In his previous special, released with uncanny timing in 2020, Marc Maron was preoccupied with the apocalypse. There was a laughing, wry, often exasperated grumpiness to End Times Fun, a sometimes cynical sense of how absurd it is to live in what feels like the end of the world. Maron’s new HBO special, From Bleak to Dark, is often plucking at those same ideas — as the title indicates, Maron has not suddenly embraced optimism. But the new special also reflects a palpable shift. Rather than a collapse into nihilism, this special has a fundamentally loving, even tender worldview. It is an exploration of how to keep living after the world has ended.
Despite that description, the special is not a sudden departure from Maron’s typical comedic identity. He is not known for chipper optimism, and this special’s title is not a misnomer. Most of the punch lines come from discovering humor inside existentially terrifying topics: dementia, climate catastrophe, suicide, death, grief. The special opens with Maron charging onto the stage, doing a single perfunctory wave, grabbing the mic, then swiftly cutting off the audience applause. “I don’t want to be negative, but I don’t think anything is ever going to get better, ever again.” The audience roars and the special treats this as a cold open, quickly flashing a title card before returning to the stage and Maron’s opening idea. “I don’t want to bum anybody out, but I think this is pretty much the way it’s gonna be for however long it takes us to polish this planet off.”
The first 20 minutes are classic Maron riffs on how bad it’s all gotten: an abortion-clinic joke, a bit about “do your own research” guys, a swipe at “anti-woke” comedians, and a quick slide through climate fatalism. They all ground Maron’s hour in who he is and how he approaches ideas. He’s the guy with the twinkling half-smirk as he suggests rebranding abortion clinics as “angel factories”; he’s the guy who wants to keep pointing to his Judaism in order to drive out any subconscious antisemites in the audience. It would all be relatively at home in his previous special. The world is on fire. Everything is bad. From bleak to dark!
But after those first 20 minutes, Maron begins to shade in other colors. The first is a section on aging and dementia, which lingers on his relationship with his father and awareness of getting older. It’s material that teeters deliberately between warmth and chilly dismissal, both in Maron’s experience of it and in his portrayal. He toggles back and forth between fondness and frustration, opening first with the information that his father has dementia, then doubling back to scold the audience for their growing sympathy because his father was a narcissistic nightmare for much of Maron’s life. The darkness is there, but Maron is also persistently aware of trying to find grace in this moment where his father is no longer fully himself. The final joke in this section is about the moment when Maron imagines knowing that his father doesn’t recognize him, and it’s not hard to picture a version of that joke that would drip with bitterness. What comes through instead is something much closer to wry but loving acceptance.
In a lesser stand-up’s work, a stretch of material as balanced and insightful as that one could be the centerpiece of an hour. For Maron, it’s there as a bridge from where the special begins to the place he wants to spend the bulk of his time: talking about the death of his partner, the director Lynn Shelton. It’s an extraordinary run of jokes, beginning with Maron describing his initial anxiety that he might never have figured out how to joke about this subject. He then dives headlong into what he says is the first joke he was able to write after Shelton’s death in 2020, which doubles as an extended, lingering description of the day she died. The material flows from there into jokes about grief and the way sadness makes people mystical, and although all of it is distinctly Marc Maron — cantankerous, gimlet-eyed, authoritative — there’s also a sense of softness that feels like a different mode. As he describes moments that have felt like visitations from Shelton, it seems as though he might scoff at this newfound mysticism. But he won’t and doesn’t want to. It is a special about how much he loves her, and the idea that she might be haunting a microphone cord to express her disapproval is too cherished to dismiss.
Three times in From Bleak to Dark, Maron imagines himself creating a different kind of show. “A lot of these ideas I’ve been playing with, they’re hard to do comedically, so I’ve been working on a serious one-man show,” he explains a few minutes into the special. “I picture that when I produce it, it’ll be in a small black-box theater.” That first fake show, which Maron performs, is called Voices From the Future, and it’s a joke about how disastrous the world has become. Then in the beginning of the Shelton section, the one-man-show idea returns. Maybe he can’t write jokes about this, he thinks. “Maybe a Jewish one-man show,” he says, “like, Marc Maron’s Kaddish: A Prayer for the Dead. Sort of a black-box theater. Before the show there’s Israeli music playing.” The third time the one-man-show joke comes back, it’s in a joke about people who decided to have children during the pandemic.
Although it’s a good premise on its own, allowing Maron to create characters and do goofily half-committed act-outs, the real power of that bit is the way it cushions all of the sad intensity and bleakness Maron brings up when talking about his father or Shelton. It’s a way of articulating what this show is not: a soupy oversincere articulation of pain and trauma, or a mannered, high-concept treatment of capital-G Grief. Maron’s not quite making fun of that genre; he comes closer to making fun of TED Talks, another model he evokes in order to distinguish it from his work. But even as he sits on his stool, the audience grows quiet, and he speaks with wrenching sadness about feeling Shelton’s presence after her death, he is unequivocal that this is also stand-up comedy. “Humor that comes from real darkness is really the best,” he says. “Comics take things that are complicated and horrifying, and simplify it and make you see it in a different way, and have a laugh. I believe it’s a beautiful thing,” he says.
The image of Maron that sticks from this special, though, is not that moment, nor the wildly dark ending joke that somehow twists its way around into celebrating life. It’s not even the material about Shelton, although that is clearly the special’s highlight. The image that sticks is an earlier section that begins with a portrait of two different 80-something guys sitting on a park bench. One of them, Maron says, is a guy who has some humility, who knows life was hard but now wants to appreciate the good things. The other guy is someone who, no matter what happened in his life, is stuck on the idea that he “got fucked somehow.” “‘It was all bullshit!’” Maron grunts, imagining this aggrieved man. They’re both Maron, those two old guys. One of them sees the beauty in life, and the other one is constantly frustrated by its unfairness. Maron’s last special was an incredible demonstration of himself as guy No. 2: the angry prophet, the ranter. From Bleak to Dark is a moving illustration of the other version of Maron: trying to see the good, even if it’s in defiance.
From Bleak to Dark premieres on HBO Saturday, February 11, at 10 p.m. ET.