Sunday night at the Joy Theater, stand-up comic Marc Maron faced off against his anger, and if he didn't win, he didn't lose either.
Comedian Marc Maron has made the most of bottoming out. On his “WTF with Marc Maron” podcast, he has been very public about addiction issues, emotional challenges, and professional desperation, the latter coming when he lost his job with the Air America radio network. Fifteen years of sobriety and a career Hail Mary—starting the podcast in when few thought of it as a medium, much less a future—have led to two books including 2013’s Attempting Normal, three seasons starting last week of his IFC half-hour comedy, Maron, and the upcoming VICE Portraits with Marc Maron on the VICE Network.
Part of his success comes from from embracing his background rather than hiding from it. Those experiences have made him identifiable, and he uses them to turn his interviews with comedians, musicians and actors into genuine conversations. For me, the podcast has been the most engaging of his projects because it presents the least mediated version of who he is—a plus when what Maron is selling is himself. But Sunday night’s performance at the Joy Theater reminded those in attendance that his stand-up comedy is the purest, most compelling form of Maron. It’s the basis from which everything else sprang, and his stand-up experiences still produce his best moments on WTF when he engages other comedians in shop talk that takes listeners inside the profession. And the angry, anxious guy that Maron presents today isn’t new, so swapping war stories with old friends inevitably leads to some amazing tales of self-destruction.
Fortunately, his recent success hasn’t been lost on Maron. Seething has become a state he percolates up to, not a default setting. He’s better at appreciating the good things in his life, but success isn’t easy to live with. He’s still worried that it will all go away, and acknowledges that he will periodically blow up a segment of a concert just because.
Sunday night’s show had the makings of a cranky performance. There was no emcee, and when the pre-show music cut off before he expected, Maron had to lean out from backstage into the view of the audience to get around a console to throw a switch to turn on a preview of the new season of his IFC show.
“It wasn’t supposed to be like this,” Maron said. Then the microphone went dead twice during opener Ashley Barnhill’s set, obviously the result of a bad connection. The audience was with Barnhill but not enthusiastic, so the conditions were set for an irascible, confrontational set. But when Maron walked onstage with his own microphone, he was as affable as a man who anatomizes anger for a living can be.
For the next hour and a half, Maron worked through his own darkness, pointing out less discussed sides of it including the pleasure in a good rage. But anger and its co-pilot anxiety were only part of the show. Like one of his comedy heroes, Bill Hicks, Maron’s show had emotional range, and his impulses weren’t all curdled. He playfully did exceedingly specific impressions of other comedians that may have been too inside baseball to completely connect, but they were also too loony to entirely miss. He spoke with pride about successfully backing up his street at high speed just to spite the critical voices in his head, and throughout, Maron struck a note of bemusement at almost everything, from the size of the stages he now plays to being heckled by an infant.
Those notes set Maron’s stand-up comedy apart from even WTF and are the real strength of his comedy. It’s not his ability to sit on a stool, feet tucked up under him on the top rungs, jabbing and poking at his neuroses; t’s the way other voices and impulses join the conversation. Maron literally inserted another voice in the show in what he referred to as his “inner blogger,” which would irreverently comment on a bit, but the kind of crosstalk that goes on in his and our heads literally showed up throughout the evening. At one point, he took pride that rage and contrition are finally close enough together in his head that he could tell someone, “Shut the fuck up” and “I’m sorry” in one breath, not that the apology had the desired effect when phrased that way.
Obviously, Maron’s as mediated in his stand-up comedy, but his product is himself and Sunday night felt like we got him. You could understand how he could get girlfriends and how they could end up throwing plates at him. You could understand why he is successful as well as why he wasn’t bigger sooner. You heard someone who could hilariously, concisely get to the heart of an emotional issue, then boneheadedly fumble the simplest task and then make it worse.
In a WTF conversation with comedian Richard Lewis posted the Thursday before Maron’s New Orleans appearance, he worried about playing theaters as he is on the Maronation Tour that brought him to New Orleans instead of clubs. Lewis thought he was nuts—let that phrase sink in—but the anxiety was clearly rooted in Maron’s long-time identification of himself as a club comic. What’s lost if I’m not that guy anymore? How specific a taste am I if I have a TV show and sell tickets a thousand at a time? The show suggested that the answers not only bring him pleasure, but that he can experience that pleasure publicly and playfully. An at-peace Marc Maron is still hard to imagine, but a happy one is conceivable.