How My 15 Minutes With Marc Maron Changed Everything

AP Images/Dan Hallman

“A few years ago I was planning on killing myself in my garage, and now I’m doing the best thing I’ve ever done in my life in that same garage,” says comedian Marc Maron in the premiere episode of Maron. The eponymous new show on IFC is an extension of Maron’s real life, and the wildly successful WTF podcast that resurrected his career. Many of the plots grow out of actual experiences, from tracking down an Internet troll to dating a dominatrix. But the show probably won’t mine what Maron himself would describe as his most painful episode: hosting a liberal political talk radio show.

I know this because I met Marc then, in 2006, when he was in that “planning on killing myself” phase. At the time I was performing random acts resembling stand-up comedy at laundromats and sandwich shops throughout the greater Los Angeles area, while also stepping into political writing with a new and exciting invention of the age called a blog. My comedian friends and I had a somewhat annoying habit back then of loitering in the hallway of the Hollywood Improv on weeknights, poking our heads into the main room to see if anyone interesting was onstage. I ran into Maron in that hallway, and I mentioned that I was sorry to see him leave Morning Sedition , a parody of a “Morning Zoo”-type radio show on the fledgling Air America network.

“Oh, I have a new show now out here, you should come on sometime,” he said.

I had done only a few radio appearances about politics before, and none with anyone I actually aspired to emulate. Maron’s stand-up had always combined sharp insights about the human condition with raw honesty, and anyone trying to balance the tricky combination of generating laughs and advancing a progressive argument was right in my wheelhouse. I had to assume the new show succeeded in this effort, because it was almost impossible to locate on the radio dial, true to the seriousness of effort in liberal talk radio at the time. The L.A.-based station KTLK had existing contracts with basketball and hockey teams that often pre-empted or delayed the show.

It turned out I knew the producer of The Marc Maron Show, and a few weeks later he called to have me on. I drove about an hour to the pre-taping, out to a seedy-looking studio on one of those blinding summer days in Burbank. The producer had flipped through my website, and decided he wanted me to talk about a post I’d written on a massacre in Haditha, Iraq (I think it was this one). This wasn’t exactly the stuff of witty banter between two comics, certainly not the vision I had tucked in the back of my mind for how the appearance would unfold. Maron listened to me stammer out details about dead Iraqi civilians in the scintillating way only someone preparing for his comedy breakthrough can. I brainstormed how to work a one-liner into the discussion, and thankfully came up empty. I don’t remember much of the segment, only the part where it ended and I got up and said, out loud but more to myself, “Well that was hilarious!”

Maron responded, “We always have a few minutes at the end of the show, you want to come back and run a bit or something?”

And at that point I really should have said no, I should have realized that military massacres in Iraq don’t make a great comedy lead-in. But I was kind of desperate to impress, so despite no preparation, I decided to return to the booth to say … well, something.

What followed set a pretty high bar for awkward radio. I launched into this story about a comedian who played my bar mitzvah and who I got to know 20 years later. I was thinking that this was my Carson panel moment, my chance to banter like a pro. Instead, it was punctuated by long passages of silence. Deserved silence, I should add; I was blowing through this story without context, leaving out key details. Maron played along, smiling and nodding, and you could just see his internal clock ticking down the seconds until he could get this rank amateur out of his life. Somehow I worked toward an ending, tossed off the headphones, and flew out the door. The show was cancelled a month or so later, and if you’re reading this, Marc, I’ll take the blame.

In a perfect parallel to the cranky self-centeredness of Maron’s TV show, I’ve now made this story entirely about myself. But through the cringes, I felt like I worked something out in that Burbank radio studio. The story you want to tell dictates the tone, not the other way around. A comedy-and-politics salad too often comes out wilted and soggy, to belabor the metaphor. After the Maron show appearance I stopped striving to find the punch line in my political writing, and started down the various rabbit holes that now occupy my time. It was a kind of turning point.

As he’s expressed, that time period was a turning point for Maron as well. Even brilliant comedians can falter when not playing to their strengths. The story of Maron’s career revival comes directly from when he stopped trying to fit himself into the persona of a liberal pundit. In fact, Maron consciously made the decision in 2009, with the start of the WTF podcast, to abandon the lefty political pose, to stick to real conversations with his fellow comedians, and to indulge his curiosity about people through extended engagement. And it just blew away everything he had been doing in the liberal talk-radio world.

There are definitely good liberal talk-show hosts, even funny ones—Sam Seder, who briefly shared a show with Maron, comes to mind. But it wasn’t Maron’s calling to build the skill of interjecting in regimented ways with guests about predictable targets. With WTF, Maron could bring in his personal baggage and pre-occupations, and let the conversation flow in even uncomfortable directions. Partisans listen to talk radio to have their assumptions validated and their daily outrages chronicled. But it leaves no room for danger, or really anything unexpected. Those missing elements made Maron’s podcast so refreshing and exciting. There’s probably a way to convert the kind of stripped-down real talk that takes place on WTF to the liberal political realm, but programmers don’t like to take chances, and potential interview subjects wouldn’t take the risk of wandering off message. The last thing any politician wants is to actually be freewheeling. Feeding the public their daily indignation is the safe alternative. Maybe that’s why it seems so antiseptic.

At its best, Maron’s new TV show on IFC feels as authentic as the podcast, although the return to a more structured format is occasionally limiting. You want him to spend a whole episode in dialogue with his father (played by Judd Hirsch, and living in a trailer outside Maron’s house), working things through, seeing what happens. The radio segments that bookend the show usually provide set-ups for jokes, rather than plumbing the depths of his interpersonal relationships. Returning to scripted material sometimes borders on being forced.

When the show does succeed—and it’s often brilliant—it comes from the total self-awareness of its lead, his comfort with laying bare a bucket of insecurities, their origins, and his resistance to changing them, sometimes to his detriment. You definitely get a window into Maron’s tortured over-analysis, in a way that gives this world shape and internal logic. It also becomes quite funny. I think Maron almost had to go through the constricting format of liberal talk radio to get to this place. He had to experience the awkwardness of the eight-minute interview with the three important bullet points to know how to discard that and just present himself completely as he is. The artifice has been ripped down.

A lot of Maron’s fans feel like they went through that experience of discovery together. Mine happened to occur during a nightmare radio segment with him. Eventually, we all strive to find our niches, our outlets for creative expression, our best manner of amplifying our voices.

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