Marc Maron: Talking Down the Demons

Comedy Features Marc Maron

The Voice emerges from a dark, murky garage, somewhere in one of the less hip neighborhoods of Los Angeles where the desert tries its hardest to reclaim the city. Like all revolutionary forces, The Voice is mysterious, wild, wizened and occasionally angry. It’s coarsened a fair bit by age, drugs, booze and hard living. It obsessively spins tales about old blues licks, long days on the road, a traveling pirate show going from city to city across the long desolate countryside. The Voice has seen things, done things. Maybe will again. Maybe soon. “Lock the gate!” yells The Voice, beginning the podcast in a touch of irony with the words that, until recently, the world had most heard it utter, in a short cameo in Cameron Crowe’s classic 2000 film Almost Famous. And then Marc Maron, The Voice Himself, leans in to the microphone to begin the WTF podcast, and the twice-weekly secular church service of self-examination begins for a huge and growing throng of followers.

It’s a peculiar cultural moment for Maron, as the alt-comic veteran, well into middle age (he turns 50 in September), seems to be just coming into the mainstream spotlight. His memoir, Attempting Normal, was released on April 30. His new scripted half-hour comedy Maron premiered on IFC on May 3. His podcast currently trails only Ira Glass’ behemoth This American Life in the iTunes rankings. Maron, to paraphrase Mojo Nixon, is everywhere—and not completely happy about it. “I am on the precipice of such potential failure,” he moans. “It’s staggering. People can now just turn on me in several mediums.”

The gloom, even if half-put-on for effect, is part of the reason it’s such a surprise that Maron has rocketed to such stardom recently. Compared to This American Life’s polite, comfortable coffee-table features—The Onion once ran a satirical piece entitled “This American Life Completes Documentation of Liberal, Upper-Middle-Class Existence”—WTF is downright punk rock. Maron is an edgy guy, and even though the drugs, the alcohol and (most of) the misanthropy are in the past, he’s still a swirling pool of energy and danger, even on his good days. For many of us, that’s a big part of what makes him whatever the podcast equivalent of appointment television should be called. But mainstream audiences usually prefer their entertainment to be a bit more sanitized.

That duality certainly characterized his early career. Alongside some friends, he helped launch the alternative comedy scene in the early 1990s, both in Los Angeles (with his friend Sam Kinison at the Comedy Store) and New York (with friends like Janeane Garofalo at the Luna Lounge). His career as a stand-up hit all the markers you’d expect of the era—a recurring part on Dr. Katz, several cable specials, late night talk show appearances (he still holds the record for appearances on Conan’s show), an audition for Lorne Michaels for Saturday Night Live, and lots and lots of touring. He even hosted MTV’s Short Attention Span Theater for a moment, in perhaps his most visible role of that decade. But he never quite found the mainstream success of many of his peers. He was never the household name.

His next association, with Air America, proved to be both a blessing and a curse. A blessing in that it gave him a regular nationwide audience (many of whom, as more fans of political talk than of comedy, had not heard him before). A curse in that he ranted about politics for a living. He was good at it, too (despite being fired three times from the network), but he’s now sworn it off. “I don’t talk about politics now unless it’s up my ass,” he quips, beginning a convincing, extended rant about patent trolls.

After the last firing, he was broke. He was depressed. He was isolated. He had, he remembers, painted himself into a corner, between the hyper-political talk and the general grumpiness. What he needed more than anything, he realized, was to talk. To talk to his peers, to talk to his icons and heroes, to talk to anyone else thinking about life in a substantive way. “All I needed to do at that point was talk to people,” he remembers, “so why not put the mics on?”

His Air America bosses had let him keep his security card for a few weeks, and Maron and his producer began sneaking into the studios at night to record a podcast. “The only decision we really made at that time,” he recalls, “was to do two a week, no matter what. And I made a fairly deep commitment not to talk about partisan politics, because I thought that was bullshit. How long do you have to talk about politics before you realize you’re just a hate puppet for other interests? Why don’t we go deeper?”

Maron realized, he said, that in the rushed, overly busy society we’ve built, people have fallen out of the habit of long conversations. Especially entertainers. “People have a script,” he explained to Laughspin last year. “They may not be aware of it, but they have a script in how they talk about themselves, and it becomes ingrained because of how many times they do it. I think it’s interesting to broaden the conversation.”

If searching for genuine conversations and connections was an unexpected direction for him, it was also one that made perfect sense. Maron had always been a particularly intellectual and self-analyzing comic. “Why don’t’ we go deeper,” indeed?

That question proved to be the most pivotal one of Maron’s career. His personal life, like his career, had alternated between barely hanging onto the tracks and careening wildly off of them. He’s very open about his struggles with just about any substance known to man. Through lots of therapy and 12-stepping, he’d narrowed his list of vices to coffee, nicotine lozenges and picking at the waddle of his neck, but he knew that for a personality like his, the cliff would never be more than a few feet away. So he made a crucial decision and began to focus his podcast on finding the darkness in his guests’ lives and figuring out how they had worked their way through it. It’s what turned his podcast from just another interview show into something much deeper.

“I don’t know why that happens,” he protests. “There’s no system to it. Generally, I’m going in only to have a conversation. But almost always about two thirds of the way through, something gives. And it’s not necessarily some big moment or some big bit of information, but something relaxes. You can’t bullshit for an hour—even if you’re not trying to bullshit—if you’re sitting there talking to someone one-on-one, eventually you’re going to be like ‘What!?’ That’s the moment you’re looking for.”

And then comes the extra twist. Maron is himself both therapist and patient on WTF. The meta-narrative of the podcast, deliberately or not, is of Maron working through his shit while helping his guests work through theirs. And that’s really where the magic happens. Like a great television series, the show rewards regular listeners not only with short-term plots (the individual guests’ stories) but with the continuing overall drama of Maron’s own journey of self-discovery and adjustment. “This is who I am,” he writes in Attempting Normal. “I overthink and I ruminate. I’m obsessive. But what I really want is relief. Most people are the same. We’re all carrying around some shit. When you hear the things that people have gone through and realize you’ve gone through the same, it provides an amazing amount of relief. It gives us hope. And I think that’s what we’re supposed to get from each other—the hope that maybe, just maybe, we’re going to be okay. Maybe.”

The meta-narrative, Maron’s own openness and his relentless examination of behavior have led to moments whose profundity most podcasters can only dream about. Here’s the message fellow comic Todd Glass left for Maron after taping Episode 245:

“Hey Marc, it’s Todd. I wanted to thank you. I’m laying here and I can’t really sleep, thinking about Monday [the air date for the episode]. I know it’s all going to be good, I really do. But I was just thinking that I wanted to thank you. Because this is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my whole life. And when I was there it was pretty easy to do it. You had the right mount of compassion, and the jokes we were doing really helped. I really appreciate it. Very much. I don’t want to be overly campy, but I would have never even fathomed, over the years, that it would have been you that would have me do this. And I really appreciate it. After I send this, I’ll probably think that I shouldn’t have because it sounds too cheesy but… [long pause] thank you.”

During that episode, Todd Glass publicly came out as a gay man for the first time.

That wasn’t the only big moment in the podcast’s history. Todd Hanson spoke at length, for the first time in public, about his suicide attempt. Carlos Mencia came onto consecutive episodes—first to brush off accusations of joke-stealing, and then, once Maron had turned up some damning evidence, to (somewhat) cop to the truth. In another legendary two-parter, Maron and one-time-dear-friend Louis C.K. explored, at great length and with great emotion, what went wrong between them and how to address it. And those episodes are the exception rather than the rule, the differences between them and a “normal” episode being more one of degree than of category. For every Todd Hanson speaking about a suicide attempt, there are dozens of John Darnielles going into far more detail than ever before about depression and drug use. For every Marc Maron-Louis C.K. rapprochement, there are dozens of Aimee Manns with whom Maron finds the need to repair smaller relationship breaches, most of which center around an apology from Maron himself.

“Bobby Slayton came on,” Maron remembers, “and throughout the entire interview he was like ‘Are you going to make me cry like Louis CK?’ I don’t expect those things to happen. I just make myself as emotionally available as possible for those conversations to unfold. I don’t prepare much, and that’s the truth. I just don’t. I try to make sure I don’t leave an interview and say, ‘Oh shit, he won an Oscar! Why didn’t I talk about that?’ I want to make sure that I know important junctures in people’s careers or lives, but usually I want the conversation to get past their public narrative, to get past whatever they think is supposed to happen when they’re on the microphone and just be two people talking. Whatever people want to volunteer, whatever comfort level they are at, or whatever they want to talk about, to just to be available for it. I was a fairly selfish person for most of my life, and I’m becoming an empathetic listener and just letting people talk.”

It’s all made for a show that occupies a completely unique space in the cultural landscape, this Charles Bukowski-meets Dick-Cavett podcast. And the fans are rabid. Nearly every WTF listener will tell of how he discovered the show—a friend, a neighbor, a fellow partygoer, or a stranger at a bus stop who grabbed hold of his lapels, sometimes literally, and impressed upon him that he needed, without fail, to check out this show. There are few, if any, casual WTF fans. It’s more like time for church, twice a week, without fail—pack a lunch and settle in.

Which makes the two new outlets, the book and the show, somewhat problematic. That same darkness and intensity and danger, while channeled now in more positive directions, is still present in Maron’s personality, indeed even in The Voice itself. Even when WTF is touching, it’s still edgy. But it’s hard to be edgy in a soon-to-be-NYT-bestselling book. And it’s sure as hell hard to be edgy in a nationally televised television series, even on IFC. Try as you might to chart your own course, the tradewinds are too strong, blowing you back onto the established, tried-and-true routes.

Maron’s book fares better. There are certainly plenty of moments in it that are muted, that lose a little of their bite in print. But overall, The Voice still comes through in Attempting Normal. It’s a crackling read, especially for someone already familiar with WTF.“Things are going pretty well for me right now,” he writes. “And that is a problem. I don’t know what kind of person you are but I am the kind of person who when things are going well there is a voice in my head saying, ‘You’re going to fuck it up. You’re going to fuck it up, Marc.’ Over and over and over again. I just wish that voice were louder than the voice screaming, ‘Let’s fuck it up! Come on, pussy! What happened to you? Fuck it up!’” It’s a funny bit, not only for the turn itself but for the self-destructive streak it channels in Maron’s character.

He does the same bit at the beginning of an episode of Maron, and somehow it’s not as strong, even with The Voice delivering it. Perhaps it’s that Maron has co-writers on the show—although how to avoid that arrangement? Writing for a half-hour episode is very different from writing for an onstage monologue. Perhaps it’s that the direction is a bit flat and heavy-handed. Perhaps it’s just that Maron’s personality doesn’t translate well to a sitcom setting, although that’s doubtful. The lazy comparison is to Louis C.K., but Maron is a completely different animal. If anything he’s actually a funnier writer than Louis, if not quite as natural an actor. And while Louis seems to be using comedy to get into a different world of weirdness and drama, Maron uses comedy to get into deeper emotional waters. That should be a promising direction more available to Maron than to Louie—or to most shows.

“Promising” isn’t the praise any sitcom creator dreams of getting for the beginning of his show. But it’s not a bad place to start. In the right hands, this show could be something remarkable.

In the end, it all comes back to The Voice. The Voice cries out in the wilderness. It prods, pries, nags. It’s relentless, never satisfied with the easy, pat answers. Books and television series bring a version of The Voice to a bigger audience; it’s too strong not to break through, whatever the medium. Attempting Normal and Maron are welcome introductions for Maron neophytes, and hold their own unique pleasures. But Maron disciples will continue to mainline the unfiltered version of The Voice in those twice-weekly services of self-examination calledWTF. You’re invited too, pilgrim. Find a pew. Settle in. Lock the gate.

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