A Critical Conversation With Marc Maron: Part One
Marc Maron’s comedy has always been distinguished by its brutal self-assessment. The dissasembling of his assorted neuroses, addictions, relationships and assorted flaws can sometimes feel evangelical. Maron is the priest of introspection in the church of human weakness.
All this found a natural home in his podcast WTF, wherein he engages various figures in the comedy world in conversation about their life and motivations. These discussions can be controversial, as in his two-part sparring match with infamous comic and alleged joke-thief Carlos Mencia; absurd, as in his abruptly halted, heated debate with watermelon-smasher Gallagher; or touching, like his car-ride confessional with Maria Bamford.
The rich tableau of humanity he has painted over 150 episodes of the podcast truly has proven that the emotional makeup of a comedian can be interesting to wider audiences than just comedy nerds. It has also been something of a rebirth for Maron. Though he has constantly performed stand-up for over twenty years he was, at one time, known as a political pundit, hosting Morning Sedition and Breakroom Live on the short-lived Air America, a left-wing alternative to conservative talk radio.
After he incorporated a tirade about how much he hates critics into his MICF show, we were slightly apprehensive about interviewing him, but nonetheless we made this our very first question.
The Enthusiast: What is your relationship with critics?
Marc Maron: I don’t have much of a relationship with them, I just find that at some point there has to be a difference between a reviewer and a critic. Somebody who calls themselves a critic and just does short pieces either slagging a performer, or based on impulses that aren’t even supported in the piece – that’s not really being a critic. That’s just a guy with a job who shits on people and then passively-aggressively makes sideswipes that justify his own voice.
So I don’t see that as being criticism. A lot of people who call themselves critics are just like, “Eh, I liked it,” and it has no bearing on anything. Unless that person has some sort of readership based on their integrity as somebody who actually puts something into a cultural perspective or has a genuine point of view based on their knowledge of a subject. That’s a critic. I mean, anything else is just some dude who usually has some axe to grind about their rotten life and puts that into the piece to justify some sort of tone. It’s bullshit. Who is that person?
You don’t have any beef if it’s actually thought out?
Absolutely not. I’ve learned a lot from people that write thoughtful things about comedy. I’ve learned things about myself and seen things in a different way because of it. But I don’t think there are enough of those people. Even the person who wrote a piece on me in the Herald Sun said I was a New Jersey comic. So that person decided not to do any research other than look at my website and see where I was born.
That’s another thing about critics or, basically, reviewers, no one does any research any more. They didn’t even thoroughly read the information that I have. They don’t even do their own work. On that level, what bothers me the most is somebody who just has opinions based on their own feelings, that are not founded in anything other than… what? You can read a review and realise that this person missed the point, doesn’t know anything about what they are talking about. They just have a job at a newspaper.
What’s interesting is that you are increasingly becoming one of those people you mention. You are both a comic and somebody who thinks deeply about comedy in the public eye. WTF is some of the deepest thought about comedy around right now. Do you feel like you are in a weird situation, that you are a cultural critic and a practitioner as well?
Well, that seems to have unfolded in a natural way. I don’t know that I ever thought I would be in this position. I try to just speak from my own experience. I don’t come from a school of thought, I don’t read [Walter] Benjamin or Northrop Fry. I wish I had been able to wrap my head around it. I’m familiar with it, but reading it out of context is not necessarily going to help me. I have a sense of what it should be and I respect reading cultural criticism, if I can find it.
In terms of my place in the whole business of it right now, as I evolve as a person and accept who I am in the world that I run in, which is showbusiness. But also in the intellectual world, which, you know, I’m limited but I kind of been alive long enough and am thoughtful enough to have some opinions about some things. I just try to speak from my own experience.
Like, I got a call recently from somebody writing a piece on Robin Williams, to comment on Robin Williams. I don’t know, what am I going to say? I’m only in it because I’m in it and I have a certain mindset about it. I have a lot of experience talking to comics now and I am one. I guess you’re right on some level. I never really thought of myself as a critic.
I was thinking to myself today, “Why hasn’t anything like WTF happened before?” It’s such a beautiful idea, such a simple idea – examining the mind of the comic.
People have done it. I mean, there used to be a show on Comedy Central called The Comic Mind, and I think that there were certainly collections in the ’60s and ’70s of interviews with authors, filmmakers. There seemed to be more of a place for that in the world.
Back when talk shows would actually have interesting guests.
But I think there was also a literary form that seemed to be kinda popular. Like the Playboy interviews. I don’t think I look at it as examining the mind of the comic. The weird thing that I’m starting to notice about myself is that I don’t know how I was at so many junctures in American comedy – recent comedy history. Most of the people that I talk to I have come in contact with or have had an experience with or remember them when they were starting out. Or were sort of present for something.
It always seems extraordinary that you seem to know damn near everybody.
One way or the other. We are a fairly big community now, globally or whatnot. Just because I started doing comedy when I was, like, 20 years old and over the course of my career I’ve lived in Boston, New York, San Fransisco and Los Angeles. Over that 20, 25-year stretch I’ve somehow had experiences or contacts or moments with people and then had my own idea of my relationship with them, or what happened, or how it affected me. We were a smaller community then. It’s sort of amazing.
There’s also this port of entry, intellectually and emotionally, that we’re all sort of similar. I think the reason [WTF] hasn’t existed before this – not in an arrogant way – I don’t know that anyone’s going to be me. I don’t really have an agenda apart from conversation. I guess I have a style that’s revealed itself now, but it wasn’t an intentional thing.
Do you think the form of podcasting itself helps?
Well certainly, yeah. That hasn’t been available. If you use it a certain way it really is a form that’s raw, you can do whatever you want with it.
You’re not accountable to anybody…
Yeah, and you can handle it however you want. Many people just chose the radio model. I didn’t do that. I was interested in something else. Something more intimate and more organic than sitting around with three other guys and laughing at shit.
It’s really developed this confessional thing: people revealing more of themselves than they are accustomed to. Do you think people are now coming to WTF with that expectation? Like, “Here we go, I’m going to bare my soul”?
Yes, that starts to happen. I think the way people open up is just relative to how I talk. I don’t hold much back and I’m fairly self-involved. I’ll talk about my emotional and psychological issues in a fairly candid way. I’ve always been like that. In a situation like, if me and you were going to sit here right now, and you didn’t really know me, and I started talking about stuff like that – people don’t necessarily handle that well. [But] as I’ve gotten more open, more comfortable with myself, people want to share that too. Everybody wants to talk about themselves. The depth is just relative to where that conversation goes.
Certainly comics, we talk about ourselves for a living. What makes it interesting is that, as I was telling somebody last night, if I were a comedy fan or another comedian and somebody were talking to my heroes – Richard Pryor or George Carlin – like the way I’m talking to people and I could listen to that, my head would explode.
Also, we live in a different age. The sort of cultural narcisssism that has evolved over the last ten years. People aren’t as cagey as they used to be. Everybody is sort of competing with the output of information that’s available everywhere. There really is nothing to hide any more; it’s very difficult. You really have to do a media lockdown or have a strict personal policy of not sharing to remain somewhat anonymous in the culture we live in. So I’m not sure these kinds of conversations could have happened at another point in history.
Like, I’ve known Dave Attell for 20 years, I don’t know I’ve ever had more than a ten-minute conversation with him. The idea that fans of his can now be part of that conversation and see him as a person, it’s gotta be a great feeling. What I’m getting at is that – not intentionally – people become multi-dimensional. People become human beings to people that they’ve only seen as ‘that person on stage’, with a full range of experiences and a history and actual feelings.
It sort of humanises people. Sometimes I never intended to do it [but] that’s what happens. Like with Dane Cook, who I think is a good example of somebody who was using me for what you’re talking about. Carlos [Mencia] as well and Joe Rogan to a certain degree.
I was really stunned by how intelligent that guy [Rogan] is.
That was the thing. And he was one of the guys I was resistant to because I was very myopic in my criticism of him, and I wasn’t willing to let it go. So it turns out a lot of the times when I’m a dick to people who I think are dicks, they end up coming out looking better and I have to take that hit. Because that’s who I am.
That’s been one of the more difficult things to deal with. I used to do political talk and there’s this idea in modern comedy of the ‘truth seeker’ or somebody who comes from the Lenny Bruce or Bill Hicks legacy that we’re gunning for hypocrisy. On some level I believe that’s become hackneyed and what’s more interesting to me is, because of our emotions and our psychological makeups and our own existential struggles, that the real struggle is personal hypocrisy.
Still to come in part 2 of our interview: Maron discusses his move from political comedy to being pigeonholed as ‘neurotic’, how he’d pathologise his own psyche, and future directions for WTF.
Marc Maron will stage a live recording of WTF at 3:30pm tomorrow, 23 April 2011, at the Melbourne Town Hall. His guests are Greg Fleet, Wil Anderson, Steve Hughes, Felicity Ward and Arj Barker. All tickets were snapped up within eight hours of Maron announcing the taping on Twitter.