One could argue that Marc Maron wants us to think he’s a failure, or at least that he plays one on TV each week on IFC. It’s tough, tough work trying to make a name—or a life, for that matter, out of talking for a living, particularly when your favorite (and least favorite) subject matter seems to be yourself. But somehow, in real life, it worked for Marc Maron. People liked listening to him talk about himself. People liked listening to him interview other people and figure out ways to make his subjects talk about him, too.
One of the constant themes of Maron’s external monologue is its creator’s own (shifting) place in the world. Sometimes he feels old. Sometimes he feels young. Sometimes he feels happy. Sometimes he feels sad. Seldom does he feel just right.
What’s fascinating about Maron’s larger biography is that, for all his preoccupation with being too old and past his prime, his greatest success—and the one that bred the success, the TV deal, and more—is a younger man’s medium.
Podcasts—the words and the technology—are roughly 10 years old. Maron was 40 at the time, hosting a fairly conventional early-AM radio show. He’d crash and burn with four major shows before launching WTF with Marc Maron five years later. And though he surely received many of the criticisms leveled at him at this episode’s outset by radio hosts in denial (“there is no such thing as a popular podcast”), somewhere along the line, Marc found himself ahead of the curve on something. He was winning.
For once, Marc acknowledges that he’s doing OK, and the fact that Marc allows himself to be right about something for once feels long overdue. With smart criticisms—calling talk radio a “hostage situation for people who don’t have a smart phone”—Marc’s finally allowing his on-screen self to own some of the success that allowed meta-Maron to exist in the first place. And so “Radio Cowboy”—the best episode of the season so far, by far—unites Marc’s real-life past with his on-show present through guest star Phil Hendrie’s Bill Shepard, himself another established radio comedian feeling unmoored—a terrestrial man in a digital age.
Though Marc has peddled some shady products on WTF before, the power of choice is the thing that seems to satisfy him the most. And as he and Bill meet up with Bill’s old-world radio contemporaries, the bars on their morning zoo cages seem and feel oppressive for the free-ranging Maron. There’s a juxtaposition here: the idealization of “doing it live” versus editing to “make it better,” and in an instant-information age, podcasting may be the last medium where sometimes getting it right trumps doing it first. It’s only fitting that Marc found the one new place where old thinking trumped new logic.
While the episode isn’t perfect—Nate Bargatze returns the tradition of unnecessary podcast guests after a few successful visitors in recent weeks—I don’t think that Maron said one self-deprecating thing the entire episode. He’s comfortable—both in his own skin and among older men who respect him for seeing the light and striking out on his own. It’s cool. Among the cowboys, one Lone Ranger rode into the sunrise, while the others break camp early. They’ve got to get to Montana by 5AM, after all.
When I think about progress, I can’t help but remember King Canute of Denmark, an 11th century monarch who tried in vain to command the waves to stop as they broke on a beach. The Marc Maron we’ve come to know would seem to be one who’d nag them, arguing and whining until they got sick enough of him to roll back out. But the reality is that—for once in his life—Marc surrendered to the flow. And while the apocryphal Van Buren-to-Jackson “yay-canals-boo-trains” letter that Maron makes his monologue opus is a bit of progress(ive) piling-on, it’s a fitting example. Change happens, and if you don’t ride the waves to safer shores, you’re going to be dragged out to sea in the rip.
All told, though this solid episode is all about how Marc’s great success came from breaking with tradition, it’s a straightforward half-hour of television. He’s worked within the “format restriction” and created an episode of TV that hits all the right notes, a perfect distillation of the influence of Marc’s self, self-employment, and self-esteem, a life free from compromises that seems to be Marc’s on-screen and real-life ideal. He’s the Lone Ranger, after all—Captain Internet piloting the WTF ship. And on his Titanic, there’s not a fart noise to be found. Progress!
John Vilanova is a New York and Philadelphia based writer and academic currently serving as the managing editor of Philadelphia Style magazine. His work has appeared in publications including Paste, Rolling Stone, Vogue, and others. Follow him on Twitter.