"I've done my share of bombing": Marc Maron on taking comedy risks, failure and unfunny edgelords

On "Salon Talks," the comic discusses his HBO special "Bleak to Dark," navigating gnarly grief and embarrassment

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published February 11, 2023 3:30PM (EST)

Marc Maron (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/Oluwaseye Olusa/HBO)
Marc Maron (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/Oluwaseye Olusa/HBO)

"I don't want to be negative," says Marc Maron in his first-ever HBO special, "but I don't think anything's ever going to get better ever again." 

In the aptly named "From Bleak to Dark," the comedian and former "GLOW" actor takes on despair, dementia and depression with the trademark wry weariness familiar to fans of his long-running "WTF" podcast. But it's his blunt retelling of the aftermath of the sudden 2020 death of his partner, filmmaker Lynn Shelton, that forms the hilarious, cathartic heart of the performance. It's the most exhilarating exploration of grief you'll likely see this year.

In the past few weeks, Maron has also been vocal about the controversy surrounding his "To Leslie" costar Andrea Riseborough's Oscar nomination — and the Academy's subsequent "review" of the grassroots campaign for that nod. Now, in a candid conversation for "Salon Talks," Maron discusses the "institutional insecurity" that has clouded this year's Oscars, as well as what he's learned from bombing on stage, and why the things he says in his new special "could be dangerous to my life." 

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

I can't think of a special recently that has truly lived up to its name the way "From Bleak to Dark" does. I want to ask you about that.

I'll tell you because it's a funny story. I was developing a show for FX with Sam Lipsyte, the novelist, and my good friend. We sold this show and we'd written one script for them, and they wanted another script. So we outlined a story through the second script and we turned it in to FX and we had a notes call. Nick Grad, the head of FX, is at the top of this Zoom pyramid, and there's FX people and my people and me and Sam. [Grad] says, "Look guys, it's great, great story, loved it, really great writing. Have no specific notes, but is there any way we can get it from bleak to dark?" And I thought, "Yeah, that's what I do." That's my whole life.

What is the next gradient shade on that spectrum? 

I would think "From Dark to OK." I'm really OK, which is implicit in the presentation because I'm a comedian and I obviously have a handle on this stuff. "From Dark to Joy" would be good, but that seems like a big jump.

This grief that is the central part of this show is such a universal experience. We all go through it, but we often go through it privately. You went through grief in a really public way. You talk about that in the special. Is there anything good about having loss in such an open way?

I certainly chose to make it more open than it was necessary. Outside of magazines and trades and the show business community picking it up, I didn't need to make it as public as I did, but I did, because I'm a guy that shares his life. In terms of isolation being how most people handle grief because of shame or that people don't know what to do with it, I was actually isolated because it was COVID. The sort of things that are afforded people in grief, even just sitting with other people or spending time with family or even a f**king funeral were not there. It was not a possibility.

"I knew that it would be unmanageable and unruly and not in any way controlled or pretty."

The choice [was] to do my podcast and treat her death as we treated other guests on the show at that time, which was to repost to the episode and maybe have some feelings or thoughts about it. That was difficult because that was two days after, and I was deeply in shock and shattered.

My producer said, "Look, we don't ever have to do another podcast again. You do whatever you want to do here." But I thought, well, this is something that everyone is going to experience or has experienced. Whatever I'm going through right now in one form or another is one of the most common human experiences, though I've never had it. I said to myself, "Well, I'm in the guts of it, and you can share this if you want." I knew that it would be unmanageable and unruly and not in any way controlled or pretty. I just chose to do it mostly out of service to others, honestly. And out of respect for her, though, that would not be ongoing.

I knew that there would be another time where I could honor Lynn, but to honor those feelings and then to make them public because I felt that they needed to be shared. That was really most of the incentive. I don't know if I'd call it selfless, because it was gnarly, but that was why I thought to do it in that day.

The public thing became a little tricky because people wanted to talk to me about it, and one of her cousins reached out to me and said, "Maybe cool it. You're not the only one who's grieving. You've got to give other people the space for that." I was offended by that at first. I thought, "Hey, f**k that. F**k you. My grief is my grief." But I realized, I am in the position to make it public and I don't have to. There are people that knew her longer, that have long relationships. She had a son and a ex-husband and family, and I'm the one who's getting this attention. So I stopped doing interviews about it.

"When someone dies, you're not the victim. They are."

That's the thought in the special, about that really realizing that when someone dies, you're not the victim. They are really, so manage that. Out of respect for them, behave properly.

It was difficult with her family because I didn't really know them. If I hadn't asked her for the code to her cell phone when they were taking her away in the ambulance, I don't know what would've happened. It was really one of these situations where I had to call an intensive care nurse and say, "Go get her phone and give me some Sheltons because I don't know who to call." It was heavy because she had put me down as her contact, but she didn't think she was not going to come out. I had to loop these people in, and these were not people I had a relationship with because we weren't together that long. It was heavy, man. 

When you are having dinner with your loved one or you're dating somebody or you're talking to your kids, you don't say, "Hey, so here's what we need to know in case I die suddenly." 

You've had people like Patton Oswalt and Rob Delaney on your show, who have also done works that are really sad, really intense, but also absurd and funny. Did you look to those other people who were doing creative works about loss as well and talk to them about it?

No. I didn't. I know Patton and I know Rob and I recently interviewed Rob. I didn't consult anybody really. I just had to process it on my own. The spectrum of grief, I felt, was odd to me because I was in this situation where I'd known Lynn for years and our relationship as partners was relatively fresh. It was all still very new to the point where I didn't have a relationship with her family. There was part of me that I didn't really know what my place was. On top of her passing is that it happened in my house. I'm the guy that was there when she passed away. So my experience was really specific and a little different in that Rob lost a child, which I can't even imagine. I don't have children. Patton lost his wife and was certainly taken by surprise by the horror of that.

But there was something strange with me that there were all these people in her life that had these long and deep relationships. We were still in this sort of honeymoon period. And I was the guy that she died with. It was a horrendous. I had to reach out to her husband, who was just a recently ex-husband. She had just moved down here. I said, "Look, man, there's no reason for you to like me or want to talk to me. I was with her when this all happened, and I've been with her the whole time here. So if you want to talk about it, I'm willing to do that." But that's not in the show.

The bottom line is that I found my experience to be specific, and I didn't know how or when, if, I was going to talk about it and how that would unfold for me. I didn't want to do any research. I was sad for those guys. Certainly when Patton's wife died, we were in touch. I was trying to show up for him, like everyone showed up for me. But no, I just took it head on and didn't really think of it as a creative undertaking or think to even . . . well, I read the Joan Didion book.

You point out that you have those two responses: Thanks for the book. Also, oh damn, now am I supposed to do something with my own tragedy? Are you kidding me?

Some of these things just sort of folded in around that. Patton actually sent me the C. S. Lewis book on grief, which is daunting. I couldn't even really handle it. Because really what you want is some advice and to feel better. But the second part of that joke, "Should I be writing a book?" came later than the first one. The first joke was, "I'm sad she lost her husband. This doesn't help me at all."

Going through grief, maybe I just want a novel about people who are having a really good time somewhere else. You never know what you're going to want.

The funny thing is what you want is food. And that is something that comes.

You want people to show up at your house with a chicken.

Yeah, chicken and cake, everyone. Yeah.

You talk about really tough things in this special. Not just death, but dementia, Nazis, guns, suicide. Then you talk about "anti-woke" comedians, and what is so galling about that stance. There are people who say, "Oh, you can't make any jokes anymore now, and everybody is a snowflake, and comedy is dead, and nothing's funny anymore." You are living proof that comedy can make people uncomfortable and can push boundaries. What's the difference, and what is it that pisses you off about self-proclaimed anti-woke comedians?

I think it's hackneyed. It's a hack. A lot of people that rally around that idea are not fundamentally comedy fans, but there's a tribalism to it. They're going to champion these guys who see themselves as victims in this big war against woke censorship. The truth is, there's two or three tropes that they all hit. If you're a guy that's not that talented, or not that imaginative, or not that creative, and perhaps not that funny, you can don the cloak of anti-wokeness and just hit these few topics and consider yourself an edgelord and somebody that's too risque to get work when really it's just a grift. It's a kind of cowardly ideological disposition that you can just manufacture without having any sort of talent or taking any real risk at all.

You can say whatever you want. I say that in a special. You can even say the things that they're worried about saying in a way that would provoke real humor and real empathy and a kind of balance. But I think they just feel so threatened, and so much of it is coming from some weird conservative anger. A comic made a good point. In comedy historically, there's been plenty of punching down. People loved it. There was no end to punching down. It was hilarious for centuries.

Once there's the idea of race and religion and gender, once you get people like Lenny Bruce who spread the abuse out across the board to make a point that we're all in it together, you had something different happening, and there were real risks being taken. Now it just seems like all they're fighting for is the right to be ignorant bullies. They're probably dealing with their own PTSD or their own trauma and taking it out in a way that they're couching in this point of view.

"I know in this special, I took some real risks."

I know I took some risks in talking about things that could be dangerous to my life in terms of who I'm talking about and how I'm talking about it. But I thought those were calculated risks. The truth is, a lot of people don't say a lot of the stuff I say in that because, not out of fear of being canceled or wokeness, but because it really takes on the people that are truly scary and threatening to democracy and to physical autonomy and to people wanting to live their lives as who they are. So I don't know, it can be done. 

You are also, Marc, in ["To Leslie,"] a movie that has been nominated for an Academy Award. You have spoken up on your podcast about the nomination for your co-star [Andrea Riseborough]. What has this controversy this year revealed about the wiggly underside of the rock that is the award system in Hollywood?

I don't know that it revealed anything that no one knew. There was no crime at hand, and there was no malfeasance, and there was no shady business. I think that the status quo was shaken by and taken by surprise, by what was fundamentally the support of other actors to deliver an actor. I don't know. Look, politics and campaigns and money that goes into getting people these statues has been happening since the beginning of the Academy Awards. Why they chose to make an example out of her is very dubious and really disappointing. I think they were muscled by moneyed interests as to how could this have happened. There's a whole industry of consulting and publicity and movie money that goes into getting these statues. And then there was also the optics of it being loaded because of who wasn't going to be nominated because of this.

I thought they just decided to make this public declaration, somehow thinking that would get them off the hook somehow. I guess after investigating it and after journalism's journalists took a shot at it, there was nothing really inappropriate about it. The truth seems to be that if new rules need to be made around how social media is involved in these campaigns, then you could have done that quietly and figured it out for next year as opposed to make an actor, Andrea Riseborough, who is not looking for this type of attention, was not an awards whore, and never was doing it for that. She does it for the work. She's a real artist. And now this beautiful thing happens, and it's just toxic as hell because of institutional insecurity and moneyed interests being upset.

You wrote recently about playing music and about getting over fear and failure. You even cited one of my all-time favorite songs, Johnny Thunders' "You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory." Tell me what's changed for you? Because we're all afraid of failing. We're all afraid of being bad at stuff. 

I don't know where it changed specifically. With comedy, I have really done my share of bombing. I've definitely done a lot of failing as a stand-up, and that's just part of it. I don't know that I saw that as it just is part of it. With other things like acting, I realized when I did "Maron" that I was not going to be good, and that I was just going to have to suck that up. There's no way I could walk into doing my own show on television and nail it because I'd seen my peers start to do acting and they all kind of were bad. They just didn't know what they were doing. I think that was the first kind of moment of realizing, just accepting that I was not going to be great. And I wasn't. Arguably, I wasn't that great all the way through it. I was good enough, but I did learn.

"Truth of the matter is, my favorite guitar players are sloppy."

I did a few things with nights where they'd have comics sing and play and just start getting over the fear, but then to actually play with other people and practice and stuff. Flanagan, the guy who runs and books Largo here in Los Angeles, says, "Just do it. I'll give you a couple of guys. You call them, see if they work out." I realized it was never my dream to be in a band. I always wanted to, but I never did it. I've always played guitar, but I didn't ever have anything invested in it. I never was like, this is the thing, I'm going for music. But I always played and I like playing.

I guess it was really, well, this is it, man. If you really don't have any expectations out of it, but you enjoy it, why not do it? I just do it and I do it honestly, and I think I'm good enough to do it. I think that's the other thing. I think my guitar playing, I had to believe that I was good enough. All that took was realizing most of the guys that I love are not good guitar players, but they are their own thing. I'm always judging myself against either arena acts or guys who can play fast and read music and all this. But truth of the matter is, my favorite guitar players are sloppy. Johnny Thunders. What a mess. I can play three or four chords with feeling, so just do it. That was really it. It was just sort like, "F**k it. Enough already."

And just be sloppy. Sloppy is really beautiful, I think.

Sure it is. Also, if you're playing with good musicians, you're not going to look that bad. Jimmy Vivino, who was Conan's band leader forever, and is the consummate studio player and side man, wanted to play with me. He played in a band. He still does. So he's not going to let me fall.

I tried to play "Isis" by Bob Dylan, and that song's an hour long. In the middle of it I lost confidence. I'm like, "Oh my God, there's still so many verses." I told the audience, "All right. So I tried. We did what we could." And I'd stop. Sometimes I'll stop songs. I tried to do "Jealous Guy" by John Lennon. I couldn't hit the note, and I'm like, "I'm going to do it again." They afforded me that. I'm not sure that's what people expect from an evening of music, but my fans are sort of like, "All right, try again."

The world doesn't stop spinning if you try again.

No, and what's on the line usually with these things is embarrassment, which oddly is the worst thing. There's really, in your mind, nothing worse than being embarrassed. But there are dying, getting in an accident, getting cancer, losing an arm, whatever. But for some reason, embarrassment and whatever happens after that and knowing that that's there, it's just horrible. I remember every moment that I found profoundly embarrassing, and it's still horrendous.

"Marc Maron: From Bleak to Dark" premieres Feb. 11 on HBO Max.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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From Bleak To Dark Hbo Lynn Shelton Marc Maron Salon Talks Stand-up Comedy