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“Don’t feel sorry for me. This is what I wanted. I want to be a marginalized act. I want to be a little known thing. That’s what I want. What? Do you think I want big success? Fuck that!” In 2009, Marc Maron wasn’t doing too well. He had been fired for a fourth time at Air America. His second wife was strangling him in a divorce. And he was losing money — fast. In the midst of all this madness, and perhaps as a last ditch effort, he recorded his third comedy album, Final Engagement, to a half-filled venue in Seattle. That fine example of self-deprecation above is just one of many carnal quotes off the album, which quickly boils down to a depressing self-portrait of how twisted life can get for a celebrity, a comic, anyone. What the fuck, right?
Then something happened: On September 1st, Maron came up with the idea of a podcast, which he began recording after-hours at the Air America offices, thanks to a set of keys he and his producers pocketed. Drawing on his past, the then troubled comic based the show around intimate conversations with old friends and past acquaintances, striking gold with its brute honesty. Once he set up shop in Los Angeles, specifically his garage, the podcast really took off, receiving syndication offers from around the nation and topping charts on iTunes. The scope of his guests also broadened, ranging from alternative heroes like Bob Odenkirk and Tig Notaro to worldwide superstars in Ben Stiller and Anthony Bourdain. By 2012, the same curmudgeon who insisted, “This better fucking work” proved to actually make it fucking work when he took home Comedy Central’s award for “Best Comedy Podcast” — and to think, that wasn’t even his best year.
In the past 365 days, he’s released a book (Attempting Normal), starred in a critically acclaimed, renewed IFC series (Maron), taped a special for Netflix (Thinky Pain), and continued to attract bigger and broader guests for WTF (Mel Brooks, Larry King, and Dave Grohl aren’t too shabby). It’s all golden stuff: The book proves he’s just as tortured in print as he is behind the mic; the series acts as an equally intelligent and yet darker half to IFC’s lighter Comedy Bang Bang; his special retains the intimacy of Final Engagement, only eschewing venom for wit; and the podcast has become a beacon of discovery for any guest big or small. Of course, he’s had some hard times this year, too. In October, he announced on WTF that he had broken off his recent engagement to longtime girlfriend Jessica Sanchez.
“I know I’m a pain in the ass. I know I’m difficult,” he explains, almost tearing up. “It’s sad. It’s been a long time since I’ve been alone, and she’s a great person. But it just got too difficult, and I had to end it. It’s just awful because I just can’t seem to do a healthy relationship.”
It’s one of the hardest things to listen to, and although he maintains his composure, you can hear his heart cracking piece by piece in the minutes prior to his recorded interview with Natasha Lyonne. But it’s that rugged authenticity that draws his character, and what has brought him this far. Few faces in pop culture ever speak without their proverbial makeup. They hide behind a warm facade that’s part of the system rather than against it. Maron has never been anything but personal, and it’s that remarkable depth that has only now worked to his favor. And while this is certainly a dark moment for him, there’s an agreeable assumption now that he’ll move past it and survive — after all, that’s what he’s always done.
“My life is not that big,” Maron explains over the phone. “It’s really a lot more simple than everyone makes it out to be.”
When we reach out to Maron on an early Saturday morning, he’s fighting a cold in his Highland Park home, no doubt surrounded by his infamous cats: Monkey and LaFonda. His chores at the moment are minor: a little mail to sort through, some coffee to grind. In this comfort zone, it doesn’t take much to get him going on a topic.
“I guess there’s a pursuit of truth,” he continues. “I’m just finding that as I get older, nothing is that fucking confusing. Your brain is blown open when you’re younger like: What’s out there? What is the truth? And the truth is, you don’t want to get sick, you don’t want to die alone, and it would be nice to have insurance and someone to spend time with. That’s it, really. It’s just relative to what your life is and how you live it.”
That’s funny coming from someone whose life is available as a book, podcast, comedy special, or TV series. And he’s always in it himself. For the past few weeks, in addition to recording WTF, he’s been busy shooting the second season of Maron, which IFC bumped up to 13 episodes from this year’s 10. Fans can expect more fictional exploits of his day-to-day life that seemingly parallel the personalized tone of his trademark podcast. At this point, Maron’s expansive work feels bundled together in a way that’s oddly similar to how Marvel evolves its characters through comics, film, and television. One might imagine it’s easy for a person to lose their sense of identity — well, except Maron.
“When I do the podcast, it resonates because there’s a realness to it,” he insists. “When it’s scripted television, you’re talking about a 22-minute story. And it’s not reality television. You have to construct these stories, so there’s always going to be a little bit of difference. I think that dealing with the character of Marc Maron is a little bit easier than dealing with the real one. You know what the fake one’s going to say.”
The idea of a fake Maron seems almost oxymoronic, but the prospect of fictionalizing oneself is worth relishing. A person with that opportunity might smooth out their edges, touch up their miseries, and redact any professional or personal conflicts. Yet his on-screen alter ego is just as eccentric and self-deprecating as the one we hear every Monday and Thursday in our headphones. He struggles with relationships, loses his patience, tends to his cats, and still can’t eat ice cream with a smile. Casual listeners hear these stories in the rambling introductions that typically offer little gems of insight before each episode.
But that’s the fun of it. It’s a quirky trait that speaks, surprisingly, to millennials, whose obsession with selfies and living a life of social transparency begs for authenticity in their heroes. This might explain why Maron’s striking gold these days; he’s finally found the right generation. Though, he’s not sure that’s the case.
“I don’t know who my show really resonates with in terms of demographics,” he says. “All I’m trying to get is five to 10 minutes of real engagement. So what happens in my interviews, hopefully, is that it’s some kind of effective portrait of the artist at the time they talk to me—that you get a sense of who they are as people. Some people have many different shields up and levels of defense in terms of who they are and who their public personality is. I’m definitely charmable, but if someone’s going to bullshit me, I’m just going to go ahead and let it happen. If they’re good at it, it’s kind of entertaining.”
In other words, it’s a consistent pursuit of truth, and in many cases, he’s outdone himself. While some guests have been reticent to share too many details, many unlikely stars have stripped more than just their ego in the garage. Recently, Saturday Night Live alumni and Half Baked star Jim Breuer gave an oral autobiography of his life, digging deep into the horrors of casting at NBC and how he’s been maligned by writers, producers, and friends over the years. Prior to that, David Lynch favorite Laura Dern opened up about her own spiritualism, Arli$$‘s Robert Wuhl gave a lesson in Hollywood politics, and Jonah Hill offered a humbled discussion on being young and famous and naive. It’s rare that guests don’t want to open up to Maron.
“What I tend to go for is at least something authentic,” he adds. “At some point, I realized I wasn’t going to be some broad actor or some super caricature of myself and that the most important part of my process is that I try to be myself. I wanted to get some honesty about who I am and what I do out in the world, and to be as transparent as I can handle.”
Days beforehand, Maron’s interview with Russian-Jewish-American comedian Yakov Smirnoff ran on WTF. In the episode, the two discussed the limitations of hooks and the proliferation of this style for so many international comedians in the ’80s. Looking back, however, several American comics also shoehorned themselves into this category, opting for one-liners and tricks over personality and character. With more observational, story-driven comics like Louis C.K., Hannibal Burress, Bill Maher, and Maron topping festivals each month, one might assume that audiences have evolved toward the latter.
“I don’t think comedy’s that different,” Maron contends. “There have always been hooks around. I guess they were popular in the ’80s. But even if you think about those, there were never that many of them. There are comedians that wanted to find an angle. But comedians need to find personality angles, too, as well as style. It’s about point of view and who you are as a character up there. It’s about knowing how to write for yourself.”
That’s not an easy task when you’re, in his words, an “anxious, manic depressive mess.” For the majority of his life, Maron’s suffered from crippling bouts of anxiety, which he attributes to a neurotic mother, a manic depressive father, and a home “that lacked two things: love and support.” His young career losses, coupled with his former addiction to drugs and alcohol, illustrate a macabre past that continues to influence his work today. Although he remains optimistic, he’s well aware that he might never shake off these issues.
“It’s tricky stuff to figure out how to take responsibility for whatever your mental illness is or however the fuck you’re making yourself crazy, you know, the why,” he starts. “In terms of mental illness and soldiering on, I know I can’t have a healthy relationship, running around all day with neurotic anxiety about [my] body, about [my] weight. I’m still fucking crazy and it’s very disconcerting. I’d like to get a handle on some of that shit, but I seem to be that type of person where everything else can be going well but I almost need something driving me crazy to ground me. I’m not proud of that. I don’t know what to do about that. The fact is, I accept that.”
To paraphrase a line out of Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, he needs the eggs. It’s what makes him Maron, even if that was what initially scared off audiences. He extrapolates on the dark times some more, saying: “I’ve been doing comedy a long time and I believe in comedy. I don’t really do comedy like other people do comedy–and that’s fine–but it wasn’t easy for me. You do 45 Conans, you do five Lettermans, you do an HBO half-hour, a Comedy Central Presents special—theoretically that’s a lot of shit. But I couldn’t bring people in. I couldn’t sell tickets. So what the hell was I doing wrong?”
He acknowledges that it wasn’t until the podcast that he “really landed in [his] body,” finding not only a voice but the courage to use it. Even now, despite the book, the special, and the series, his relationship with the podcast remains strong and intriguing, and the way he discusses its role in his life sounds like someone giving thanks to a mentor, a best friend, an older sibling. It’s nurtured him, and why wouldn’t he find solace in that? After all, isn’t that what he’s really wanted?
“I’m always going to spin it like I wasn’t quite good enough,” Maron says. “I’ve been out there doing a lot of comedy for many years in a certain way, but I was still trying to figure out who I was and what I was doing up there. And I don’t think that really happened until three years ago. That’s when I finally became genuinely fearless about stand-up and finally found my voice, at 47 years old. That’s a long haul. It’s just the way it went down.”
“I think I should be happy about all this, right?” Maron asks longtime friend and comic Tom Scharpling at the beginning of Thinky Pain. The two are sitting alone in the green room of Greenwich Village’s Le Poisson Rouge, and it’s very low lit and very small. Intimate isn’t the right word–more like claustrophobic. Still, there’s a heavy aura of familiarity and comfortability, though Maron’s anything but.
“Yes, this is, for you, this is a big year,” Scharpling eases the comic, somewhat amused at this moment. “Think about what you would have done to have this year… 10 years ago?” It’s a question that hits Maron hard, and true to his style, he answers honestly, insisting that he “would have ruined it” and that “people would be disappointed.” Fear settles in, and he immediately wonders, “That could still happen.”
Here’s what does happen: The two finish their pep talk, walk down the hall, and are met with thunderous applause from around 250 people. By the time Maron hits the stage, the scene is visibly akin to VH1’s Storytellers, as he plops down on a stool in the center and chats about the venue’s history for a few seconds before switching gears entirely, interjecting: “Oh, I know what I can do — there’s a Bill Hicks story.” The audience erupts in laughter, catching him in this ridiculously manic thought, to which he responds: “I didn’t prepare. Did you want me to prepare?” And like that, the crowd’s his.