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Beyond the Cat Ranch

Marc Maron on Comedy, Sobriety, and Mel Brooks

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IN MARC MARON'S career as a stand-up comedian he has toured the country, recorded albums, lost hope, gotten married, gotten divorced, done coke with Sam Kinison, got sober, gotten married and divorced again, hosted a radio show on Air America, loved cats, lost cats, done one-man shows, done TV shows, been in Almost Famous, lived in New York, lived in LA, and founded and still currently hosts WTF with Marc Maron, one of the most influential podcasts in the world. Along the way he's become one of the sharpest, funniest stand-up comedians working today. I'm opening for Maron at his Portland show; since usually Maron is the one asking the questions, I thought I'd flip the formula and ask him a few via email.

MERCURY: You're reaching a level as a comedian where you get to perform in front of crowds that are specifically there to see you (as opposed to there to see "comedy"). Has this changed how you approach your stand-up?

MARC MARON: Absolutely. The comfort level it affords me gives me more freedom of mind to explore and expand bits and think and act more freely on stage. It also pushes me to do things I've never done because I feel like [audience members] all know me almost too well if they listen to the podcast. I want to do something new as often as possible.

What advantages does a theater show have over a show in a comedy club?

More people. No drinks. No eating. Focus. Better lighting. Snacks backstage.

Comedians can't really explain what it is that makes them funny. I think this leads to us living with a constant, irrational fear of losing our comedic touch because of something we do, or don't do. When you were preparing to go sober, was there any fear that you'd lose it?

Not really. Crazy doesn't go away when you get sober. Gets worse actually because there's no hiding from it.

How did sobriety change your comedy?

Gave me real balls instead of fake balls.

In a recent Vanity Fair interview, Chris Rock said he thinks comedians today are too situational (black comedians appealing to black crowds, gay comedians appealing to gay crowds). Do you agree with this criticism, and having talked to as many comedians as you have, do you really think it's a new phenomenon?

Is it a criticism or is he just drawing attention to a community service? Maybe appealing to a mainstream crowd actually dilutes the comedy and makes you a caricature of the community you once represented. Comedians have and can serve as a way a community feels seen and identified. I don't necessarily think comics do this intentionally but most humans, and I include comics in that group, go to where the love is and then maybe, if they can figure it out or they are lucky, it's where the money is too.

A local comic here has a theory about comedy fundamentalism, which he describes as the following: "Being a comedy fundamentalist would mean that you look down on anyone who isn't doing comedy with the intention of being artistically unique and is aiming at commercial success." Are you a comedy fundamentalist? What are the benefits and pitfalls of this view?

Well, the biggest pitfall I guess is that you end up fundamentally fucked and broke. I used to be that guy more. I still am because I can't help it, but I wouldn't necessarily recommend being that to people. The best thing you can do is realize your talent and understand what your limitations are and what you want to do with it. Then decide whether or not you want to make a living with it. Then you try or you don't and when it doesn't work out and you've tried, you can say it's because you are a comedic fundamentalist, and if you don't try and it doesn't work out, you can say it's because you are a comedic fundamentalist, but you will be saying it full of spite and bile in both scenarios.

You talk about your proclivity for tangible, well-made items... things that combine craft and a certain kind of mythology, boots that last for 20 years, music on vinyl, these kinds of things. Has this point of view crept into your comedy at all?

I think authenticity has always been something I've strived for in my work. I've always wanted to have a defined point of view. I guess you could call that a personal mythology because what do I really know? Whatever I'm hanging onto is something I've made up and invested some faith in. That defines myth. Am I right, people?

Some of your fans hold you in an almost messianic stature. Does this ever make you nervous?

I don't know if they think that. I think they see me as a kindred spirit and if they do I probably am. I try to be as gracious and as attentive as possible. I'm not a good choice for a messiah figure. Not sure I can lead anyone anywhere. I can probably make them feel better about themselves for a bit by sharing my experience but that just makes me a comedian.

If someone has never listened to WTF, what are three episodes that best represent what you're trying to do?

Most of them represent what I am trying to do. I like the [Louis] CK episodes, Norm Macdonald, Todd Hanson, Mel Brooks, Michael Keaton, Steven Wright, Molly Shannon, Lucinda Williams. Really most of them.

What's been the most challenging interview to conduct?

Talking to Todd Hanson about his suicide attempt was difficult. Getting Mindy Kaling to be pleasant was very challenging. Preparing for Mel Brooks was daunting.

Which interview was the most gratifying?

Again, there's been many. The recent talk with Mel Brooks was pretty amazing though.

This is my first interview, how'd I do, decent?

Yeah, it's better when you talk to the person though. Were you afraid to call me?

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