Comedian Marc Maron finally having his moment
Soon after taking the stage, Marc Maron decides to skip the act.
He's got a packed room at a downtown New York club, all eager to see the 49-year-old comic tape what will be a comedy special for Netflix. Normally, such tapings are carefully structured and finely calibrated. Maron promptly decides against it.
"No, let's not," he says. "Let's just work through some stuff."
Working through stuff is the modus operandi for Maron. Though he started out as a stand-up known for bitterness and anger, Maron - after a lot of struggle and a bout with drugs - began funneling all of his anxieties, frustrations and demons into his comedy. For him, working through "stuff" with a microphone is a way of life.
His new book, "Attempting Normal," is dedicated to "anyone who is successfully defying their wiring." He once concluded a speech at the Just for Laughs comedy festival with the summation: "There are few things more important than comedy, but they aren't funny."
Bitterness and anger certainly haven't left the building, but Maron's issues - those inherited from a manic-depressive father and a weight-obsessed mother, and accrued from jealousy-filled years of show business - are entirely in the open. In an entertainment world full of seemingly flawless, confident performers, Maron's naked insecurities have made him a hero for the imperfect.
"The only time I tend to get frightened is if I get away from stand-up for more than a week or two," Maron said in an interview in early April over a plate of bacon. "I realized I hadn't been on stage in two weeks and I was like: 'Oh my God! It's a lie! I'm not funny! What am I doing?' All these weird fears started coming back. And then I went up and did like an hour and a half and I was like, 'All right. I know who I am again.'"
During the taping, Maron gestured to a notebook on the floor full of illegible scribbles, explaining: "This is the system that's kept me out of the big time for 20 years."
But after more than two decades in comedy - and watching contemporaries like Louis C.K. and Jon Stewart ascend in the industry - Maron is finally having a well-deserved moment. Along with the Netflix special and book out this week from Random House, his IFC series, "Maron," premiered Friday.
And it's all because, at a moment when he was out of other options - lacking work, on his second divorce and giving suicide some thought - he decided to buy a microphone and try a new medium in its infancy: podcasting. On his show, he would comically spill his neuroses while having deeply personal, hour-long conversations with fellow comedians. After sitting for a recent episode, Hank Azaria wondered if Maron "gives out truth drugs."
"I needed to talk to people on a personal level - kind of re-engaging my ability to listen and laugh and connect with somebody else in an open-hearted way," he says. "I'd lost all that. I'd become very cynical and closed off. It was all synced up: My need to integrate myself into the community and be among peers and to literally hear how other people deal with their problems."
The podcast, "WTF With Marc Maron," has long been one of the most popular on iTunes, with about 2.5 million downloads monthly. Now past 380 episodes, he's attracted nearly everyone in comedy, from Robin Williams and Mel Brooks to Conan O'Brien and Ben Stiller. The show, famously recorded in the garage of his Los Angeles home, is a kind of twice-weekly hearth for the comedy world where the candid conversations are centered more on life's pains than on comedy. Maron can be both combative and apologetic - often at the same time.
He's arguably the best, most honest interviewer in media right now. His recordings - like an Alan Lomax collection of the comedy world - were recently added to the Library of Congress.
"No one does this anymore," says Maron. "We live in a self-involved, careerist society of people just trying to appear like they have their s--- together. I think the attitude is 'Look, I'm doing what I'm doing so I can't focus on your s--- right now. So text me.' But we're all equipped to deal with this stuff. It's really what makes human beings interested. It's what we're supposed to be doing, connecting like this."
To see Maron on stage is to witness him at his most comfortable, driven almost compulsively by a need to connect with an audience. The comic Andy Kindler once called him "an empathetic savant."
Maron, who describes himself as a "volatile, sensitive guy," grew up in Albuquerque, N.M. In his early 20s, after graduating from Boston University, he moved to Los Angeles and worked his way up as a doorman at the Comedy Store. He fell in with Sam Kinison, aping both his anger-spewing comedy and coke habit. Maron eventually fled back to Boston, and developed a career that never quite took off, including hosting stints on Comedy Central and on Air America. With no expectations and free of any creative oversight, he began the podcast in 2009.
"Maron" pulls from many of the stories he's told in the podcast openings, and features cameos from many of those he's interviewed, including Sarah Silverman and Aubrey Plaza. It's a sitcom portrait of his life: raging at ex-wives, hanging out with comics and caring for his houseful of cats.
"Attempting Normal," with stories about fights with his girlfriend over having babies and his lone encounter with "Saturday Night Live" creator Lorne Michaels (who's something of an inscrutable villain to Maron), captures Maron's voice authentically. While the TV series has a good spirit, it may be more amplified for fans accustomed to the intimacy of the podcast.
"I definitely did it the way I do things," he says. "I erred on the side of earnest over bad jokes. There were definitely conversations where it's like we don't need to do that joke because that joke will derail the emotions of it. A lot of what I learned in writing was that I never really fully realized how much jokes are about avoiding emotion."
Maron, naturally, is neurotically "girding for whatever negativity is to come" from his suddenly high profile.
"I'm pretty overwhelmed, and that seems to be having a calming effect on me," he says.
He would like to do more episodes of "Maron," having learned from the first 10. He has no plans to slow down on the podcast, which increasingly features entertainers outside of comedy: "I'd like to go into areas where I can learn something," he says.
In "Attempting Normal," he writes that he got into comedy not to be an entertainer, but "to finish the construction of myself." Regardless of success, the process seems to be working.
After he detours into what he often calls "a pocket of weirdness," during the taping, Maron smiles: "That kind of went a different direction than I expected."