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Marc Maron's Self-Sabotage

Marc Maron is obsessed with intimacy. His own compulsive oversharing is the engine of his successful, four-year-old podcast, “WTF”—structured around candid, raw interviews with comedians that take place in Maron’s garage. It fuels every page of his new book, Attempting Normal, in which he offers disclosures like “This is who I am: I overthink and I ruminate. I’m obsessive. But what I really want is relief.” And it is the theme of his new show, “Maron,” which premieres tonight on IFC: He delivers a dark, confessional monologue, and then the camera zooms out so that we see that he is addressing the vet or the mailman or some other half-stranger. But while this impulse has carved out a singular space for Maron in the comedy world, in a sitcom it feels gimmicky and flat.

Marc Maron has long seemed driven mainly by a desire to unburden his brain. Onstage he has a brutal, angry energy. He is an intense combination of ingratiating and alienating: You sense his fear of failure in every joke. His act is at once a form of hostility and a whirring, constant entreaty. He spent years struggling to break into the comedy scene, moving from New York to Boston to Los Angeles, hopped up on cocaine, his bitterness mounting. During a 2006 show at Upright Citizens Brigade in Los Angeles, he rocked back and forth on his stool and asked the audience whether they thought he was trying too hard. “How weird is it that as soon as any of your friends get more successful than you they’re just fucking assholes?” he said. Maron has a tendency to indulge his own neuroses past the point of accessibility. In one moment he is riffing energetically and working the crowd; in the next an existential shadow has passed over him and he is onstage alone and fuming.

He has less cause to fume now, due to the phenomenal success of his podcast. His stand-up now draws bigger audiences than ever. “I was broke and broken and lost when I started WTF,” he writes in his book. “I didn’t plan it this way. I would’ve done it the other way it if had happened or I had been allowed to, but it didn’t and I haven’t.” The podcast is practically a character on ”Maron,” a constant reminder that—despite the decades he spent at the outskirts of the comedy world, performing in grimy nightclubs and struggling to fill a room—the podcast was ultimately his only way in. “My mother thinks I’m Mr. Hollywood with all these connections, but obviously that is not true. Otherwise I wouldn’t be doing a podcast,” Maron says in one episode.  “Everyone’s doing podcasts, no one’s making money,” his manager tells him in another scene. The winking irony is that, at this point, Maron actually is.

It is hard to overstate just how good Maron’s podcast is. He is a skillful interviewer, at once pushy and gentle, plying his subjects with his own vulnerability. The flaws of his stand-up—the raving tangents, the narcissism, the frazzled nerve endings—become usefully focused, even infectious in his interactions with other people. To a certain extent, this carries over to his show. At one point, Maron’s 25-year-old assistant confesses to having been abused at summer camp, saying: “I never said that out loud before. I think I got caught up in your energy.” And this is in large part how Maron’s interviews work; his subjects are incrementally cracked open by the sheer force of Maron’s self-exposure. “My selfishness and my self-centeredness did not enable me to appreciate almost anything that anyone else would do because I resented them—what is your particular form of emotional starvation?” he asked Russell Brand in one podcast. “I think am so endlessly infatuated with my own impression of things that it has made me lack compassion and empathy,” Brand told him. “Despite whatever problems you’ve had throughout your career, I never sense any animosity toward the audience,” Maron told Robin Williams in another. “You can’t be angry at them,” Williams said. “I can,” Maron responded. In nearly all of his interviews, there is a total absence of shtick; the unfunniness is raw and refreshing.

But the pressure to be funny ultimately sabotages “Maron.” It is strange to see his wry, sidelong observations ratcheted up into jokes on the show, the trauma and misery from his messy life converted into neat comic scenes. In one episode, he confronts his bipolar, emotionally abusive father, but their encounter has none of the fraying honesty that fuels “WTF.” They scream at each other in a trailer as a crowd of neighbors gathers in the yard. Intimacy on “Maron” seems artificial, a narrative stunt, applied rather than earned. When Maron unloads the confession that “a few years ago I was planning on killing myself in my garage” onto his veterinarian, the joke feels sad and cheap. 

“Louie”—to which this show will inevitably be compared—has a surrealism that makes its plot seem like a kind of magical thinking, a dreamlike projection beamed straight from Louis CK’s brain.1 But in “Maron,” the neuroses and the anxieties are weirdly literalized: Maron tracks down a rude internet commenter and has an unpleasant but uneventful conversation before returning home; he runs into his pregnant ex-wife and her new husband and accuses her of “having a baby at me.” Since Louis is the auteur of his show while Maron has a team of writers behind him, Maron’s vision is accordingly diluted and smoothed-over. The show is too slick and too jokey, too coolly formulaic. It makes you miss the rawness of his podcast, the livewire unpredictability, as well as its particular emotional balance. Maron is so good when he is sitting across the table from someone he admires or fears or disdains, when his unsteadiness and disquiet are used as foil rather than as anchor. For all the intensity of his act it just does not have enough heart or warmth to carry a show.

Maron has built a career on his own failure, and now he is at last finding success. But his specific appeal still depends on his marginality, on his dual role as insider and outsider, at once steeped in the comedy world and furiously searching for a way in. His show’s glimmers of brilliance happen, unsurprisingly, when cameos from other comedians complicate and broaden his perspective, forcing the show to confront the world outside of Maron’s own head. “You’re too angry, I’m getting a little worried about you,” Dennis Leary tells Maron in one scene. And in an upcoming episode, Maron records a podcast with a schlubby comic named Andy Kindler, an old friend from their earlier stand-up days. The rapport is contagious, the connection clearly real. They sit in Maron’s garage trading bits from their comedy routines and cracking up at the absurdity of the whole racket. It is the best scene in the show so far.

Follow Laura Bennett on Twitter at @lbenn4.

  1. It is tempting to compare Maron to Louis CK, not just because they came up together in the comedy world—Maron’s two-part interview with Louis CK in 2010 helped to put his podcast on the map—and both now have semi-autobiographical shows, but also because they seem on the surface to share a certain kind of physical and sexual defeatism.