One of the most engaging qualities about Marc Maron is his vulnerability and his ability to connect with someone (we saw that when he spoke to Joey here last year). His interviews with guests on his WTF podcast are often insightful and cut through the artifice into profound, more meaningful conversations with some of the biggest names in pop culture and Hollywood. Then there’s the large listening audience of his podcast and the way he effortlessly connects with WTFers on social media—he feels accessible.
Before his podcast, in the 90s and early aughts, Marc Maron was a stand-up comic, appearing on the late night circuit, being a regular at The Comedy Store, and experiencing the ebbs and flows of that life. He’s recently had a few big profiled comedy specials, but his most personal special, From Bleak to Dark, breaks new ground. There’s no corner Maron doesn’t explore in the HBO special; from his grief over the sudden death of his girlfriend and director Lynn Shelton to talking about anti-woke comics, and his renewed relationship with his father, Maron is wide open, and he might be at his funniest because of it.
“I have grown okay with sort of profound vulnerability up there.” Said Maron. “In the past, it was more aggravated. It was more defensive. It was shallow in thinking I’m the angry comic, but really it was about hiding something—fear primarily. Over time that goes away, and you’ve reached a level of comfortability up there.”
Awards Radar sat down with Marc Maron over zoom to talk about what it’s like to have a special on HBO, his process of developing From Bleak to Dark and balancing his multi-hyphenate career.
Niki Cruz: It feels weird to say because of the nature of the stand up, but I enjoyed From Bleak to Dark.
Marc Maron: I wanted people to enjoy it. It’s not weird to say. What’s the alternative? To have people say it’s terrible, and it really made me sad.
NC: That’s true. For so long, having a comedy special on HBO meant you’ve made it. Because of that, does this stand up feel different?
MM: It really did, actually. Despite what anybody says, I think the Netflix model has done more damage than good in terms of quality in stand up in a way that there are many things on there that you can’t find. I did two or three specials for Netflix and within a week it becomes difficult to find [something] on the platform. Whatever the algorithm honors is who gets the big cash and who is put in a position to do more and more specials no matter the quality.
HBO, when I was coming up, was not unlike a Letterman slot. It was really the holy grail. It meant something and so I was honored in some weird way. It was almost like a childhood bucket list thing to do an HBO special. And also, it’s a better place to be. I got tremendous support from HBO, and they curate their content, and there are great shows on there. I think that most of my audience or people who would engage with what I do are HBO viewers, so for a number of reasons it was a tremendously exciting thing to have an HBO hour
NC: When you’re watching something on HBO it really does feel like an event.
MM: Yeah, because you go on there and they have a handful of things. With Netflix, you don’t even know what’s on there but HBO as a brand does maintain its integrity to a degree.
NC: Sometimes the best kind of work comes out of grief, it comes from tragedy. As an artist, was there a part of you that worried about being too bleak? We do see you working through it all on stage, even though I imagine you were workshopping this over the last two years.
MM: Yeah, it took a long time to put it together and to make things ride that edge. I don’t know. What any of us have to go through in this particular era, not to see the bleakness, it’s a day to day thing. So, being frank about it was a relief, so my concern wasn’t really being too bleak. It was finding the tone and the balance of what I was talking about to present it in a way where people could have some relief around it. If anything, that’s what you want comedy to do.
I took some risks with that and I definitely rode an edge. It really felt like my experience with the audience was that they were almost waiting for someone to talk about these things, with the cultural stuff and with grief as well.
NC: Is the material constantly evolving up until it’s go time for the HBO special?
MM: Totally. It’s a very strange thing I do and I don’t really know many people that do it my way. My material evolves through talking. The way I write is through exploring ideas and stories on stage. I have bullet points or I have ideas but it really happens through repetition of conversation and finding laughs improvisationally on stage and then seeing what sticks. Working on material From Bleak to Dark for two years to two weeks before showtime, I was still dealing with an hour and a half to two hours of material. So I had to get it down to an hour or 70 minutes. A week before I make decisions, I take out things that aren’t going to last as pieces because they’re too topical. I take out things that other people have points of view on. I take out things that are redundant. I try to find the through line and see if I can find some callbacks that would tie that thing together as a unified thing.
With this special, I really had to think in terms of almost 3 acts within this hour. Then because of that type of editing that close to showtime, it is a new hour. I also like to leave room for moments that will only happen there and I always hope that they do and they did that night. There was a couple of things that only happened that night.
NC: That must feel exciting, just feeling the energy of what that process is while in the room.
MM: It’s the most present that I can be. I put myself in a position onstage with stuff that I believe in my head is funny but it’s not worked out. I really forced myself to find the funny in that moment. So there’s this weird element of discovery that happens all the time. Like last night, it happened, it’s just because I’ve been doing this for so long and so much and it’s really my primary form of expression, and over the years, I’ve become very aware of my craft in it that I have a certain amount of fearlessness so when things drop in, it’s extremely exciting, especially if you can repeat it.
NC: I love how you spoke about the mystical nature that can happen when you’re grieving. You talked about Lynn coming back as a hummingbird, or looking for signs of her energy. You’re talking about a part of grief that people don’t usually talk about, especially not in a special, and that part specifically resonated with me.
MM: I think that if you’re not locked into a belief system that enables you to say, well, they’re in heaven, your brain still wants to believe, not necessarily a God consciousness but at least some sort of continuum of life. You want to know the energy is still there. If you believe it, and if it brings you some sort of closure, or some sort of relief, or just gets you out of that trauma, that’s a common experience. I think it’s something that the brain does to allow us to not be consumed with that sadness.
NC: Given that this stand up is so personal, what would getting nominated mean to you?
MM: It would mean a lot to me. The last few specials I’ve done, I can’t do anything better than that in terms of what I’ve been working towards and where I’m at in my comedy and in my craft. So, it would be an honor to win it for Lynn, and for that to be a part of it. It would be tremendous. I don’t win things usually and I don’t anticipate it. It would be validating and important to me. I’ve worked a long time and there’s no one really like me, and at some point, you’re sort of like, I’d like that to be acknowledged with a shiny thing.
NC: There is no one like you. You have the podcast, your stand up, and you act. How do you prioritize? How do you balance it all?
MM: I don’t know. The weird thing about self employment in general is everything seems like some part of work because you’ve worked through life that way. I try not to overextend myself. I came up in this game and there were times in your life where you really got to take everything, because you’re like, “Oh, good an opportunity! I have to do it.” I try to take acting roles that make sense to me and will push me to do things I haven’t done before. I don’t live the life of an actor. I don’t love to go away for more than a couple of weeks. So like I’m not the kind of guy that’s gonna be in Morocco for six months.
With the podcast, it’s probably, at least 60 or 70% of my social life is talking to strangers on the mics and having a kind of deep conversation gets me out of myself. It’s just my life.
[This conversation was edited for length and clarity.]