong. That’s very interesting to me, how strong it is. It’s something that people have such strong feelings about that isn’t spoken about.
Why do you think it’s important to talk about it in public?
My uncle killed himself; he was a million dollars in debt with the IRS. He had other issues too, obviously. He had depression. People feel overwhelmed, isolated, afraid when you have any money issues, that’s why I think it’s good to talk about it and the bad parts of being in debt. I’ve been in debt for health stuff where they’re calling you all the time, telling you that you’re worthless in every sort of way.
I have people who represent me now, who are paid negotiators, that is their skill, that is their joy in life, but what I can do as a brain-dead megaphone, as they say, or as George Saunders says [laughs], I can at least share what I’m being paid. Share what all the openers are being paid, what the costs of the venue are. I make less than some people, more than somebody else. It could go down, it could go up. It doesn’t really matter, but I think the openness about it is helpful to me because I’m having one of those moments where my business has made a lot more money in the past several years. Getting a television show [Netflix’s Lady Dynamite] for me was like winning a lottery.
How are you carrying this over into your stand-up?
I experimented with telling people how much I’m earning at shows. [Laughs.]
What!? Really? Like how much you got paid for the show you’re doing to that audience?
Yeah, for the show yeah! Let me see, I was at Brea. I got 85/15 door split and I want to say a $2,000 guarantee. It was a Sunday night show. I paid the opener $600. I want to say, after that, I net around, after taxes and commissions, $3,000. Yeah, again, it’s less than others, more than others. It’s just super interesting. It’s fun. My husband and I have a ten-year-old car. We don’t live high on the hog. We own our house outright. We don’t have any debt and we have a credit card we pay off every time we spend anything on it. Or I often prepay our American Express, 2,000 grand a month so that we’re never in debt. It’s fun.
Do you think by your next special you’ll have a lot of money-related material?
Sure, maybe I’ll have a chunk. We can only hope. However, I was in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, at an art center that’s called SteelStacks, so it’s where they used to make steel, and I felt self-conscious about saying anything, saying, “Oh, I asked for 20 grand.” In Los Angeles for some reason that doesn’t seem like a big amount of money, because there’s such a disparity there. But I don’t know, Middle America it seems like, “Fuck you!”
For many years, your comedy focused heavily on your relationship to your mental illness. However, following it, there seems to have a beginning, middle, and a sort of end. Do you feel it freed you up to talk about other things, like money?
Yeah, yeah. Move on to something else if that’s not something to talk about anymore. I feel really stable. Obviously it’s a cause that’s really important to me and hopefully I won’t be mad at myself if I ever got ill again, knock on wood, but yeah, talk about something else! If that affects the income of Bamfoo Co. Inc. then that’s okay. It’s okay. ’Cause I’ve only got one life. Especially now that I want to live it!
Season two of Lady Dynamite, the series starring and inspired by Maria Bamford premieres on Netflix on November 10.