Marc Maron: How can a mean streak be so empathetic?

The brutal honesty that makes his podcast brilliant also powers his memoir. The audio version adds amazing outtakes

Topics: Books, The Listener, Audio Books, marc maron,

Marc Maron: How can a mean streak be so empathetic?

For the last nine months I’ve been listening to audiobooks during my weekly commute between jobs in Ohio and Iowa. I get hours of entertainment and companionship, but sometimes I’m frustrated with the audiobook form. It’s a recording, meant for the ears rather than the eyes. So why not take better advantage of that form, and use it to do things the printed page can’t do? If the audiobook is nonfiction, why not allow some of the real-life characters deliver their dialogue in their own voices? Why not use a little music? Why not play with the sonic texture of the thing?

On commutes like mine, the natural competitor of the audiobook is the podcast, and more than once I’ve turned off an audiobook in favor of “WTF with Marc Maron,” the twice-weekly podcast in which the stand-up comic and former Air America radio host interviews other comics, actors, musicians and writers. Maron now has a new memoir, “Attempting Normal,” and naturally, the audiobook version cracks the form wide open, with features the hardcover can’t match.

Unlike most stand-up comics, Maron doesn’t use his humor to keep people constantly at a distance. “WTF” is about collapsing the distance between the interviewer and his subject. Maron records the podcast in his garage, and part of the pleasure of “WTF” is that it feels like a thing made in a garage – a recording of a personal conversation between two people who are in the process of exchanging something intimate about their private lives for the first time. It is almost always interesting to eavesdrop on that kind of conversation, a and even more so when the interviewee list includes Conan O’Brien, Sarah Silverman, Chris Rock, Megan Mullally, Ben Stiller, Lucinda Williams and Judd Apatow.

Maron’s posture toward such famous people almost always goes like this: Of course I am interested in your private life because your public life is so interesting. Of course I am interested in the trajectory of your career because I am a person who is also building a career. What is it like, to have done all the things you have done, and to yet have a life as a human being? What is it like to be part of the family that gave birth to you? What were the low points in your life? What makes you hurt? What feels good? What did you want, and what did it feel like when you got it, and what does it feel like when it seems like you’ve lost it?

Maron often gets his subject to go to these places by being free with the trouble of his own life, the struggles of his own career, and most of all the story of his own failures as a husband, child and friend. It never feels treacly, because Maron isn’t soft. He’s dark, and his humor is full of sharp and cutting edges. If he’s good at empathy, it’s a hard-earned goodness that is constantly threatened by a corresponding angry mean streak.

You Might Also Like

These are the tensions that make “WTF” so interesting and enjoyable, and Maron brings all of them to “Attempting Normal,” which is better in audiobook format than it is in hardcover, in part because “Attempting Normal” feels in many ways to be an extension of the podcast. It recycles and amplifies material Maron developed on the fly during the 10-minute monologues he delivers at the beginning of each episode of “WTF.” And, smartly, it includes outtakes from the podcast between some of the chapters, which means that instead of merely hearing Maron talk about what happens in the podcast, the listener gets to actually hear the podcast inside the audiobook — an experience the print book can’t replicate, despite its offering of transcripts from the podcast.

There is another formally interesting thing shared by “Attempting Normal,” in book and audiobook alike. In Jane Smiley’s “13 Ways of Looking at the Novel,” she writes about how the novel is “an essentially compromised form which grew out of earlier types of literature and can’t be understood except by reference to them.” She makes a list of these earlier forms, which she arranges around the twelve stations of the clock face: travel, history, biography, tale, joke, gossip, diary/letter, confession, polemic, essay, epic, and romance. Part of the pleasure of the novel, Smiley’s clock seems to be saying, is the way in which the author hybridizes from the available earlier forms and offers the result as a new thing.

The memoir less often works this way, but it can, and this is something that Maron seems to know intuitively. “Attempting Normal,” like “WTF,” and like Maron’s standup comedy, is interested in pushing past the barriers of its genre, often provocatively. “Attempting Normal” veers, sometimes wildly, from personal history to confession to  documentary to punch line to psychoanalysis to intellectual rant to anti-intellectual armoring to inside joke to dead serious to deflatingly unhyperbolic to high to crude to political to nostalgic to philosophical to historical to proud to self-abasing. Its constant and sometimes schizophrenic-seeming modulation of tone is probably a product of a mind habituated to keeping impatient audiences off-balance, and it works on audiobook listeners in the same way, by which I mean: Happily off-balance. Appreciative of the effort, and pleased by it.

*   *   *

New to Audible? Listen to this and other titles for free or check out a sample.

Kyle Minor is the author of "In the Devil’s Territory," a collection of stories and novellas, and the winner of the 2012 Iowa Review Prize for Short Fiction. His second collection of stories, "Praying Drunk," will be published in February 2014.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 13
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    Young Daya has yet to become entirely jaded, but she has the character's trademark skeptical pout down pat. And with a piece-of-work mother like Aleida -- who oscillates between jealousy and scorn for her creatively gifted daughter, chucking out the artwork she brings home from summer camp -- who can blame her?

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    With her marriage to prison penpal Vince Muccio, Lorna finally got to wear the white veil she has fantasized about since childhood (even if it was made of toilet paper).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    Cindy's embrace of Judaism makes sense when we see her childhood, lived under the fist of a terrifying father who preached a fire-and-brimstone version of Christianity. As she put it: "I was raised in a church where I was told to believe and pray. And if I was bad, I’d go to hell."

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    Joey Caputo has always tried to be a good guy, whether it's offering to fight a disabled wrestler at a high school wrestling event or giving up his musical ambitions to raise another man's child. But trying to be a nice guy never exactly worked out for him -- which might explain why he decides to take the selfish route in the Season 3 finale.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    In one of the season's more moving flashbacks, we see a young Boo -- who rejected the traditional trappings of femininity from a young age -- clashing with her mother over what to wear. Later, she makes the decision not to visit her mother on her deathbed if it means pretending to be something she's not. As she puts it, "I refuse to be invisible, Daddy. Not for you, not for Mom, not for anybody.”

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    We still don't know what landed Brooke Soso in the slammer, but a late-season flashback suggests that some seriously overbearing parenting may have been the impetus for her downward spiral.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    We already know a little about Poussey's relationship with her military father, but this season we saw a softer side of the spunky fan-favorite, who still pines for the loving mom that she lost too young.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    Pennsatucky had something of a redemption arc this season, and glimpses of her childhood only serve to increase viewer sympathy for the character, whose mother forced her to chug Mountain Dew outside the Social Security Administration office and stripped her of her sexual agency before she was even old enough to comprehend it.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    This season, we got an intense look at the teenage life of one of Litchfield's most isolated and underexplored inmates. Rebuffed and scorned by her suitor at an arranged marriage, the young Chinese immigrant stored up a grudge, and ultimately exacted a merciless revenge.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    It's difficult to sympathize with the racist, misogynist CO Sam Healy, but the snippets we get of his childhood -- raised by a mentally ill mother, vomited on by a homeless man he mistakes for Jesus when he runs to the church for help -- certainly help us understand him better.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    This season, we learned a lot about one of Litchfield's biggest enigmas, as we saw the roots of Norma's silence (a childhood stutter) and the reason for her incarceration (killing the oppressive cult leader she followed for decades).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    While Nicki's mother certainly isn't entirely to blame for her daughter's struggles with addiction, an early childhood flashback -- of an adorable young Nicki being rebuffed on Mother's Day -- certainly helps us understand the roots of Nicki's scarred psyche.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>