Tackling complex issues isn’t anything new for working comics. Yet ever since the early morning hours of November 9th, 2017, many of America’s top comedians have struggled publicly with how best to handle a delicate and cumbersome subject — the president of the United States. Al Madrigal went the confrontational route in his Showtime special, whereas Sarah Silverman opted for a more discursive one in her Netflix concert film. The Daily Show host Trevor Noah, meanwhile, went so far as to analyze the president-as-performer. “When I see Trump, I see a stand-up comedian,” he told CNN’s Van Jones. “He connects with audiences in the same way.”
2017 has produced plenty of stand-up specials largely devoid of Trump’s name. Whenever a comedian avoids discussing one of the most well-known figures during their set, however, the audience tends to notice. This in a way is what happened to WTF podcaster and GLOW star Marc Maron, whose new Netflix special, Too Real streams today. “I was doing it out of necessity because I was working this hour-plus show since before the election,” he tells Uproxx. “The thing had to evolve and I had to ground it.” So he did, almost as if some cruel prankster decided to add a new clause to Godwin’s Law — the internet adage pinpointing the probability that someone in an online forum will eventually be compared to Hitler.
Even so, the veteran performer devised a simple trick for including the reviled commander-in-chief in his first 10 minutes. Except for one or two brief moments, Maron hardly ever mentions Trump by name. He does talk about the president, of course, and whenever he does, the contemporary viewer will have no doubt in their mind that Trump is the person Maron is talking about. In doing so, he astutely combines the opening segment with a series of subsequent “broad pieces about the fear of what’s going to happen next.” Put differently, Maron has figured out how to get “too real” and make us laugh at the same time.
The first 10 minutes are all about Trump, but you almost never say his name. Once, maybe twice, but that’s it. Was this by design?
I have a hard time saying it. I don’t like saying “President Trump.” I don’t like saying his name. I don’t like really uttering his name that often. Whatever presence he’s holding in terms of my world, and how the fear is manifesting itself or the anger is manifesting itself, I’m just assuming that, if you’re not feeling that, I’m not really talking to you. But if you are, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
I guess by not naming him, you’re finding a way to talk about him and related stories, but without highlighting either.
Right. I think it’s been a long time since I’ve really focused in on politics. I needed the material. I was doing it out of necessity because I was working this hour-plus show since before the election, so the thing had to evolve and I had to ground it in some sort of present thing. But then we ran into a problem, because I shot it at the end of April, and I knew that that stuff was there and I had confidence things were going to stay sadly and relatively the same. Enough for it to still work.
The Trump stuff was not specific. It was not hinged to certain events. I didn’t say his name to broaden it, to tell these broad pieces about the fear of what’s going to happen next — nuclear war, polarization, Nazis. It’s all done fairly broadly. You’re not attached to any specific event. There’s also a lack of irony we can use, especially because of what has actually happened. Those bits about the Grand Canyon and the zoo thing — all of those became strangely more relevant since I first did them. It’s lucky for the special, but unlucky for the world, that these bits I was concerned about using are now really resonant. It’s a sad coincidence.
There’s a brief line about Nazis that immediately recalled Charlottesville, but you say you filmed this in April?
Yeah. April 29th.
Yeah. You felt it coming. As for your first question about not sharing his name, I didn’t do it a lot because I like the idea of that. I think the real feeling of it is he’s playing such a huge part in our lives now. Who else could I be talking about? You know what I mean? So I kept it pretty broad, but I also wanted to address the polarization of it all in an honest way. Like that whole arc about finding common ground with Nazis over bowling and Tom Petty, but then realizing they don’t like Jews. I wanted to try to present some sense of a solution, something that wasn’t completely partisan. I wanted to make it human.
I almost wonder if, 10 to 20 years from now, someone watching Too Real will think you’re talking about their political present. The approach is broad enough, I think.
Oh God, I hope not. I hope we take a turn for the better, but who knows?
Moving beyond Trump, you have a tendency to shed the onstage persona most comics seem to have and just be yourself. So if you have a thought mid-bit, you’ll stop, or if a story you’re telling just makes you laugh, you laugh…
Do I still do that?
Yes, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. I prefer comedians who are honest like that. As an audience member, I get the feeling you’re just being yourself.
Generally, I do something if I think it’s really funny. Sometimes I think I do it as a device, if it’s a heavy topic, to give something that might be too dark some lift. Otherwise, I think I’m pretty much myself in most forms. Obviously, there’s a focus to it — the process of putting together your 70 or so minutes of stand-up — and in doing that, you’re leaving some room for spontaneity. There is an act going on, I can’t deny that.
With the way my brain works creatively, the 70 minutes you saw took shape over a year. I’d finished my own series, Maron and I wanted to take a break, but I was offered Carnegie Hall in November for the New York Comedy Festival. I couldn’t turn that down even if I wanted to take a break. I had done the Thinky Pain and More Later hours previously, and now I had to put together a brand new one. So I started improvising. I started putting ideas together. I did a residency at the Steven Allen Theater in Los Angeles every Tuesday for a month or two. They were five dollar tickets. I was doing these two-hour shows, improvising with all these random thoughts I had, and then I started to hone it all down.
I did the show at a comedy club and a couple of small theaters, then I took it to Carnegie Hall, but it still wasn’t together. It was still two hours long, and I was still improvising when I was on stage at Carnegie Hall. That was crazy. What usually happens is, we’re moving towards a special and I’m doing a theater tour. About 20 days’ worth. This time, I was coming up on the special and it was still an hour and 45 minutes long, and they only wanted 70. I’m telling you the truth — two days before that fucking special, I was still looking at an hour and 45 minutes.
Oh my God.
Right? I had two shows before the special to figure out what the fuck I was going to do. Like, “What am I going to take out?” I talk to my buddy, Brendan [McDonald] and asked, “What is the true line of this thing?” I learned from Thinky Pain that structure is fun, and it’s professional. It shows that you are doing your job, and it’s good. Callbacks are good. Structure is good. True lines are good. So I started reviewing all the specific bits as sections, like coming to terms with age, not knowing how to have fun, mortality and all that. I figured, “Okay, those are here to stay,” and moved on.
The two shows before we filmed the special in Minneapolis were in Milwaukee and Madison, and before Milwaukee I make an outline of what should stay and what should go. It also helped me determine how everything fit together. I tried it in Milwaukee and it went okay. Tried it the next night in Madison and I swear to God, the night before the special taped, I got off stage and I hit right at 70 minutes. Maybe between 70 and 75 minutes, but still. I was like, “Holy shit. I finally know how to do this after 30 years.” When it comes to being myself and keeping it fresh, I’ve got to be honest with you — I didn’t have the ending for the special until the day we taped it. I didn’t know I was going to do a call back until that morning.
What did you end up cutting?
I had to cut a lot of stuff out. The Dave Matthews bit was a lot longer than necessary. There was also a discussion about whether or not I should do the children’s book version of “The Hat” note, which to me is the whole joke. Some people see that thing, and they’re like, “You just told the joke twice.” I’m like, well that’s really diminishing what I did there. I love the children’s book idea. Then there was the callback, which I wasn’t going to end with originally since I was ending the show with the Jamaican Lady bit. The morning of the taping, however, I was like, “That is a little dark. I’d like to lift it up a little bit.”
It makes a lot of sense now since you have a line before the final bit, when you turn to the audience and say, “That felt like a good ending.” It’s conversational.
Well, it’s true. That was where I was going to end it. But, it’s a little dark, right? So I changed it. That’s how I stay pleasant, and that’s why there’s a consistency — why I am myself — because I need to be myself. I need to be there and be present for what I’m doing. I need to be engaged in a very intimate and personal way with the work, and with the audience. That makes it interesting. You can feel that. I’m definitely not auto-piloting through anything. I need to be in the moment. It needs to be real. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s uncomfortable, but I think it makes a difference. I think that’s just by virtue of my needing to show up in everything I do, or else I feel like I’m disappearing and don’t see the point of things.
I wanted to ask about your barstool preference. Most comics use them to hold bottled water, drinks or notes. Otherwise, they outright ignore them. You, on the other hand, plant yourself on it first thing. I’ve never seen you perform live, but you did this in Thinky Pain and More Later, and you do it here in Too Real. Any particular reason why?
I figured the barstool was always around to use. It probably goes back to what I was doing at the Luna Lounge in New York years ago. I would go out of my way to sit down when I worked that room. There were times on that stage where, if things weren’t going so well, I would just sit down — to go to the opposite direction, physically, of what was happening in reality. Just so I wouldn’t be embarrassed. If I started to bomb on stage, I’d be like, “Well I’m going to sit down. I’m not going to scramble.” I’ve done that, too, where you scramble up the room’s intensity to try to save yourself. You’re at the edge of the stage. You’re pacing around.
I’ve done all that shit. I’ve worked through those phases, but ultimately what happened for me is I found that standing up is actually more awkward. Like when you watch a TV show, I used to go out of my way to do an actual stand-up. I haven’t done a straight stand-up set on television in a long time. I did John Oliver’s New York Stand-Up Show on Comedy Central. I’ve done mostly panels, though. I did go on Letterman back in the day, but there was no reason to have an actual mic or stool on his stage. When you do stand-up on Letterman, people using a mic or a mic stand were only doing it because it made them feel comfortable. You’re in a TV studio. You don’t have to do that.
For my Letterman set, I didn’t use a mic. There’s a comfort there, but that’s for a certain context. When it came to barstools, I felt there were comics who sat down at different points. The idea that you have to run around the stage is more of a stylistic decision. I’ll get up when I need to. You’ll notice, I’m very aware of when I need to perform things. Like during the [Rolling] Stones bit, when I’m all up and running around stage. I engage those skills how I want or need to engage them, but the sitting down thing I really think I got from… You know, Shelley [Berman] would sit down. A lot of those guys from that time would sit down. Bill Cosby — the one we used to know, not the rapist, but the comedian — would sit down. I’m like, “Well, why the fuck can’t I sit down, then?”
I never would have thought about it as a means of calming or controlling the room, especially if you’ve lost the audience. It seems counterintuitive, but it really isn’t.
It’s really up to you, the performer. You’ve got to control the space up there. Doing this felt right to me. I was able to have a position on the stool that became mine. Whatever it is, I lean fucking far forward and I’ve got one hand tucked away. It has evolved into what I do. I still get up and perform things, especially if I feel like the energy is getting down. I know how to jump up and do something to get things going, but stylistically, I find it more intimate and more compelling to be on the stool.
I used to have my own stool. I think I still do have it, probably in my manager’s office in New York. I got this unfinished stool and stained it myself for Jerusalem Syndrome, the one man show. It was this ritual piece. It’s definitely on Thinky Pain. I think that’s my stool. I brought it down for that taping. I don’t know if I used it on More Later. Where’d I shoot More Later? In Chicago. No then, but I think that’s definitely my personal stool on Thinky Pain.
Marc Maron: Too Real streams Tuesday, September 5th on Netflix.