For more than 30 years Marc Maron has put in the work, whether it be on stage, in the garage, or in his own head. His new Netflix special, End Times Fun (which you can stream now), serves as an example of that ever-running process with material and a presentation that feels at once stream of consciousness, considered, and honed. And that’s the point.
To get to this place, Maron has endured a bumpy road that should be familiar to anyone who has been a fan and/or listened to his podcast, WTF. As Maron says when we discussed the special, his long career, and his growing endeavors as an actor, he isn’t “afforded any mystery.” Simply, he is who he is and how he is but the special isn’t really about that. It’s just a product of it. Instead, Maron is focused on the central preoccupation of our times… preoccupation. Which, of course, feels like a defense mechanism sometimes. Like, say, now as the special’s title takes on particular relevance and his shtick about being a prophet feels a little too bang on.
The how and why of that end of days theme is discussed here, as is that penchant for preoccupation, Maron’s “operatic” Mike Pence sex joke, his time hosting Short Attention Span Theater, his acting ambitions, and why he thinks Richard Pryor and George Carlin could exist and thrive in the cancel culture era.
Do you ever listen to old episodes of WTF?
What I did do the other day was… someone sent me a little bit of video footage of me hosting Short Attention Span Theater. So that was probably ’92, ’93. And it was me doing a bit with Martin Short after I’d interviewed him and we were stepping into the elevator. Which was a conceit of that version of that show: it was in a vault and we were in the basement. And Erik Palladino played the elevator operator. Just seeing me and my hair and my discomfort… I wish I had seen some of the interview I’d done with him. Because we did two or three interviews on that show over the course of the year that I hosted it. It was one with Martin Short and it was one with Billy Crystal. And I think there was one with Gary Marshall, of all people.
But do I listen to my old podcast? I don’t really. Which is bad because they do become something different once my producer does what he does with them. I’ve listened to some if I think he’s particularly proud of the work he’s done on them. But usually I just kind of go on with my life. So my recollection of almost all of those podcasts, sadly, is just like a recollection of a conversation I had with somebody one day, for an hour. A lot of them fade because I’m engaged in the conversation. I remember the events most of the time, more than I remember what we talked about.
Do you remember that bit with Martin Short and actually doing it?
For me, at that time, I was so not happy with myself and not happy with doing that show. I felt it was a tremendous compromise. I didn’t see myself as having any choice if I wanted to earn a living or stay in the game somehow. So, I think a lot of my life, I was operating in a mild state of post-traumatic stress disorder from being in situations that were terrifying or horrible to me.
Obviously with standup and the podcast you have a level of control now, but even with the acting work that you do, I imagine you have a little bit more [control] as opposed to feeling like you have to do things. How does that impact your creativity and your confidence level?
Well, it’s interesting because the special evolved over a year and a half to two years of work. I generate nearly an hour and a half to two hours of new material at least every year and a half to two years. I never know where that stuff is going to go. So I think you certainly see in the special the freedom of mind and the application of the skillset that is 30 to 35 years old at this point. Everything I’ve ever done on stage, every influence and fight where I have fought for who I am up there and what I’m capable of, on a craftsmanship level as a comic, is definitely in that special. So the freedom that got me there then applies to everything I do.
In terms of the conversations I’m having, I evolved as a person. I’ve got a skillset but I’m also a different guy than I was when I started doing the podcast. But I’m still equally as engaged and try to bring the same thing that I’ve always had to these conversations. Same with the standup. Standup is constantly unfolding. So it is always kind of new and you know that because that material is new. But in conversations it’s different and you have to approach them with an earned openhearted-ness and curiosity that has to be there for that to work. And I think another element of my creative freedom and how I got to where I am is that I can make choices about who I talk to and how I talk to them and what I’m going to do and no one’s telling me what to do, as a standup or as an interviewer. Acting’s a little different and I still feel like I’m very engaged in a learning process and a self-challenging process there. But I’m working within a group and I’m taking direction and I’m honoring somebody else’s work, telling somebody else’s story, trying to figure out how to navigate that particular craft. Which I really consider myself somewhat of a novice at, so I can see improvement.
I think there’s a clear narrative in terms of the roles you’ve been selecting. You’re working with name directors, interesting directors. You’re doing interesting projects, you’re doing projects that feel like they’re in a comfortable space. Is that fair to say?
Yeah. But the thing is, what do you do with that? The weird thing about what I’ve noticed about my acting is that I have a personality that exists in a few different mediums or on several different platforms. Especially if you do it the way I do it. Whether it be standup or the podcast, people know me pretty well. There’s no mystique there, I’m pretty much out in the open in terms of who I am and my flaws and the depth of my personality. So people coming to my acting or even my standup that know me from the podcast, know me well and in a fairly intimate way. I’m not afforded any mystery. I don’t know that people would say, hey, “that’s just Marc being Marc,” if they didn’t know Marc. So it’s sort of a liability when it comes to acting. For me, sure Sam Sylvia… and going from my own show Maron to Glow, I am working within a zone where I think my talents can shine and [these are] things that I’m capable of and that sort of fit me well. But I’m trying to do things that are a little different.
Like, I did this movie Stardust, this David Bowie film with Johnny Flynn which is going to premiere at Tribeca. And I definitely shifted who I am a bit more than usual to accommodate that guy in that movie and that dynamic. And in the new Aretha Franklin movie, the Respect movie, I’m playing a real guy, Jerry Wexler. So I did a lot of extensive research into Jerry Wexler and I had to appropriate an accent. But again, he’s an intense, aggressive, New York Jew. So the intense, aggressive Jew part, I own that. So it was, to step into him and into that time was… that part of it was comfortable. But doing an accent and being a guy who’s a real guy was something I hadn’t done before.
Obviously, you studied film in college. You’ve written, you’ve directed episodes of Maron. At some point, do you see yourself creating a story and a character that takes you way out of your comfort zone?
I don’t know if I’m going to do it, direct it, but I would like the opportunity to try that. And I think that’s really just a matter of [paying dues], not unlike anything else. But I know that I am open and willing to learn as an actor and that, I think as I get more confident, I’ll feel comfortable [enough] that I want to take those risks. And I’ve looked at some stuff where I’ve had opportunities. I just haven’t felt ready yet. I don’t know if I’m going to be the one to create it or direct it. My creativity… is really kinda directly related to my perception… in my life and how I see things. I’ve never really written too many characters or things where I’m a lot different than who I am. So I would assume that it would probably be somebody else’s character that I would try to step into.
There’s one joke in the special, in particular, and I don’t want to give away too much, but the joke at the end with Mike Pence is filthy joke high art. It’s a great performance. I’m curious about the thought that went into that and how it came together.
Well, the evolution of that joke is like the evolution of any of my jokes. I’m creating this stuff… Most of what I do is born and grows on stage. So as with the form of some of the things I was moving through, whether it be the end of the world, the political realities we live in, my ongoing struggles with the idea of religion and also the weird power of nerd culture and whatnot… That thing was evolving up until the last month or so before the special. Iron Man wasn’t involved for a year or so. Somehow he found his way into that thing. And I knew it was operatic. The framework of that bit is of a different era and only a certain couple of people really painted those kinds of pictures. There’s no one doing much of that anymore, you know? So it is a sort of homage to some of the provocative comedians that were important to me early on. When I began doing comedy, I was a lot more confrontational and angry and shocking and elaborate in the framework of jokes… in how I was going at attacking the hypocrisy or dominant paradigms that we were dealing with in the ’80s and ’90s. But this is a type of comedy that Hicks or Kinison were really sort of the only arbiters of. And those guys were relatively profound influences on me when I was younger. And I knew both of them. So I was aware that heading into this, that this was honoring that legacy of that type of provocative, crass satire, that was both sexually driven but also taboo driven. And its targets were religious hypocrisy and political hypocrisy… personal hypocrisy. So I was aware of that once it became the unruly thing that it is now.
Delivering it without hostility was the real trick of that bit. “How do I ease into this so it functions as entertainment and as satire and is something that is digestible by anyone?” It really became a challenge to me knowing that a good part of my audience were brought up Christians and that there were certain people that, despite whatever their beliefs are now, whoever they think they are, still respect the nature of that religion. And also, they respect the fundamental idea of the vice presidency. So when you get into comment comedy that at its core is so disrespectful of all those things, not to mention the Marvel universe, I knew it was loaded. I knew that I wasn’t trying to push audiences away. The difference between me now and then was that I wanted everyone in, I wanted everyone to be part of it. And the mechanism of what really is revealed at the end of that joke and how that ties into traditional Bible story… that was all revealed fairly recently in the growth of that bit. That thing grew on stage and became this piece that I believed I could sell to any audience. So we’ll see.
I think you definitely pull it off. Is the idea, at the start when you’re planning this special, to talk about the end of the world stuff, to talk about politics so heavily? Because a lot of comics try to avoid that stuff now and you obviously go in a different direction.
Well, like I said, man, all that stuff, all my comedy has always come through me and what I’m dealing with. And it became, after a certain point… I don’t want to be a pundit. I tried to wear that hat before when I was younger, and I do believe that all pundits become victims of agendas and it’s not really where I’m at. But I’m a guy who’s intelligent, hypersensitive, a bit paranoid. Certainly progressive, for the most part. And what’s happening? How scared am I? What’s going on? How do I reckon with what’s happening without losing my mind or becoming paralyzed with fear? And for me, that requires humor. That’s where my humor comes from. That’s the purpose of humor, right?
It was hard for me to get on stage with the idea of entertaining people away from what is clearly happening. I don’t think we really process or digest just how much we want to enforce our denial on a day to day basis. Just in order to get by. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that but drawing attention to that is important. So we divvy up the time to try to be proactive in the face of this stuff. I think that’s really the struggle of the special and the struggle of being alive right now. How much can we face reality? And also how much should we be aware of how much we’re not? What we’re doing to enforce that and not being engaged in it. And it’s a lot of what our business is driven by. So there were times where I would be on stage during these sets and I would literally open with, “haven’t we been entertained enough? Isn’t it time to ease up on the entertainment?”
I was aware of what I was getting into but I wanted to deal with it. And I don’t believe it’s a political special. I believe it’s observational, from my point of view. And I do believe that the biggest issue with doing that material was not if it was going to be divisive politically. It was whether or not it would be too depressing. So that was the challenge of the set. I knew I was dealing with these things that everybody feels but we really don’t know what to do with them or how to handle them, so we avoid them. So I had to really take out material and add in bits that provided relief from what I was talking about. Which is an investigation of our need to be relieved of these thoughts. So I was aware of what I was doing, yes.
You do a really great job of talking about the pursuit of wokeness and personal evolution. I’ve had conversations before with other comedians and one thing that keeps coming up is the idea that a George Carlin, a Richard Pryor or an Eddie Murphy couldn’t do comedy today because of cancel culture and things along those lines. I personally think that they’d evolve. They’re great comics. Any great comic finds a way to make the material work for the moment. What’s your take?
Of course, they would! I think people start to repeat themselves comedically. I’ve been doing this long enough where when I see somebody on stage I know what they’re doing, I’ve seen the archetype. There are thousands of new comics. But they all fit a mold of about 10 to 12 different types of comics. I just think that those guys, the guys that sort of plowed through and that were socially relevant, there’s easily one or two around in any given generation and I just think that it’s a matter of language and it’s a matter of respect. Is it possible to do comedy that is honest and cutting yet still be respectful of vulnerable people… I think it is.
And I think that there is a way that it will find a level. There’s overreacting and then there’s legitimate sort of progress that has been made by groups of people that are vulnerable or are minorities… gender issues where the progress that has been made is genuine and necessary and needed and is part of our evolution as people. I think there are sensitivities within that. There’s bullshit within every sort of struggle that can be sort of mined for humor and if it’s done with a big heart, which Richard Pryor certainly had… Pryor certainly had the sensitivity and empathy necessary to move forward and Carlin certainly had an appreciation of language, which was really his trip. And I think that he would have moved through that. I think he did actually move through some of this stuff.
The idea of political correctness… which is where a lot of comics get hung up. They feel that they’re being denied some fundamental rights to say shitty things about people and the truth is no one is denied anything. Everybody can do it, but you will have to deal with the reaction and are you prepared to do that? Is that part of your plan? Are you correct in your approach to these things, even if you’re trying to be incorrect?
I think that it is evolving, but you have to realize man, that all that conversation is only relative to the fucking number of comics that are able to have a career now and be seen and be visible. I mean you’re talking about talents that exist generationally. There never were that many of them that took those kinds of risks and when mundane comics get all worked up cause they can’t do their “tranny” jokes anymore… If your act is hinging on that, who are you and what are you doing?
The real trick is to try to bring everybody together somehow or to at least speak to that. I think that’s what Pryor did, I think that what Carlin did in picking up the mantle of Lenny Bruce’s approach to language and what it means. I don’t know that I see direct heirs there, I don’t know who is going that way. But in terms of approaching cultural and human unrest, I think there’s a couple of guys doing that. I’m not concerned. I think complainers will get good bits out of it or they’ll just kind of drive themselves into a ditch and they only had 20 minutes anyway so what difference does it make?
Marc Maron’s new standup special, ‘End Times Fun,’ is available to stream on Netflix now. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.