How do you turn frayed emotion and freshly splayed wounds into something brilliantly funny? Ask veteran stand-up comedian Marc Maron.
Inherent in most great comedy, and in most great art of all kinds, is tragedy and heartbreak. Even the most optimistic stand-ups find a way to sprinkle those themes into otherwise easily digested fun-time material.
But there are a few comics — call them brave, brilliant, or just psychologically fragile enough — who thankfully incise themselves and prod their guts right in front of us all– without anesthesia, without the assurance of help, sometimes without the means to put all the pieces back in the right places.
You see it in Louis CK’s bits about self-loathing and marriage; you see it in Christopher Titus’ stories about his painful upbringing; you see it in Greg Giraldo’s vulnerable rants about aging.
But with his impressive emphasis on soul-baring material, veteran stand-up comedian Marc Maron leads the pack of these thoughtful, enigmatic performers. His two albums, Not Sold Out and Tickets Still Available are topically diverse masterpieces that find Maron, 44, spilling on everything from his own depression, religion, politics, his sobriety, his father and his relationship insecurities.
Through it all, two things are constant: Maron’s intense, painfully honest approach and a steady stream of laughs.
Punchline Magazine recently spoke with Maron from his Los Angeles home about, among other things, his purpose as a comedian, his unique approach to tired topics and his faithful, inspired following.
You make no secret out of wanting to weave some sadness into your stand-up material. Are there some bits you do that you feel are bigger downers than others?
Well, I don’t know if stripping people down to the fact that life is short and usually it ends up disappointing you is necessarily what people are looking for in entertainment. But lately, if you fuse that with a little frustration and anger and not just strip it down for no reason, then something good seems to happen.
Whether or not people are willing to go there, that’s up to them. And if they’re not they could just laugh at me, like ‘That guy’s crazy.’ I seem to be more philosophical than whiney. The questions I always ask myself when I get off the stage is, ‘Jeez was that really necessary? Did I have to do that? Did I help the audience at all or are they going to leave feeling worse?’
Sometimes people leave my show saying, ‘that guy was hilarious’ and other times they say, ‘I hope that guy’s ok.’ And either way, I’ve engaged you in something. If it’s the latter, I’ve forced you into the position to care. And some of you are selfish so maybe that was new for you.
I’m in the middle of a separation and a divorce so now something else is happening on stage. I’ve finally gotten my genuine heartbroken stripes. I really don’t know what’s going to happen now in the sense of where my comedy is going.
I don’t think people want to see some of those things. It’s not that I’m telling some dark secret truth; it’s just that sometimes I do exactly the opposite of what people are going to a comedy club for. I do it in a funny way. But I don’t think people are used to hearing it.
Yeah, you seem comfortable wearing your heart on your sleeve.
I’m willing to be fairly candid and to put my heart on the line on stage. That’s what the comedians I liked and I respected did; I want to create that electricity of real risk and real exploration. But I’m not a fireworks guy. It’s all coming directly from my emotions.
Sometimes that could go either way. I don’t think I bum people out anymore. I used to. They could see the sadness right now, because I’m a little fragile with the situation with my wife. But that’s ok, I don’t mind offering it up.
You’ve done a lot of material on your wife in the past. Can you keep those stories honest with the divorce– or do you have to lose them?
I’m really trying to put together an hour about love and relationships. Which means ultimately I’m going to disappoint my more socially active, political fans. But maybe I won’t. That stuff could become political as well. Lately, what I’ve been realizing is that if you’ve got a job and your husband or wife has a job and you have a household to hold down, it’s not that you’re apathetic to politics– it’s that you’re fucking busy.
Most people are just consumed with just staying afloat, managing their lives and managing their emotions. The political process is something that most people just can’t delve into. I just found this out by being consumed with this horror of having my life torn apart and my heart ripped out of my chest. Like who the fuck has time to read the paper? I’m in trouble here. It’s really changed my point of view of what I think most people are up to.
It’s interesting that you say some of your more socially aware fans might not be into the love and relationships material.
But I say that mostly out of insecurity. I think that most of them do [still like relationship material]. When I hosted the show on Air America, that’s exactly what they listened to me for– that balance.
Most people, especially lefties, are vulnerable and sensitive; they’re angry, they’re very attuned to injustice and they feel marginalized. And that’s been my whole life– politically or otherwise. Sometimes it’s not tethered to an ideological angle. It’s just being hypersensitive and hyperaware and just wanting things to be better.
So you being hypersensitive and hyperaware encompasses all facets of life, not just for social and political causes?
Yeah. And people relate to it. It’s not even that I’m an acquired taste. There’s just certain people that gravitate and could relate to me. Some people walk around a little heavy-hearted and some people do everything they can to avoid that. I’m sort of trying to acknowledge that feeling and move through it.
You present yourself as fragile but at the same time not completely falling apart.
No, definitely not falling apart.
And I think people are inspired by that.
Yeah, some people are and it’s a good feeling. I wish there were a lot more of them but there’s a few.
I think that there’s still a lot of people that think weaving that raw emotion into comedy is too much of a deep thing.
Yeah, it’s a rarified thing to see somebody do that. I don’t even know what I do or how it really looks. It’s just the way I talk and think. I’ve always seen comedy as an ongoing standing dialogue about how I see the world. I don’t fundamentally write jokes. Sometimes I do. But I’m usually entertained by jokes more than I’m excited about doing them.
I have to be able to insert these thoughts and chunks into my philosophy. I don’t dwell much on pop culture. I find it temporary and tedious and I beat myself up about it. If you watch other comedians, they’re reading the paper, the tabloids and watching E! television and bringing it all in. I’m trying to render it down!
I often think that I gotta spruce this [emotional material] up with some light-hearted shit. If I don’t put some pop culture shit in between this stuff, people are going to leave my shows exhausted– and on a very deep level. So I’m trying to do that in the best way I can because the truth of the matter is I don’t give a fuck.
I honestly don’t watch any TV shows regularly. I try to do my own thinking. I read newspapers; I try to get as objective news as possible so I could have my own ideas.
If I apply myself I could write jokes about anything. I used to do Colin’s [Quinn] show. I did daily radio. If I sit down for two hours and you give me five news stories, I can write jokes from my point of view. I hear a lot that I’m too cerebral or I’m too heady. I don’t like that because I don’t think I am. I think I’ve very alive and in the present, but whatever.
Yeah, I don’t agree with that at all. You do tons of material on love, your family, especially your father. These are all actually very ho-hum stand-up comedy topics. It’s just that you attack them from a wildly different perspective.
Thank god. I feel like I’m rooted in the classics, man. That’s where I come from. I’m not a fucking alternative comic. I am a straight-out fucking stand-up who paid his dues in a real way and I have heroes that were stand-up comedians. I don’t aspire to be precious, or a caricature of myself or act like someone who has been there and done that. I don’t aspire to be smug and shallow.
When I first heard your bit about your dad’s bi-polar disorder-inspired middle-of-the-night phone call to you, I thought it was hilarious but at the same time if really destroyed me emotionally.
That’s good. Good comedy should have some of that in it. When I saw Dane Cook in an interview say, ‘I just want to take people away,’ I thought away from what— other entertainment options?
Most people aren’t in anything. They may be frustrated with their lives but they’re not doing any real deep work about it. They don’t need to be taken away, they need to be put back! This idea that I’m here to distract you or I’m here to make you laugh so you don’t think about anything– what the fuck is that?
The biggest issue I have is this: Am I an entertainer? Do I fundamentally see myself as an entertainer? What am I up there doing? I never got into comedy to get a TV show and I’m not even sure if it was necessarily to entertain people. I got into comedy because it was a noble profession where people can express themselves any way they wanted and you could put together a philosophy or point of view and you had the freedom to say whatever the fuck you wanted.
When I interviewed Doug Stanhope a few months ago, he said something very similar about how people try to convince themselves into thinking they’re really embedded in all these things happening in the news, like they’re going to be affected by terrorism or by disease. [ed note. After reviewing the Stanhope interview, Doug never really mentions disease; he says this: ‘You’d much rather believe that fucking immigrants are trying to take your job, and pedophiles are trying to fuck your kids, and terrorists are trying to blow up your Ford Focus in particular, than realize that you’re probably never even going to break a bone.’
Back to Maron: They might not become a victim of terrorists, but they will become sick. And that’s the other thing that no one really talks about. Everyone dies, everyone gets sick and they do everything they can in this culture to make it happen elsewhere.
There’s a sort of hyper presence that’s going on where no information has any context. There’s no historical context or immediate context unless it’s a car chase or a tower falling, then people have no choice but to understand. Sometimes things get real. Things slow down.
It’s when you step on the brakes and the road is icy and you realize you have no control over anything and you’re hurtling toward another piece of metal or a fucking tree. That’s what being awake and really present feels like. The rest of the time you’re just reacting to stimulus. We’re rats. It’s all reaction and most of those reactions are fear and what most people do when they’re scared is eat.
So that’s what this country is based on– scaring people enough to keep eating and to keep buying things to put in between them and their feelings before they start asking questions. To be just another item on the menu to keep people away from themselves is not something I want to do.
For more more information, check out www.marcmaron.com.