Marc Maron on the State of Comedy

Photo: Photo by Gary Miller/Getty Images

For my piece on the second comedy boom, I spoke to Marc Maron, undoubtedly one of its greatest success stories. Maron has the perspective of someone who lived through the first boom (when he did a lot of coke with Sam Kinison), and the fallout from its eventual demise. His perspective is more wary than most, but he agrees something different is happening right now in comedy. It's largely to do with the alternative scene he helped create, which pushed comedy into nontraditional venues, and the podcast revolution he is one of the biggest breakthrough stars of. We spoke about the differences between the booms, comedy nerds, and what it means to be a professional comedian.

You’ve been around for a good amount of time — does right now feel different?
Yeah, it does. There was a consolidated definition of comedy in the original boom that saw the franchising of comedy clubs — every city had a comedy club, and there was a certain pattern or process that comics had to go through to get to be a headliner at those comedy clubs. It was specifically mainstream, and obviously there are many comics that surfaced out of there as bona fide comedy stars, but there was a lot that just serviced the audience that was built in that system. And now that system is fairly well-collapsed, thank God. What’s coming in its place is a very diversified and interesting group of fans and comedy nerds and people who are into different facets of the history of comedy, the different types of comedy that [are] going on now. It just redefined itself, and it seems somewhat popular and somewhat cool again. 

What did alternative comedy mean? What does it mean at this point, where so many alternative comedians have had mainstream success?
If you look at comics that are thorough and effective and have a point of view, and can do an hour of material and people are enjoying it, that’s a professional comedian. I don’t know that the labels matter after a certain point, because the backlash from the mainstream-comedy crowd for alternative was that it was some sort of strange, glorified open-mic, or something esoteric. But the truth of the matter is that most of these comics we talk about as being successful alternative comics can play comedy clubs, and do. Are there alternative venues? Yes, because ultimately, even someone like me, I don’t want play a fucking Improv. There are some comedy clubs that are great, but some of the corporate clubs — specifically the Improv — are just terrible. Also, some of the clubs were not good to comics at a time. When things got really rough for comedians, after the [first] boom, when there was a lot of us out there, they just sought to lowball everybody because they knew we were desperate. So the fact that there’s a little more power in the comics now to decide on a venue, why wouldn’t you do that? I don’t think that, necessarily, the type of comedy that’s being done, in the history of comedy, is outside of the box. 

Yeah, it’s just the spaces and the crowd. It’s not like we’re reinventing the wheel.
Whatever happened culturally — youth culture or nerd culture or whatever — has happened with podcasts and Twitter and this or that; people can have a voice outside of mainstream media outlets. They can find an audience outside of mainstream media outlets. There are still huge comedy stars that will find success in every outlet and sell tens of thousands of tickets, but those of us who have been sort of plugging along for years and years, who are hoping that at some point we’ll find the people that relate to us, have a little more [of a] possibility of doing that now. 

So it’s a matter of hoping to find your audience that wants to see your thing, regardless of whether it’s alternative.
That’s always the case. I was there when alternative started, and I was a part of that, but I started in mainstream-comedy clubs with a mainstream-comedy-club ethos around work, so I still believe that a comic should be able to perform for an audience that may not know who he is. I’m gonna go [perform at] a club this weekend before I go on tour in Rochester, and it makes me nervous, I’ve gotten a little spoiled, but I know that there’s gonna be a lot of people that are just comedy-club audiences. There’s a sort of trenches mentality of being able to do comedy clubs, and I can do it.

On a recent episode of “WTF,” you talked about the Comedy Store a lot. Has the audience at the Comedy Store gotten better over the last five or six years?
Yeah, yeah, it’s amazing! It’s one of the greatest things. The Comedy Store is the only real place anymore. For years, it was just this haunted outpost where comics were doing all the jobs, it was this system of lunatics-are-running-the-asylum. It’s got a dark place in my heart. I used to work out there just to work out, and I didn’t necessarily want to pull people in 'cause I wanted to do it anonymously. But now we’ve all started tweeting and getting people to go, and it’s just packed with young people. And look, I was a doorman there in the late ’80s, so I knew what that place looked like. And now it’s very diverse and interesting, and a lot of comedy nerds are coming. They’re starting to appreciate the history of the place. The Comedy Store is still the same weird, decaying Hollywood outpost. It’s got its own time zone. And people are starting to appreciate that. And it’s got great rooms: They're trippy and they’re great. 

Yeah, I was there last week.
How was it?

It was good. I haven’t been to a club in a while, but I saw Moshe Kasher and Ron Funches, and they were good, and they did well.
With those guys, you don’t have to be that savvy. Moshe Kasher knows how to play a comedy club, as does Funches. There really has to be a distinction made between the idea of alternative and the idea of amateur, or people that call themselves comedians who aren’t. When you have an entire network of comic-booked rooms and bringer shows [in which the comics are responsible for bringing an audience in order to perform] that indulge people to work out, which is great in order to figure out how to do comedy, that doesn’t mean they’re comics. There is a blurry line between a professional comedian and somebody calling themselves a comedian because they do three bringer shows a week. “Alternative” is now mainstream for a large majority, and most of the “alternative” comics that are capable of headlining a show are professional comics. There’s no reason to call them “alternative comics” — they’re just stand-up comics. So the real distinction, and what has always been the issue, is this idea that “alternative” was just some glorified amateur. That’s really where the distinction still lies, and [it] has to be explored with all these free venues, bringer shows, comic-run shows. There’s these people that have been plugging away at comic-run shows for years but are not able or sought out to do the job of a comic. A professional comic should be able to do an hour of his own material and sell a few tickets and do the job. 

Do you think that sort of person is similar to the person in the ’80s when there were just so many comedy clubs that could do just like ten minutes of observational stuff and then be on their way?
No, the way the system worked back in the day, outside of the major comedy cities, was that you worked out at your home club, you usually hosted, and then maybe you featured there, but it was always weird to get booked at your home club, so a lot of times you would open until you got 20, 25 minutes, and then you’d start featuring on the road a bit, whether they were one-nighters or whatever. And then, after you’ve built your feature set and you’re up at like 35, 40 [minutes], you’re hopefully trying to start headlining real rooms, to get your chops together. So there was a process. There were all these people that could never become a comic for one reason or another, but the goal was to work. If you get on the road as a feature, you start out middling, hopefully you can get $400 or $500 a week and go town to town for a while to keep working out your stuff until you become a headliner. It was definitely a brass ring at the end, it was that you’re trying to get your hour and make a couple grand a week working on the road. That sort of system has broken down. 

How does that differ from today, then?
I think it’s pretty amazing when you look at the guys that came out of Chicago that all knew each other — like Kumail [Nanjiani], Pete [Holmes], T.J. [Miller], Kyle Kinane. There’s obviously very fertile scenes in a lot of cities that are good for comics, but whether the guys get out of there is the question. That’s always been the way it’s been with comedy towns — back in the day, there was only like four: Boston, New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles — but now like every city has a scene of some kind, and it just becomes, who gets out? It was always like that. And that’s the real struggle of it. 

One explanation for the boom is the democratization of content. Do you feel like comedy lends itself to a leveled playing field?
It’s a different playing field, to some degree, but it’s a playing field. As big a playing field as it is, I don’t know how many people are necessarily making money. This is the sad truth of it — and it’s always been the sad truth of it. It’s just more people are gonna feel the heartbreak of it, or not, or are gonna become delusional — if people don’t want what you’re putting out, they’re not gonna seek it out. No one can manufacture lightning in bottle, but people can try, and they can do whatever they have to do to get their shit out, and it’s still not gonna happen. I know this from experience, knowing what's it like to wonder, when do you throw the towel in. If you’re not selling tickets, you’re not selling tickets. If no one is listening to your podcast, then what are you gonna do? You can keep trying, but deciding on whether it’s you or you’re being fucked somehow, that’s the tricky thing. Nobody really wants to give up or realize that maybe they’re not cut out for something. You’d like to think it’s a meritocracy, obviously, and maybe it is a little bit more of a level playing field just in terms of the ability to get shit out in the world, but you can build it and people won’t come. That’s just the reality. There’s a lot of shit built out there that people aren’t going to. It’s just a living empire of empty websites and unvisited content. 

Yeah, the best you can do is just put things in the world, and hopefully people get it.
There’s a weird type of an entitlement that everyone is destined to be recognized for their talent. It’s just never been the case. It really depends on what you need to keep going. Do you need to make a living? Do you just need people to know your work or enjoy your work? What determines whether you continue doing something? Certain things have smaller audiences than other things. But I think that the bottom line is the possibility of finding people who like what you do is a bit higher now, and you can do it on your own terms. I don’t know necessarily why whatever happened to me with the podcast happened, but I do know that I worked two decades in stand-up comedy and some radio, and I definitely did the work to get the skills necessary to perform the way I do. It wasn’t some fluke. I put the work in, for sure. I’d like to think that that still makes a difference. 

Do you think how people approach comedy as a career has changed?
I don't think it was much different during the club system if you wanted to do it. I’m going to open, I’m going to middle, I’m going to headline, and then I’m going to get a TV show. The profession idea was always there. I just always wanted to be a good stand-up. I never really had a clear idea of how show business worked. But what’s happening to Ron Funches, Chris D’Elia, and Brett Morin with their show [Undateable] — that’s classic show business in the sense that we’ve got some funny guys that have been successful as comics, and we’re going to put them on TV where they play these wacky characters that are kind of who they are on stage. I mean that is old school, dude! Or if you look on Silicon Valley, that is full of comedians. I am not really hip to what is necessarily on TV, but Comedy Central is full of shows. The bottom line is it’s full of shows built on a comic’s sensibilities. That was the business model of the sitcom boom: This guy’s got a point of view. Let’s give him some money to develop a show around this character, and so it still is what it is. 

There is just a lot more people who think they could get it to work.
Yeah, because they are out there doing it somewhere. That is the one thing about the comedy-club system: You had to get past that club owner, and it weaned out the people who meant business or not, because a lot of great comics who are not mediocre and are not run-of-the-mill came out of that system, man. A lot of big acts, because of their talent and persistence, transcended. 

There were people to say yes or no to them.
There were definitely gatekeepers, dude. As those gatekeepers become powerless, it's interesting. There is always going to be gatekeepers, and ultimately, it becomes about somebody taking a liking to you and giving you a shot. In my case, I went through that system, and it wasn’t happening for me. There was that desperation that helped define the medium, and I found something I could do well that I did not know I really had, and you know what? It worked out for me. Through my desperate act of starting a podcast, I now have a television show on cable, and I can tour and make a little money, but it all came because I did something. Does that mean everybody can make money that way? Is there a system I can give people? No. It was just that finally the timing worked out. You can’t manufacture that. I got on a wave, I don’t know how the hell that happened. There are a lot of people with talent that get pummeled by themselves or by the business. The bottom line is, no matter how chipper everybody is in their class at UCB, or how excited anybody is about their ten-minute set, show business can and most likely will be a lifetime of heartache, and that is what you’re up against when you roll the dice like that and you decide not to go the safe and secure route. Though I don’t think many of those even exist anymore. 

Is it a bubble? Are there a bunch of people who will be rudely awakened to the fact that they eventually have to make real money?You could ask that about music or anything else. What anyone needs to persist is what they are capable of handling or living with. I don’t think comedy ever really went away. The comedy boom ended. It got sort of bloated, and there was a lot of bad comedy around. More of what happened was the business of comedy clubs started to fall. There wasn't any less talent there. And there are still plenty of people who don’t understand or won’t like Ron Funches, or me, for that matter, but the possibility of getting a room where people mostly do like us is much better now. Whether it is at a comedy club or not, who cares? A venue is a venue. Comedy clubs are really a bar business; it has never been a show business. You’re there to sell drinks. But I still like doing comedy clubs because you know that is the real fight.

Well, you like the fight.
Sometimes. I am glad that I have people who like me, but then I get nervous about that, too. Here is the other thing that people don’t really talk about: One of the struggles of so much content output is that all of a sudden, the audience’s expectations are operating at the same pace as they can get content. You get this battle of, "Please don't put it out there." I’ve got to do a new hour every year, it seems. Whereas for someone like me who is still growing in popularity — there are still many more people who don’t know me than do — and I have hours and hours, five CDs worth of material, and I have to be like, "I don’t do that anymore." And all of a sudden, there are 50 people at my show like, "We’ve never seen you before." And I’m like, "Yeah, but for the 100 people that know me well, I can't do any of that." People will be like, "Well, I saw that thing on Conan." What do you think we do? Every day is a new hour?

Yeah, it feels like the audience is interested in the process as much as the jokes.
That’s a new thing. That is definitely that comedy-nerd community, and they’re an interesting bunch and I like them. I don’t know how much they like me. I don’t know. I think I have found my place somewhere in there.