Comedian Marc Maron’s creative process is fascinating, and he knows it, and that’s good. On Saturday, I went with my sister to see him perform stand-up at the Palace of Fine Arts, which is a crazy place—I had kind of forgotten that’s where I’d be going, so the Palace’s outward magnificence, its distance from anyplace I ever go to in the city, and its fancy lobby with snacks for sale and statues, disoriented me. The crowd at the Palace was predominantly white, many of them in about their mid-30’s, comfortable but not especially fashionable—a spectrum from white dorks to white hipsters with nothing extreme on either end.
Our seats were far away, but I’m sure I could see Maron lurking behind the stage left curtain and talking to people as they came in. His mustache is pretty unmistakable. It reminded me of the time I met him, over a year ago when I’d first moved out here, at a storytelling event he was headlining. He was skulking around in the standing room and I told him I was a big fan of his podcast, WTF with Marc Maron. My friend Justin and I had just driven across the country and spent hours listening to it, each episode of which begins with ten minutes of Maron ranting about his life—his girlfriend, records, cats and anxieties—before the comedian interviews an entertainer in an insightful, sometimes awkward, but always very personal way. Louis CK has cried on the show, Carlos Mencia threatened Maron in an interview, and Gallagher stormed out.
So I told Maron I was a big fan—my sister was with me then, too—and he took notice of the goofy pins on my messenger bag. “Ya like buttons, huh? I got buttons for you.” He walked off, and my sister looked shocked. “That’s so mean! He totally made fun of you!” Maron reappeared with two pins, one for each of us, with “WTF” and a cartoon of him screaming on them. (I have since lost my pin.) Later in the show he stalked over and confessed, “I have no idea what I’m gonna say up there.” He went up and killed.
Mike Lawrence performed before Maron Saturday night, despite some challenges: early into the set, Lawrence made a joke about Charles Dickens, and a man in the audience emitted a cry aurally similar to cinema's Howie scream. Lawrence handled the nonsense adeptly: “This isn’t a Limp Bizkit concert”, he said. “This is sad Jews talking.” The screaming continued, no one seemed to make any effort to eject the screamer, and Lawrence excelled at deflecting, comparing the disrupting man to Psy, Mitt Romney and Lawrence’s own father. Much of Lawrence’s actual comedy is kind of obvious commentary on nerd culture—how Batman is like a Republican and so forth—but the young comic dealt with an upsetting situation, the kind that has caused more seasoned comedians to go off the rails in a way that has significantly worsened their careers, and he did it in a poised and hilarious way.
Maron started the set by acknowledging his notes, and how little he planned on actually using them. His hour-plus set included riffs on autoerotic asphyxiation, Mission Chinese (!), the necessity of judging people, atheists, vegans, Nazis, his ex-wives, his parents, meeting Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, dating a younger woman, and a cat of his that went missing. He told stories—as poignant as they were funny—about a trip to Hawaii and an experience playing baseball as a kid. His routine constantly comes close to being too insular, too slow, too angry, too rambling, making too much of an effort to be deep or touching, but he never actually ends up committing any of those sins. Thus a subplot of the set, thrillingly, becomes seeing whether any of the risks he takes will become excesses, and in general, watching his creative process in action.
I think this is how some people feel about jazz.
The "creative process" subplot came to the forefront towards the end of the night when he began debating out loud which anecdote to close with, then criticizing himself in the third person, in a muttering voice, as if reviewing his own show. “He was really unprofessional… Okay, I just need to figure out an opening paragraph for that.”
I was in a hurry to get back home after the show, but my sister urged me to go talk to Maron, who was in the lobby meeting fans. “Thanks, I love you, man,” came out of my mouth.
“I love you, too,” Maron said.
My sister volunteered, “He’s writing a review of the show for KQED.”
“I think I wrote half the article for you,” said Maron.