Even the great ones bomb. Such was the case when comedian Maria Bamford returned to the University of Minnesota on May 14 as the keynote speaker for her alma mater's split graduation ceremonies for the College of Liberal Arts in Mariucci Arena. The first one went fine; the second did not.
Truth be told, the lackluster response had much to do with the audio-challenged hockey arena, a venue where the only surefire laugh is Goldy Gopher riding a Zamboni. But like a pro, Bamford accepted the bulk of the blame.
"It's always me," she said a few hours later, after swapping out a cap and gown for floral-imprinted casual wear. "Sure, the morning crowd might have been more lively, but maybe I was livelier, too."
It's the season for prominent figures to share advice and personal stories through commencement speeches, in hopes that students will retain some pearl of wisdom following their final college kegger.
Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg used her time at Virginia Tech to speak on loss and grief. Arnold Schwarzenegger told Houston University grads that the self-made man is a myth. At USC, Will Ferrell spoke about the importance of giving to charities, then launched into a rendition of "I Will Always Love You."
For Bamford, exposing her personal side is old hat. As pointed out by her "warmup act" — College of Liberal Arts Dean John Coleman, who did an accidental impression of the monotone teacher in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" — few comedians working today are as open as Bamford. Her willingness to explore her addictions and battles with depression (she was in a treatment center during her own 1993 graduation) is a primary reason that her Netflix series "Lady Dynamite" was renewed for a second season and that Rolling Stone recently named her one of our 50 funniest people.
But the Duluth native still found the experience enriching, especially a Q&A session with a few dozen theater majors that followed the stuffy pomp and circumstance.
"I found myself saying stuff I wanted to say to myself, listening to my own advice," Bamford commented as students filed out of the black box theater in Rarig Center. "You're talking and you're thinking, 'Oh, right. I remember why this is so much fun.' "
Her performance style — esoteric, convention-bending observations delivered in a baby-girl voice — was certainly on display during the more intimate session.
How does a dyed-in-the-wool Minnesotan break out of the Midwest? one student asked.
"Well, there's 35W going south," Bamford said.
Later, she shared a joke she's been working on, set at the funeral of a comedian who committed suicide.
But Bamford, who is getting rave reviews for her new Netflix comedy special "Old Baby," also took time to get serious about a topic that celebrities rarely address. She talked about money.
She explained how she survived a decade without getting cast in anything by working as a secretary, a job she held on to even after her first Comedy Central special aired.
"That only netted $5,000 or $6,000. In L.A., that's just two months of living expenses," she said. "Being poor is not creative. It takes a lot of energy and time."
She freely admitted how much money she has in the bank — roughly $750,000 — and how she and her husband, visual artist Scott Cassidy, who had tagged along on the trip, were laying the groundwork for retirement.
"I can already see myself spending my day chit-chatting with strangers in coffee shops," said the 46-year-old comic. "I kind of already do that."
Earlier in the day, she opened her keynote addresses by talking about how the university had initially offered her no money to come home. Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, by comparison, got $100,000 to speak at Kent State University in Ohio.
"They lowballed me," she said.
Bamford ended up negotiating a $10,000 fee — all of which she gave away to two loan-strapped seniors selected at random during the ceremonies.
Giving back was still on her mind after the duties were done Sunday.
"I should have offered the theater students coming to L.A. a place to crash," she said before heading out for a night of local comedy with her husband.
How Minnesotan. But sometimes solid, heartfelt advice is just as valuable as a free couch.