Q&A: Millennial standup comedian Maddy Smith on student debt

“I’ll show you mine if you show me yours”: Millennial standup comic Maddy Smith on student debt

When Maddy Smith takes the stage, she touches on a lot of what her generation likes to call relatable content. Sleeping on an air mattress when you move to New York. Dating app woes. Accidentally getting too tipsy at a work event.

Then, she asks the audience: “Does anyone else here have, like, no money? Because I have negative money.”

It’s an invitation to laugh about something that’s not particularly funny: student loan debt. But people laugh, and Smith wants them to. BethKobliner.com caught up with the 27-year-old comic during a break between her 9-to-5 office job and an evening set in Manhattan.

When did you start writing jokes about your financial life?

I’ve been doing comedy for three years, and a lot of my set was like dating sucks, f*$% men—the usual. Now I’m in a relationship and kind of in love, so my material has been transitioning from that formerly sad part of my life to a different and still-sad part.

Do you remember the first money joke you wrote?

Growing up, the only money my parents saved for me was a government bond for $50. And my mom used it as a bookmark. So the joke went: “I have friends whose families paid for their whole college education, and my parents gave me a $50 government bond. You know what that comes out to? $83. That’s a textbook.”

The second joke I wrote was how I went to a restaurant, and I paid, and when I saw the waitress coming back to the table my initial thought was, “Oh my god, I think my cash got declined.”

That’s funny, but it also shows how much money stress can affect your thinking. You talk a lot about student loans. Do you feel like you understood what you were getting into when you took them out?

Another joke from my set is: “My student debt is really embarrassing because I majored in economics. Somewhere, something went wrong.”

When I was in high school [outside of Buffalo, N.Y.] the goal was just to get into college. I lived in a really wealthy town, even though my parents were outliers, and it was pretty much like, “You’re going to college!” That was a given. No one talked about, like, “Oh, my parents are paying for it.” I had no idea parents just paid for it.

My mom was just like, “We’re taking out these loans, and I’m your cosigner. Here’s what it’s looking like.”

When did you start to realize the extent of your debt?

When I graduated [from the State University of New York at Geneseo] I didn’t have any idea. Even if I had, $50,000 in debt just didn’t sound like as much as it is. You’re like, “Well, my mom makes $80,000 a year. So I’ll pay it off in a year!”

I moved to Brooklyn, and that was when I was like, “Oh, my gosh. Everything’s a lot of money.” Loans start kicking in. My rent was $900. That’s when I really started struggling with money, living paycheck to paycheck.

You work a day job. How do the economics of your comedy career work out?

There are comforts of having a 9-to-5. Insurance is a huge thing. I have standup friends who are uninsured, who have significant credit card debt.

Comics all sort of joke about, well, I get paid in drink tickets. But I don’t hear a lot of money talk in standup.

I know people in the circuit who sit at home all day and they just write. They get to do six sets that night and they’re done at 3 a.m., and they’re not tired. They’re getting their rent paid for. Anyone with no student loans, it’s just like, how does it feel to be free?

Does doing comedy about debt help with the stress of actually being in debt?

It does provide catharsis. I had a joke that was like, having a ton of debt means that you get insecure around children because they technically have more than you. People laughing feels really good.

But there’s a difference between, say, talking about a date or a bad breakup onstage. You get off stage, and the debt is still there, versus you get offstage and you’re just like, “I’m over that guy. That felt really good.”

Have people opened up about their financial lives since you started doing this?  

I had a tweet once that did pretty well. “‘I’ll show you mine if you show me yours’—Me talking about my debt.” No one talks about it, even though maybe we should.

Maddy Smith Tweet

I guess starting that conversation makes me feel a little less in the dark about how everyone’s doing financially. The more you talk about it, the more people are like, “I’m the same way.” I talk about my debt as if it’s a massive thing. I owe $40,000 now. It could be way worse. When you realize everyone has debt, you’re like, well, I’m not in a rush to pay it off. I’m just another gal out here.

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