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Marc Maron: Finishing the Clown
December 2, 2011 | 9:45AM

Marc Maron is a comedian. No matter what else he does he will always be that. But in the past three years, after a long and bumpy road as a touring stand-up and talk radio host, he has become a lot more than that. He hosts a comedy podcast (WTF Podcast) that is mostly interviews, though sometimes has live funny elements and sometimes taped wanderings and pseudo-journalism  and sometimes (often) just pure ranting. But mostly it consists of him and his guest sitting in his garage (furnished, as he describes below) discussing their lives, what comedy has done for them, and the often serious state of the world. The guests range from fan favorites at the top of their game like Louis CK or Patton Oswalt to legends like Johnathan Winters to controversial figures like Carrot Top and Carlos Mencia. Recently he’s had cool-as-shit actors on like Bryan Cranston and John Hamm and eh come on you know what the show is all about that’s why you’re reading this interview.

Do I really need to describe how important this is? Really? OK, then let’s say you could listen to the casual conversation Wynton Marsalis had with drummer Elvin Jones where Jones described how in order to play with Coltrane, you had to be willing to “DIE FOR A MOTHERFUCKER.” This quote, easily my favorite line ever about any artistic endeavor–how it’s serious shit folks, no foolin–can only be passed on to us second hand in Ken Burn’s Jazz from Marsalis. What if you could hear pearls of wisdom about life and art and craft on EVERY EPISODE? Sorry for the capslock, it’s just, even if you don’t care that much about the people behind the laughs, Marc takes the show way beyond just biography or career advice. Somehow, through just being himself–an open-faced sandwich of quizzical, hopeful desperation–he gets into Jungian territory with these folks, diving like a bathyscaphist into what makes someone want to be funny, what makes them successful in life, and whether or not they can be happy.

But despite the new career as the Terry Gross of Comedy, everything springs out of Marc’s purest and realest realization–that who he is, is a stand-up comic. His ethics, his personality, every memory since he was a teenager getting into comedy for the first time, everything has been shaped by his moments on stage. As much as he likes to talk about how the persona of a comedian is their “clown,” a classical artifice grown from part of themselves which they inhabit under the lights, he also knows and accepts that it works both ways–the clown comes to stay, and lives in your house when nobody else is around. No matter what opportunities arise because of his podcast–as a burgeoning radio producer, or possible TV show based on his life, or movies roles, or as the Keynote speaker at the Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal–all of it matters less to him, or to his clown, than when he’s onstage in Topeka or the Conan Show humming through his act, balancing real, pure, scary emotions with punchlines so crisp you could snap your fingers when they hit. He may be about to be a new media mogul, but he will always remain a stand-up comic.

Meanwhile, Marc’s been interviewed a lot recently. The following phone conversation then is my opportunity to ask about some Big Pretentious Issues that don’t usually get bandied around in 25 minute conversations, which the man graciously obliged to answer. So, sorry if you’re looking for relationship foibles and dick jokes, which are great and fine and Marc’s stage show (coming to the Drafthouse Friday the 2nd and Saturday the 3rd) has plenty of roll-on-floor hilarious moments which are only slightly tinged by apocalyptic anxiety. But I had a bunch of grad-student-in-comedy questions that needed to get addressed and Maron is one of the few people in the world who can speak to What Comedy Is, and What It Is All About. Because it’s goddamn important that’s why. Marc said in that Just For Laughs speech this summer, “Comedy saved my life but also destroyed it in many ways.” Because you have to be willing to die for a motherfucking punchline. Otherwise you’re just a clown, and never the Clown.

*Note, I spoke to Marc on Tuesday the 29th of November at noon. About 20 minutes later it was announced that his friend, brilliant comedian Patrice O’Neal had died. If I had know this was going down I would have asked him about it, but I didn’t and I didn’t, though I’m kind of glad I didn’t because he probably was happy to talk about something other than comedians dying for a little while.

BYT: Where are you at, at home in LA?

Marc Maron: Yeah I’m at home.

BYT: Awesome. Because one thing I don’t think I’ve ever seen described is what it actually looks like when people look around that garage.

MM: You want me to go out to the garage and…? OK. Hold on.
(Goes outside)

MM: There’s a lot of shit in here, man. There’s hundreds of books, some guitars. Speaker cabinets. There’s one two three four five bookshelves, all almost 6 feet tall. Packed with books. Oh there’s another bookshelf there. There’s records around. There’s a lot of artwork from bands, pictures.

BYT: Sounds like a big room.

MM: Not that big, it’s a single car garage built in 1924. Not that big, but there’s three windows. Pictures and posters ranging from Frank Kozik’s rendition of the Gimmie Shelter movie poster to a picture of Chuck Berry. A silkscreen of Lenny Bruce. A lot of pictures of me. A picture of the cast of the movie Freaks. Apocalypse Now. Laminates of festivals where I’ve performed. Then there’s the table where we record, with equipment on it. Three microphones, three mics.

BYT: What’s the chair situation?

MM: I’ve got these weird old antique, sort of desk chairs. I got them in the same place I got these shelves, which all say LA County Mental Hospital on them. But they’re like chairs you’d see a professor sit it–all wood, wooden armrest.

BYT: Not a couch…not something too comfortable huh?

MM: I stripped this chair down and stained it. It’s got wooden slats for the back. The guest chairs are the same. A solid old wooden chair.

BYT: It’s all making sense now. On the whole that sounds much cooler than Adam Carolla’s garage on that reality TV show he’s got…

MM: (not laughing) Well. So this is it. I hope it doesn’t fall down the hill. I mean it’s not really hanging off the hill but, you know.

BYT: So recently you had one of my favorite comics Hannibal Buress in that space and somehow got him to open up a little. I interviewed him, on a lesser scale but, when I talked to him he gave me the impression that he didn’t really want to talk about craft or what comedy is…almost as if it would ruin something about their style if they delved into it. Like a magic trick…

MM: I felt that way too but I don’t think it’s resistance. I don’t know that some dudes think that deeply about it. My impression was that he just wants to be a comedian, over anything else, and he’s done whatever necessary in his life to do that, including turning down opportunities or quitting jobs. I don’t know that it’s necessarily relevant for every comic to think about their craft. I don’t think he was hiding anything or being cagey, and he was really excited to do the show so I think he gave me what he had, which is all you can really ask for…

BYT: Yes, and I think a lot of great comics are the same way–they prefer to let their jokes speak for themselves without analysis. But your standup style seems to be the opposite. It’s predicated in some way on the over-thinking of the joke being the joke. Do you find yourself obsessively going over your own style in your head or is that part of the act too?

MM: I don’t know about that. There aren’t a lot of comics who do what I do. I don’t know if it’s the right or the wrong approach but I couldn’t have done it any way else. A lot of the conversations I have with people aren’t about technique, they’re about experience. Shared experiences. I don’t talk about joke structure much. I believe that what a lot of comics experience in this career or this life, if it’s not a career yet, is unique and interesting. Every-one’s got their own stories about how they do it.

BYT: True, your subject seems to be more: “What comedy does for You” and “What it does for an Audience.” But you do get into some amazing abstract shit. A couple of week ago you spoke to Rainn Wilson, and ended up talking about commedia dell’arte, which, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, was really really interesting. I mean commedia dell’arte always just seemed like a punchline before I knew anything about it. But when you two starting talking about the types of traditional clowns in that classical genre, and how that relates to certain kinds of stand-up comedian or comic actor, it kind of floored me. That’s totally true, there are these Joseph Campbell archetypes of comic that that show up all the time, even at the Open Mic nights I run sometimes. The weirdo, the high black guy that could be of any race…

MM: No no no absolutely. I’ve been doing this for years and I’ve seen these characters repeat themselves…

BYT: Can we go through some types of comedian you’ve observed?

MM: Sure.

  • There’s the oddball.
  • The intelligent mousy guy.
  • The ethnic comics who approach their ethnicity with a need to create familiarity.
  • The Observational Comic
  • The Angry Guy
  • The Fat Guy

BYT: After reading about Commedia Del Arte I came across the idea of La Ruffiana, the Dirty Old Woman Clown. Which could equate to a Moms Mabley, Cloris Leachman, maybe even Lisa Lampanelli’s crude.

MM: Rosanne maybe?

BYT: Yeah! Anyway I just thought that was fascinating that we still have these types, like they emerge naturally somehow.

MM: I don’t know that much about it but I do know that if you spend your life sitting in the backs of these rooms watching stand-up then you definitely see styles and types. And I’ve seen a lot of them. But once someone transcends the types and becomes their own thing it becomes very interesting. Right now there’s just a lot of joke writers around. There’s a lot of people doing stand-up on the basis of writing. Which is fine, but there’s fewer and fewer genuine personalities. A lot of times those joke writers will evolve personalities, but there seem to be so many people doing roughly the same angle of slightly detached, mildly provocative nerdy jokes.

BYT: You’ve had some newer comics on too, some of my favorites like DC’s own Aparna Nancherla and Austin’s Lucas Molandes. Those two in particular are both really clever joke writers but also come from a really unique and authentic perspective. Is that part of the issue with younger, newer comics, that they all kind of come from the same place and have the same identity?

MM: Nah, I mean whatta ya gonna do? There’s just a lot more people doing it. A lot of people have just decided they’re comedians. I don’t know what determines that anymore. People can do their show every week, do a bringer show, or a self-produced show and call that an audience and call themselves comics. There’s no Open Mic system any more. Everyone just does shows. So you can call yourself a comic. When I was coming up there was more of a system, people knew where they were at in it, where they were in terms of development. I mean everyone always thinks that they’re great. There’s just more to it than just getting laughs. There has to be. Generally speaking though it’s always been that way–a bunch of cats, 19-25, pounding away. They’ll either grow or they won’t. Or they’ll stop.

BYT: I mentioned Lucas Molandes before. The piece you did with him, where you just taped the two of you walking around a Tejano festival, was one of my favorite episodes of WTF. You’ve done some stuff like that before, but that was sort of fully realized documentary, like This American Life but funny. Do you have plans to take the show in a more journalistic direction?

MM: I did like doing that, it’s just a matter of time and place. I’m so busy right now. If there’s somebody I can relate to and hang out with and I have the equipment I’ll do it. I also would like to have different kinds of guest on, expand from just comedians and actors to other kinds of people.

BYT: Switching to your standup, you’re one of the first male comics I’ve heard talk about food issues. You had that amazing joke on Ferguson about Ice Cream, and other bits about addiction to liquorice candy, and whenever you do a live WTF people bring you these treats that you don’t really want, which become these icons of self-control. The first time you talked about that onstage, was there resistance from the audience to accept that vulnerability from a male speaker?

MM: Not exactly. The food stuff sort of evolved out of what I was going to talk about after I stopped doing drugs. My food issues are very deep and very old, rooted in the way I was brought up, my mother having a chronic eating disorder, so that’s my reality. My personal body image stuff might be bizarre, but the more I talk about it I find it’s not that uncommon. I’m obviously not a guys-guy, I don’t really aspire to that. It’s taken me a long time to accept who I am, and now that I have, people are either going to dig it or not. I’m not trying to speak to all dudes, or any specific audience. For a long time I’ve felt too odd to fit into most stereotypes. I know it’s odd for a dude to be obsessed with food, but it’s not too unusual really. If you’re sitting around eating Met RX bars and taking supplements and working out constantly, I don’t know how that’s any less messed up if you look at it that way. Wondering if you look fat in your pants isn’t just a chick thing. It isn’t. It’s just not in the cultural dialogue for men. But given that we’re all so fucking vain now I can’t see how it’s not a common experience. I would love to feel comfortable fat, but it’s just not going to happen.

BYT: On the flipside of that, I’ve always appreciated your choice not to turn your own uncomfortable feelings around into cruel ranting into how fat Americans are. I think that’s sometimes the easy way out, even if it is true.

MM: I find that as time goes on I’m not a generalizing comic, about anything. I don’t go up there like a lot of comics do and speak to generalities. I’m usually talking about myself. And if people relate to my story then that’s how they take it in. Like “come on guys, don’t we all…” or “Gee everybody knows, everybody feels THIS way don’t they?” I don’t live a regular life. I used to be more general. I used to believe I felt what everybody experiences. But there’s just no way I do. I’ve got my own problems and my own way of looking at the world. So I just share that and the people that dig it come out. I’m not imposing these days, or angry, or trying to change people’s minds. And I’m a little more popular because of it.

MM: Speaking of clowns, you’ve referred before to how comedians have to “build their Clown” or that your “Clown is sick.” What does that mean to you?

MM: It’s just my metaphor for how if you do enough comedy, and it becomes your life, that some part of you lives up there. You become something up there, over time. And that’s your clown. It’s the guy who gets up there to do his thing, to do the joke. That starts to mold itself over time.

BYT: Some comics when they hear that they might feel “Clown” is a derisive term in some way. That you’re putting down the vocation, maybe being self-deprecating? Because “Clown” can also mean “doofus.”

MM: No. Not really my problem.

BYT: Haha OK.

MM: I mean people can take it how they want, but Clowns are awesome. Though being a clown is stupid. But there’s a self-importance to comedy, especially during a point in people’s careers when they are socially relevant or rebels or making a difference in the world and that’s all well and good. When it comes down to it you’re on a stage trying to get laughs.
BYT: You also said in that JFL speech that Comedy is not a meritocracy. If it’s not, what is it?

MM: I dunno, it’s different for anybody isn’t it? If things don’t work out you have to temper your impression of what success means. But what I’m saying is that show business is not a meritocracy. This town is littered with talented people and original thinkers who can’t figure out how to fit or get the opportunities to sync up their talents with anyone who can make things lucrative for them and allow them to take off. You can have your own stage and you can do what you want. You can have a garage and do what you want. Do whatever the fuck you want. But at some point someone is going to have to deliver you to the next level. And the luck, and the hoops that you have to jump though and the relationship you build are at least 80% of that equation. So that doesn’t sound like a meritocracy. If you think it’s necessary that the funniest and the most talented should rise to the top, that doesn’t happen. I don’t think I should have to explain that.

BYT: So you’re saying that there are lots of great undiscovered comics?

MM: Of course there are And they die unknown. Or they quit.

BYT: Or they quit. Hmmm. But in some sense are the people who fill the stadiums better, greater, if only because they have a receptive and loving audience? That they can experiment more, feel more confident, expand the boundaries of what comedy can do…

MM: Look I’ve seen some of the greatest sets in the world done by people I can barely remember. Funny is a relative term. To make distinctions about what’s the funniest this, the funniest that, it’s pretty personal. Obviously, whoever can make the most people laugh because of the hard work they put in, who make the theaters money, and make their managers money, and make the network money, are going to be bigger and more popular than other comics. Those are the guys you’re going to see. But are you going to see greatness in a club at 12:30 at night with somebody losing their mind onstage? Of course. Can that greatest be repeated over and over again until it becomes something that is marketable? Probably not. [Long pause]. Right? In the end the only thing I’ve seen that makes people consistently successful is commitment and hard work. Staying at it. Pushing themselves to get through and make a difference.

BYT: One final thing that struck me about your Just For Laughs Comedy Festival keynote speech this summer was the way you contradicted how technology is tearing people away from normal social interaction, but at the same time the internet is killing the comedy and entertainment industries’ accepted methods of doing things, allowing people like you direct access to fans and vice versa. Which is it?

MM: It its what it is. It’s isolating on one level, but it’s allowing people to find an audience on the other. I’m not putting moral judgements on this stuff. Some guys who are the biggest comics are really funny and if they’ve got audiences who want to see them they’re doing something right. It really does come down to the fact that it’s a difficult path, and hopefully you can find your way. I don’t have broad opinions about whether somethings dying or it isn’t dying. At any given time there’s just a handful of people that can sell out theaters and it’s always been that way and it always will be that way. Why that happens I don’t know and you can’t manufacture it. You just have to keep doing your own work and be open to opportunities to broaden your audience. And if you have to make those opportunities for yourself then you have to try to do that!

BYT:  But isn’t there part of you that when you see someone get really successful on their own terms, with podcasting or a web series or discussion board or whatever it is, that thinks “GOOD!” “GOOD LET’S GET THOSE GREEDY MOTHERFUCKERS AND CREATE OUR OWN SYSTEM OF THOUGHTFUL GREAT SHIT.”

MM: There is a lot of that, but I don’t have a lot of that in me. I’m just happy that by some stroke of luck and timing that I’ve created something that people like that I have complete control over it which is really true to me. I’m very happy about that. And I am proud that I did it on my own though I never set out to do it that way. I did always feel, like, fuck them. But that was more about feeling excluded than it was about principle.

BYT: Which is probably always the way it is with people who are truly excluded. “Let me in! Let me in! No? Fine I’ll build it out here. Oh now I can come in huh? Well I don’t fit in there now.”

MM: Ha! Yeah.

BYT: I got a single laugh! I might as well end it there. Thanks for talking to me today Marc!

MM: No problem man. I’ll see you at the show.

Yes He Will And You Will Too Tonight At The Arlington Drafthouse

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  • yep uhuh says:

    really nice job on this interview. good work.