A Critical Conversation With Marc Maron: Part Two
We’ve already discovered that comedian Marc Maron scorns ill-informed critics and wants to take the podcast form beyond just “sitting around with three other guys and laughing at shit”. Now he tells us how political comedy needs to get personal, and that he’s quite a shy guy, really. Click here to read part one.
The Enthusiast: I was trying to place you in some sort of tradition, to draw a straight line from Carlin or Pryor to you. I think that’s very difficult, and perhaps what you’re getting at is that your attention is funadamentally turned inwards instead of outwards.
Marc Maron: I get pigeonholed sometimes as perhaps a redundant navel-gazer or someone who’s neurotic or self-centred or heady. But I made a very conscious decision after spending a year and a half of focusing my anger on politics and a certain quest for righteousness and justice. At some point you realise, “What do I really feel? What am I really reacting to?” Am I just using this as a way to take a personal position? Am I self-aggrandising by taking this position? Do I really care about this stuff?
Those things became important to me in my own quest for voice and my own sense of self. Then I started to really look at the world in a way that I’m not going to have a reaction unless I am affected by it in a personal way. If I am not at the centre of my own cultural commentary then I’m doing a disservice to myself.
Were you doing a lot of actual political material onstage at the time?
A bit. I was more of a radio personality. Then came the issue of bias, in that if I’m going to be a partisan voice then I’m doing a disservice to being a comedian. Because then I’ve taken sides.
I think that comedians should be able to have a broad range: not an objectivity, but to sort of reveal the human flaws as opposed to saying, “This side’s wrong, that side’s wrong”. If you can understand the Right – or the opposite political party – and find the flaws inherent in that from a human perspective and speak from that, then you are doing a comic’s work. So I started to get frustrated with that.
The weird thing that’s happening now is that all of these, I don’t know whether you would call them tropes, but the trajectory of truth-tellers, the “I know the secrets of the system”, the conspiracies or the way power is deliberated from the top down. There’s a certain angle of truth-telling comedy that, to me, that has become redundant. It’s become hackneyed.
Who exemplifies that for you?
I’m not here to take shots at people, but people take on these personas. Like, “I’m the rebel”. But to their benefit – and the reason why I’m not going to mention names is because it’s only a personal issue I’m having with myself – there are very few of them. Ever. There are only a few people that are going to carry that torch – and it’s a necessary torch to carry. But for my own personal comedy I found that I was being disengenuous and I was posturing. I became very about seeking humility and trying to find a way to undermine the spectacle with my own heart.
So, that’s where I’m going. That was my evolution. I’m not saying those guys shouldn’t exist because there’s only five or six of them at any one time who are carrying that torch of Bill or that style of… it’s not even misanthropy, it’s… I don’t know how you would categorise it.
What I started to realise, certainly with certain American political comics, is that the truth you are telling is really fairly standard left-wing talking points. Okay, sure, gays should be able to get married, corporations are bad, but if you’re not engaging with that from your heart and how it affects you, then you’re just sort of rephrasing or turning phrases around these fairly standard talking points.
Where’s your voice? You’re not a rebel just because you’ve chosen an unpopular political angle, and sometimes it’s not that unpopular; it’s just not spoken about. I think it’s important to talk about it, but you’re no fucking genius.
I know what you mean. There’s no integrity to it either.
The only reason I know this is because I did it. If you can wear a point of view and fuel it with your own anger that is rooted in something else, your point of view becomes a template for your own particular emotional disposition, as opposed to something you really feel. It’s just an act. I’m not saying it’s unecessary, that those things shouldn’t be said, but that’s not what I’m trying to do as a creative person.
So that was the evolution and I do struggle with it because then the issue becomes: what happened to fighting the good fight? Well, I think that I am fighting the good fight. It seems to me that the fight that I’m fighting is ‘to thine own self be true’ on some level. You’re going to take the hits for that too.
You are so public about your introspection and your neuroses. Would you have it any other way? The way you always present it is that it’s just you, you can’t help it.
Would I have it another way? There was a point where I always aspired to this. I aspired to be able to understand Walter Benjamin. I aspired to be able to contextualise Sartre or to have some sort of intellectual depth that was able to understand context. Because of my particular emotional disposition I can’t look at anything as anything but a self-help book.
I’ve always been curious: if you had to pathologise yourself, how would you diagnose yourself?
In psychological terms?
I think I have some sort of anxiety disorder. Though I’m not sure I can categorise myself because I’m not a true narcissist, I’m not really a borderline personality, I’m not a depressive, but the couple of things I learned about myself was when everybody started medicating, everyone was all of a sudden depressed.
After sorting things out I realise that [was] because of how I was brought up, which was without any real emotional boundaries. My parents had no sense of discipline or really a full sense of themselves. I was spit out into the world without the proper separation of self because my parents were so emotionally needy. I was never really enabled to feel separate from their needs, so I feel like a lot of my life was sort of looking for someone to parent me one way or the other.
I used to do a joke about that: I said it took me years to realise that Hollywood wasn’t my parents. There was some need for this validation or something to take care of me. Because of that I was constantly panicked and constantly full of dread. Always thinking the worst in people. Just this anxiety I was trying to relieve.
And the thing about anxiety is that when you get overwhelmed by it you go into a sort of paralysis which is sort of a depression but it’s not like a chemical imbalance. You’ve literally exhausted yourself emotionally becuase of your panic and you sort of surrender. So once I started to see that it shed a lot of light on things. Emotionally I’m very defensive and distrusting and paranoid.
Where do you see WTF going? It seems to be on some sort of trajectory, pushing at something. Do you think podcasting as a medium is limiting it a bit at this point?
I don’t know. I think the next step for me personally would be now that I’ve sort of integrated myself emotionally and intellectually into the community that I am in, and I feel at peace with that. I feel like when people listen to the podcast, when people like it, they know me. So whatever they think I am is fairly reasonable.
Along with that, it’s just about conversation. Who the hell talks for an hour? We’re talking for an hour here, we have an agenda, we’re doing this. But just the fact that I got out of my head and engaged with other people and learned how to listen. That some sort of capacity for empathy developed in me. As much as I may be self-centred, it’s no longer about me. I get moved by people. I’m involved in listening to their process and there are times on the podcast where I get choked up or I just let people reveal themselves. It’s moving to me.
Just the fact I’m having those feelings is such an amazing bit of progress for me. I think that because we’re doing it so publicly people forget that just engaging with a person in a room in a relatively selfish way is part of what makes people connected. And it’s great.
Now that I’m getting to a [good] place with the podcast I don’t want it to become redundant. I’d like to start talking to people about things as opposed to where we come from, emotional strata. What interests me. I have thoughts around the arrogance of intellectualism that I’d like to get to the root of. Like, I’ve become fascinated with what is it even to appreciate a piece of art or an opera or a philosophy of some kind. I’d like to start asking those questions that are my intellectual insecurities. I think that would be kind of interesting. I don’t know whether it is where the show will go ultimately but I’d like to start engaging.
Like, one of the problems I have is that I don’t want to undermine people’s creativity by pathologising them involuntarily. There is something to be said for someone who creates something and remains anonymous emotionally. You don’t want to go prying places where the work should speak for itself. There’s some part of me that thinks, “What is my agenda here?” Like, I do have a respect for show business and I can say, “Well, that’s that guy’s act and this is who that guy is,” but sometimes the act just needs to be what it is.
Because you have so many comedians laying themselves bare, do you think that might have a negative impact on an audience’s perception of them? I don’t think that’s true for you because…
It’s what I do.
Yeah, but for someone who has a well developed character or hides their interior life…
Very few people have shared something that would undermine anything. If any. If they aren’t willing I’m completely willing to be just entertained. I didn’t at any point think that Bobby Slayton was going to start crying. But I love that guy. Because I don’t mind just sitting there and letting somebody like him entertain me.
You know when you’re talking to somebody you can feel where they’re going to go, and I’m not going to press somebody on emotional points or go fishing very hard if they’re not willing to talk about it or it’s not where we’re going. I’m perfectly fine with the funny, because of the show [being] within an hour, even if somebody doesn’t break down or share some secret, if you talk to someone for an hour and you listen to it, you can see who they are. Usually.
Because all large egos have this weird blind side that they don’t see or they’re not willing to explore. I mean, like, when you listen to somebody who is talking about themselves and in the course of the conversation all of a sudden you’re like, “That’s what he thinks he’s doing,” and all of a sudden you find out later in the conversation that’s why he did it. That he [himself] hasn’t made that connection.
But I’m not a therapist… though I did it with [Joe] Rogan. I said, “So, basically a year into Fear Factor you started smoking pot regularly for the first time in your life. You were self-medicating to deal with something.” His frame was, “It made it funner.” Then it’s like, what does self-medicating really mean? Do I just trust you on that, or can we just leave that where it is? There are people who come on my show, they’re like, “All I gotta do is the Dad story.” I feel that sorta happens. But it’s okay.
Are there a lot of comedians who even in their day-to-day lives are lost in that character?
Well, there’s a point in every comedian’s life – or there was in mine – where, usually a girlfriend says, “You don’t have to be the centre of attention everywhere, you’re just out to dinner.” And there’s a certain point you go “Oh, this is just like karate.” I’m a black belt, but you can’t use it because you’re going to kill people.
The whole idea of being ‘on’ all the time, for me at least, it fades as you get older. I’m the opposite because just in random social situations, I’m pretty detached. I don’t usually want to engage unless somebody comes in to engage me. Then I’m right there. I think a lot of people mistake that for aloofness. I’m actually kind of shy, really.
I find that it’s hard for people to conceive that somebody with a strong sense of self could be shy.
They usually always are. For all the years people thought I was an arrogant, aloof person I was just trying to keep it together.
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