comics talk to comics

Maria Bamford Talks to Baron Vaughn About Stand-Up, Grace and Frankie, and Being Embezzled

Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Photos by Getty Images

Baron Vaughn is busy. He’s currently shooting the third season of Grace and Frankie, while the second season of the show debuted on Netflix this morning. He’s working on the reboot for Mystery Science Theater 3000. He has a movies podcast with Leonard Maltin, Maltin on Movies. And, of course, he’s constantly on the grind as a one of the most dynamic stand-ups working. But Vaughn is having a hard time appreciating the busyness he’s been dreaming of for years. Thankfully Maria Bamford, a very busy stand-up in her own right, is his friend and a true joy of a person. In this comics-talk-to-comics interview, Bamford and Vaughn discuss being busy, having (and keeping) money, and appreciating their success. Also, they talk about a ninja substitute teacher.

MARIA BAMFORD: As an extremely, vibrantly creative person who seems to have so many irons in the fire, is there a time when you don’t want to do something?
BARON VAUGHN: Well, first of all, that’s how I always feel. [Both laugh.] When I’m doing a show, and the host says, “And coming up next …”, I completely doubt everything I’ve ever done. And then the moment I get that first laugh, I’m like, “Oh, I know what I’m doing!” It’s a harrowing journey that lasts about six seconds every single time. The question of balance has been something that’s been very important to me in the last year. I would assume it’s the same for you.

We’ve been doing stand-up, both of us, for a long time and it is hard for me to do the actual work. [Laughs.] My new trick is I get myself to do stand-up at 4 p.m., so I get it out of the way and I have my night free. 
Where are you doing that?

There’s a lot of black-box theater space available at 4. 
[Laughs.] In Los Angeles? Get out of here! But the theater scene is so vibrant!

Or like I told a perfect stranger that I’ll meet them at a coffee shop to go through my bits. Like, do you rehearse? Or do you go through your jokes with somebody else in between shows? Or do you just work it out all on stage?
It’s all of it. It took me a while to figure out that there doesn’t have to be one way. I except that every joke is its own individual child and no child will be raised the same.

That’s a wonderful way to put it. 
I was talking to a young comic the other night whose been doing comedy for maybe a year or two. She was saying she beats herself up about not working, because she’s not sitting at a table with a pen and a pad writing out all her jokes. And I said, “That’s one way to write, and some jokes will require that, but not every joke will.” Sometimes I need to sit down and write, and sometimes I need to take a walk. And taking a walk is probably the biggest thing. Like, I say my words out loud while I take a walk and kind of taste them, if you will. [Maria laughs.] You do the same?

I do! That makes me feel so good about myself! Yes, that helps me so much because I love to walk and talk. I’ve done driving and talking and I’m not the best driver when I do that. [Both laugh.]
Yeah, because when you’re driving, you also need brain space to not kill anyone with that metal machine you’re driving.

I’m also starting to accept the idea of bombing. That it doesn’t exist in a way. I get on stage and I have to say these things in this order, and if it doesn’t get a laugh that night, that’s fine. Because then it was a “rehearsal,” and I’m on the way to something. Like your good friend Jackie Kashian, and my good friend as well, is someone that inspires me because I see her ostensibly ramble and then two months later, it’s jokes. And I’m like, “Oh, that’s how you do it!”

I love me some Jackie Kashian because she’ll be telling jokes in conversation.
Yeah, that’s a big thing I do with comics. When we’re not thinking about being funny is when we’re our funniest. A lot of times in a conversation with a comic, if they say something that’s true or real to them, I go, “Do you say that onstage?” And they’re like, “No, no. I’m just talking.” I’m like, “That’s why you should say it onstage! This is soul coming out of you right now, my friend! Just soul!”

Okay, now I know you were on Grace and Frankie, which is a delightful program. I saw the first season, which was very sassy. For me as a lady, I liked how they talked about older people issues, because that doesn’t seem like that’s talked about. Anyway, I’m aging. 
No, that’s one of the things I like about the show as well! They’re not like, “Ah, I’m in my seventies. I figured everything out.” They’re still people who are growing and learning.

What would be your ultimate vision for a show?
You’re basically saying, “Baron, what is your Lady Dynamite?”

I want you to vision board it, right here.
Oh, well let me tell you about my show called Ninja Substitute.

It’s like Highway to Heaven or The Legend Continues, where there’s a wandering person, and I’m a traveling substitute teacher who also is skilled in the arts of ninjutsu and kung fu. So every city I come to, I educate during the day and I decimate during the night.

Now are you serious? Would you enjoy learning the physical mastery of the martial arts? 
Now look, I’m joking about the show. But I don’t joke about martial arts. I’ve always wanted to learn martial arts. I actually saw this documentary the other day called The Black Kung Fu Experience. And guess what that’s about?

[Laughs.] Is it about the black kung fu experience?
Oh my goodness. I don’t know why you would guess that that’s what it’s about. But that’s exactly what it’s about.

Would you want to be like a lead, serious role?
Oh, I’m the ninja substitute. I’d get in shape and then educate some kids and then kick some butt at night. I can play those levels.

And you wanna get paid to get in shape? Because I don’t think I could be paid enough to get in shape.
See, I’m the opposite. I’m waiting for some studio to be like, “Look, we need you to be totes buff.” “I’m sorry, what’d you say?” “Totes buff. We’re gonna get you a trainer.” And I’m like, “Oh, awesome! I’ve been waiting for this moment.” I would love to get in shape for a reason besides my own health and life.

But that’s the thing about the ever-expanding content that’s needed in entertainment: They’re gonna need that show. There’s room for Ninja Substitute. Like that’s like Lady Dynamite. There’s no way I would’ve ever gotten a TV show, even five years ago. And now!
I would doubt that. But now!

This is a question I ask myself, if for whatever reason you had to move out of Los Angeles and stop doing what you’re doing, what would you do? And it can’t be a ninja substitute because that’s your show. Like, I think I would be an administrative assistant at a non-profit. 
[Laughs.] I would be the funniest manager of Publix groceries in the state of Minnesota.

That’s a delightful image. I went through treatment with this lady who worked at not Publix but Rainbow Foods in Minneapolis and she had a problem bingeing on carrots. And so her skin was orange. 
You’d think that she’d be able to see that her skin is turning orange from all those carrots.

Well, she’s clearly not well. [Laughs.] Now I listen to podcasts frequently and I often think how much fun it seems like to do one. What is like having your own podcast?
Oh man, it depends. I’ve done it in two different ways now. I had a podcast that was totally independently me doing it [Deep Shit With Baron Vaughn]. I had bought some equipment and I was going to different people’s places or have them come to my place. And then in the end, one of my microphone cables stopped working and I couldn’t afford to get a new one. I was like, “Are enough people listening to this to justify the effort I’m putting in to it?” So that’s one way of having a podcast, where you doubt why you’re doing it every single time you do it. And then the other I’ve done [Maltin on Movies] it was at a network like at Earwolf.

And how did that work? Did you pitch it? 
I got an email from Paul Scheer out of nowhere saying, “Hey, do you know who Leonard Maltin is and would you be interested in working with him?” And I was like, “Yes and yes! What are you talking about?” Then Leonard and I met to see if we had any kind of chemistry and then we just started doing this podcast. It was very different because we had the support, like we just had to come to a studio and record it. Though we had to do the homework for what we were talking about — three movies per podcast. Now the ultimate podcast series, it sounds to me, would be to have a really popular podcast that requires no extra work outside of what you just do in your life. Like, if I had a podcast that was like, “Hi, welcome back to Ideas: We’re Talkin’ about ‘Em.”

“My guest today on Ideas: We’re Talkin’ about ‘Em is Maria Bamford. Maria, I hope you have not prepared for this, because all we’re gonna do is talk about what’s already there.”

Now this may be too much to ask. This is a Nosy Nellie question. 

Does it pay? 
It depends! Every podcast network has a different culture as far as I can tell. How they run things at Nerdist is totally different than how they run things at Earwolf is totally different than All Things Comedy or Maximum Fun or Feral Audio. And it’s different if it’s independent. Some podcast networks will salary people and say, “We have this much of a pie. We’re gonna give you this much of it until you grow.” Or some people get an advance and then once they make that back, we start sharing the profits. And then some people don’t get paid at all or they get all of the sponsorship stuff. All those deals are still kind of custom.

Jackie told me she gets $400 a month. She said it was okay to say that. We do open-book accounting. Like, I’m willing to tell anybody what I earn on things because, in the arts, there isn’t a lot of transparency.
I totally get you on that one. I have a joke about this because it’s one of the ways how they get ya. And I say we’re more open about our sex lives than financial lives. I’ve had more people tell me to my face that they have an STD than anyone’s ever told me what they’ve made in a year.

Oh my God. I’ll tell you what I made in a year. Last year, I think I made a little over a $1 million for my corporation. And I paid myself as an individual around $300,000. So we paid off our house. I will tell you that. Yeah, and right now, on the road, I seem to be earning around 5 to 10 grand a performance. That’s the gross. And then I pay Jackie a third of my net when we’re going on the road together.
Wow. Wow, you know what’s funny is that I said, “That’s how they get ya,” but even as you’re saying this, I’m like, “Oh, she’s just putting this out there!” I’m still like, “Ah, ah! Money!”

No, no, no. It’s terrifying. I go to any number of 12-step programs and there’s one that’s money-oriented, so I’m trying to get better about it. Otherwise, it’s weird. I don’t know if it’s just Western society where there is shame about what car you drive. Like people get pissed that I haven’t bought a new car. [Laughs.] Like all my friends …
Do they say the word “jalopy”?

Yeah, and they say, “Is this for some religious reason you still have a Prius from 2005?”  But my parents have always been pretty good about talking about financials. My mom would always pay the bills and then sometimes she’d say, “We’re broke.” I’d be like, “Oh, what does that mean?” And then now of course I know what that means.  
I don’t mean to make a generalization, but I do at the same time, from what I know about people from the Midwest, it seems like their families would talk about money openly in front of them when they were kids. They’d say stuff like, “We’re broke! We’re gonna lose the house!”

My dad was a physician, so I had no concerns about money, but I prided myself in not needing anything as a kid. Like, “Oh, scrape the edges of the plate for me and I’ll enjoy that.” For some reason I was in competition with my sister, and my sister wanted everything.
Interesting. I’m seeing the patterns that I have based on how I was raised because I was embezzled from a couple of years ago. I had a gentleman steal or “misplace” — I guess I should say “allegedly” — a lot of money from me. It didn’t make any sense when it was happening, because I just didn’t understand why I didn’t have any money. I was a perfect mark because I had all of this shame and insecurity about money.

A lot of it comes from just watching my mom struggle — watching her avoid phone calls, not open mail, and just be in this state of terror about getting through the month. So even when you just told me how much you made last year, I’m like, I don’t even know how much I made last month! I’m just thinking, Do I have enough to get through this month? It’s the only way I’ve been taught.

I avoid when stuff becomes hard. I just go, “Oh no!” and get this crazy anxiety and depression, which would allow me to be in a situation where I’m having someone handle my money and just trusting them blindly because I was so stressed out about it. I was like, “He’s a professional!” And I put myself in this position to be completely hornswoggled! Bamboozled!

Which totally makes sense. If somebody has the confidence and I’m afraid, I just go you take it!
Yes, yes! That’s exactly right.

What happened to that guy?
Oh, he went missing. I filed a police report and a detective said, “I’ll call you tomorrow.” That was a year ago. A friend of mine, a lawyer, did some research and saw there was a warrant for him in Texas under his real name. But it’s been slow going because I haven’t reached the end of the statute of limitations. But also, like, what am I going to do? Get the money back? He didn’t put it in a mattress. It’s gone. I’ve made peace with that but do I want to prosecute this guy and charge him with his stuff. But it makes me smarter now, it makes me you know be involved a lot more. Not to the point where I know how much I made last year — you know, just a simple thing that most people know — but slowly but surely win the race.

I would say most people don’t know.
I’ve also been thinking about this because I realize that I don’t know what it means when things go well. Like things are going well: Grace and Frankie is great; we are currently writing the new Mystery Science Theater 3000; I’ve got like a couple of other things that I’m pitching. I have been working so hard to get this busy that now that I’m here, I don’t know how to appreciate it. I haven’t actually had any practice feeling good about things.

I understand. I am no longer a poor, starving artist. I’m like, Oh no, I’m doing okay. There’s something at least for me in my creativity where I want to be the underdog. 
A lot of it has to do that we as comedians/artists are translating our experiences to people that we are hoping that they can relate to, and if you can enter into a way of living that people can’t relate to, then what do you have to talk about?

Totally. My husband and I have talked about that because we have a certain amount that we want to save for our retirement, but otherwise we are going to give the rest away. And last year we were able to give $50,000 away to different charities that were important to us because I know, at least from People magazine, that enormous wealth does not make people happy or a bigger house isn’t going to make us any happier. We have a hard enough time hearing each other from one end to another and it’s only 900 square feet. 
You mean it’s sexy …

We keep bumping into each other …  in all the right places. 
[Laughs.] That’s great. Have you said that on stage?

[Laughs.] No, but I will. I love that you said that. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Maria Bamford Talks to Baron Vaughn About Comedy