Well… at least he hasn’t let success go to his head, huh?
We’re back for another season of Maron on IFC, and tonight’s premiere essentially picked up right where last year’s self-flagellating final episodes left us—uncomfortable, uncertain, and under-appreciated, at least in the mind of title character—podcast host, recovering addict, and generally unstable person Marc Maron.
We spent much of last year’s solid first season watching people rebuke Maron for his faults (perceived or otherwise). Everyone from Dungeons & Dragons players and a dominatrix, to his addled parents and celebrity friends took turns knocking him down a peg. Indefatigable TV talk show host Chris Hardwick is the latest nice-guy-turned-nasty when Maron’s around, and his first words are one of the more substantive critiques one might level at Maron (or Maron, as it were), “Look, Marc… I don’t enjoy you.”
While Maron’s real-life friends’ willingness to appear on the show by its very nature invalidates the fact that so many of the guest stars seem to hate him, this meta-commentary on the show and Maron himself is the perfect way to start off another season . Do we enjoy listening to Maron peel back layer after layer of himself on his WTF podcast? Plenty seem to. Do we enjoy watching him act out these issues on the hyper-meta TV version? The show was renewed for a second season, after all. So what the heck is he so upset about?
Before we get to figure out what Marc’s done to piss off Hardwick, we quickly jump backward to seemingly happier times—2 days prior—and even Maron seems shockingly stable. “Things are going really well for me right now, and surprisingly, I’m OK with it,” he says.
Sitting at that intersection—between serenity and disaster—is the neighborhood Maron can’t seem to escape. Things with his girlfriend Jen—the dry yet endearing Nora Zehetner—are stable enough that he’s making jewelry purchases, but still scoffing at the idea of buying a ring. A bracelet will do just fine. He’s hired a publicist, but even she’s struggling to get people to see the Maron he’s telling himself he is. “Don’t they listen to my podcast?” he laments. “I’m not an asshole any more!”
The podcast cameo guests are back, and this week’s, Sarah Silverman, is used pretty effectively to discuss the comic’s dilemma—the intersection of real life and the “act” that is what’s causing Maron such consternation. For him, they’re one in the same, and that inextricability becomes the theme of this week’s episode. Jen, for example, becomes angry with him when he continues to talk about her during his performances.
Love remains a fertile ground for all contemporary comics, but accessibility and their current need to be “on” in perpetuity has to strain any relationship, whether you’re Aziz Ansari digging deep into his audience’s text message conversations or Dan Harmon hosting couples therapy on stage during Harmontown. Separation of church and state seems necessary, but when the raw materials you’re using to build a career are your own life, what’s fair and what’s foul?
Last season on the show—and throughout his whole career, really—Maron has seesawed with questions like this, seeking balance and inching toward a cultivated equilibrium before reality upsets his tenuous pace. Old/young. Famous/infamous. Liked/disliked. The guy hasn’t met a dichotomy he can’t use. Consider it a performance of “immense pleasure and profound fear, simultaneously.”
In this case, take his twin poles as performance and reality. He likes to think that there’s a way to manage both of these, balance the scale, and maintain equally fruitful lives on and off the “stage.” But unfortunately, Silverman tells him a truth he already knows. “It’s not balanced at all,” she says. “It’s totally unbalanced. The joke is more important than the relationship, and that’s why we’re all going to die sad and alone.”
It’s a cruel worldview, but right in line with the Maron manifesto. Whether he realizes it or not, everyone and everything in his life becomes a prop—a subject for him to riff on when his podcast studio garage door closes and he hits “record.” Once Silverman leaves the studio, Maron’s monologue returns—a welcome, if sometimes too-obvious summation of the themes: “It’s not about you at all… You’re just playing a part in somebody else’s script that was written a long time ago. You just have to decide whether or not you’re right for that role.”
To some extent, perhaps dating Jen might even represent a kind of surreality—what a “joke” that a woman her age would date a man who lives alone and seems to be so preoccupied with his cats. While Marc’s anxieties about his own age have been another theme throughout the series’ still-brief run (and I have to confess I’m nowhere near old enough to have dated anyone so many years beyond my own age), interrogating the practical reality of a relationship with this seems to be Maron’s lingua franca.
As a result, the handwriting seems to be on the wall for the dissolution of his relationship with Jen, but not before a strange meeting with her father, played by Steven Eckholdt. He’s four months Marc’s senior (remember, Marc’s twenty-ish years Jen’s senior), and the uncomfortable interaction also propels the long-running crash of joke and reality. Marc immediately opens the playbook to diffuse real-life tension, even undercutting his own position to lower the stakes.
No amount of pre-game planning, however, seems like it’s going to be enough to prep Maron for his appearance on Talking Dead. His questions during his cram session—“When are they going to get off this farm? Do zombies get erections?”—are standard logic-testing as he learns the zombie rules in advance of his TV appearance. But whenever he’s forced to interact with someone who’s an expert at something—be it dead possum removal or board games, in past times—he’s bound to fail.
In what is a not-altogether-poorly-planned crossover (Disclaimer: AMC and IFC are owned by the same company, and The Walking Dead is a very popular American television programme), the final third of the episode pits Maron against some enemies bent on ripping him limb-from-limb. Before sitting down on Hardwick’s couch, he and another guest—Michael Ian Black—trade barbs about another running series theme: “legitimately earned” fame versus selling out. Maron has always wrestled with the compromises necessary for success (Expedia commercials, Axe Body spray cross promotions), but the argument holds little weight when made by the guy who’s getting ready to talk about a show about which he knows nothing.
For new viewers, “Talking Dead” is a worthy sampler platter of on-brand Maron anxiety, and we should expect more of the same in the weeks to follow. For now, it’s still a fertile vein, and, thankfully, Maron seems to be finding new awkward scenarios to squirm his way into and out of, new ways to keep his well-trodden material fresh, and new people to piss off. Or maybe that’s just a day in the surreal life of Marc Maron. “Most of this stuff’s in my head anyways,” he says. We know, Marc. We know.
John Vilanova is a New York and Philadelphia based writer and academic currently serving as the managing editor of Philadelphia Style magazine. His work has appeared in publications including Paste, Rolling Stone, Vogue, and others. Follow him on Twitter.