“I’ve been on Conan O’Brien like 47 times, and you don’t know who I am, right?” asks Marc Maron in the premiere episode of Maron, a new IFC comedy that’s based on his real life as a comedian and podcast host. He’s talking to his veterinarian, which is kind of funny: What kind of self-important blowhard cares if his veterinarian knows who he is? But really, he’s talking to you and me and anyone else who might’ve caught his show while flipping through the channels. Because nothing is more important to Maron than making sure that everyone knows who he is.
Ironically, the fact that he’s still relatively unknown to most of America is a big part of what makes him so entertaining. From the early stand-up days he spent blowing through money and cocaine with Sam Kinison, to the later, 12-step years when he tried to make it as a political crank on Air America, he has always made great comedy out of bitterness, particularly when he’s admitting that he’s jealous of his famous friends. (“How weird is it that as soon as any of your friends get more successful than you they’re just f—ing a–holes?” he asked the crowd during a 2006 show in Los Angeles.) To be fair, it must have been rough for Maron to watch Louis C.K., Amy Poehler, Sarah Silverman, and other buddies from New York’s Luna Lounge comedy scene get their own TV shows before he did. But ever since he started recording his WTF podcast, chatting up his fellow comedians and other talented people in his garage in Los Angeles, he has turned that envy into a brilliant technique for getting good stories.
At times, it feels as if Maron gets away with asking questions that a marquee-name comedian wouldn’t. One of the best episodes finds Maron talking with Louis C.K., who he lived with in the late ’80s, about how they stopped hanging out once C.K. got famous. It’s an emotional conversation, with Maron confessing that he deeply resented C.K.’s good fortune, and C.K. claiming that it was Maron’s own paranoia that ruined their friendship. Other episodes find Maron cross-examining Robin Williams about stealing jokes and grilling Dane Cook about why other comedians don’t respect him. He always gets his subjects to answer him honestly. Maybe they feel like they owe him an explanation for their success, because he worked just as hard as they did and didn’t make it quite as far. Maybe not. Either way, Maron is a phenomenal interviewer. Midway through one episode, Hank Azaria wonders if Maron “gives out truth drugs.”
Strangely, the only person who doesn’t come off so well when he’s opening up about his own life on WTF is Maron. Too often, he starts his podcasts with lengthy rants about his ex-wives or his sick cats or his neurotic mom. I once fast-forwarded through nearly 30 minutes of Maron dissecting his break-up with an ex-girlfriend before he finally got around to interviewing Ira Glass. Now, it seems that he’s focused his IFC show on the worst part of his podcast. Early episodes find him obsessing over his cats, accusing his now-pregnant ex-wife of “having a baby at me,” and fending off his needy mother and absentee dad (played by Judd Hirsh and Sally Kellerman). When his WTF friends do show up, frequently to play themselves, they can be very funny, sending up their own reputations. Denis Leary warns Maron that he’s getting a little soft, with his self-help books and his Joni Mitchell records, and needs to be more of a man. Dave Foley helps Maron track down an internet troll who’s been attacking his podcast, only to end up performing some Kids In the Hall bits for the guy, who’s a big Foley fan. These scenes smartly play off the same insecurities that make WTF so great: Maron worries that Foley has more fans than him, and that he’s a little girlie compared to Leary. But you can feel Maron compensating with his storylines, and the second episode feels a little too much like a humblebrag. Josh Brener plays a kid who wants to be Maron’s intern so badly, he’s willing to remove the dead possum that’s rotting under Maron’s garage. “I love your podcast! I listen to it all the time!” he says. “I’d do anything for you. Anything.” Apparently, that includes promoting WTF on Maron’s own show.
Many great interviewers are like shrinks: they coax great truths out of other people without revealing much about themselves. But here, unlike on his podcast, Maron’s not really listening to anyone. He’s just talking about his own issues. And talking. And that’s where Maron differs from other shows built around comedians’ lives. Take Louie or Curb Your Enthusiasm or Seinfeld: they’re less about the inner lives of their leading men than the comics’ fascination with the world at large, whether they’re frustrated by stupid social conventions or unnerved by their strange connections with other people or just trying to buy a bowl of soup. That’s not the case with Maron. Sometimes, when he interviews more successful comedians on his podcast, it seems like he’s really asking them, What did I do wrong that you didn’t do wrong? Likewise, his IFC show is a study in self-improvement. Each episode is capped off with a monologue, framed as part of his podcast, that summarizes what lessons Maron has learned. When he’s too freaked out to remove the dead possum from his own property, he delivers a long rant about the “little girl” inside his head who controls his emotions. The upshot? “Sometimes, you just gotta man up.” It’s the beta-male version of Carrie Bradshaw typing out one final epiphany at her laptop.
The best running gag on Maron is that he’ll give his whole life story to anyone who’ll listen, whether it’s his vet or his mailman or some other stranger. Those scenes also serve a practical purpose: They tell the random viewer all the expository information the need to know about Maron, including that he’s well-known for his podcast and his frequent guest spots on late-night TV and his early stand-up career. Now, he can add starring in his own TV show to that list. But, weirdly, that doesn’t feel like a big win. People who listen to WTF don’t love Maron because of his resume. They love him because he’s genuinely curious about people other than himself. And yet, a vanity project like Maron doesn’t elicit that same curiosity from viewers. To answer that first question that kicks off the show: Yeah, people know who he is now. The question is, do they care? B–
Maron airs Fridays at 10 p.m. on IFC.
Melissa Maerz on Twitter: @MsMelissaMaerz