An alt-comedy pioneer stays vital while asking WTF?

Scott Schinder

Originally published in Time Out

Marc Maron’s emotionally unsparing stand-up regularly inspires such adjectives as dark and neurotic. So the veteran comic, who headlines Union Hall Monday 19 and Tuesday 20 and tapes his podcast live at Comix Wednesday 21, is as surprised as anyone to find himself a source of solace and reassurance among fans.


“It’s amazing,” he says, “how many e-mails I’ve been getting from people that are like, ‘I thought I was crazy, but now I know I’m not alone.’”


More than two decades into a career that’s established him as a seminal figure in the alt-comedy world, Maron is currently doing some of his edgiest and most challenging work to date. He’s also performing to the widest audience he’s ever had, thanks in large part to the success of his twice-weekly podcast WTF, which has frequently topped the iTunes comedy podcast charts since launching in September 2009. The series has also won him acclaim in such mainstream outlets as Vanity Fair and Entertainment Weekly.


Maron has long possessed an unparalleled knack for wringing cathartic yuks out of rage, insecurity and existential confusion. But even his most painful insights—like those he revealed in his recent one-man show, Scorching the Earth, a harrowing yet hilarious memoir of his bitter divorce from his second wife—are balanced by the stubborn, playful humanism that lends resonance to his confessional comedy.The same qualities that distinguish Maron’s stage act are front and center in WTF as well. In addition to providing a forum for Maron’s compelling free-form rants, the podcast finds him applying the same fearless, unguarded approach to interviews with fellow comics. Recent episodes have featured illuminating encounters with controversial superstars Robin Williams, Carlos Mencia and Dane Cook, with Maron acting as an unyielding yet evenhanded interrogator, confronting his guests on such uncomfortable issues as joke stealing. The results, particularly Mencia’s blustery mea culpa meltdown, have become the subject of considerable chatter in the comedy-nerd community.


WTF’s comic-on-comic segments demonstrate the interview skills Maron honed during his two-year stint cohosting the political news show cum talk-show comedy Morning Sedition on the now-defunct Air America radio network. That showcase, on which Maron served as a tightly wound everyman grappling with the indignities of life under the Bush-Cheney administration, built a rabidly devoted audience before its abrupt cancellation at the end of 2005. These days, he largely steers clear of political material, focusing instead on the internal traumas that have long been his main inspiration.


“To me, the nuts and bolts of the political process are less relevant than the pain and aggravation and sense of futility that we’re all feeling,” Maron explains. “What I always wanted to do, in radio and now in the podcast, is to face the existential predicament of living in this world, and the type of insecurities and frustrations we all experience.”


“Most people,” he continues, “put a lot of energy into trying to get by and trying to pass—like trying to look normal at their job—while they’re actually feeling the same fears that I’m talking about. The best I can do is honor the inner voices that most people are forced to hide, and create some kind of solidarity around this insanity. And hopefully it’s funny.”


WTF’s growing notoriety has helped to build increased demand for Maron’s live performances, which he claims are now reflecting his brightening outlook.


“I’m not in a place anymore where everything’s dark to me,” he asserts. “I’m at a point in my life where I’m finally coming through a lot of stuff, and since the beginning of WTF, you can actually hear a genuine bit of emotional growth on my part. Maybe that’ll make me less interesting. But I don’t think I’ll ever be that happy, so it shouldn’t be a problem.”