Just for Laughs: Marc Maron has no fear of fear
A slight case of panic is healthy for the proudly unprepared host of WTF
MONTREAL - A lot can change in two years. Just ask Marc Maron.
In 2011, the veteran American comic was invited to give the keynote speech at Just for Laughs. For a longtime scuffler in the standup trenches, it should have been a milestone of acceptance, but this particular standup wasn’t quite prepared to see it that way, launching into an extended riff on the suspicion that it was all some kind of cruel setup. It was quintessential Maron, wringing sometimes nervous laughter from a place of fear, insecurity and existential unease.
“That speech was a very emotionally loaded thing for me,” the 49-year-old said by phone from his home in Los Angeles, a day before flying to Montreal for multiple appearances at this year’s JFL. “The panic and fear are still there, but things are definitely better for me now. Although I have to say, I don’t always have a good perspective on where I’m at in the world. Sometimes other people have to say it for me.”
There’s been positive reinforcement aplenty lately. WTF, the twice-weekly one-to-one conversation podcast Maron started at a low career ebb in 2009 (“It was absolutely a last-ditch, desperation move,” he says), has blossomed from a slow-burning cult hit into a phenomenon, with more than 20 million total downloads of its 400-plus instalments. Its popularity has spilled over into a quarter-million Twitter followers for Maron, and has been parlayed into a critically acclaimed TV series on IFC, pithily named Maron; the show has just been given a 13-episode extension for a second season. His new book, Attempting Normal, places him in the front rank of contemporary comic essayists. But it all started in a garage, with two microphones and an idea.
“WTF evolved out of my personal need to talk to people,” Maron recalled, taking pains to point out that the podcast is exactly that: a talk, not an interview, with guests — mostly comedians, but increasingly actors and musicians too — whose work Maron doesn’t necessarily know well. “I’d rather err on the side of not knowing than go in with a head full of research and assumptions. It’s not like I sit and make a list of questions. I’d never do that. So, like in standup or any kind of improvisation, I get kind of jacked up and nervous every time. I don’t know where it’s going to go. Having that feeling in your life is important. A lot of people try to avoid those kinds of situations, but I think it’s important to maintain that vulnerability.”
In a recent WTF, guest David Sedaris turned the tables on Maron, reading passages aloud from his host’s new book like an unabashed fan; eventually the two got into an edifying exchange on the parameters of drawing on personal and family experience in their work — an especially relevant subject for Maron, given that some material in Attempting Normal has opened a rift between him and his father. As he so often has, Maron mines humour from some emotionally raw places, but is there such a thing as going too far?
“Well, with anything, as long as it’s within the law, it’s a question of ‘How are you going to process it?’ And if you’re going to potentially hurt somebody, how do you justify it to yourself? Sometimes you unleash something and you’re not sure it was worth it. My father and I are at a standoff, and it hurts me, but I don’t know what I expected. In my mind I was respectful in how I explored growing up with him, and for people who grew up in similar situations, it helps them and they can feel less alone. I’m sure my father feels betrayed and mad, but some part of me needed to do it.”
An old JFL hand, Maron can’t even say for sure how many times he’s been here. “In all honesty, the festival’s been pivotal for me,” he said. “I was able to get an agent out of the momentum from my first appearance in the ’90s, the keynote thing was powerful, I’ve done TV recordings. It’s been crucial.”
The city, too, appears to hold a special place in his heart. “I don’t travel the globe all that much, so Montreal, because of the mix of cultures, the architecture and the age of the place, is exotic for me. When I’m there I feel like I’m definitely not in America, which is good. And I’m always amazed at how many people smoke publicly, which as an ex-smoker I find very endearing. I’d do it myself if I didn’t think there’d be repercussions.”
Marc Maron hosts a live WTF podcast, with guests including Eddie Izzard and Jay Baruchel, Friday, July 26 at 2 p.m. at the Grand Salon Opera of the Hyatt Regency Hotel, 1255 Jeanne-Mance St. Tickets cost $35. For more information on this and Maron’s other Just for Laughs events, visit hahaha.com.
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