In the 1990s, Marc Maron was a clean-shaven, boyish young stand-up comic—who, to hear him tell it, was burning every bridge in sight and alienating everyone within a hundred-yard radius. Back then, James Wolcott, writing in The New Yorker, likened Maron onstage to a cartoon stoner from the pages of Zap Comix. Post-comeback, the middle-aged, clean and sober Maron more closely resembles Zap founder Robert Crumb: a crusty guy with hedonistic ambitions and no filter. Also like Crumb, this new Maron employed self-deprecatory humor in a way that makes it clear that, if he and the rest of the world have a problem with each other, it’s the rest of the world that’s doing it wrong.
Maron’s second act really took off after he and Louis C.K. had a soul-baring exchange on Maron’s interview podcast WTF, and the IFC series Maron, now entering its second season, contains parallels to C.K.’s own ongoing TV vehicle. The show is parked somewhere between the confessional comedy and digressive fantasies of Louie and the more conventionally structured Legit, in which successful comic Jim Jefferies plays an imagined version of who he might be if he his career was stuck in a ditch.
On Maron, Marc Maron plays “Marc Maron,” a well-known comedian who pissed off a lot of people when he was younger and now lives with a lot of cats and bittersweet memories of the ex-wife who’s run off. This Marc also does a podcast in his garage while trying to get his career up to the next rung of the ladder. Basically, Maron plays the guy fans will think they know from listening to him talk about himself in his act and on WTF. He’s also surrounded by both fictional characters—family members, agents, one-night stands, and a groupie-turned-steady girlfriend (Nora Zehetner) who’s 19 years his junior—and famous comedians, who just turn up out of the blue; they can always knock on his door and explain that they’re scheduled to be on the podcast.
One big difference between Louie and Maron is that Louie is clearly the work of someone who is seriously interested in the possibilities of filmmaking and in using the camera to tell jokes that couldn’t be told any other way. Louis C.K. handles that show as an extension of his stage act, using images and editing the way a virtuoso comedian uses words and body language, and you don’t get to a place like that overnight; he’s been experimenting with short films and features since the early 1990s. As a stand-up, radio personality, podcaster, and sort-of actor, Maron has one thing he does, which is talk. He’s often brilliant at it, but too much of the time on Maron, you could hang a sheet in front the screen and not miss anything, so long as the sound holds up.
There are times in the second season when it would be a good idea to keep that sheet handy. The most visually ambitious scene in the first few episodes is also one of the most tired: A slow-motion tokin’ up sequence when special guest David Cross interrupts a Maron family argument and creates a mellow, truth-telling atmosphere by breaking out the ganja. In another episode, Maron is besieged by a crazy blonde who, after they’ve screwed a few times, shows up at his home drunk in the middle of the day, flashes him, then squats to pee on the front lawn. The way the scene is shot, it’s hard not to feel sorry for the actress, and her character never rises above the general category of “crazy slut.” That’s also true of Mom (Sally Kellerman), who traumatizes Maron by having sex with the father of one his comedian friends and then gives him details of her recent sexual history when she has an STD scare. As for Zehetner, her character is just a sex fantasy, the compliant young thing whose father fixation works out great for the hero—at least until she gets fed up with him making jokes about their sex life and ends the relationship, via live phone-in, while he’s on The Talking Dead.
Maron has its funny moments; it would almost have to. Maron gets off his share of good lines, and there are brief appearances by Sarah Silverman and kibitzer extraordinaire Andy Kindler. When Maron, in full midlife-crisis mode, blows $4,000 on an upgrade for his stereo system, he invites Kindler over to give it a listen. “I think my iPod Nano sounds just as good,” Kindler says, “and I wouldn’t have to kill myself if I dropped it.” The comedians have no real plot function besides showing up and dropping a few zingers, but that’s enough to make their characters feel more fleshed-out than most of the other people surrounding the star.
If the show feels unusually disappointing, it’s because Maron has given us reason to expect more of him. His TV show has none of the ambitious reach of his best podcasts, and it keeps pretending to be edgier than it is. When Chris Hardwick and Michael Ian Black insult Marc to his face by telling him how much they hate him, and then rejoice in seeing him humiliated on live TV, it’s presented as if it were all wild and daring. But as Maron himself is enough of a comedy historian to know, pretend feuds between comedians go back to the days of Jack Benny and Fred Allen, and it’s been 20 years since The Larry Sanders Show freshened the concept up by taking it to a new level of vitriolic profanity. Maron is just a holding action in the comedian’s quest to extend his fame, a way to keep his face in front of the camera until something better comes along. Where Louis C.K. keeps finding new things to be perplexed by, the Maron of Maron keeps defining everything by how it impacts him, how it’s filtered through his anxieties and hang-ups. Maybe he thinks this is funny, because his fans will know from listening to his podcast and radio appearances that he’s actually interested in a great many things, from politics to sex to the careers of Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner. The characters on Maron who hate Marc accuse him of being petty and self-obsessed to a numbing degree. It’s up to him to use his show to prove them wrong.