So, this bothers me. By “this,” I mean Jay Caspian Kang’s piece on Grantland about Marc Maron’s interview/comedy podcast WTF. And it should, I suppose. I’m a fan, for lack of a better word, of WTF. It has buoyed me through some patches of my life that involved a lot of sweat and sleep-piss. Friends, acquaintances, strangers: if you’ve watched while I spilled over a curb or screamed violent obscenities into my phone, know that I spent the following morning feeding vodka to a hangover, smoking cigarettes I stole off someone’s windowsill, listening to Maron talk to Rob Delaney about blacking out and crashing his car. It soothes me.
Kang explores, like others have, the WTF-as-therapy angle I’ve delineated above, although he has his own way of interacting with Maron. (He talks aloud about his own problems while listening to the podcast alone in his car). Which: fine. Citing Maron’s podcast as a space in which persistent narcissism rules, and is, because of its persistent narcissism, somewhere we feel safe in (or at least mildly reassured about) our own narcissism is not terribly interesting, but I believe it’s true, at least for those of us who listen on a consistent basis.
He tags a timestamped rundown of a typical WTF with this paragraph:
This sounds awful, I know. As someone who listens to the WTF podcast for an average of about 45 minutes a day, I wish there were a prettier way to describe what goes on. But outside of the occasional live show, which usually involves a bunch of comedians you’ve never heard of desperately reminding you of all the reasons you’ve never heard of them, Maron just kind of exposes a problem/darkness/neurotic tendency, flips it over, pokes at it, extracts some vaguely Buddhist/AA-ish platitude, and calls it a day.
My primary issue with Kang’s article (you can see it in the “vaguely Buddhist/AA-ish platitude” line) is that he seems to argue there’s a disingenuousness to Maron. That Maron’s claims that he is ashamed of his ugly past; that he has gained an appreciation for comedy without a hard, angry edge; that his lamentations of his lack of success aren’t fully true—like Maron is sitting at his Highland Park home snickering about “cred” and throwing darts at a poster of Patton Oswalt. (I’m being a might hyperbolic, but the sentiment is present in the piece.)
Kang is right in that Maron isn’t telling the whole truth in all of his podcasts. This is in part because he’s making an effort to be a better interviewer, but also because he’s trying to be a better person. He seems to actually like Mike Birbiglia while perhaps only grudgingly appreciating his comedy and being happy for his success. For someone so easily capable of being a miserable, embittered fuck, that’s progress.
What I inhale most of the time when listening to WTF is smoke from still softly burning embers. Pain made smarter, or maybe just soberer, by time and reflection. There’s a Maron bit off his latest album This Has to Be Funny in which he shares his anxiety over his newfound (relative) evenkeel-ness. He explains that there are two voices in his head, one, with which he’s less concerned—niggling worry that he’s going to fuck everything up—and an angrier, more distressing voice that screams: “C’MON, FUCK IT UP! DO IT!”
Which is more or less how I feel much of the time, albeit without the weight of 48 years of dealing (at times, with devastating ineptitude) with this shit. (“This shit” being anything from social anxiety to horrible, all-consuming anger.) Self-destruction is this thing that comes from inside and then acts upon you. To lean upon a Maron-ism, there are just some things you can’t unfuck. So you’re forced to mitigate their effects. My pettiness, my insecurity, my jealousy, my fearfulness: these are things that, when they take hold of me, I have to talk back into whatever organ houses them. One doesn’t “fix” or “get over” stuff; he or she just learns to maybe try not to take it out on others. The golden rule burns green under the heat of my stupid emotions: you can’t make me appreciate things, but that doesn’t mean I have to be a dick to you about them. We can hear this in Maron’s podcasts. He’s trying and sometimes not doing a good job of trying and sounding like a dick. Just because you want to be a better person doesn’t mean you can, with a pin soaked in holy water, puncture a hole in your skull and drain the nightmare fluid that composes your worst qualities.
There’s a parallel between Charlie Rose and Marc Maron that I think reveals some interesting insights about the latter. Both are institutions, in a sense, though Rose is established on a cultural icon sort of level, and Maron is a half-notch above “cultishly beloved.” Both exist, in this institutional sense, at the heart of their show’s appeal, even when they are not front and center—the Todd Hanson episode of WTF is a notable instance when the focal point narrows in on Hanson’s despair and Maron becomes more an observer than interviewer, and Rose occasionally doesn’t have to direct his interview subjects toward the most interesting corners of their mind, as they just wander there almost by themselves. But Maron much more frequently swallows his interview subjects, authoritatively dictates the avenues of the interview, or sets to tape what sounds more like a reconciliation session than an interview. His narcissism (usually unhinged), in opposition to Rose’s narcissism (apparent, but constrained), is what makes WTF the show it is. It’s why we get moments like Louis CK calling him a “bad friend,” and why the Dane Cook interview is kind of a mean-spirited mess. Both are pretty captivating listens for completely different reasons. (For the sake of presenting a counterexample, Maron’s interview with Garry Shandling is uncompelling mostly because Maron so frequently defers to Shandling, who is apparently full, in equal measure, of brilliance and complete nonsense.) I don’t know why anyone would listen to the show if they couldn’t accept Maron’s narcissism for both its ugly and positive effects, just as I would be wary of someone who watched a lot of The Charlie Rose Show, but strongly disliked Rose’s interview style.
Kang bemoans the dearth of Woody Allen-like narcissism in Los Angeles, but then doesn’t seem to want it. Or he’s grossed out by it. Which: duh. Narcissism is fucking gross, and if one wishes not to swim through it, they can read a New Yorker article about architecture in Indian cities or whatever. It’s not hard to find distractions or shit with which to be fascinated in this world. But WTF is a show driven by and sometimes explicitly about narcissism—Maron’s, other comedians’, our own—and as gross as it sometimes can be, it’s also frequently fascinating and soul-rendering. To me, at least. Maron speaks to me, perhaps at me, and I understand. I wouldn’t blame anyone for not being interested in watching someone skim through their own pooled vomit with a strainer, but I’m curious who noncommittally watches from behind a foggy sheet of glass.
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