Marc Maron on Turning Tragedy Into Comedy in His New HBO Special

Feb 10, 2023

It’s possible that comedian Marc Maron is busier than he’s ever been. WTF with Marc Maron, his hugely successful podcast where he interviews notable figures from entertainment while also publicly wrestling with his own personal demons, is still dropping new episodes every single week. Meanwhile, his late-blooming acting career continues to gain momentum, with Maron picking up more and more film work, including a key role in last year’s Oscar-nominated To Leslie. And, this Saturday, he’ll debut his first full-length HBO comedy special, Marc Maron: From Bleak to Dark, which features material he honed while out on the road last year. From Bleak to Dark finds Maron tackling recent personal tragedies — including the sudden death of his girlfriend, director Lynn Shelton — to perform the kind of darkly introspective (yet still very funny) comedy that he’s most known for.

During this interview with Collider, Maron candidly addresses the emotionally tough material he makes the focal point of his new special. He also talks about the surprising Oscar controversy surrounding his To Leslie co-star Andrea Riseborough, as well as the unfortunate, early demise of GLOW, the wrestling comedy-drama he starred in that Netflix cancelled near the start of the Covid-19 outbreak.

COLLIDER: I grew up watching comedy on HBO — things like Comic Relief and especially all those George Carlin specials, which were appointment viewing. I know you’ve made some smaller HBO appearances before, but now that you’re debuting your first full-length HBO comedy special, do you feel like you’re tapping into that legacy?

MARC MARON: Oh, yeah. I was thrilled to be offered the opportunity to do it because I’ve been doing this a long time. I started professionally working as a comic in the ’80s, and when I started there was only one outlet really for specials — and it was the HBO special. So that was always the dream. It just came circuitously and at an odd point in my career and at an odd moment in history, media-wise. But I’m thrilled. It was weird because Netflix had first look. I was in a deal with them for the other specials, so part of that was they get to choose if they want [the new one]. And [Netflix VP of Stand-Up and Comedy] Robbie Praw over there was like, “Nah.” And I’m like, “Great.” And then HBO was like, “We want it.” And this couldn’t have been a better thing because, in some ways, as a stand-up, you don’t really want to be on Netflix, do you? Because it’s such a gamble, and they don’t get behind anything. You’re just there to see what the algorithm dictates. Whereas HBO is still like a curated network where they’re going to support it. They’re going to make sure it’s great, and they have good taste in content. And I’m talking to you! A Netflix special now, it’s sort of like, “Yeah, who doesn’t have a Netflix special?” So that aside, what it kind of triggered in me as a comic was: This is really the best thing that could happen — to be part of that legacy.

So knowing that sort of hallowed legacy exists, did it then feel any different for you planning or filming the special now that you’re officially joining this sort of comic pantheon?

MARON: I’ve done a lot of different types of specials, in terms of how they look and my approach. I think Steven Feinartz did an amazing job directing it and honoring some of the ideas I had around the set and around how we would handle it. But, yeah, I was definitely aware that I was going to be on HBO, and it did make a difference to me. I think I’m moving around more than I have in years on this special. The first third of it, I’m up and at it. I do end up working intimately in the middle of this special, and I’m very aware of all these elements. But I think because I keep evolving as a comic — and I do think I’m doing the best work that I’ve done — all the things that I’ve become conscious of over the years doing specials, all the corrections, have been made for this.

Image via HBO

I was actually at your stand-up show here in Pittsburgh last May, and it was fantastic. It was also, honestly, longer than I was expecting, and it was a little freewheeling in a great sort of way.

MARON: Was that one two hours?

Yeah, it was. So, my question is, what has the process has been like of taking what I saw in May and really tightening it up for a filmed televised special?

MARON: That’s the biggest trick of it all, and that’s the hardest thing. It usually comes up to literally the week before, when I’m in a panic, and I’ve got to get that down to an hour. So I really have to decide what stays and what goes, and it has to be big pieces. So I knew that the 15 minutes of Covid riffing could go because every comic is doing their take on that shit, and it’s not necessary. [Pittsburgh] must have been one of those shows where I’m just putting out a lot of stuff, and certain chunks didn’t need to be in there. There were different pieces that were kind of standalone pieces that I just took out … you know, 10-minute pieces. So that’s the hardest part. And also to find through lines and to find a couple of callbacks and to sort of tighten up things that are already there. It’s tricky, man. There was a lot of loose stuff, and some of it was really pretty good. But I think what I ended up with was as tight as it could be. And some of the stuff that I took out was I think distracting from the emotional and comedic power of some of the stuff.

I wanted to ask about Lynn Shelton, and, obviously, my condolences for your loss.

MARON: Thank you.

She’s very present in the special. It’s dedicated to her. I know you tell some jokes about how you were expected to address that loss in your work: “Do I do a TED Talk? Do I do black-box theater?” But I do wonder if you found yourself at some point having to make a definitive conscious choice like, “Yes, I’m going to choose to tackle this horrific event, not just when I’m by myself recording my podcast, but in my stand-up in front of large crowds.” Was that a conscious decision you had to make?

MARON: Yeah, it was a conscious decision. But once we were able to do stand-up again, despite my emotions, what I would do and the way that I began to work it was: I would do a residency here at Dynasty Typewriter, which is a black-box theater, seats maybe a couple 100, not heavily publicized, with my fans knowing that I was work shopping stuff, and I was able to allow myself whatever emotions would come in talking about it. And given that I write on stage and that’s how I generate stuff, I would see if my sense of humor, which is what I rely on up there, would step in and how that would evolve. So there were definitely early performances, for a few months, where I would talk about that stuff and I would get choked up. And there would be points where the emotion would become very real in terms of the sadness, and it would overwhelm and maybe diminish some of what I could do comedically. But, ultimately, it found its level, and it was just through repetition and finding more beats. I think [the special’s] hummingbird piece — if I just presented it as a story, it would be a great piece as a theatrical story. And it would be heartbreaking and somewhat uplifting because of the nature of the birds and everything. But, through the process, that was always going to be there — the heart-breaking piece. But there was a way to engage with the birds comedically, and that kind of unfolded. To address your question, I kind of knew I would have to figure out how to do it on stage, and I was hoping that the comedy would find itself. But it did — it found its level.

Having seen a large portion of this show in May — and I don’t want to spoil anything for anyone — but there’s a really dark joke that’s kind of the stinger at the end of the section about Lynn in the hospital. And my biggest question going into watching the special was: Is that joke going to be there? It is indeed there. It landed in Pittsburgh. It looked like it landed during the New York taping. I know you say that humor that comes from real darkness is the best humor. But are you ever surprised that your audience seems very willing to follow you to some of these admittedly funny but very dark places?

MARON: Well, I think that if they come from a human place, I mean, what choice do they have? Like, I’m not making it up for the sake of being dark, which I’ve done at different points in my life — and you see a lot of that now, just shock-driven stuff. This is jarring more than it’s shocking because it’s rooted in experience. So I’m telling a story that’s a human story, and, if it makes you uncomfortable, I get it. But landing that thing — I didn’t know. That’s why I chose to tell the story about the darkest joke that I came up with, the first joke that made me feel better, as opposed to just doing it without explanation. And then that setup becomes harrowing and horrible. So there is a lot on that punch line. The concern really was: Is this appropriate? I’m not a guy who says you can’t do anything comedically. You can do whatever you want. But really it became a question of: What about her family? Is this a violation of something? And I was able to sort of leave that open-ended by [talking about] the mystical experiences around the lights and the microphone. I do think that it all works. But you do think about that. I feel okay about it because I do think that people have gotten to that place of horror in their lives — and tragedy and shock — where even that weirdest, darkest thought can pull you out. It’s like a lifesaver. So I think the nature of that is bigger than questioning the moral integrity of that joke.

Image via HBO

Even though you do briefly touch on some sociopolitical stuff in the special, there’s no mention of Trump. There’s no mention of Washington, D.C. There’s subtly political stuff, but there’s not overtly political stuff. Was that on purpose just because you’re sick of it like a lot of us are? Or did the material just go in another way?

MARON: Well, in the first segment of the last special, I really dealt with the menace of Trump and the terrifying reality of it. But I chose to focus on the tribalism of comedy and information — of bubbles. But I think it all speaks to roughly the same thing. I still believe the threat is fascism. Maybe that’s not as tiring or framed as such. It’s a broader approach, but I like it. I like doing the guy with the elk’s heart [bit]. That was on the cutting block, and I’m like — I really need that to be in there because it’s going to start some shit with a certain tribe.

We have some folks on the staff here at Collider who are big fans of To Leslie, which is one of the films you appeared in last year. That movie has been in the news a lot the last few weeks, first for some good reasons and then for some weird reasons. Have you found yourself invested in how all of that stuff is playing out? Or are you just happy that the movie is going to get more eyeballs on it now after Andrea’s Oscar nomination?

MARON: I spoke about it publicly on my podcast, and that seemed to get some juice. I’ll be diplomatic with you — for whatever reason, I haven’t been — but if the Academy has an issue around the vagueness of some particular rules in terms of how they apply to social media, they should quietly fix that. I think the idea of publicly announcing an investigation of a campaign that was on the level — no one saw it coming. I think it was, to a degree, in relation to what they were seeing as bad optics around the actors that were no longer in the running. And I think they were probably bullied by studio publicists and consultants. The reaction to it was kind of bad faith and kind of made them look shitty. And it seemed to me that, after the investigation, there was really no wrongdoing found, and even after journalistic investigation, there wasn’t. I think what happened is a community of actors rallied for one of their own who would not have been noticed for that work. And, ultimately, I just feel bad for Andrea because she’s not the kind of actor that gives a shit about this stuff or that was gunning for it. And now this amazing thing happens, and it’s just totally toxic. How do you just be excited after all that bullshit?

I was a huge fan of GLOW, and, just as a fan, losing that final season to Covid still stings. As someone who lived it, who starred in it, does the bad luck of that whole situation still piss you off? Or were you able to sort of compartmentalize it and positively divert that energy toward other stuff?

MARON: Covid was so harrowing, and what I was going through personally was so harrowing, too. And I think that Netflix was going to cut it loose anyway. I’m upset about the bad luck, but I believe that Netflix held onto those studios and those actors for a very long time. And I know they have bottomless pockets, and they have all this money. But they didn’t do it lightly. It was disappointing that they finally said, “Look, we can’t keep holding onto these studios,” or whatever. And there was really no way to shoot it safely with that many actors. There just wasn’t. But I’m upset that they didn’t … why couldn’t they have just made a movie?

Is there any chance that could still happen or no?

MARON: I don’t know that anyone is working on it. But if they believed in it — I’m more mad at Netflix, in general, for not just saying, “Well, why don’t we just make this last season a film?” They could have done that, and we could have shot that after the pandemic. But I just don’t think they’re really good at supporting anything that doesn’t add up to global business for them, and that’s just the nature of it. So, yeah, I was disappointed because we needed to finish it, and we were going to finish it. Alison [Brie]’s character and mine were going to get together.

Maron’s new comedy special, Marc Maron: From Bleak to Dark, begins airing on HBO and streaming on HBO Max on Saturday, March 11.

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