In Maria Bamford’s new comedy special Weakness Is the Brand, which is out this week through Comedy Dynamics, the stand-up makes some perfect jokes out of the joys of imperfection: a home-cooking disaster that turns into something called “veggie pot cakes: hot, fat, tall,” the dark side of “sharing and caring,” and one slip-up involving a particularly emotionally draining TV installation. As Kathryn VanArendonk writes, “by performing her flaws as well as she does, Bamford’s still just proving her own greatness.” The special is warm and hilarious and broaches uncomfortable topics like money, trauma, and how to get into sexy roleplay when you’re just sort of baseline, top-of-brain constantly aware of gentrification and pay inequality. Bamford got on the phone with Vulture to talk about the special, bringing her husband onstage to perform with her, and how to ask for a raise.
First off, I loved the special.
Thank you for saying that, I’m glad that you liked it.
In the special, you talk a lot about your appreciation for the two-star experience, being mellow with mediocrity, and not subscribing to a cult of excellence. It’s funny to watch someone who’s so good at what they do — doing stand-up excellently — but doing it about mediocrity. What prompted that theme for you?
I think “excellence” is so subjective. I’m grateful you think I’m great, but there are certainly many who have walked out in a huff. I had one guy yell out: “You’re tiring!” And then I believe he tweeted at me, “You’re verbose and tiring!” I think mediocrity is in the eye of the beholder. I love the internet, and I love that we’re all connected to each other, but it feels, especially as I get older, like somehow I can’t participate unless I’m at some level of something? It’s embarrassing to participate. Sometimes I feel like in the arts, or whatever, it feels like just being a working comedian isn’t enough. There’s just lots of pressure.
You also talk about getting called out on Twitter for something you wrote that was seen as insensitive to the trans community, and you make this great moment out of learning and apologizing. How did you work through that?
I know that when I was growing up, there are certain things that I felt like people older than me didn’t understand, obviously. My car was covered in feminist bumper stickers and I had a shaved head and walked around in my floral muumuu and high-tops. They say you just get more close-minded and bizarre as you get old. Clearly, I don’t know what I’m talking about. There are so many things I know nothing about.
I grew up in a very phobic, and probably very racist society. Maybe more subtly, because it was the Midwest. But [I realized] in retrospect, Oh, I have benefited from all these social constructs that I didn’t want to recognize. And so I’m grateful that anyone will take time to tell me, “Hey Maria, you don’t know what you’re talking about.” Because I can’t imagine. I don’t know, and I would like to learn.
And the idea, also, that I’m lucky to still keep speaking. I think my voice isn’t as important at all. I’m an older white lady — there are very, extremely talented individuals who have better or more interesting perspectives on the world than I do at this time. So not to talk my way out of a job, but to say, “Yeah. Check out what else is going on,” because man, It’s bizarre how in the comedy clubs it’s still so very conservative.
I’m usually one of the only women on. I just feel bad for the clubs. I go, “You’re leaving money on the table!” Because you can get huge crowds for a more diverse lineup. At least I believe that to be true. I don’t know what it’s like to be a restaurant owner.
You were ahead of the curve when it came to talking about mental health in your comedy. Do you think talking about money occupies a similar taboo space to how mental health used to?
I just know that I would like to be more open about it, even if it’s detrimental, on some level. Because I love those examples of different businesses — I believe it’s Chobani yogurt that does profit sharing with all the employees, and making sure that the CEO isn’t making, you know, more than six times what the lowest paid worker is. I’m not clear enough to know whether I’m doing that, but at least I do try to share with all my openers what I’m netting on the job. “Netting” is the amount of money that you do get, “gross” is the amount of money that you will never get.
So they know, if they feel used or pissed off, I can say, for example, I think the last gig I did, I don’t have the numbers in front of me but I think I net about $7,000 off that, and then I paid the opener $1,500. I don’t know if that’s fair, you know? That I don’t know, really. Usually I pay $1,200 plus hotel if it’s somebody flying in. I did do profit sharing for a while, I think for a year and a half when I was doing the TV show. That was super fun, but I started to feel a little bit scared that I was working to pay other people, too. Like Oh, I gotta take this gig because I gotta keep the engine going. So I don’t know what I’m doing, but at least I’m aware of that.
Why did you put the special out on Comedy Dynamics versus, you know, an HBO special or a streaming network?
Oh, well, they were the only ones who wanted it. There’s that part. And they are lovely people. Of course, I’m biased in saying that because they did pay me for the special. But they did a beautiful job and they were interested and excited, and I think they put a lot of people’s specials out, so yeah, it was just somebody who was interested. Which has been my whole career: Is anybody interested in this? But I think we did put it past the other entities, and there were no bites. But it all worked out.
Did it take a lot of twisting your husband’s arm to get him to come up with you for the song at the end?
He didn’t know. I didn’t tell him because he’ll get too nervous, and so I just didn’t tell him. I knew that he would come up if I asked him to come up, because he loves me. He’s shy. He co-wrote the song with me, and he’s done it before — come up with me to sing it. He didn’t know it was going to happen, but he’s down. He looks so wrinkled! He said, “If I had known, I would have ironed my shirt.” He’s so cute.
I love his screamo voice.
Yeah! He’s been such a great influence. He knows so much about music. He has a best friend who’s a heavy metalhead.
One last thing, based on a question you asked the audience: Do you have any advice about asking for a raise?
I have not done this very many times before, because there’s usually a middleman. There’s my manager in between, so it’s very easy. I don’t have to get into the emotional part of it. What I do is if I have a scary phone call or a scary thing to ask, I’ll call someone before and after I do it, to say that I’m going to do it and get support around it so that it doesn’t feel so terrifying and it feels more like if somebody’s cheerleading me and goes “Oh, what happened?” it becomes more entertaining than fraught with anxiety.
So what’s your job? Would you like to have a raise?
Oh, I mean … I wouldn’t ever not want a raise.
Okay! So one thing I would do is maybe sideline people in the office and just say “Hey, can I tell you what I’m making?” And just have some curiosity: “… If you feel comfortable to share with me what you’re making.” To see if you’re in the same ballpark as other people. Not to create drama, but to gather knowledge.
And then maybe if you don’t feel comfortable within your own company, contact somebody who does the same work you’re doing at another company. So then, I would go with your fantastic new number — I say there’s no danger in putting what things you’ve achieved in your job in the past — and just … shoot for the moon, I would say. There’s probably a glut of people who would do it for nothing, but people like the bird in hand. So that’s the value you have. They have the person they already know. So I think you have nothing to lose to ask: “This is what I’d like.” And then maybe they come back, and just be quiet. It’s the most important thing. You say what you want and just shut up, and sit with the discomfort of that. And then just see what happens. If you want to bookend it with me, I’ll do it!