If the deep earnestness of funny people doesn’t feel obvious to you, and you are in the mood to read some good academic fieldwork, see Pretend the World is Funny and Forever: A Psychological Analysis of Comedians, Clowns, and Actors, by Seymour Fisher and Rhoda L. Fisher. After scores of detailed interviews, the Fishers found that the core concerns of funny humans are pretty much the same as those of rabbis and philosophers: What’s the purpose of all this? And how do we get through?
Who better, then, to give advice on these questions than the people who reckon with them every day? To reboot its long tradition of comic advisers (in our former column “Sedaratives”), The Believer turned to Maria Bamford. An actor and stand-up comedian, Bamford is known for her fantastic absurdities—see, for example, her version of “Old McDonald Had a Farm,” where she begins with “On this farm he had a Pterodactyl”—and her frank work about mental illness. Her comedy is laced with her experiences with OCD, bipolar disorder, suicidal thinking, and psychiatric hospitalizations. She is the star and cocreator of Lady Dynamite and The Special Special Special—in which she performed a forty-five-minute set for an audience of her parents, Joel and Marilyn Bamford—and The Maria Bamford Show. After an open call for questions on Twitter, I sat with Bamford at her home office in Altadena, California. Her answers were transcribed and edited.
—Joshua Wolf Shenk
I don’t know if I should be sending you this since I’ve been awake only maybe an hour or so and that could be a problem. For the last twenty-one years or so, when I wake up I have been hearing this really dour voice in my head. I open my eyes from sleep and the first sentence I think of is something like “Everything fades. Can you feel yourself starting to disappear?” or “You’ve never taken the time to live your life. Do you even know what you like?”
And the voice is couched in this sort of gentle, urbane disguise, like the voice of one of my favorite Ben Stiller characters. And then, after I’ve been awake for maybe an hour, those little lines switch to a slightly less bleak tone. They’re never menacing; they never feel angry or suicidal or anything, just like the psychological version of a heavy J.Crew color or something; Manchester Morning, Cold Winter Clouds, Distant Stoned Heather, Overlooked Novel, Why Is Life Perfect for Amanda and for Dave But Not for Me, or whatever they call gray with a little blue or green in it.
Then, here’s the catch: by noon I am so grateful and in awe of life that I am humbly happy to ever have been allowed to get to earth. I look at trees. I sing in the car and drum on the steering wheel. Sometimes, after a live show of this podcast I host, I will walk back to the hotel, quietly saying, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” A “thank you” as each foot hits the ground. Oh! Also! When I’m home, my pets disable the dour voice immediately (except if the cats have killed a mouse during the night).
My question is: should I be afraid or concerned about this voice I have in my head when I’m waking up?
New York, NY
Well, I’ve never heard voices, so if it is a hallucination, maybe I’d be concerned. But it doesn’t sound like that. It just sounds like thoughts coming into your head—and it’s OK to have those thoughts. They’re as much a part of the human experience as gratitude and joy.
I’m slightly hopeless every morning when I wake up. I just feel like, Oh, God, again? And some things I’ve done to scoot my neural pathways are: get on the yoga mat, or do affirmations, or—my husband and I do this almost every morning—walk to Café de Leche in our neighborhood. I never wanna do it. But once I get there, I’m delighted. There’s—oh my god, there’s Brooklyn, there’s Jeremy, there’s that nice gal Gabby. It’s delightful. And this is, of course, while I’m sucking down an extra-large cold brew.
But it’s physical, and it’s social. And, Dan, you’re saying you skip right into gratitude voice when the kitty comes. So that’s interesting. I’d ask what else is happening between when you wake up and when you drum your fingers on the wheel. And if you want to make that happen sooner, do it sooner.
But I think it’s OK to not be a morning person. I used to go to sleep with my makeup on because I couldn’t stand the morning. And before I took meds, well, I just didn’t sleep at all. But I think everything’s OK. As long as you aren’t in danger of killing yourself or somebody else, you’re doing great.
I moved to LA for a full-time job with a small company, like ten people, which I’ve been at for a little over a year. At first it seemed promising, a way to fuel my business-mind and fund my creative stuff. But now the owners laid off a few people, including someone they’d just given a raise to and promised a promotion the previous week. And they made sure they were out of town when it happened. (A lab manager performed the layoff.)
My question is this: do I peace out ASAP, and take a chill job at a coffee shop–slash–freelance, or should I take the second raise they are inevitably going to give me to entice me to stay while looking for another full-time job, which could take months?
Los Angeles, CA
I would get clear on what you’re afraid will happen at the job if you stay—and maybe the other feelings at play too. If you’re mad at the owners, what are you mad at them for? And can you have compassion for the owners and their shitty behavior? You know, nobody’s perfect. Some people are really afraid of facing responsibility with their own business, especially relationships or letting go of someone. Not that that makes it right. But I know I’ve fucked up as a business owner. I’ve screwed up with taxes, and bounced checks, all that stuff, and it’s not that I’m an asshole. I made mistakes.
Maybe your bosses are horrible people. But maybe they screwed up, and they felt ashamed, didn’t want to face people who they just made this grandiose gesture to. Also, a coffee shop—that sounds like a lower wage, and freelancing is great, but it sounds like it’s not even what you really want to do. You want to do creative stuff. My point is, I would not put yourself into an increased lack of stability because of fear or judgment. You have a job. You have it for today. I’d say, do that job and take the time to be present and imagine your ideal.
Thank you for your excellent work. I’m on the bipolar spectrum as well as being from Minnesota, so your work has resonated for me.
My question is: how do you overcome that Minnesota politeness and shyness and speak up when someone says something about mental health that is either incorrect or offensive—in the most open and caring way possible, obviously?
I hope you’re well. And thank you again for everything.
Well, thank you, Tristian M. But that’s a hard one for me, because, again, I want to assume the best of everybody, and to correct someone or to feel like somebody’s making a joke that they find funny or whatever and then go, “Guess what, not funny”—I’m not sure. But I think it’s good what you’ve said, that you can just, quietly and pleasantly, tell them that it’s not correct. It’ll be awkward. It’ll get weird. And who knows what the person will do. But I think that is how things change, through horribly uncomfortable conversations.
People do fear mental illness. I guess they fear we’re not trustworthy, that it’s an ethical-moral issue rather than an illness. I’ve heard a comedian or two say something about a homeless person with schizophrenia and make fun. I guess what I’d say is, just don’t laugh, like That joke is not for me. There’s no need to make fun of them or say that they’re losers; they’re definitely suffering and nobody is helping them out. Comedy for me is either embracing your own loserdom or your own position of power and undermining it. That’s more funny to me.
But I don’t necessarily need to say it to the person who said the thing that feels bad. Unless if they’re a close friend or a relative, awesome. Like my husband. I can’t remember exactly what was talked about, but he was kind of riffing off something about me going to the psych ward and I was like, Hey, hey, hey watch it. I can joke about this but you… Of course, that’s ridiculous, too, but I think if it’s somebody you care about who said something odd or prejudicial, you’re like, You know, I want you to know that’s really important.
I’ve never checked myself into a hospital, but I’ve thought about it many times—not lately, fortunately. But I’m curious how one knows or how you know that that’s a thing that needs to happen.
Las Vegas, NV
I told my friends that if I ever start talking really fast to tell me, because that’s a sign in my family that things are not well. So I started doing that, and then I was feeling just awful, just terrible, and I started to feel, you know, just constant thoughts of wanting it to end. I think when it becomes a thing is when the people around you can no longer be responsible for your safety.
Like, just, “Oh, I’m afraid.” I never hurt myself, but when you sent me home from the psychiatrist like, “Well, try the new medication. Let us know next week at your next appointment.” And I was like, “I can’t wait another week. This is unbearable.” I felt scared to be by myself. So I checked in. And also I checked out.
The one thing I’d change about how I did it is I would tell everyone. I felt embarrassed, and one of the best, most wonderful memories I have of that time is when people came to visit me. People that I did tell came to visit me in the hospital. And that was really—well, it was hilarious. I mean, it was horrible at the time, but it’s a very funny and warm memory to look back on, and I think it’s this opportunity for people to be heroes in real life, to let somebody have the opportunity to love you when you’re at your worst.