“Surely all art is the result of one’s having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, where no one can go any further.”
—Rainier Maria Rilke
Of all the titles and descriptors Marc Maron has acquired through the perilous swings of his long career, “Feral Cat Wrangler” might be, curiously enough, the most appropriate. It’s one he gave to himself, an acknowledgment of his inclination for taking in wild strays. But it also serves as a profound metaphor for his duties as host of the enormously popular WTF podcast, on which he welcomes in from the trenches of entertainment a long parade of misfits, outcasts, and loners — known professionally as comics — to talk intimately and at length about their careers, relationships, and existential musings. The correlation isn’t lost on Maron. “We’re just a bunch of fucking stray cats sometimes,” he once observed after recording an interview with an old friend and peer with whom he’d fallen out of touch. “You’re out of the limelight and you’re not on television, and you all sort of started together gunning for the same prize. And then you just don’t see people.” When he does in fact cross paths with a stray comic who’s fallen off the grid, he can’t help but wonder in amazement, “Where the fuck have you been? What have you been doing? How are you okay?”
Not so long ago had someone asked those questions of Maron, the answers would have been bleak. Before he was crowned philosopher king of comedians or WTF was a popular brand, Maron himself was lost and forgotten, roaming the gloomy peripheries of comedy as a niche alt-comic and coming to the conclusion that his journey as a stand-up might be running out of road. By early 2008 he had already been twice fired from radio and was still unable, after more than two decades of stand-up, to break through commercially as a comic. In the wake of his second wife leaving him Maron found himself devastated, hopeless, and flirting with suicide. On an impulse he booked a weekend in Seattle to record an album and document his crack-up. Final Engagement survives as the ultimate artifact from the pre-resurrection era of Maron, showcasing the comedian as he struggles to emerge out of the smoldering wreckage of his failures — and not entirely convincing us that he’ll succeed. Confronting a grim, uncertain future Maron takes the stage and injects the listener with the disquieting thrill of witnessing a man on the verge of publicly coming undone.
The title for this last installment in the trilogy of failed aspirations (following 2002’s Not Sold Out and 2006’s Tickets Still Available) isn’t simply a poetic bookend. It’s meant to signify an era hurtling toward a definitive end. At the time of Final Engagement’s recording “I genuinely didn’t know if I was going to retire,” revealed Maron on a recent episode of his podcast. Maron has always been deeply personal and vulnerable on stage, but the sense that this could really be the end strips his performance on Final Engagement of almost any instinct toward self-preservation. He lashes out at everyone — himself, his ex-wife, even the previous show’s crowd — and a tone of deep and at times unsettling anger simmers unabated through to the final track. “Look at all you people pretending like you know me,” he sneers at the audience as he’s brought on stage to the mild applause of a half-filled room. “Don’t feel sorry for me. This is what I wanted. I want to be a marginalized act. I want to be a little known thing.” Self-deprecation is charming; frank self-assessment is brutal and much less endearing. But Maron is fully willing to risk alienating the audience in order to present himself to them as honestly as possible.
Stand-ups performing night in, night out are tasked with the challenge of convincing the audience of the immediacy of their thoughts as well as the authenticity of emotion with which they are delivered. Maron achieves both these ends on Final Engagement because he’s not just talking about certain events in his life; he’s going through them. There’s no distance between performer and material. When he tells the audience that “there’s no Plan B — this is it,” we sense that in that moment he’s truly struggling to come to terms with the bleak reality of a career sputtering to a close. When he inquires despairingly whether the crowd “knows what love becomes” while discussing his ex-wife, and his voice cracks slightly, we laugh at the punchline even as we cringe because, as Maron sometimes likes to note, comedy is “not all about funny, sometimes it’s just about sad.”
Now a few years past Final Engagement’s recording, we know that Maron’s career did not end, but in fact experienced a resurgence. However, the album does function as a coda to an era in the comedian’s life, represents in a way the death of his angry obscurity. In 2010 he recorded his fourth album, This Has To Be Funny, over four sold out shows in New York. That album is his best and funniest, but Final Engagement remains my favorite because it quintessentially captures Maron’s most absorbing quality: his unflinching fascination with those sad corners of life where we tuck away our failures and disappointments. Despite his emergent success and the scores of celebrities he now welcomes onto his podcast, Maron continues to seek out and champion those strays surviving doggedly on the margins, remains resolutely fascinated with the rougher, smaller triumphs in life that are eked out in front of no audience at all. Final Engagement serves to document that crucial period of his life, when he was out of the limelight and lost in the wild. Before he was okay.
Cameron Tung is a writer living in Brooklyn.