Marc Maron is nothing if not perceptive about his own tics, as his Twitter feed will attest. “My Jewish stomach doesn't like Korean food,” he posted recently, and then asked: “Racist?” Both profoundly insecure and deeply ambitious, he has built a career fueled by neurosis, self-deprecation and a droll intellectual curiosity.
"I can't do general observational comedy," Maron said during an appearance on the cable network G4 this year. "If something really crappy happens to me, I'm gonna have to make it funny just to live with it. If I experience joy, I have to tear that apart because it's uncomfortable for me."
It was only in the last year or so that the 48-year-old comedian has seen his professional opportunities widen, thanks the cult success of his twice-weekly podcast "WTF."
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Launched three years ago this September, the show is almost always taped from the garage of Maron's Los Angeles home, an abode he has dubbed "The Cat Ranch" due to the three difficult felines with whom he lives. Without question "WTF" has helped rebrand Maron as more than just a comic, but also an astute and probing interviewer of guests includingConan O'Brien,Louis C.K.and Chris Rock.
The show's ongoing popularity has upped Maron's profile considerably and opened the door to other projects; IFC just ordered 10 episodes of a television series based on Maron and his podcast.
It's not a schedule that lends itself to the contemplative act of writing, but Maron spent the better part of the last year doing just that. For now he's calling his collection of essays "Attempting Normal" (to be published next year), "but I don't know if that title is going to stick or not," he said when we spoke recently, ahead of his Chicago stand-up dates at the Mayne Stage Aug. 2-5.
As Maron makes clear on his podcast, writing is not a pleasurable endeavor, despite his natural storytelling talents. I caught up with him not long after he received the first draft back from his editor to talk about the pained process of putting words on the page.
Q: How did the book come about?
A: I believe I pitched it. I outlined a book of essays about things I've been through and angles I thought I could explore. I gave that to my agent and we put it out there and I took a bunch of meetings and sold the book that way.
Q: That's interesting, because you already have two prominent ways of expressing yourself — the podcast and your stand-up act. Why the urge to also write a book?
A: The urge really for me, generally, when I'm out trying to sell something — whether it be a TV show or a book — the point that I will finally go out and try to sell something, I'm usually near broke.
Q: So you did it for the money.
A: Well, it's not even that much money. At the time I pitched the book, the podcast was not what it is today. Writing a book is not my first choice as a way to make money. I wrote another book (2001's "The Jerusalem Syndrome: My Life as a Reluctant Messiah," based on his one-man show of the same name), and I found it to be a fairly thankless task in a lot of ways. It was very taxing and difficult, so I was not chomping at the bit to begin that process again.
Q: And yet here you are.
A: It's like schoolwork in a way, where you're like, "Oh, God!" It's just hanging over you for God knows how long. I don't consider myself a writer, really. That's always the big obstacle for me. I think I'm a good writer, if somebody corrects my grammar. But it's not really my trade. So it's my own insecurity, really.
Q: Do you write the way you speak?
A: I like to, as close as possible, because I think that's about as honest as I can get. When I do a show or when I talk on microphone, in general, everything evolves onstage. There's no writing of material, per se. I go with the oral tradition of telling stories and letting jokes evolve over time from talking them out.
Q: So you don't write out your comedy act at all?
A: I don't. I make outlines. It's not the smartest way to do it, because God forbid I get a minor head injury, there goes a lifetime of work. But that's what I do. In writing the first book, a small chunk of it was taken from transcripts, so I worked that way.
Q: Whereas you had a blank slate with this one.
A: I did, but I was able to draw from my podcast and the things that I was preoccupied with and flesh them out and bring out the detail to stories that are on the front burner of my brain. Unfortunately, the process of writing this book came at the busiest time in my life. I'm fortunate enough to have, um, a "positively" obsessed fan who transcribes my monologues, so I kind of used that as a memory bank in terms of what stories were worth exploring.
Q: What are some of the things you write about?
A: There are autobiographical pieces and then there are commentary pieces. I kind of run the gamut. There are some stand-up stories about the struggles of being a younger stand-up and trying to navigate those waters. There's stuff in there about the disintegration of my second marriage.
There's also a piece in there about randomly going to see the New York Philharmonic and my reaction to the need to understand that music. There's also another piece about my desire to understand opera (that integrates) a horrible personal fight that I had with my girlfriend into that story.
There's a story about me buying a pair of pants at Levi's and I was told that I had to sh— in a bathtub with them on and then let them dry on me in order for them to be perfect.
Q: Wait — what? It sounds like there is some creative license and exaggeration that you bring to these essays.
A: No, all these things happened.
Q: Someone told you to sh— in a tub?
A: No, not sh— in a tub, sit in a tub. Sh—ing in a tub would be very different. I don't think I would get a new pair of pants and sh— them in my bathtub. (Pauses for a beat.) But it's not out of the question. I think I like your story better.
Q: Talk to me about the title. Does it speak to your general mindset? Is that a thread that comes through in the book, of battling your neuroses to be normal?
I guess people think I'm neurotic. It's very hard for me to see myself as that. I think I'm hypersensitive and a little in my head and sometimes I get a little obsessed. So I guess if you looked at that on paper as an equation, it would equal neurotic.
Q: Your podcast isn't necessarily funny. Your stand-up act, obviously, is. Is there pressure to be funny as a writer?
A: There is. Certainly I'm going to go through this second draft and making sure that if there are areas for jokes, that I will explore them. I like things that resonate, and if I can do that with a joke, great. But if it's not a joke, that's fine too.
Q: So you're not selling this as a humor book?
A: I'm not primarily an essayist or even near the realm of David Sedaris or something like that. I think that I'm fairly willing to invest a certain amount of openness and emotion in this stuff. I do believe it will be sold as a humor book and it will be funny. But I'm not going to shy away from heavy sh—.
Q: When I listen to the podcast, I envision you sitting in a home garage of some sort. If I were to picture you writing, where does that happen?
A: On the other desk in the garage. I've got a table here with the mics attached to it, and then I've set up a smaller desk over there by the window. I can't read my own writing, so I wrote it there on a computer.
Q: How did you motivate yourself?
A: Fear of missing a deadline. It's really hard for me to sit down and do it, but once I get into it, I do it and I like doing it. But approaching the computer, approaching the manuscript — and I've been this way my whole life — it's horrendous. I might as well be having some weird fight with my computer.
I have no idea what most authors do; this is not my world. I sent my editor one essay (early on), and he sent it back to me edited, and I was like, this is too much like school. It just deflated my confidence too much. I'm not really able to compartmentalize that I'm doing a job versus "I just got a C+." I don't know if it's because I'm immature or what, but once it came back with the corrections, I was like, "Why didn't you go all the way and put a grade on it?"
So I said, "I don't think my confidence will survive this method of doing it, so tell me what day I need to have the 60,000 words to you by." And he gave me a day, and I somehow or other delivered 90,000 words — and I said, "Look, 30,000 of these, just do what you gotta do" (and make cuts) and see what we come up with.
Q: And now you're dealing with the revisions process.
A: I just started, so I'll fight with my computer and see what happens. Of course, I don't like what I've written. Am I supposed to? How does this work?
Q: You're also just starting to write the episodes for your new television series on IFC. Is the shift from essay writing to dialogue writing something that's comfortable for you?
A: Nothing is comfortable for me.
Nina Metz covers film and TV and theater for the Tribune.
Soundbites on writing
Marc Maron and his guests on his "WTF" podcast often talk about writing. Here are a few highlights.
"I will never write another novel, it's not really what I want to do. I think most people who do write novels write the same one over and over again. I figured, just write one good novel about the one thing that you know about that hasn't really been explored and call it a day. That's what I did."
— Bill Maher, comedian and host of "Real Time With Bill Maher"
"I wrote a lot of poetry in college, which I know is eye-roll inducing, but actually I think that's some of the best writing I've ever done. That's still something I enjoy doing; just going back and just finessing a scene over and over again and reordering words."
— Diablo Cody, writer of "Juno"
"So I got a book deal, which I was very excited about and very proud of. Then I got sidetracked with other things I love. I felt like I was just basically dumping letters onto the page. I couldn't make sense of it at all. ... My friends that are good at writing get up and get themselves in front of the computer and tune out all distraction and write, even if it's not something they are going to keep or use. When I was writing for NPR, I had a little more of that discipline."
— Carrie Brownstein, musician and co-creator of the sketch comedy show"Portlandia"
"I started writing some pieces for Rolling Stone, and a magazine offered me a column. The magazine was called New York Woman, and myself and Wendy Wasserstein were both columnists. That was the first time I ever heard myself (writing in my own voice), and it was really exciting."
— Merrill Markoe, former head writer on"Late Night with David Letterman"
Compiled by Cheryl Waity and Courtney Crowder