What Is the Ideal Age for a Comedian’s Persona?

Marc Maron. Photo: Adam Bettcher/Getty Images For NETFLIX

“I don’t know how much time I have left,” Marc Maron says, beginning a joke about ten minutes into his newest Netflix special, Too Real, out last week on Netflix. “Not in this set. In life. I don’t know how much time I have left. I’m not sick. I’m not dying. But I don’t know. I’m at that point. I’m like 53. And you start to wonder, How much time do I have left?” To quote many a movie mob lackey when the coppers bust in the door, it’s a setup. A setup for the both the next joke, and really the rest of the special. Maron goes on: “And it’s playing into my decision-making process. Like if my girlfriend wants to watch a movie I don’t want to watch, I’m like, ‘I don’t know. I don’t want to die during that.’” The joke continues; Maron realizes it’s just too late for him to get into Phish. (“I got no more room in my heart and my mind for another jam band, man. I got half the Grateful Dead catalogue in there and I think three or four Allman Brothers songs — I’m maxed out, I’m filled up.”) There’s more, but I leave that for you to watch on your own time (which you should; it’s good!). Suffice it to say, it’s a funny joke that sharply investigates Maron’s psychology and opinions about culture. It is also the sort of joke you could imagine Maron telling at various points in his career — like him, it’s aggressively neurotic, angrily depressive — but with one very specific difference: As he points out, he’s now “like 53.” I’m not saying that because Maron is older, his comedy is more wise, but the way Maron’s jokes are perceived benefits from the audience knowing he is well into his 50s.

Comedy does not exist in a vacuum. When you go see stand-up, the jokes don’t just travel from a black void straight into your brain. This is both stupidly obvious and a little bit controversial, as there is a sort of comedian who likes to contest that their jokes are like undeniable, perfectly crafted comedy bombs. But watching comedy is an act of constructive perception — you construct an understanding of the joke by combining the stimuli of the sound of the joke itself with your existing knowledge of jokes, the comedian, comedians generally, the topic, etc. Context isn’t more important than the joke itself, but it’s essential to what it means to be a comedian. The clearest example of this is a comic’s opening joke, designed to address the audience’s predetermined perception based on her or his appearance. (For example, Nick Kroll used to say, “I know what you’re thinking — I look like the love child of Harry Potter and Jeff Goldblum.”) The hope is, if you address the elephant that is how you look, everyone can move on and just laugh at the jokes. But, say it with me, comedy does not exist in a vacuum.

So, back to Marc Maron, his new special, and being “like 53.” I often think about whether certain comedians have an ideal age or time in which their style, persona, and areas of interest perfectly line up with how old they are and look. Maron used to blame his ever-changing look for the shortcomings of his pre-WTF career, but maybe there is one thing he just needed to wait for: getting older. He always had a “get off my lawn” quality to his routine, as a young, twice-divorced man, obsessed with mortality — his years around the sun had to catch up so the audience could relate. (He is a lucky: You often see comedians get to a certain age where their act is all about complaining about the kids and their rock-and-roll music or how they wear their jeans.) One way of thinking about it is: If Marc Maron were a character in a play, what age would Marc Maron, the human being, be most believable in the role?

It’s not without precedent. Rodney Dangerfield famously struggled in comedy for many years until he landed on the right persona, at the right time. He was in his late 40s when he first broke through, and his 60s before he really became huge. Louis C.K. was a respected stand-up among stand-ups and was starting to really establish himself with stand-up audiences, but his 2008 divorce felt like it kicked his career into high gear — like the sort of event necessary to fill out the picture of him as a sad 40-year-old.

Maybe the most interesting example is Sarah Silverman. Silverman broke through when she was young, and it makes sense. Her stage persona, which was one of the absolute best ever, full stop, demanded a certain sort of youthful naïvete to contrast the awful things she was saying ironically. As she got older, it didn’t ring as true. (It didn’t help that a generation of comedians straight-up borrowed her persona while they were getting on their feet.) So she left it behind after The Sarah Silverman Program. In the seven years since, she’s worked to find a version of herself onstage that fits better with who she is now. There were glimpses in 2013’s We Are Miracles of a more mellow Silverman speaking more honestly about her life, but her new perspective only fully materialized in this year’s tremendous A Speck of Dust. Silverman’s comedy, now that she’s 46, has kept the sense of wonder of her original persona, but instead of contrasting it, she leans into it. Her comedy now is free of cynicism while still being cutting, existential without feeling cheesy. Creating two distinct, resonate stage personas is no small feat, but Sarah Silverman is no small talent. (I think Dave Chappelle is currently experiencing the growing pains of a similar transition.) And like clockwork, audiences and Hollywood responds: This version of Sarah Silverman got a TV show premiering on Hulu this fall, appropriately titled I Love You, America. “The theme of this show,” Silverman said at TCA, “is everybody wants to be loved.”

To contrast, I think of Dane Cook, a comedian who was unprecedentedly popular with young fans in the aughts. He sold out college-basketball arena after college-basketball arena and then NBA arenas, at a time when barely anyone was even playing theaters. And he did so doing young-guy comedy — being brash and squiggly around the stage, making noises. My college hosted two of these shows, and I’m not going to pretend I didn’t have a good time, but it definitely had a clown at a kid’s birthday party feel. Then he turned 40 in 2012, he started talking more seriously, specifically about relationships and losing his parents, and it all sort of slowed down. Cook said around this time that he wanted his comedy to age with his audience, but that’s not exactly how it’s worked for him. This is not to say Cook is washed up — I’m sure he still draws a crowd wherever he goes — but he isn’t the comedian he once was.

What audiences want and expect from comedians at different points in their life is ultimately a personal bias. In some instances though, if enough people share the same opinion about a given comedian, it noticeably affects his or her career. But forget about that. Examine your relationship to comedians you like. Do you think, despite his increase in popularity, Aziz Ansari will never be funnier than when he was telling young-guy stories about going to concerts and hanging out with celebrities? Or maybe you never got Norm Macdonald until recently, now that his image more closely resembles the classic sort of comedy he subverts. Comedy, if you let it, has a way of revealing one’s own biases directly, in ways other art can’t.

I don’t want to overstate the impact this sort of framing has. There are plenty of reasons people become more and less popular, and there are other contextual cues that could be factored in. Which brings me back to Maron, a comedian you can’t separate at this point from his context. Because of his podcast, and the extreme confessional nature of the show, and Maron in general, anyone paying to see him likely knows a ton about him — his is a comedy that improves the more you know about him. (This might seem obvious, but I don’t think it’s universally true. Pete Holmes, another stand-up with a podcast in which he reveals a lot about himself, is actually more enjoyable as a stand-up the less you know. The contrast of his persona and act is more surprising. Or there’s the example of comics who are monsters in real life — when you find that out, you might not laugh as easily.) When Maron talks about his dad on the special, it feels like the continuation of a conversation. Or take one of the bigger moments in Too Real: Maron’s Rolling Stones story. It’s really an impressive piece of stand-up, and it’s interesting for fans of the podcast for two reasons: (1) because they already know so much about Maron’s relationship to the band. They’ve heard him talk to and smoke cigarettes with Keith Richards, and (2) fans know how big of a deal it is for Maron to be as animated as he is in the bit, as he often talks about admiring those who can do physical comedy confidently. He does a freaking Mick Jagger impression! Sometimes it’s just fun to see how the old guy moves.

What Is the Ideal Age for a Comedian’s Persona?