“Louie” didn’t invent the idea of building a TV show around a comedian, nor sitcom-as-autobiography. (“The Dick Van Dyke Show” was drawn from Carl Reiner’s experiences writing for Sid Caesar, for instance, while the Huxtable kids were modeled after Bill Cosby’s own children.) What the FX series has done is to expand the limits of what that kind of show can be (it’s simultaneously more expansive and more intimate than anything to precede it) and made comparisons inevitably unflattering to any show that tries to enter the same territory.
With “Maron,” the new IFC series that debuts Friday night at 10, comparisons become even harder to avoid. Not only is it another confessional sitcom built around a self-loathing middle-aged comic, but the comic in question is Marc Maron, who’s had a long, complicated, up-and-down friendship with Louis C.K., as dramatized briefly on a season 3 episode of “Louie” and as discussed in greater depth on a sprawling installment of Maron’s essential interview podcast “WTF.”
The two men seem at peace with each other right now, but given their rocky past and the pathologically competitive natures of comedians in general, I imagine it has to be driving Maron nuts that “Maron” is going to be looked at as a “Louie” clone – perhaps enough that we might get an art-imitating-life-imitating-art episode down the road where C.K. returns the guest starring favor so they can hash this out.
“Maron” isn’t quite the one-man band event that “Louie” is, but the mix of wry humor and deep melancholy will feel familiar. The fictional Maron, like the real one, has finally had the greatest success of his career with the podcast, which he records in his garage; real-life “WTF” guests like Dave Foley play themselves in guest appearances, and often get dragged into the plot of the episode. In the premiere, Maron decides to confront an online hater because he can’t accept that some people just don’t like him, and ropes a hungover Foley into the quest with the promise of a burrito. In later episodes, Denis Leary (who’s also a producer on the series) tries to get Marc to man up and pull a dead possum out of his crawl space, and Andy Kindler and Jeff Garlin both run afoul of Marc’s erratic father (Judd Hirsch). This Maron has two ex-wives and far more cats than any single human (male or female) needs.
Stand-up comedy is a deeply singular, lonely artform, and yet Maron’s career has been transformed by an endeavor that requires a partner. “WTF” opens up with confessional monologues (“Maron” uses abbreviated versions of them to set up the theme of each episode and transition between certain scenes), but the draw of the show is the uncanny knack Maron has for drawing out the most candid, intimate details of his guest’s lives. In Foley’s podcast appearance, for instance, he went into mortifying detail about how much child support he owes his ex-wife and the kinds of jobs he’s willing to take to pay it off each month.
So it’s not entirely surprising that Maron often gives the best jokes to his guest stars. Foley’s the comic highlight of the premiere, bored and liquid and very amused by his friend’s pointless quest to stamp out online trolling. The other comics all get a good laugh or three when they appear, and Maron’s mostly left to grapple with his own demons, whether paternal resentment or insecurity about his machismo levels.
The three episodes I’ve seen function as shaggy dog stories: not wildly funny, nor as dark and emotional as “Louie” so often gets, but amusing in spots and with a very clear voice. Can it become more than that? In comparison, the first three “Louie”s for the most part don’t represent the heights that show later climbed, but they did feature the amazing, unexpected poker scene about the origins of a ubiquitous gay slur. Marc Maron may not be interested in doing something like that, but the similarities to his new show and his friend’s old show (even if “Louie” is on hiatus until 2014) are unavoidable.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com