Marc Maron on Fear, Anger and Stand-up

Comedy Features Marc Maron
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Honesty is crucial to stand-up, and few comedians are as honest and open as Marc Maron. It’s why his podcast WTF is such a smash success (seriously, he interviewed the president this year, on a podcast), and also why his stand-up today feels so different from what you might remember from the 1990s. The podcast host and TV star has spent almost thirty years in comedy, and he’s able to look back on his career and his growth as both a comedian and a person with remarkable candor.

Paste recently talked to Maron about his latest stand-up special, More Later, which premieres on Epix tonight at 10 PM ET, and about how his performing style and approach to stand-up has changed since he started in the late ‘80s.

Paste: Once you take the stage in More Later, it feels pretty off the cuff and unplanned, those first few minutes. But I know professionals can make something that they do all the time seem pretty spontaneous. Were those first few minutes on stage as spontaneous as they seem to the viewer?

Marc Maron: Yeah. I had just eaten that pizza. So it was pretty off the cuff. I was directly talking about making the bad decision to eat a bunch of delicious pizza right before going on. So that was definitely off the cuff. It made sense. I was glad I had the footage of me eating pizza so I was able to tie it all together.

Paste: Well like the interior blogger critiquing the show as it goes on, is that something you normally do?

MM: The blogger is a device I’ve been using the last year and a half, two years. I can improvise pretty freely with that thing. I’ve been doing that for a while—that’s where “more later” comes from, the tag of the show, but yeah I’ve been using that guy to be a second voice and I can make him say anything. There’s generally a lot of improvisation with that.

Paste: Have you ever read anything written about you or your shows on a blog that you thought has been helpful or informative for you?

MM: If somebody writes thoughtful criticism, even if they’re critical as opposed to just being snarky or negative, sometime that stuff can be helpful. I don’t mind reading thoughtful criticism, it’s just snark and garbage that I have a problem with, really.

Paste: When you do a special, how is that pressure different for you than what you feel when you’re making a Maron episode or recording a WTF?

MM: There’s an audience there. With a Maron episode or a WTF you’re going to do a lot of takes. Well WTF I just improvise—I don’t have to worry about it and I don’t do too many do-overs. But with TV you can keep trying ‘til you get it right. When you do a special you really want to nail it in a live setting. You’ve really got one chance. You really hope that you don’t have to do any pick-ups and you hope that you can pull it off in one show. You usually do two shows. Every time I’ve done specials of any kind you do two shows, but you rarely take from that second show. In fact I think my special’s all taken from the first show. I did another show that was another looser that went longer, but I just got it the first show. You’re building up a lot of momentum towards this one show, a live show, and you really want it to go well. You don’t want to cut too much out of it and you want it to have its own flow and you want it to be organic and be a hot show, and it worked out. So that’s the real difference. People sweeten things or they cut things up—there’s a little editing involved—but I think it’s all pretty much one show. If we did anything we might’ve trimmed a couple of things out just for time.

Paste: So when you do two shows for a special is the first show usually better? Or just good enough to be the special?

MM: I don’t know, man. You’re really fired up for that first show. That’s probably going to be it. But sometimes the second show, there were some good, loose riffs in the second show, but I talked to Bobcat [Goldthwait, the special’s director] after the first show and he was like “I think we got it. Do whatever you want this [second] show.”

Paste: What was it like working with Bobcat on this one?

MM: I like working with Bobcat. He’s directed several episodes of my TV show and I’ve known him for years. He’s a strong personality, and sometimes that’s good. And he also knows comedy. I worked with Lance Bangs on the last one, who’s definitely not a strong personality in the way Bobcat is—Lance is a quiet guy, thoughtful guy. Bobby’s got opinions and he used to be up there so there is a sort of dynamic there, where I trust his intuition about comedy and his suggestions in terms of how he wanted the thing to look. And I think the thing looks good. I love Bobcat.

Paste: When it comes to directing a special, is he mostly just working on camera shots and when to cut to the crowd, or does he help you block it out on the stage, or what? What exactly is a director’s job on a stand-up special?

MM: We’ve got to decide what the look of the show is. I went out of my way a few years ago to do a very intimate club show special, and this one is a theater special. I’ve seen a lot of theater specials that look cheesy, and I think that the way he lit it and kept the stage noise in terms of set to a minimum really captured a big night but also an intimate vibe. It’s just making it look right. He wanted to keep the editing pretty natural seeming. In terms of his interaction with me, there was one point, I think it might have been second show, where he got on the voice of God mic and said “move the chair back.” The problem with cutting between two shows is continuity issues. Even though I don’t move around much I tend to move things around too much. There was a point about five or ten minutes in where he said “move the stool back where it was or we’re not going to be able to use it if we need to.” And then we had this weird little improvisation, the two of us, in front of people. It was pretty exciting. It was pretty funny for everybody who was there. You’ll never see it though.

Paste: Maybe a deleted scene.

MM: The outtakes. The director’s cut, or whatever.

Paste: The theater looks really nice in this special. When I saw it was at the Vic in Chicago, I immediately thought of all those old HBO One Night Stands that were shot there, but it looks classier now than back then.

MM: The lighting designer did a great job. I’ve made all these mistakes in my life—there’s a compulsion to do things on the stage that try to define who you are, or whatever, and I just, I’m not doing that anymore. I want it to be as simple as possible. I didn’t want anything up there.

Paste: Do you ever go back and watch your old specials?

MM: I think I watched my half-hour from HBO in ‘95 not too long ago. I’ve watched most of Thinky Pain. Why do you ask?

Paste: I talk to a lot of bands and they all say they can’t listen to a record once they finish it. And I wonder if for comedians if it’s valuable to go back and see what you used to be like.

MM: I find that when I do that, and I occasionally do that, although I don’t have to watch the whole thing… but I don’t know. I don’t listen to my podcast usually and I don’t generally watch my TV show. Sometimes I do. But the stand-up, you do need to run through it just for material. You want to make sure you don’t repeat material. I don’t think I did. What I’m surprised about is, who I am has shifted in tone a little bit, but I’m always pretty much me, and it’s sort of comforting, because I never thought I was. But I kind of am. There are different degrees of anger and sophistication around the material and tone, but I’m pretty much myself, going all the way back. I watched my Evening at the Improv stuff I did in the late ‘80s and I was like “I can see me in there. I know that guy.”

Paste: Did you feel that confidence back in the day?

MM: No, I didn’t feel confident at all. There was a lot of fear and a lot of acting. The one thing that blew me away not too long ago: someone found this weird piece of taste from a Rascals comedy hour that I did because somebody cancelled. It was before I was even working that much as a professional, probably ‘87, and I was still a little fuzzed out from the Comedy Store… It was in New Jersey. It’s out there. I look like… I’ve got long hair, I’m wearing tinted glasses… It’s a weird thing. It’s a weird piece of film. I seem to undercut whatever work I put into doing comedy. Even though I’ve been doing it a long time, I never really thought that I was making mental notes of performance craft. What’s weird to me is I did that weird things comics do where you set up a joke with a premise and you repeat the premise. You know what I mean? Like, “cigarettes, how many people, cigarettes, anybody? Smoking the cigarettes?” I introduced it several times. And I never thought I would ever do that but there’s fucking footage of me in like ‘87 setting it up like a road comic. And I’m like I guess I was paying attention. I definitely wanted to know how to do this.

Paste: It’s valuable to do stuff like that, right? To test out different deliveries and interactions with the crowd and stuff?

MM: I don’t know how conscious I was of it. That’s the weird thing about that. I don’t know what other people do but I don’t think I was ever like “yeah I’m gonna use this device.” It was all kind of innately working with me, and even watching some later stuff at Evening at the Improv, my jokes were a lot tighter, I was relying a lot more on joke structure than performance, just different manifestations of fear and figuring it out.

Paste: You just mentioned anger a few minutes ago. I know in your special you discuss your anger problem. What’s the angriest you’ve ever been with a stand-up audience?

MM: I’ve lost my shit with audiences before. Way back. I used to sort of make it pretty awkward. I’m trying to think about… what was the angriest I’ve ever gotten at an audience? I don’t know. I used to snap pretty hard. It’s funny for a minute, especially if you’re snapping at somebody who’s a problem. I think I make reference to that in the exchange I have in the special with that woman. If this was a different time, it would be a different sort of exchange. I’m trying to remember a specific event. All I know is it would be a bit too much, and then it’d be hard to get back on track. It was not an uncommon thing for me to do so I can’t remember a specific one. Needless to say there were different degrees of ugliness and sometimes it would work and be justified and other times it would just be a bit much and people would be nervous.

Paste: Would you ever try, kind of like Sam Kinison or Bill Hicks, to get angry as part of the act?

MM: I don’t know if Bill would… Bill was best when he was sort of angry. I wonder if he would consider it part of the act. He definitely had a tone that was angry, but I think his aggravation with people not understanding him or not engaging with him on stage was genuine. I certainly lost it in that way that he could at times. I don’t know if it was part of the act. It was sort of what I was doing at a different point, being angry and a little provocative, but I don’t think it was a device that again I decided on. I think it was me moving through whatever the hell that was to get to a point where I could be comfortable with myself. I don’t think I’m fundamentally that angry like that. About things or at people. I think sometimes I snap out but I don’t think… I think being an angry comic, for as long as I was that, was just about my own fear of being open up there.

Paste: Yeah. Which you don’t seem to be afraid of at all anymore.

MM: I don’t have any fear anymore of being on the stand-up stage. I actually look forward to it. It just took me 25 years to get there.

More Later premieres on Epix tonight at 10 PM ET.

Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. Follow him on Twitter @grmartin.