It was well into his lengthy set that Marc Maron told his first joke. Teasing an audience member about his taste in music, Maron was reminded of a bit he used to perform earlier in his career. The joke, about the length of Indian musical compositions, drew a solid laugh, to which Maron responded with exaggerated defensiveness: “I used to write jokes. I know how to do it!” Maron has been around forever, at this point. He came up in the alt-comedy “boom” of the early ’90s with the likes of Louis CK, Janeane Garafolo, Laura Kightlinger, David Cross, et al. With the contemporary advent of Comedy Central and the dramatic expansion of cable TV programming, that generation of comics, overall, did surprisingly well professionally. I have no statistics to back this up, but I’d bet that crowd achieved successes that were way above the norm for stand ups. Though Maron remained pretty visible over the years, continuing to do stand up, producing a few specials, publishing a couple of books, he did not, until recently, gain the same stardom of some of his pals. It definitely seemed to irk him. Substance-abuse issues, bad marriages, and the related financial woes had him so down, the story goes, that he thought seriously of killing himself. Instead, he started a podcast in his garage.
One of the consistent elements of the Maron mythos is his legendarily poor interpersonal skills. The Maron who is discussed is neurotic, narcissistic, insecure and sarcastic to the point of viciousness. Perhaps the onstage and -screen character is based in fact, but the allegedly unlikeable Maron was still able to attract many high-level comedians and musicians of his acquaintance to his garage: The podcast, “WTF with Marc Maron,” blew up. It didn’t so much revitalize his career as reinvent it. I imagine that the bulk of the attendees at the Troy Music Hall show know Maron from that podcast–or from the Netflix sitcom it inspired, Maron–than from his decades as a stand up, specifically. And, really, fair enough: He’s a skillful interviewer, using his own confessional drive and vulnerability to draw his subjects into an intimate, unguarded but still funny space. To the crowd’s obvious pleasure and approval, it was that Maron on display in Troy. There were few jokes, per se. There were stories of sorts, but with a couple of exceptions–a proposed children’s book Maron thinks could make him a mint among them–they were not plots, in a traditional, beginning-middle-end kind of way. They were situations which provided Maron opportunities to have exasperated emotional reactions. He opened the set with a discussion of the current president. He doesn’t like him, worries about the future and has developed a fear of his phone due to Trump’s seemingly inexhaustible knack for producing outrage. He has had to rethink some of his friendships because he has Trump supporters in his circle–people he used to think were cool, people who like Tom Petty’s “American Girl” as much as he does.
If these do not sound much like jokes, you’re catching on. There were no fewer than half-a-dozen times when I thought, or hoped, that Maron would take one thread of his monologue and develop it into something more surprising, something more crafted, something more writerly. (Please check Gary Gulman’s specials on Netflix for some absolutely genius examples of what I mean.) But that’s not what Maron is up to; and if it sounds like I’m slagging him, I’m giving the wrong impression. Maron, for all the legend of irascibility, was warm, familiar and charismatic. He was, in a word–a surprising word–likable. He was funny, but the humor was rooted in his recognizable, relatable status as a no-longer-young guy still riddled with strong opinions in a world that no longer seems to care about them. Maron can, on the one hand, be hipper-than-thou enough do an extended bit on the embarrassment of being a Dave Matthews fan (how uncool!), and, on the other, still chastise the earlier mentioned audience member for preferring Brian Jones-era Rolling Stones. He can name-drop albums and pat himself on the back for his refined taste while still poking fun at another’s specific interests as somehow loony hipster posturing. The joke is that he knows he is becoming ridiculous, that, as he expressed it, he has passed beyond his Cap’n Crunch years and into his Trader Joe’s Barbara’s Puffins years. Everyone in the audience, with the possible exception of the sitar-loving Stones fan, got it.
Marc Moran, Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, March 11