By Matt Hanson
One thing that gives Marc Maron’s comedy a certain punch is that he is an equal-opportunity crank.
Few people probably remember it now, but back in the early aughts Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn used to follow The Daily Show on Comedy Central. Hosted by the voluble Quinn, who talked so much and so often that he stuttered incomprehensively, Tough Crowd featured a rotating crew of comics and actors yakking it up both with and at each other. It was a little like the McLaughlin Group replaced with a bunch of sarcastic, misanthropic New York comics. When they weren’t cracking wise about current events they were busting each other’s chops as only comics can.
Quinn managed to get a pretty solid panel together, including Patrice O’Neal and Greg Giraldo, a couple of comedy legends who left us too soon. Then there was the aggravatingly witty right winger Nick DiPaolo, the endearingly scuzzy Jim Norton, and Marc Maron, who was my favorite. Why? He seemed to take a bigger emotional beating from all the ball busting — appearing to be a neurotic, self-loathing wreck goes a long way in my book. Maron couldn’t have known it then, but he would eventually become a household name via his WTF podcast, which brought him fame and fortune from doing revealing, off-the-cuff interviews with friends and former friends alike.
As Maron points out in his new Netflix special End Times Fun, the podcast has made him famous enough to be stopped on the street — though not famous enough for everyone in the group to know who he is. His WTF podcast turned out to be an unexpected trailblazer for the genre; it has become culturally ubiquitous over the past few years. Through it all, Maron has continued to think of himself as a comedian. He is insistent that standup is at the heart of who he is.
One thing that gives Maron’s comedy a certain punch is that he is an equal-opportunity crank. I used to stay up even later than usual to catch his morning show back when Air America was still on the airwaves. His lefty bona fides are beyond dispute, but he doesn’t hold back from dissing flighty liberals. After pointing out the horrors of the Trump presidency, Maron asks his lefty friends what they did during the Obama administration. His imagined response speaks volumes about the average liberal’s narcissism: “Oh, you know, just working on me…a lot of yoga.” Maron adds the extra cherry on the top of the blasé sundae by saying yeah, Trump’s pretty bad, but you’ve sure learned a great downward dog position!
Maron has a unique ability among comics. He doesn’t tell a series of jokes or funny stories. He sort of combines the two in a way that expands on the standard setup/punchline structure. Rather than lay out a particular routine, he riffs and free-associates, which is very tricky to do well but, when it is successful, really pays off. In this sense, he’s perhaps more like an old school comic who learned about the value of spontaneity from listening to jazz musicians. Janeane Garofalo once called him “the only crazy person I’ve ever envied.”
Without seeming to strain very much, Maron includes segments about what it was like before cell phones; what it was like to actually have to wait in silence for things; Iron Man; the irritation of not knowing some small piece of information and having it bother you all day long; the absurdity of Palm Pilots; and how his mother may have opened up the lizard portal that will augur the end of the world.
The original title of the special was jeremiad, which fits the tone and substance of his special quite well (“a long, mournful complaint or lamentation; a list of woes”). Maron was no doubt aware of the term’s reference to the legendarily denouncing Old Testament prophet Jeremiah. He jokes at one point he is his own kind of cranky Jewish prophet. Apparently Netflix vetoed the title, citing the fairly reasonable fact that most people would have no clue what the word meant.
Still, the best part of the show is Maron’s extremist closer, where he imagines an apocalyptic scenario that, true to form, becomes an increasingly surreal and slightly vulgar verbal tour through what the end times might look like. The vision gives us Mike Pence taking part in a variety of illicit actions and temptations, actions that the current vice president would be extremely embarrassed to ever be caught committing, Armageddon or not. The sketch is a little puerile, a little overly vivid at times (which Maron, to his credit, cops to) — and I’ve broken up laughing each time I’ve heard it.
It’s not hard to see how difficult a shape the country and the world are in these days. There’s no need to reiterate the facts; they’re glaring back at us from the hourly headlines. But it is not being witty (or courageous) to use social media, as some annoying people do, to tell us, over and over again, that We’re All Gonna Die. Yes, we may well be accelerating toward the apocalypse. Instead of going out via botched attempts to be hipper than thou, now might be the time to be creative about extinction. By the end of End Times Fun, Maron offers one amusing way of doing just that.
Matt Hanson is a contributing editor at the Arts Fuse whose work has also appeared in American Interest, Baffler, Guardian, Millions, New Yorker, Smart Set, and elsewhere. A longtime resident of Boston, he now lives in New Orleans.