By Madeline Lane-McKinley
“Don’t misunderstand me, I have no hope,” Marc Maron tells his audience at the outset of his latest stand-up special, From Bleak to Dark. He smiles, giving the crowd a knowing look—there he is, that “angry guy.” He’s been raging and riffing for decades, dependably, if not self-caricaturing.
But something has also changed. As always, Maron has a bone to pick—yet this time, it’s not with an ex-wife, or even with his dad, but with his peers in comedy who have resigned to the schtick of “you just can’t say anything anymore.” These peers in comedy include, presumably, the comics who tell themselves and each other that being “anti-woke” is why they’re out of work (a joke Maron cracks soon into the interrogation), as well as the blockbuster stand-ups winning awards and selling out arenas, who seem to be cashing in on claims of being “canceled,” like his former close friend Louis CK. Without naming names, he parodies the anti-woke comedian’s grievances: “You can’t say anything anymore. Me and all the other anti-woke comedians, we all want to say our version of the same three things. And you just can’t say anything anymore.”
An earlier version of Maron would have kept going with the riff—probably targeting someone like Bill Burr or Joe Rogan, and making it deeply personal. Then again, an earlier version of Maron probably would have been acting out of jealousy, and an even earlier version probably would have been on the other side of the rift all together. But over the last several years, some of his most compelling comedy has reflected on mistakes he’s made as a comedian in the past, and the ways he’s harmed people under the guise of “just joking.”
Anxiety about fascism flows throughout From Bleak to Dark, whether in Maron’s indictment of “anti-wokeness,” or in his tour-de-force joke about how to persuade the Christian Right that abortion clinics are “angel factories.” For months on his podcast, WTF, he discussed the process of workshopping this joke—undeterred by any claims that you can’t say certain jokes, instead thoroughly insistent on finding a way. As a result, his comedy has been bumping up against what is far more profoundly unspeakable in our current political moment.
Rather than dwelling on the rift in comedy, or on the growing threat of anti-Semitism, both of which provide him with plenty of material, Maron moves from the polemical into a set of methodological questions. Fueled by anxiety about the fascists, much of the special focuses on the ethics of comedy: “I got into comedy because I would watch comics and they would take things that were complicated or horrifying and sort of make you see them in a different way and have a laugh,” Maron explains at one point. “It’s a beautiful thing. And necessary.” The struggle that unfolds rather seamlessly in From Bleak to Dark is over how to put an anti-fascist comedy into practice, against the monopolization of comedy as hate speech.
As Lauren Berlant posed to the jokester, a variation on the anti-woke stand-up, “The next time you hear your voice bleat, ‘it was just a joke,’ ask yourself: Who made you the boss of genre?” For Berlant, this isn’t a rhetorical question, but one that demands that we examine joking as a political practice. The joke can be a powerful weapon, which is why the “you” in “you can’t say anything anymore” is hardly universal, and in every way demarcated by power.
Berlant’s question reverberates throughout the last several years of Maron’s work, and the meta-comedic moves that are ultimately what’s most fascinating about this latest special, certainly a breakthrough in his work. Often laying bare the uncertainties of figuring comedy out, he brings his audience into the process of joke-crafting, often staying with trouble, contemplating mistakes and confusion. He doesn’t hide when he’s stumped or has regrets—if anything, however uncomfortably, it’s a matter of ongoing confession.
Of course this confessionalism is nothing new, but well-trodden territory for Maron, who has a long history of telling his audiences, much like Louis CK, about his masturbation habits, and fucked up relationships with women and food. Years ago, CK appeared on Maron’s podcast to resolve some of their conflicts and repair their relationship. More than Maron’s alcoholism and struggles with addiction, or his compulsive foot-in-mouth behavior, what by now sets these comedians apart stems from Maron’s decision to speak out against CK in November 2017. The week that The New York Times published an article with accounts from five women in the comedy industry detailing experiences of sexual harassment from Louis CK, Maron began his podcast by telling his listeners about a story he’d heard about his friend, “out there I guess going back several years,” which took place in a hotel room in Aspen, Colorado—during the Laugh Festival—with unnamed people. “It was always out there, and I would ask him about it,” Maron explained, “I would say, ‘this story about you forcing these women to watch you jerk off, what is that?’ He goes ‘no, it’s not true. It’s not real. It’s a rumor.’ And I would say, ‘are you going to address it?’… and that was the conversation.”
Conversation has been a slow, sometimes frustrating process in Maron’s comedy. I first encountered this frustration with him in the mid-‘90s, during his frequent appearances on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. Even then, as an early adolescent, I felt uneasy about his presence while doing panel, as he predictably dug himself into holes. O’Brien, despite his signature self-depricatory humor, would slip with ease into his bullying-mode, eager to indulge in Maron’s self-loathing and masochism. Years later, I had a word for this: “cringe.”
Since he began his podcast back in 2009, however, Maron has steadily gotten better at conversation. As in his approach to workshopping stand-up material, his interview style is often about hashing it out with his guest, whether it’s about sobriety and addiction issues, childhood trauma, eating disorders, or whatever else. As the “angry guy,” he’s been outspoken about being a recovery guy, and about struggling with body dysphoria and intergenerational anorexia. Inherent to the cringe-effect that was once much more dominant is an exercise in conversational vulnerability.
By the time BJ Novak was invited on WTF in 2021, he described becoming “obsessed” with coming on, anticipating that they would talk through their toxic relationship. For years, Maron was clearly fixated on Novak, making passive aggressive asides in a number of public contexts. Novak—as an ambitious Harvard boy who’d reached success at a young age in comedy—seemed well-aware of the ways he figured into Maron’s insecurities and hang-ups, while being curious about experiencing the Maron thing as a longtime listener. Years earlier, this interview would have been more about throwing punches. Throughout their conversation, there’s an element of suspense, as you wonder when or if it will break into a fight. Among the legendary fights on the show was one that broke out during Gallagher’s appearance, back in 2011, which ended with Gallagher storming out of the recording studio. Maron also confronted Dane Cook about plagiarizing jokes. But over the years, the podcast has serialized Maron’s growing desire to figure out how to change targets, how to apologize, and how to listen.
Listening is strange territory for any stand-up comedian, bound up in the constraints of an individualist form of mostly one-sided communication. Stand-ups might “read the room,” and certainly rely on their audience’s energy, but the narrative is always theirs. Yet at the same time, this sense of narrativity is part of what strengthens Maron’s work as an interviewer. At his best, he helps his guests tell their own story, finding the arc with them, and at times even for them.
Developing gradually, week by week on the podcast, this practice of active listening has clearly transformed Maron’s thinking about the politics of comedy and the ethics of joke-telling. He’s still insecure, still angry, still dealing with the dread, but there is a sharper sense of purpose in his material. It’s not just to see whether he can land a joke about difficult content, however much he may want to prove the “you can’t say anything anymore” crowd to be wrong. It’s that there’s more at stake now.
As a one-hour meditation on comedy as method, From Bleak to Dark reaches a point of clarity when Maron reflects on his experience of grieving. In May 2020, at the height of sheltering-in-place, his girlfriend and collaborator, director Lynn Shelton, died unexpectedly of an undiagnosed form of leukemia. “Is there a way to bring humor to that?” he asks himself, and his audience. He describes all the ways he imagined he might respond, outside of stand-up—a TED Talk, or a one-man show, Marc Maron’s Kaddish—and eventually tells the story of how he found a way to make jokes about what had happened. “When you lose somebody, it wakes you up to who you are,” he explains. Part of this was reflecting on comedy, and why we need it, especially in tragedy.
“I did wonder, would I ever be able to be funny again about things?” Maron asks himself. “Is there a way to bring humor to that?” He finds that “humor that comes from real darkness is really the best.” Humor disarms that darkness, and elevates us through suffering. The joke that goes furthest into this darkness—even further than the “angel factories”—recounts the first joke he thought of, following Shelton’s death. “It made me so happy,” he says, knowing that she would have found it hilarious too. At the same time, he speaks of his anxiety that she might be flickering the lights in the theater, sending him signs that she actually doesn’t like it. Beneath this, of course, is a longing to know what he can’t know about what could have been.
After the joke occurred to him, Maron called the late Dan Vitale, “the darkest comic I knew,” to see what he thought of it. “That’s amazing,” Vitale said to him, “but you could never tell that.” But the risks seemed worth it. The joke isn’t about shock for shock’s sake—there’s a real reason to tell this joke, and an understanding that jokes can do much more than harm through the assertion of “free speech.” Beyond the basic plot, regarding his opportunity to say goodbye to Shelton in the ICU after her passing, the joke is much more about what it means to joke.
Maron may have no hope, nor should we look to him for it—or to any stand-up comedian for a political analysis of our historical situation. Far more powerfully, in his inquiry into comedy, and the question of how to heal, what he offers instead are ways to move critically through darkness, laugh in struggle, and rather than going into the naming of names, weaponizing comedy against the fascists.
Madeline Lane-McKinley is the author of Comedy Against Work: Utopian Longing in Dystopian Times (Common Notions Press).