How to make it in comedy: cut the jokes

Marc Maron is a pioneer of an inward-looking style embraced by the likes of Louis C.K.

How to make it in comedy: cut the jokes

Robert Yager/New York Times/REDUX

Marc Maron is a stand-up comedian about to get his own TV show. That’s normal. What’s not is that he was never famous enough to get a TV show until he started doing a podcast, WTF?, where he’s less known for jokes than for his serious, confessional monologues about his life and career. “Marc’s a comic who struggled for many years, without really making it,” says Sivert Glarum, writer and executive producer of the 49-year-old stand-up’s new semi-autobiographical comedy Maron, premiering on IFC on May 3. “When he started the podcast, he was at the end of his rope, career-wise and emotionally.” And the experience redefined him as what one newspaper called a “stand-up tragedian.”

Comedy podcasting has taken off in the last few years as a cheap, easy way for comedians to introduce themselves to a wider public. But few people have used it to change their image as spectacularly as Maron, who does WTF? out of his garage and has interviewed almost 400 people since the show began in 2009. Not only does he talk seriously about his frustrations, but his most famous interviews are the dark ones, like the one with Kids in the Hall’s Dave Foley, who told Maron that thanks to a Canadian divorce court, “I’m literally obligated to give away 400 per cent of my income, or otherwise go to jail.” Todd Van Allen, a comic who hosts the podcast Comedy Above the Pub, says that Maron is famed for “brutal honesty and the fearless broadcasting of his inner-most feelings.”

That’s a type of broadcasting you don’t normally associate with comedians, but Maron is at the forefront of a more inward-looking type of comedy. Other successful podcasts, like Comedy Above the Pub or Comedy Bang Bang (which was adapted into an IFC series last year), primarily try to be fun, with sketches and impersonations. But Ed Crasnick, host of the podcast The Self-Help Comedy Hour and the guest on a 2010 episode of WTF?, says Maron “probably wants the guest to be more real than funny.” Glarum adds that in the TV show, the podcast is portrayed as a way “for Marc to seek opinions from people on the problems going on in his life,” just as he does on the real podcast.

Comedians like Maron may feel liberated by being able to explore what Krasnick calls “a place where you can be yourself, all different parts of yourself,” and not needing to tell jokes all the time. Jay Mohr reacted to the end of his sitcom Gary Unmarried by starting the podcast Mohr Stories, where his most famous interview had him talking to fellow comic Artie Lange about his drug issues. Ricky Gervais not only podcasts, but sat down with celebrity atheist Richard Dawkins for a serious interview about why he doesn’t believe in religion. Louis C.K., who has appeared on WTF? and other podcasts, uses his TV show Louie for in-depth, sometimes dark analysis of work and life as a comic. Jon Stewart has gone the furthest of all: not only do his routines on The Daily Show intersect with real-world politics, but he will take this summer off from the show to write and direct Rosewater, a serious film about the Middle East.

All of this can lead to accusations that comics are getting self-indulgent. Van Allen admits that “it does run the risk of the host getting up his own ass about the job he’s doing,” but adds that “comedy nerds want to hear these stories and get into the heads of the performers a bit. If we provide a bit of that, that’s fine.” And as Glarum points out, “Comics are a pretty self-obsessed bunch to begin with—they hardly needed the advent of the podcast to become introspective.”

The difference is that now, there’s a market for that introspectiveness, so it may be more important for a comic than just reciting scripted jokes. Glarum says the podcast scenes on Maron were mostly improvised “so we could keep that feeling of spontaneity that Marc has on his show.” It’s a way of preserving what finally made Maron a star, the perception that his work has, as Van Allen puts it, “an essence of true connectivity with an audience.” It’s the new paradox: sometimes you can’t become a comedy star until you’re willing to risk not being funny.