Getting ‘Too Real’ with Marc Maron

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“I can’t take it.” Those are the opening words of Marc Maron’s new special Too Real, which premieres today on Netflix. True to his cantankerous brand of humor, there’s a lot that he can’t take. But as he ages, there’s even more that he’s learning to come to terms with because, as he puts it, “I don’t know how much time I have left.” With Maron’s increased success has come a softer, more sensitive comedian, relatively speaking. He’s still sharp and irritable, but he seems to be more emotionally connected to the world around him, even when he’s talking about himself. I chatted with him recently about the overarching theme of Too Real, his work on GLOW, and how after more than three decades of performing comedy he’s finally learned how to put a set together.

There are a lot of specials lately that have gone for bigger production with a lot of stage dressing, but I like that you just came out, took your seat on the stool and opened with the line, “I can’t take it.” That’s very fitting of your style.

Lynn Shelton did a great job interpreting what I do and what my vibe is. She’s very acutely sensitive to my shit. She’s a fan, and having her on as a director was a great benefit to the show. I’ve done many of these specials myself and watched a lot of them. You’re not going to reinvent the wheel with that stuff. To have her accommodate the intimacy and recreate shots that were a little tricky to do, to get up close to me…if you notice during the show there’s a lot of stuff that’s very close. There are almost no audience shots at all because they don’t really serve a purpose. There was a shot from the audience, but there were no cuts to the audience. To keep the stage sparse and blue, that set director was a genius. There was a lot of thought that went into that whole thing.

So often with audience cuts it seems like it’s trying to prove that there’s an audience there or to show that a certain type of person laughed at a certain type of joke.

I really think it’s usually used to make cuts. I don’t think there’s any point to it at all. I think when you’re trying to get an hour-and-ten from an hour-and-twenty set you have to do some awkward cuts. The easiest way to do that without having a continuity tell is to cut away to the audience.

Right, but you’ve also seen that thing where you’ll have, for instance, a male comic say something kind of shitty about women and then they’ll cut to one woman who’s laughing to prove that they got the joke and it’s okay.

Yeah, that’s true.

You started out talking about Trump without mentioning his name, going on the notion that everybody in the room knows exactly who you’re talking about without giving him credit.

Oh, yeah. That was planned.

You said in another interview a while back that a good joke takes five years to get it where it needs to be, but you did a lot of material about what is happening right now. Have you changed your mind on that philosophy of five years to get a good joke?

I haven’t been doing much politics in a long time, but I chose to open the special with the confidence that those jokes were broad enough to still apply. I shot that thing in April. That’s your biggest fear with doing that kind of stuff. Oddly enough, given the news of the last two weeks, those jokes resonate more than when I did them. That’s a trip. It’s a sad, horrible trip, but it’s a trip. But in terms of the five year thing, I think mostly what that relates to is the fact that I have themes that I’ve gone back and talked about for years. They evolve. I’ll have jokes that work fine, but over time they become a little more complete. There are certainly ideas, like the alpha pussy, that I’ve sort of been exploring for a few years now and there’s some refinement that goes along with that. I had this alpha doormat idea and then the alpha pussy in relation to alpha douchebags kind of revealed itself in the special. There are things that evolved over time to become deeper and funnier for me.

There have been a couple of specials lately that were recorded before the election with very specific jokes acknowledging that when people are finally watching it the election will be over. Rory Scovel did it. Louis C.K. did it. They were basically doing pre-election predictions about how people would feel later on and how bad things might get.

I thought hard about the stuff I was doing. I knew that we were already well into his term in April, but the stuff about nuclear bombs, polarization, the lack of irony given that everything has become so extreme, that things aren’t funny anymore, fear, terror, the Nazi stuff — I was talking in broad strokes, but current news has made it seem more specific. It’s good for the special, but it’s bad for the world. The evolution of that special is astounding to me in the sense that last November I got the opportunity to play Carnegie Hall. I had finished doing the Maron series and I wanted to take some time off, but I got offered that job and I really couldn’t say no to it. I didn’t really have the material. I was still workshopping the hour at Carnegie Hall. The Carnegie Hall show was two hours long. And then I go on the road for 20 dates — however many, some comedy clubs, some small theaters — and kept playing with this hour-and-forty-five minute thing that was a little loose.

Coming up on the special, they wanted 70 minutes and I was still playing with an hour-and-forty-five minute thing set. The two sets I did the week of the special in Madison and Milwaukee were the first two times I tried to get it down to 70 minutes. I made an outline, took out what wasn’t important, figured out what my callbacks were. What was really happening thematically in regard to what you were saying was that this is really about, “I don’t know how much time I have left.” This was about me at this point in my life where things are changing and I’m accepting things to a certain degree, but also a little saddened by them. That theme had to come through. That last show before I recorded the special, I made an outline and did all the cuts in my mind. I didn’t go up with notes. The last show before the special, I recorded it and honored my notes and I came in at 70 minutes on the dot. I was like, “Holy shit. I know how to do this.” I was sort of proud of myself. I guess I’ve been doing it long enough to know how to put a fucking set together, but waiting until the night before is a little crazy.

Do you think of yourself as a procrastinator?

No, I think that’s just the way I work. I don’t feel like I’m putting things off. I just think I’ve grown to accept that that’s the way these things work. I put a lot of structure into that show that I didn’t think was going to be there. It just came down to the wire. The last week or so I was thinking about what things can thread through, where the callbacks will be. One of my favorite moments in the special is when my girlfriend asks me, “What did you do today?” and I hold up the Post-It. The physical action of holding up that Post-It, I really had to think about that. It’s a great beat, but it came late in the game. I’ve grown to accept that that’s the way my creativity works. It’s not procrastination — it’s like a gift. I think I’m going to end the special one way, and then all of a sudden I’m like, “Holy shit, I’ve got it.” To go into something with that much excitement that you’ve been doing for months because of one little piece, that’s a great feeling.

The success of GLOW kind of came out of nowhere and solidified you in a lot of people’s minds as a legitimate actor.

Not unlike the Carnegie Hall gig and getting an offer to do a special, I had finished doing Maron and thought I was going to take some time off. I wouldn’t call it a bucket list, but there were certain things that I wanted the opportunity to try, and one of them was to do a character that wasn’t me. The script came through and I knew right away that the writing was great. I understood that guy deeply. I put a little effort into the audition. I put on a Lacoste shirt and some aviator frames. I tried to get the role. They didn’t know what they were looking for and they booked me off the tape. Jenji had faith in me. They all had faith in me.

I’ve been doing comedy more than half my life. I’ve been trying to do the things that we is comics want to do: do your own show, act, do standup. The podcast was a Hail Mary pass that, thank God, worked. In terms of the acting, I knew enough about this guy that was like me. It really came down to turning some things off inside of me. Like, that guy is not very self-aware. He’s not neurotic. He’s a little more shameless than I am. And then, sort of adjusting around that to try to keep the emotional structure in him, as opposed to bleeding out of him. I just showed up. I wasn’t afraid. Once I put on the outfit, the bell-bottoms, the glasses, and had my cocaine in my pocket and shit, I felt like that guy. It was a great experience for me. I had no idea how it would land and I’m thrilled that everybody likes it. I’m looking forward to doing the next season so that I can maybe challenge myself a little more as an actor, be a little more comfortable.

Photo by Adam Bettcher.

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