Marc Maron is a comedian, writer, ranter, Angeleno and man of the left, sometimes in that order. He’s been on radio, worked in stand-up, developed a podcast -- "WTF With Marc Maron," where he often interviews other comics -- and will soon kick off the third season of his show, "Maron" (May 14 on IFC). The show, based loosely on his own life and up-and-down career in L.A., is bitterly funny, almost painfully uncomfortable at times, and rarely feels like the inside joke it could have become. We spoke to him about the new season, his neighborhood and his roots in comedy.
I have some deep, philosophical questions about comedy I want to ask you later, but let’s start talking about the new season of the show. Give us a sense of what’s different about this one, what you have in mind for it, what people might notice has changed since the first couple seasons?
I think on the story level, comedy level, acting level, everything has gotten better as each season moves along. But I’m really excited about the stories this season. There’s a theme to it, which is that as the first two seasons really follow my life pretty closely, this one does to a point and then departs from my life and takes the, thankfully, the what could have happened but didn’t. So it gets a little gnarly at the end, it’s pretty exciting to be able to fictionalize something not so great happening that didn’t happen. Sort of warning myself, in a way.
I’ve only seen the first two episodes, but it gets gnarly from the very beginning. I don’t want to give anything away, but it seems like the theme of a lot of your comedy is -- at least the show -- discomfort and being caught between being responsible and doing the right thing, but not quite being able to do it. I wondered to what extent comedy is always based on discomfort?
I think that’s better than depression. A lot of people want to think that comics are all unhappy, I don’t think that’s necessarily true. But there is a level of struggle and discomfort, there is a kind of irritation, I think, up and against life itself or other people, whatever that is, that you see a lot in comedy. I think it’s about struggle for me and definitely about discomfort and panic and anxiety and what not.
There are some strains of comedy that are about outrageousness or defiance or an unbridled ego. Your character, at least in the show, mostly wants to be ethical and responsible and to be loyal to people. I think he values his loyalty to friends and so on, and that ends up getting him in difficult situations a lot of the time.
I think that’s a pretty good read on it. I don’t know that if I can see that stuff in the sense that I’m not sure if I’m too close to it. So I don’t know necessarily what these themes are, but that sounds about right. I’m just happy that after two seasons that we got into a real groove, everyone was comfortable. The writers were comfortable, I became more comfortable with the character, we started to see more ways that the character of me worked into the stories. I got more of a hang of that character. We were able to take some chances story-wise this year and come up with some really great stuff that wasn’t necessarily directly connected to my life. There’s a lot of what ifs. What if I was actually able to interview my ex-wife on the podcast? What if I got a talk show? I think that those are handled in a way that is pretty deep, because all the shows are grounded in my real emotional structure and events in my real life. That’s always been an interesting thing to me, that people seem to think it’s all just about my real life. It’s not a reality show, a lot of these things build out and are fictionalized from there.
But I do like the struggle, the ethical struggle, the loyalty thing. I think that’s true, I think that all those things you said were pretty right on.
You have some cameos in the new season. I hope I’m not giving anything away to say Elliott Gould is one of them. Do you want to tell us a little about him and bringing him into the show?
He may be more of a guest star than a cameo. We’re not paying for too many cameos. Everyone’s got to speak up if they’re getting paid. Our budget doesn’t allow us lofty cameos.
Elliott, we went through a lot of thinking about who to use. Elliott Gould was a huge movie star when I was a kid and he was available, and I liked the idea of him playing himself. I think he was the perfect choice. It’s kind of great, because then I was able to offstage talk to him about working with Sally Kellerman; they were both in “MASH” together and she plays my mother in one of the episodes, she’s in a couple of the episodes. I like working with those people I looked up to when I was a kid. Alex Rocco too in that episode, in the first episode. He played Moe Greene in “The Godfather.” They were both amazing.
In a trailer somewhere, you said you went into comedy because you had something to say, the stage gave you freedom to say it, and that you wanted to have “a voice that somehow can manage life.” Tell us what you mean by that. The voices of comics you admired, and what you were hoping to do with it yourself.
I think when I was a kid, I always thought that the comics seemed to have a handle on things because they had a joke about everything or they had a point of view about everything, or they were able to manage a certain amount of chaos and pain and family situations. They just seemed to be able to handle life.
That’s what comedy does, that’s when you see a comic who has a point of view and can disarm everything or make sense of everything with humor and communicate that. That seemed to me to be somebody that really had it together and really had a handle on things. I think that was what spurred me early on to pursue comedy.
I wanted to do comedy my whole life, I wasn’t quite sure why. But I think in retrospect it wasn’t so much to be an entertainer, but it was to have that sense of having things figured out and having an angle on things and being comfortable with yourself onstage and in life. I think it was always a journey to be comfortable with myself. Somehow I chose the stand-up stage to do that. I’m almost there.
So as a kid, life was a bewildering, hard to interpret thing, and yet comics were able to make sense of it, in a way?
Yeah, definitely. I think they still do.
Let me ask you about a comedian who doesn’t obviously resemble you in any way, but I know you’re interested in his recent biography [by Scott Saul]: Richard Pryor. Tell me a little bit about what he means to you and if he’s ever shaped the way you see things, the way you do things yourself.
When I saw “Richard Pryor: Live in Concert” when I was in high school it was sort of a life-changing thing. I think I’m not alone in having that story, but it was mind-blowing. I don’t think I’d ever laughed that much.
It was a movie and I went late, to the midnight movie with my buddy Dave in high school. From then on, it was just a different thing. In retrospect, the vulnerability and the sense of emotional risk that he was taking, and I think that was real, was something I could identify with. Obviously I didn’t live the life he lived, but as somebody who put themselves out there, the courage to be as vulnerable as he was and take the emotional risks that he took and to improvise in the way that he did resonated with me a great deal.
It continues to as I tour and do a lot more comedy now to more people and also having the type of freedom of mind I have and the fearlessness that was hard-earned. It took me a long time to feel comfortable, to feel truly comfortable with myself. And just to know that it’s worthwhile to take emotional risks, it’s worthwhile to bet that a comedy performance can be a life-or-death thing in your mind emotionally. It’s always been that way for me, but now as I get more open and less guarded I can really feel it.
I really make sure I go out of my way to stay open and take those risks. That’s something you learn from Pryor, because there’s not many people that do it, not many people that take tremendous emotional risk onstage.
He certainly went further than almost anybody, that’s for sure. One of the obvious differences between you and Pryor is that Pryor was black, you’re a white, Jewish guy. Do you feel part of a Jewish lineage that goes back to the Borscht Belt and Vaudeville and that kind of thing? Do you feel connected to that tradition at all?
I think in some moments where my timing is innately a little Jewish, certainly off the cuff, but I don’t know if that can be identified as that. Certainly they were all important to me. Don Rickles, and Buddy Hackett, and Woody Allen, and these people were important to my childhood, Jackie Vernon, well, I don’t know if he was Jewish or not. But I felt a connection when I was a kid to most of the old Jewish comics. They meant a lot to me and I don’t know that... I guess I’m a legacy somehow. Those are my people and they did help define who I was and my appreciation for it. I don’t know if stylistically, maybe I am, but aren’t we all in stand-up?
Stand-up comedy is probably all a little bit Jewish, no matter who’s doing it, because of where it started. That’s probably true.
I think that might be right, but you said it, not me.
You still do a lot of stand-up, I think. Has your rapport with your audience changed at all since you started when you were more or less unknown?
Yeah, I have an audience now. I’m doing a really big tour right now, and it’s going very well. We’re going to a lot of cities and playing rooms that seat from 600 to 2,000 people. I’m doing pretty well with ticket sales and people are coming out. It’s the first time in my life I’ve ever really been able to do that after doing comedy for almost a quarter of a century, a lot of it unknown, a lot of it almost not being able to get work at one point in my life. It’s been great because the one thing I can say is that I’m certainly ready for it, and my craft is in place and I’m enjoying doing the shows.
I’ve got a good, new hour and a half and I’m leaving a lot of room to improvise and connect with the audience. It’s very humbling and great to be able to do it. That was always what I set out to do. I wanted to be a comic and now I’m able to do it for actually pretty large audiences who are there to see me, so I can’t complain about that. I could, but I’m going to go ahead and accept it as a good thing.
Politically, you’re on the liberal left I think. Is that hard to merge with comedy or is it a natural union?
I don’t do it anymore, I don’t talk about politics at all.
Your television show doesn’t have it, but is that something you might come back to or does it just not work for where you’re going now?
No, it’s just there are better people to serve that dialogue. I did talk radio for a year and a half and was involved with Air America at the beginning in a comedic way and doing a comedy show, but the political dialogue is very limiting. There’s just people that serve it better than I would, so I don’t feel compelled to do it anymore because my aggravation and my anger seem to be more existential anyway. I think a lot of the politics that I was doing at one time was just someplace to focus anger and now I’d rather deal with the source of that anger. I just don’t, I don’t want to be part of the conversation anymore.
You moved back to L.A. a few years ago, I think. Am I right?
Not a few years ago, I moved to L.A. in 2002. Then I was back and forth with Air America, doing that. But I’ve had a home here since 2002, I’ve been in my house since 2004.
The show seems to be set on L.A.’s east side. It’s interesting because this is a less rich, less glamorous world than we see in traditional shows set in L.A. It’s not at the beach, it’s not at a rich, west side setting like “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” It’s sort of middle-class, creative class. I notice places like Cafe De Leche in there that regular folks like me go to. Does L.A. play any role in your show? Does it shape the way you see things and the way it unfolds?
Absolutely. I think we address that, I think my neighborhood is definitely a character in the show. Gentrification is going on and the people that lived there before and after…
We’re talking about Highland Park here, right?
Yeah, and I’ve lived there for a decade and I just wanted to include that neighborhood and celebrate that neighborhood and make it the backdrop to the thing. It’s also more practical for me, just a shorter drive to work and it’s nice to be able to roll out of bed and be on set in 10 minutes. But it’s true to the life I live, that is my neighborhood.
It’s nice to see a more real L.A. on television. It doesn’t always come across as a real place and not a weird, kind of rich person’s fantasy.
That’s what I wanted to do, yeah.