Examining Marc Maron’s Stand-Up Beginnings

I’m going to paint in a very broad stroke here for a moment, but I feel secure in saying that if you’re here you are familiar with and probably enjoy the podcast WTF with Marc Maron. For the very few of you who don’t listen to it (or read the New York Times or watch The Comedy Awards, or are completely unfamiliar with the concept of podcasting), twice a week, Marc, a long-time stand-up comedian, sits down with a comedian, author, musician and has a conversation. It’s not always an interview; more often than not, it’s two people in entertainment talking about themselves and asking questions of one another, and quite often, trying to examine things from the other person’s perspective to better understand their own bubble.

Long before WTF, in 1995, there were no podcasts so there was no way for people to peek in on Marc’s life twice a week. Your only way in was through his stand-up act, and 17 years ago, when Marc recorded his half hour special for HBO, a milestone in any comedian’s career, he was a much different person than he is now. So let us take a look back at an earlier chapter in the book of Marc Maron.

As Maron takes the stage of San Francisco’s storied Fillmore Theatre, the first thing you might notice is a distinct lack of facial hair. It’s still very clearly him with the Richard Lewis haircut he used to sport (and continues to sport in his podcast’s logo) but he looks younger here, mostly because he is. The second thing you might notice is the amount of energy he gives as he steps out onto the stage. As a podcast listener, I’m used to a Marc Maron introduction being followed by a relaxed, almost laconic “Alright, let’s do this.” Here Maron bounds out onto the stage, excitedly shouting at the crowd, prolonging their applause. When it finally dies down he continues, “Whydja stop?! Come on!” and a second wave begins. This level of energy continues through much of the set, and for someone who is used to Maron speaking calmly and directly into their ears, it can be a little jarring.

Maron begins by talking about the theatre itself, which in the sixties was one of the centers of the psychedelic music movement, with the great line, “If these walls could talk, they could puke, so lets just use our imaginations.” From this, he transitions into a chunk on prescription drugs and how he believes that if you’re going to take a drug it should be to get yourself fucked up, not to make you feel like everything in the world is okay three weeks later. Today, Marc Maron is drug and alcohol free, so this is probably not a belief that he still subscribes to, kind of like the pure contempt he seems to have for the Internet in 1995.

Out of this material he discusses how San Francisco is different from the rest of the world and then transitions into a bit of material about a recent trip down South. Throughout this half hour set, Maron’s transitions are very interesting because they feel very organic. Like his podcast, it doesn’t feel overly rehearsed or overly planned; it has that same conversational flow that he has with his guests on the program. Of course this is an easy observation for me to make when I already know that this is exactly the case.

On the 200th episode of WTF with Marc Maron, Marc sat down with Mike Birbiglia and was asked a variety of questions from Mike and past guests, and was asked to reflect a little bit about his career and a lot about how he treats other people. At one point in the interview Birbiglia mentions seeing Marc at a now closed New York City club called the Luna Lounge that he frequented and the difference between seeing him on television. At Luna Maron would go on stage without anything prepared and just talk, whereas when he would do panel on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, as he frequently did in during that time, it would have to be pre-approved and structured and heavily vetted. To Marc, the HBO special is as close to that mindset as he could, and mentions that for this special he never even prepared a set, which, according to Marc was “fucking crazy.” He continues: “a comedian with foresight or disciplined…who thought about who was going to be watching that or what it meant to have an HBO half-hour would have been making himself crazy.” And that’s exactly what we get throughout this special: a Luna Lounge set, with little preparation that deals with feelings and the moment. At one point, as he’s launching into a joke he pauses and then, as an aside to himself says, “I guess I’m going to tell this bit,” before continuing. And you know what? It works.

From here Maron talks about a few different topics that, looking back on his career, would serve as threads that would be tugged at many times throughout the years. The first is smoking. According to 1995 Marc Maron, he had quit smoking about a year ago. Current fans of Maron know that he very recently quit smoking again and is now very much in love with his nicotine lozenges, a point that he sort of acknowledges from the past when he says to the audience’s applause, “thank you for your support, but no applause please, because I’ve done it before.” He talks about what it’s like as a smoker in the modern era, when one is basically treated like an animal in the zoo, trapped behind a glass wall at the airport, or huddled together in the rain outside of work.

The second lynchpin topic that Maron discusses is what he refers to as “fucking crazy-ass Republicans.” From 2004 to 2009, Maron was the host of a few different programs on the progressive radio network, “Air America.” Though his relationship with the network was rocky (which is reasonable since it seems like most of the things connected to the now defunct company was rocky), on his programs Morning Sedition, and Breakroom Live, his comedy became very political. Back in this 1995 special, he states that he’s not sure if he’s left-leaning, “I think I’m just wingless and falling.” However, his main idea for political reform is that there should be a guy stationed outside Newt Gingrich’s office whose sole job is to flip him off as he enters and leaves the workplace. For the most part, today, Marc leaves politics out of his work, but he probably got a lot out of his system in those five years at Air America.

As Marc pulls a stool into the center of the stage, he says to the crowd, “I sort of drifted from my planned material, but that’s okay, I feel good. I feel comfortable with you people. Maybe I’ll tell a story.” The story he tells is one about a bad trip while at a Jerry Garcia concert, and according to Maron in his conversation with Birbiglia, “I had no idea I was gonna do it. I may have told it once before.” To make a story of reasonable length short, he starts freaking out while waiting for Garcia to come on stage and he sees an older Dead-head sitting in front of him, and looking for some sort of help, Marc says, “Hey man, pretty soon Jerry Garcia is going to come out with his guitar and he and it are going to be one thing.” To which the hippie responds, with what Maron refers to as the best advice he’s ever received in his life, “JUST HANG ON, MAN!”

The key difference between 1995 Maron and current day stems directly from what happened in that time in the middle. A marriage ended, a steady gig with Air America Radio started and ended three different times, the TV appearances all but dried up. Things were bleak for Maron, and he was certainly humbled by what was, or rather was not, going on for his career. Through his podcast he’s slowly but surely managed to right the ship, but the lessons that he’s no doubt learned over the past few years as he’s repaired friendships on the air, learned more about how other people see him, and just generally gotten out there more have relaxed him and made him more comfortable with himself.

Although, I don’t know the guy. I just feel like I do because he shows up in my iTunes to talk to me twice a week.

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, the head writer of his website, a podcaster and a guy on Twitter.

Examining Marc Maron’s Stand-Up Beginnings