Marc Maron On Laughing Through Grief In His New HBO Comedy Special

There’s a moment that I keep coming back to from this interview with Marc Maron where he’s talking about a joke in his new HBO special (From Bleak To Dark, which premieres tonight at 10PM) and how it moves from being devastating to something that “rides a line” between that and humor. The story is about Maron, the death of his partner (filmmaker Lynn Shelton), a hummingbird, and dipping into mystical thinking when held by grief.

“Over time, they became stories that I learned how to tell,” he says, speaking to the repetition and honing that helps to keep him from “succumbing to the sadness” of these stories. “I don’t know that it became routine, but they are routines, right? By nature. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”

Maron is, as ever, open, having unleashed raw and powerful streams of emotion on episodes of his WTF podcast in the days following Shelton’s death before developing and working out material that gets quite personal. But as he says in our conversation, “I do save a little bit for myself, but not a ton.”

This special is as sharp, funny, and devastating as you can imagine if you’re familiar with Maron’s previous work and a regular WTF listener, but it’s not a therapy session or a TED Talk on dealing (something he jokes about in the special). The point isn’t his catharsis, it’s in making you laugh by examining scary things — the loss of a loved one, a parent with dementia, aging, anti-semitism — through his unique perspective and lived experiences. And if he feels a little better having worked through some shit while working on some shit, great.

We spoke with Maron about the feel-good nature of dark comedy, grieving on the air, establishing boundaries, stressing out about other people’s kids, and talking about a thing as universal and universally avoided as grief.

The deepest laughs for me were some of those jokes that you just couldn’t believe. Like the angel factory. What is it about dark comedy that most appeals to you?

I don’t know. I don’t know that I always saw everything that I was doing as dark, because that’s just the way I think, so it’s not some sort of intentional method. This is just how my brain works. And I mean, I think there’s some lighthearted stuff in there, I guess. But I believe the way I talk about certain topics… and taking on certain topics by their nature makes it a little dark. But I don’t sit down to do dark comedy.

No, of course. But is that sort of your way through to deal with loss?

Sure. I think that comedy has always served that purpose for me, and that’s why I was attracted to it when I was a kid, and that’s why I like watching comedy. It does give you a way to see things through the lens of humor. It can disarm the most tragic events. It can take away a bit of fear around things that seem terrifying. I mean, it has the power to really sort of move you through darkness and pain and fear in a way so you can kind of handle it. So that power that comedy has, it was always helpful to me when I was a kid and it just became the way I think. So yeah, it does help me process things.

I was listening to some of the episodes of WTF from around the time when Lynn Shelton died. At one point, you said something to the effect of, “God damn, am I ever going to be funny again?” I’m curious when you felt like that was happening for yourself.

It’s hard to know. But there was a period there, a few months after Lynn passed away, where I was doing those Instagram Lives fairly regularly just in order to keep in touch with some sense of an audience. And I think that the engagement with people, and the engagement with my life around the house, and my cats and my music, and just being in that mindset of improvising, and driving around in the car people watching, (that’s when) it started to kind of happen. I think it started to happen when I began to interact with large groups of anonymous people that were in sort of the same situation that I was in, which everybody was. It was kind of terrifying, the pandemic. And just finding moments in life (was) when I was able to get into that gear again.

In terms of developing comedy around it, I think that also happened during the Lives, and it started to happen on the podcast a bit, but it was challenging to start to make that stuff work on stage. It took a while, but I think it’s a little dramatic to say, “will I ever be funny again” because there are two things working there

I mean, it was probably within a week of when everything had happened.

Well, yeah. But also we weren’t doing comedy, so it was a weird question [for him to ask himself] in light of the fact that there was no more standup. And I wasn’t going to do those outdoor shows, I wasn’t going to do drive-in shows, I wasn’t going to do Zoom shows. It’s not my bag. So it was a layered question, was I ever going to be funny because of the sadness and the heartbreak, but also just the fact that I didn’t know if anyone was going to do standup anymore.

Obviously, you’ve long allowed yourself to go to a vulnerable place. You open up your life to your audience. Is there an impulse, especially with this, but with anything really, to bottle stuff up and not be as forthcoming?

Well, I do save a little bit for myself, but not a ton. Through the different mediums, through Instagram and everything else, people have a lot of access to us, and it’s a very one-sided relationship. So it really becomes about not so much me stuffing stuff down or closing up, just being careful in terms of my boundaries around people who think they know me, who think we’re friends, or who think, you know what I mean? I still have a lot of life that isn’t lived publicly. So within that, I can have some boundaries. As a performer, I’ve definitely put myself out there within the full spectrum of emotions and (been) as vulnerable as I’m going to get, but I think in life, yeah, I’m a little more protective of my emotions. I think for me, somehow, there’s less risk in just talking either on the podcast or in comedy about my emotions and vulnerabilities as opposed to with people I see every day or every other day. You’ve got to be careful with those people.

You have more control in these situations than in a conversation with someone you know.

Right. It’s one-sided.

You talk about it in the special, about grief and how it’s such a part of human nature. But with the pandemic, people are trying to move away from, I think, feeling that general sense of grief. Death is not something people are talking about as much.

It’s interesting. It seems to be pervasive in culture, the idea of grief. I tried to develop a show with FX around it, and there’s a show now with Jason Segel (Shrinking) and Amy Schumer did a grief show (Life And Beth). I mean, the Carell show about the therapist (The Patient). There’s definitely something in the culture that’s reflecting it, but there isn’t a conversation about it. And I do think it’s odd that after going through three years of terror around a disease that people really want to get past it.

A good example is, Republicans will still talk about Hillary Clinton, and it’s like, all of us just went through the most disturbing, aggravating, terrifying time of our lives on the entire planet for years. And people just wanted to get it behind us. And I do too, to a certain degree, but it’s kind of weird. People will talk about shit from five years ago, four years ago, ten years ago, references, but they really just want to compartmentalize this horrendous three-year period. It’s a weird thing, but I think that speaks to survival, but it also speaks to our inability to integrate that stuff. But what do I know? Maybe a lot of people are integrating their PTSD and their grief around that. I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s a fault or if it’s a survival instinct, to be honest with you.

Yeah, I don’t either. I think you just hit a level. I know when going through it, I just didn’t want to think about the worst-case scenario of it. And now I feel like all I can think about is the worst-case scenario of it. So it’s like you said, it’s PTSD.

I think that I just found that there are people out there that, I think it’s most of our nature, just like how we deal with the elderly, that there’s a lot of things people just don’t want to deal with or see, because it implies something about them. That no one’s going to get out of it alive and in how everything’s sort of a luck of the draw in a lot of ways. You can only be as safe as you can be. And all that stuff’s very frightening, so it’s instinctual to almost just repress all that stuff or compartmentalize it to a point where it isn’t dealt with. But the assumption is then it comes out in other ways, which I think is true.

You can’t really, you can’t dodge grief. It’s always kind of there. And I’m new to it within the last few years, and certainly people have lost people who have had much longer relationships, or different types of relationships, but once it’s in you, it’s in you. So you can get a handle on it, but it can sneak up on you depending on the moment or the conversation, and it’s pretty fresh under there usually, the sadness, and you just kind of let it happen when it happens.

You mentioned the old age stuff, the stuff with your father and dementia (in the special), grief, things that aren’t necessarily being talked about by people. Is that part of the motivation for you to bring these things into the special or to talk about these things in general?

Yeah, I mean, because this is really what life is, right? I mean, you can have your opinions about whatever, but ultimately if you’re lucky, you get old and die. If you’re not lucky, it happens before that. I don’t know if I’m obsessed with it, but I’m entering a stage of my life that is on the precipice. I’m 59, so there’s a point where everyone’s like, “nah.” It’s like, no, I’m not old, but I’m up there. It’s just crazy. It’s hard to even think about.

It’s just finding that balance though, between thinking about it too much and not thinking about it enough.

Well, I really think that because I don’t have kids, like I said in the special, it isn’t as in my face. I really think that seeing your kids grow has got to be, as exciting as that may be, it does indicate waning on some level.

My wife and I are talking about whether we want to, and my age and everything is starting to really hit me in the face with that conversation. So yeah, the idea of having a kid, I think it would just be a nonstop reminder.

I was talking to a guy yesterday and it was like, because he brought that up, he said he didn’t have kids either, and it was interesting to hear it talked about. I said, “Look, man, it’s like,” I just said, “I’m too selfish and I’m really too neurotic. And those things require time. You have to make time for both of those things, and that’s going to cut into the kid time.”

Did you make a conscious decision? You just were never interested in it? Or was that something that just became clear over time?

I think, it seems that people that want to have them know they want to have them. I just was never one of those people. It’s never been like I want to have them. So I don’t know what that means. I don’t have a problem with them, but I just never really feel it.

I’d say I’m somebody who’s 60/40 on it, and that’s really a hellish place to be. I wish I could just be as clear as “I definitely want them” or “I definitely don’t,” because the half on half off is rough. You can’t return them.

Some people just, it is part of life to a good many people. It’s why they’re here, in some ways, to them.

Yeah. I trend towards the selfish, like you’re saying though, so I definitely have that pop up a lot of the time where it’s just like, “yeah, but I want to travel, or I want to do this, or I want to do that.”

It’s weird. I don’t even think about traveling or any of that. I just think about not worrying. I’ve got enough on my mind. It’s not a freedom thing with me. It was just always about anxiety, to be honest with you.

Oh, it’s insane. I have a niece who, when we watched her when she was younger, four years old, almost running out into the street, falling off playground equipment, it’s just an exhausting non-stop thrill ride.

Yeah. I don’t even know how you let them go to school. So it seems like most of the people I know that have kids deal with this stuff and it just becomes, you adjust. But I have enough anxiety in my life. I’m anxious about kids I don’t have. So I don’t know.

‘From Bleak To Dark’ premieres on February 11 at 10PM on HBO.