It is a trope for supposedly transgressive comedians to show how willing they are to go there by introducing a word they are not supposed to say, then saying it a bunch of times. In his new HBO special, From Bleak to Dark, out on February 11, the comedian, actor, and podcaster Marc Maron offers an alternate vision of what actually difficult material looks like — by talking, and making jokes about, the unexpected passing of his girlfriend and collaborator, the director Lynn Shelton. She died of undiagnosed leukemia in May 2020, and in the special’s centerpiece, Maron offers a portrait of grief, humorously exploring the possibility that she was reincarnated as a hummingbird and haunting him through theater lighting systems. Getting people to laugh at how social distancing made the mourning process lonely and awkward: Now that’s challenging.
Maron spoke at length on Good One for the first time about the process of writing material about losing Shelton. You can listen to the full episode below, and tune in to Good One every Thursday wherever you get your podcasts.
Two months into the pandemic, Lynn passed. The next day, you did what you always do with WTF, which is rerelease the interview with a person with an intro where you express your feelings. Obviously, this was a special circumstance, but I’m curious how it felt in the moment. How do you think about that episode that you put out?
I don’t know. I haven’t listened to it again. I was in complete shock and severely traumatized. I was shattered and beside myself, and it was really a conversation with myself and with my producer, Brendan, who had been riding it out with me. I was on the phone with people when she was in the hospital for that short period of time, and he’s like, “Look, we don’t have to do it. We don’t have to ever do anything. This is really up to you, how you want to handle it — if you want to handle it — or if you just want to take a month off or a year off. Whatever.” And I just thought for some reason, maybe selfishly but maybe not, that to sort of stay in the groove with this thing and be honest with my emotions, even though they were completely out of control and … shattered, to be public with them.
I wasn’t looking for recognition or even love or anything else. I just thought in that moment that maybe in this emotional state, my reaction would be helpful to somebody else. Grief is a strange thing, and tragedy and all this stuff: You hear about it happening all the time, but all of a sudden, you’re in it.
I went back and then I listened to the beginning of the next few months of episodes, and it is really compelling to see a person not necessarily work through it completely, but just sort of evolve in it. I think it does help normalize these things that are not often televised or recorded exactly as they are.
I agree, and that was why I stayed in the groove with it. This is an inevitability about life. It is, I think, in the abstract for most people, the idea that we die. I mean, you can talk about it all day long: “Everyone’s gonna die, everyone’s gonna die.” But you don’t want to, and you don’t think about it, and it’s not part of your daily thought, generally. I’d never sought out the conversation around it or listened to anybody go through it. I’m sure it’s out there, but here I was going through it, and I was going to do what I do, which is experience it in the moment, publicly.
As a fan of yours, I think you’re a person who has a tendency toward more catastrophic thinking. I remember in one of the episodes you talked about really working hard not to be bitter or angry when you’re in those spaces. What was that like?
I don’t go to self-pity. I’m not really that person. I get angry. I mean, I think I was justifiably angry. But even with anger at tragedy, unless someone gets hit by a truck or an accident happens, there’s no answer to the question “Why?” It doesn’t mean anything other than sometimes tragedy strikes you or the people you love, and I would say that’s probably more than a 50-50 proposition in terms of it. So to answer your question, it was not my place to feel sorry for myself or to even be bitter, but to experience the loss and integrate that, because that is what people do. Everyone, I think, is in some degree of grief.
You’ve talked about how many people reached out, especially in those early weeks, and you talk about it a little bit in the special. From those first weeks and months, what did you learn about how people deal with death and grief?
I think people generally show up, and that’s all that’s required of them. I mean, if you just show up with some food, it really goes a long way. [Chokes up.] I don’t know if you need people, but just to have somebody to check on you and to bring food, it really made a difference. I think it really is a powerful thing when people show up.
There was a sort of shiva situation starting online the day after she passed that Michaela Watkins put together, and I had to be careful. I had to learn a lesson about my public grieving around her, because my relationship with her was fairly new. Like, when she died, I hadn’t really even spent time with her family. If I hadn’t asked her for the code on her phone before they took her out into the ambulance, I don’t know what would have happened, because she was unconscious almost all day when they were trying to save her life, and I had to say to the intensive-care nurse, “I need you to open her phone and find me some Sheltons, because I don’t know them.” I had to call her dad and get people in the loop, because she put me down as the emergency contact in the hospital because she didn’t think she was gonna die. But I didn’t think it was my place. Someone else — like either her ex, who was barely an ex, or her father, or other family — had to be in the loop who knew her, or who had a history with her, who was her family. So that was awkward and horrifying.
The truth is that her cousin, who I didn’t know, read a piece in the New York Times about her, and it had a picture of us and they talked to me. And her cousin said, “Look, there’s other people grieving, and you should go easy on the public face of it.” When I reacted initially I was slightly offended, but I realized she was right, so I just stopped doing interviews and stuff about it because it wasn’t just my sadness. She had a family, she had a lot of people that don’t have a voice, and I wasn’t trying to make it about me. I was just being approached, but it was true. Out of respect, I stopped really talking about it publicly other than my podcast.
This was still in the early days of COVID, so you couldn’t go onstage even if you wanted to. At the time, you talked about thinking maybe you wouldn’t, maybe you were done with comedy. I think you once said, “Maybe I’m cured, I don’t have to do this.”
“Maybe I’m all better.”
What was the process like to be like, I want to finally talk about this onstage?
Whether Lynn died or not, I always say that I might be done. But I started doing Instagram Lives compulsorily on a daily basis. It was me just kind of mumbling around and doing stuff around my house and ranting and raving about this or that, experiencing grief, and people were watching it and a lot of people got a lot out of it. I got a lot of peculiar fans from that. But it did engage me with an audience on a daily basis to the point where CNN offered me, on their defunct streaming service, a lot of money to do it on there, and I was like, “I’m not gonna do it.” Thank God I didn’t! But I knew that I needed to engage my voice that was performative, and that’s how I did it.
I didn’t do any outdoor shows. I didn’t do any Zoom shows. I was like, That’s really not comedy, and that’s not how I do comedy, so if comedy’s over, it’s over. If it’s not, we’ll see. But as soon as people went back to clubs, I was like, The race is on! Here we go!
The last time we spoke was for a story about comedy after 9/11, when you said, “There was no ‘too soon,’” and that comedy was a way of “processing” the tragedy. Did talking about Lynn feel similar to that?
I imagine “too soon” is relative to respecting others around it who are affected and what you are putting out there. I’m not sure I was right about that, that there’s no “too soon,” because there’s the component of your capacity to show up for it, and what are you showing up for, and who is it supposed to be for? Like, I remember processing my second divorce in a one-man show that was not ready to be seen, and it was raw and it was terrible. It was just brutal. I mean, some people like that shit. I did a whole CD, that Final Engagement CD. I was a mess. But Louie Katz, a comic, he was like, “Man, that one helped me. That one was the best one. I was going through a breakup, and I listened to it a lot during that.” I was like, “Thank God! You might be the only one!”
But it wasn’t so much “too soon.” When I got onstage to do comedy, I wasn’t thinking in terms of Is it time to start doing this material? I address in the special a bit that if you’re a funny person and you need comedy to process that, comedy’s gonna make you feel better. Even if it is in poor taste or gallows humor or whatever you want to call it, it’s going to save your life in a way: mentally, certainly; emotionally, possibly. I would say that in the special, I take it right to the edge of good taste, but I own it, and this is what I needed to do.
There’s a line in there that might seem callous, but it is so perfect in terms of what we’re heading into: “It was the most horrible thing that’s ever happened to me … and I’m sure to her.” It’s so right there, and it’s so hilarious, but it’s brutal, man. In retrospect, it gives the audience permission, as we enter that part of the special, which wasn’t there before.
I think part of why that joke works is because it’s one of the jokiest jokes I can think of in your entire career. It’s like an old-school misdirect joke.
Yup! I mean, when I watched it, I was like, That’s the spirit of comedy in me.
So when you finally were in front of audiences for the first time, were you like, Well, I’m gonna talk about this first?
Nah, I didn’t think about that at all. I’m not sure when or how I started talking about her.
A lot of this happens in sort of that weird, timeless zone of pandemic time, and also I’m in a PTSD state. We all are. It’s jarring. Every day with vaccines: “Are we testing? Are we getting vaccines? Are we going out again?” It was devastating, and I don’t think we really talk about it. The collective PTSD of it all — of being that afraid and having everything shut down — it was devastating and bizarre.
So I don’t really remember how it unfolded, but the hummingbird stuff started to evolve because that was real. The way it happened was me just talking about what was happening. I’ll say something and see what comes out of me onstage, and then if it sticks, it gets repeated. So I think the first jokes that happened were around that grieving process, and around people coming over, and Troy across the street, and Hanging on to Hope, the books, the Joan Didion stuff. And then the hummingbird thing sort of evolved, and it all came from just talking about it.
I don’t know where the gumption or the courage came from, but it’s not unlike me in the sense that I’m going to take chances. The chance I was taking was that I was going to bum them out, or not be able to manage my own sadness. I think where it really started to evolve was not at the Comedy Store; it was whenever I started to do Dynasty Typewriter, where I do longer sets, where I could have the freedom of mind and enough support from my people, who were specifically there to watch me work through it, and also, I’m sure I processed a lot of it on the podcast as well. But I think that when I had the support of a small audience of people where I could sort of stretch out, you could start to find things, and I could have emotions. Like, at Dynasty Typewriter, if I got choked up or I couldn’t process it properly, that was okay. I could sit in it because the space was held by my fans. And that’s when I began to actually process the grief and find relief in talking about it in a funny way.
You allude to this a little bit, but other comedians have told stories, especially around your divorces, where you would go up onstage at and just vent. There’d be a sort of rawness to it. Do you feel like you have matured as a person or comedian, where now when you’re doing it, it’s not as uncontrolled?
That’s fine! That’s a good answer.
I don’t know that it’s about maturity. The one thing that I’m grateful for that has happened over the years is that I have people who want to see me, and I have fans who know me very well. All I’ve ever done was write through improvisation through out-loud talk, and the funny is going to come from me being forced to be funny. It’s not like I just wrote a great tag. No, I’m totally relying on the muses of whatever. I’m totally relying on the great Zeitgeist — not Zeitgeist, the id of eternal comedy to deliver me things onstage. And that’s the most exciting thing, but it really comes from that moment — like, when you feel uncomfortable, you feel cornered: I’m gonna try and make a joke! So ultimately what I’ve learned is that what I do in terms of writing is I corner myself onstage in front of people.
When I did that show about my divorce, when I was going through it, I don’t know what the hell I thought. Maybe it was indulgent, but I wasn’t promoting it as a finished show. I was doing it in a fucking basement of the Bleecker Street Theatre when Birbiglia was doing his full production upstairs, almost mocking me! I was in this gloomy catacomb, screaming angrily about a woman leaving me, and he’s up there being cute! But dealing with death is different because it’s not bitter. It’s a different kind of rawness. And what happens is when you’re angry, people can be like, All right, this guy’s pissed off. It’s not great, it’s not entertaining, I’m sorry he’s going through that. But there’s a sympathy for somebody going through grief. I mean, it’s not everybody’s idea of entertainment. I’m not sure it was entertainment. But I don’t know that I thought about the audience.
It does feel like it’s always a balance between getting the audience to laugh and self-exploring onstage, especially in this writing state.
It is, and it’s constantly evolving, and it’s just the nature of what I do. I mean, I’ve had to accept that I’m definitely not an arena act. I’ve had to accept that whatever miracle turn my career took that enabled me to be successful as a comic and as a podcaster, whatever, to have an audience, that this is what I do, man. I have a good business going. I have people who respect what I do. I think I’m doing great work. But as I get older, I start to realize that my assumption when I was doing Luna and stuff that I was doing comedy for everyone — that whether people knew it or not, they had an angry, bitter person inside of them, and I was speaking to that — is just not true. A lot of people were uncomfortable, a lot of people felt bad for me, and a lot of people were like, Wow, that was weird. A few people were like, Yeah, man! But it wasn’t across the board.
Until two days ago, I’m not sure I would have considered myself a “dark” comedian. I mean, I knew — I just always saw it like, This is all pretty reasonable stuff! But then I realized, I’ve always been this! This is the area that I live in. I can do light stuff — I talk about my cats! But the timing of this thing for me, in terms of where we are culturally … When you have all these anti-woke hacks around who are crying about not being able to publicly speak about the same three things, I realize that there’s nothing particularly … This is the real edge. Whatever I did on this special, those are the real risks.
In the special, you say the first joke you thought of about Lynn, which happened the night of her death. What did it feel like to have a funny thought in that moment?
It was amazing, because it was so beautifully horrible and hilarious. But now I find out that people do that — like, it’s not uncommon, which I thought would fuck the joke up. Having experienced that — and I’m very specific in walking people through that experience — it was horrendous, devastating, horrible to see somebody that you love, dead, on a gurney, propped up. And the fact that that line could counter that I just thought was amazing. And I didn’t know what to do with that. I didn’t even know if it was wrong, in a way.
Wrong that you had the thought at all?
Well, just that: Was it morally inappropriate? And then I’m like, What are you talking about? You’ve done the worst kinds of things onstage. For all this talk about “woke” and “anti-woke,” I mean, I’ve been in this business a long time, and I definitely was an angry, shock-driven comic. There’s nothing I haven’t done onstage. I mean, I haven’t been homophobic or totally misogynistic, but there have been learning moments along the way, which I think is normal. But in that moment, I thought it was so funny I had to tell somebody, so I called Dan Vitale and he broke up laughing, and he says, “I don’t know what you can do with that,” and I’m like, “I don’t know either.” But I knew in my heart, I’m gonna figure out a way to get that onstage, because it really is just about respecting her memory, right? And also the idea of What would she expect out of me? Would she like it? I don’t know. All the stuff in the special about the lights going out at the theater in Ireland when I talked about her, that just happened. I had only talked about that onstage a couple of times, and it became part of the special.
Besides condemning anti-woke comedians, there is an element of the special that feels like you are saying to them and their fans, “This is what actually challenging material looks like. These are the jokes that are difficult to pull off.” What were you hoping to communicate?
I’m just saying that they’re hacks, and it’s an angle. That’s really the big unsaid thing, is that anti-woke is the new hack. You’ve got like-minded people who fill these rooms because they don’t know how to assess funny unless it’s bullying, or unless it’s in totally bad taste. There’s no nuance to it. A lot of people who are not innately that funny become comics, and they can become good comics if they can figure it out. But this is just an excuse to ride the momentum of an audience that’s been built on these premises. For a bunch of freethinkers, they all think the same thing, and it’s like three things that they poke at, and it’s hackneyed. They are the hacks, and they are the groupthink victims. It’s really kind of profound.
I do believe that there are lines now in terms of comedy, and that they do function somewhat on political lines. Many of these comics do not see themselves as right-wing people, they see themselves as “libertarian,” but they are so easily appropriated by right-wing thought, right? There are these weird tribal lines being drawn, and the old-school kind of progressive nature of sensitivity — but also taking shots at everybody — is sort of falling to the wayside of people going, “Fuck you, I’m entitled to do this because of this and that, or free speech and anti-censorship.” So that ideological place is a front, and it’s enabling a lot of really uninspired, untalented people to perform.
Did you ever wonder if it was okay to do this material?
Well, oddly, what I learned is something that the anti-woke guys kind of profess, and that is you can sort of do jokes about anything, and they can be good, and there is, in some ways, no “right” or “wrong” jokes. But it is your responsibility to try to find some balance and not hurt people or disrespect people, unless you want to. It’s up to you. You do have that right.
But it did sort of have that feeling of, Is this wrong? Is this disrespectful? It was a specific thing, and I wasn’t talking about a marginalized group — unless you think of the dead as a marginalized group. They can’t speak for themselves! They don’t have a public-facing leader that we know of! Maybe they do! It’s like Jack Kevorkian, right? I used to do a bit about that. I should bring it back, too. It was a great bit. I don’t know if I gave it away or not. I did it once on Comedy Central — about how the reason they don’t have legal euthanasia here is because insurance companies would take advantage of it and they’d recommend it for anything: “Yeah, I don’t know if that ankle’s gonna heal …”
I think you should bring it back!
Oh yeah, you just can’t let the insurance companies get ahold of it because you’re gonna go in for minor depression and they’re like, “Look, let’s just call it.” But no, I did feel that there was always the question of Is this correct to do these jokes? and I landed on the affirmative. So that was a real question, because I rode an edge with that.
There was a joke years ago: There was a plane crash, and a lot of people survived, but some people died, and a good percentage of the survivors went on to catch connecting flights, so I had this joke about the announcement in the terminal: “For those of you who were catching connecting flights, please check the board …” Whatever. “For those of you who lost loved ones or traveling companions, you’re on carousel seven” in the baggage claim. I had a moment with that joke where I was doing it in a bowling alley in Cranston, Rhode Island, in a bar where the comedy was, and some woman screamed, “Stop talking about plane crashes!” I knew the jig was up and it was bound to happen that someone will have lost someone. And I said, “Did you lose somebody in a plane crash?” and she goes, “Yes.” And I go, “I’m so sorry. I’ll do my cancer chunk now,” and that relieved the tension.
But I guess the point of that is, to answer the question, which was what did I learn out of this, it’s that there is a thoughtful approach to this type of subject matter, or any type of subject matter, but I do think anything can be approached comedically.
In the special, you wonder if maybe it would be better to do a one-person show, called Marc Maron’s Kaddish, which you then proceed to act out. Where did that come from?
I’ve tried to do those kinds of shows. There was a time where if you couldn’t land your comedy or you wanted to talk about it, you’d do a one-person show. It always felt like kind of an excuse. But the one-man show is just funny to me because when somebody dies, after a certain point someone goes, “You really have to do a show about this!” [Laughs.]
You’re so locked in doing the performance of the mourner’s Kaddish.
I am, yeah. I just love the sound of that. It’s so great for non-Jews. Like, if you’re a Jew, you’ve heard that melody a million times. But if you’re not a Jew, it’s sort of like, Oh my God! He’s really Jewing it!
You’re not a religious person, but obviously Jewishness is important to you, and I think death is one of the things that Judaism is better at. What did Jewishness mean to you in the grieving process?
I don’t know that it helped me, other than the idea of “May her memory be a blessing” is pretty strong. To realize that that is possible, that that is aspirational, that you’re going to get to a place on the other side of this where whatever time you spent with them was a gift, and you will appreciate that, that’s a big deal. And also, just the nature of shiva was okay, because it was raw. When Michaela did that, you’ve got 20 boxes of heads in there of people who knew this woman for years or were her family, or people were crying. It was raw and weird, and it was different than a shiva because when you sit shiva, you sit in a house, everything’s turned off, the mirrors are turned around, and you just eat, and you do that for a week or whatever. My brother came and there’s nowhere to go, there’s nothing to do, and we had to sort through her stuff. We had to go to the house she had rented; she had just moved. I don’t know that it was a Jewish thing, but the idea of that support on a daily basis was powerful.
But there is a Jewish thing where there is comfort to it, because I’m not sitting here going, Well, she’s in a better place. I’m going, She’s dead and this is fucking horrendous, so what do you do? Well, you sit with other people, and we did that. So that was helpful. But I don’t know that I was totally aware of the Jewishness of it, other than that it’s in my bones.
Jewishness is obviously a big part of the special, and a sort of defiant Jewishness is a big part of the special. The last time we spoke, which was about your last special, you were talking about opening for Paul Mooney and the experience of seeing him defy people who don’t think they’re racist, defying them to be the part of themselves that are racist. And it did feel like that there was that with Jewishness in this special, which is like, this audience is not antisemitic, but you were being like, We’re gonna nudge you where you want to be like, “Shut up, Jew!”
Yeah, yeah. That was the intention. I mean, I don’t know what else to do in the face of normalized antisemitism. Do we shut up? It’s just one of these things. Arguably, it’s not like I’m reaching across the aisle to find dialogue, but it’s definitely a “fuck you.”
I did it in my last special too. It’s weird, because it’s not like I’m living a Jewish life other than being Jewish, but I do feel the terror in my bones of antisemitism. Because the last special, we were in the middle of a fascist takeover of our country! So I was freaking out every fucking day. And during this special, he was still president when COVID hit! It was a nightmare waking up every day to his dumb face, and then to this horrible disease. But the fact that there’s some sort of normalization going around of the antisemitic contingent within our population — like it just is, and it’s out — it’s horrendous. I don’t know if I’m making that better, but I do know that it’s the opposite of hiding.
You’re making it undeniable. You’re making it so that, for people who think it might not be a problem, they realize the problem in themselves, hopefully.
Yeah, hopefully. I mean, it’s a little aggressive.
But that’s the point. It’s literally the definition of what “provocative” is. It is to provoke a response.
“We get it, Jew!”
You’ve acted more and more in the last ten years than you have before. Do you feel like the acting work you’ve done has translated to your stand-up? Do you feel like you’re a better actor, even in those moments where you’re being a TED Talk person, and you embody it enough that it can sell a joke like that?
Maybe. I think at different points in my life, I’ve made decisions to do things I was uncomfortable with, or things I needed to get better at. I do know that before I was acting a lot, I was like, I have to act out more onstage. I was always nervous about it, I was always afraid of it, but at some point, all the fear went away onstage. So I’m like, All right, now do some other things. Be physical. I enjoy physical comedians. It’s my guilty pleasure. I’d much rather watch some goofball than somebody who’s like me, and I always envied it. But I thought to myself, I must have good physical timing; I just have to do it. So it was a conscious decision as a stand-up performer, years ago, to do that. I’m sure they feed each other.
You were last on the podcast on March 13, 2020, right when the pandemic started. Like, an hour after we spoke, Donald Trump declared a state of national emergency.
Yeah. And there was something you said that day that defined a lot of how I thought about the pandemic in general. You said, “This period of history, the thing that’s gonna really stand out is how isolated everyone was.” This was before the shutdown. I guess my question is, working on this set, performing it for fans, being vulnerable in certain places, being boundary-pushing in certain places, and having the audience respond, what did you learn about what the audience and the comedian can get from each other?
I don’t know if I appreciate it enough in the moment, but it’s always amazing to me. I think what I did find is that that is really going to be the big struggle. I think in isolation, people can create aliases and anonymous personalities, sort of secondary or adjacent voices that enter what we see as some kind of community online or on platforms that are ultimately malignant, and that I think what happens when people are in the flesh, even if they’re not like-minded people, is that humanity can’t be denied in the best-case situation.
You know, there was a time where, at some point, neighbors just killed their neighbors because they thought differently. Something switches in the brain of humanity in certain people — in lots of them, all at once — where they can just kill the people they work with if they’re given permission and it’s for a cause. So knowing that’s a reality, all I can realize is that all that we really have is the vulnerability and the sense of community of people behaving together, right? So there’s something about audiences … Especially when I do the Comedy Store, I don’t know that I would hang out with a lot of these people, but I can do this thing where they’re all laughing. It’s really the only thing that stands between us and fascism: the humanity of decency that is available when groups of people get together, right?
In one of the WTF episodes a couple weeks after Lynn passed, you talked about continuing forward with both the podcast and comedy, and you said you wanted to embrace what Lynn saw in you, and I thought that was really beautiful. What does that mean? And as you look at the work you’ve done in these nearly three years, have you been able to embrace that?
Yeah, totally. Certainly with believing in myself as an actor, and she also had a lot of respect for my sensitivity, for things that I didn’t really pay attention to in myself, for my ability to be present and to work with other people, and to be a relatively good person, and to be vulnerable in my art. Yeah, I mean, I definitely embrace it. I would not be an actor without her, really.
And when I did To Leslie, which is now an Academy Award–nominated motion picture, it was all about Lynn. I don’t remember when we started shooting that, but it was within that first year of her passing. And I thought, I have to do this for her. I have to use these emotions and honor her and take this chance. That was the reason I took that role — because I didn’t see myself in it, but the director did. I thought about Lynn and how to honor her memory by acting in this role that was going to be difficult and required a lot of me. So yeah, I mean, I try to do those things.
I don’t know … I really always wonder about those jokes.
Because you say in the special she would have liked that joke.
I’m not sure. Well, yeah, I’ll now wait for the lights to go out.
This interview has been edited and condensed.