Category Archives: comedians

Has success ruined Marc Maron?

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Marc Maron’s redemption from life in the lower-middle tiers of the comedy world began in 2009 with his podcast, “WTF”, done from his garage in Highland Park, a hipster-friendly neighborhood in Los Angeles.

“WTF” features a musical intro that features the sound clip “Call off your dogs!” which is, I think, originally shouted by Heathcliff, the tortured hero Wuthering Heights, although of course the idiom goes back further than that.   Maron like Heathcliff feels continuously under attack, by the memories of his own neglectful upbringing, by his own demons, but mainly by the successes of others.

As a showbiz professional Maron had the role of the ultimate “Insider’s outsider”, eclipsed by the good fortune accorded to his peers: Louie CK, Sarah Silverman, Denis Leary, and anyone who made it into the cast of Saturday Night Live.  But unlike most carefully-calibrated celebrities, he was mad as hell and going to tell you about how angry and jealous he was –  an extremely compelling point of view in a society that says that as long as you pursue your dream, you will end up a winner (see blog post “Not tickled by the magic feather“).

Here then was the worst nightmare of our national myth:  that you can try your best, be pure of heart, but due to bad luck fail miserably as you watch others, perhaps less talented and dedicates, succeed.  Maron feels instead the more ancient truth of Psalm 73:3 “For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.”

Who wouldn’t feel sympathy hearing about his struggles to understand being rejected by the pasha-like Lorne Michaels in favor of the lesser lights that have made up the cast of late-stage Saturday Night Live?

Marc Maron shared the struggles in his personal life as well: his difficulty maintaining relationships, his lack of male friendship, a certain weirdness with food, and loneliness on the road.

But his fortune slowly started to change.  The podcast caught on.  He hosted, and often reconciled with, many of his former comedy buddies who had since become luminaries.  This made for dramatic “podio”.

More success followed, spots on NPR and a development deal that resulted in his show “Maron” on IFC and Netflix.  the series follows his own life: Maron lives in a little house in Highland Park, with cats, doing podcasts and kvetching. His character is  entertainingly unapologetic about not living up to the mainstream requirement of being an “alpha male”, and there are some funny moments when he makes a go and fails at doing traditionally male activities: retrieving a dead raccoon from a crawlspace (he doesn’t know what a crawlspace is), and dressing up in a gaudy Los Angeles Kings jersey in an attempt to get into the spirity of watching a hockey game with Ray Romano.

As the show develops we begin to see something different from the rough-edged persona from the “WTF” podcast, instead a carefully-curated character who is not only quite successful but fiercely competent, a bit prissy, and perhaps a little entitled.  Maron lives in a beautifully-appointed, carefully-landscaped house, with tastfull mid-century furniture and Pottery-Barn-style paint jobs.  His wardrobe changes frequently and would make Ira Glass jealous: hipsteresque Western shirts with pearl buttons, up-market boots and jackets, and designer jeans (see his New York Times article “My Desperate, Stupid, Emotional Hunt for the Perfect Pants“).

Maron’s social life becomes lavish as well.  An attractive woman 19 years younger sends him a fan email with a photo of her vagina, she then picks him up at the airport for a “sex-fest” and later becomes his girlfriend.  A pretty single mom picks him up in a coffee shop when his much younger barista sex-buddy is too busy for him.  A realtor insists on being “taken” up against a grand piano in the  empty house she is showing.  And Maron is often accompanied by a coterie of less-successful male comedians.  He hires a very funny, Maronesque young assistant (Josh Brener) who worships him and wants to be him.

This is a very different dynamic than the disheveled man we imagined behind the mic, doing his podcasts after a cat food run.  The factors that made the podcasts interesting (and they weren’t always, there are plenty of boring ones) began to become less apparent on the t.v. show Things like figuring out the degree to which his lack of success was due to personality flaws versus bad luck or fate; enjoying see the example of another man, my age, dealt with loneliness and a feeling of “not fitting in”;  and finally seeing how someone who was in the popular culture navigated how his personal life should be integrated into that culture.

The last issue as an example, the interplay between his personal life and his onstage performances,  became reduced in the t.v. show to a plot-advancing devices with little nuance, e.g.,  Maron alienating his new girlfriend by revealing aspects of their relationship in public.  This may have indeed occured, but it’s treated in such a broad comic way that seems very different from his more confessional radio style.

As this interesting outsider voice becomes muted, there becomes less to talk about and the episodes become more confabulated:  there is a pot-smoking sequence with David Cross (whom I love) where he gets Marc’s parents high, resulting in a sodium pentathol-like effect where they reveal their caring side to the tune of a sitar playing in the background.

To his credit the issue of success is occasionally addressed through interplay with his less-successful buddy comedians (Andy Kimmler and Dave Anthony).  There’s a revealing episode at the end of Season 2, where Marc and his friends make a trip to a trailer park in the desert to check on an older hack comedian who has stopped answering texts.   It turns out he has suffered a heart attack and died in his trailer, after writing the setup – but not the punchline to the joke “I can’t stand magicians.You know what would be a real trick?”.  The comedians struggle with how to finish the joke (my favorite punch line “You know what would be a good trick? If someone could stop this crushing pain in my chest”.) just as much or more than they struggle with their feelings about his death.  During the long period while they wait for an ambulance Marc is ribbed about an upcoming appearance on the Charlie Rose show and is forced to admit that he is now a cut above, but insisting he has not become arrogant about it.

Inevitably the show is going to have to explore whether Maron’s success, getting what he wants, makes him happy.  It’s easy to say that it won’t, that he’ll be like Karl Knausgaard, grumblingly collecting accolades. That would certainly be in-character, however the degree to which the show can honestly address this issue, even if it means exposing artifice in his previous “pure” persona, will determine whether the show stays interesting.

 

 

Whatever

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In the Woody Allen film “Whatever Works” a tone-deaf Larry David plays a Woody Allen manque and falls flat.  It doesn’t help that he’s plugged into a poorly-written formula comedy.  I love Larry David in “Curb Your Enthusiasm” but he appears to be one of those supremely successful orchestrators who, like Madonna, cannot get outside themselves, or rather, can’t get inside themselves.

The character he plays “Boris Yellnikoff” is crueler and more astringent than Alvy Singer or any of Allen’s previous protagonists.  When the adoring Evan Rachel Wood appears with snowflakes in her eylashes, I literally cringed.  I did the same when Mariel Hemingway’s character appeared in “Manhattan”.  I can’t suspend my disbelief that these attractive young women are attracted to self-congratulary old farts.

A far more realistic scenario played out with the relationship between Max Von Sydow and Barbara Hershey in “Hannah and Her Sisters”.  Hershey, although younger,  doesn’t play a noble innocent, and Von Sydow, although bitter, is gritty and truly wounded.

In order to be successful, “Whatever Works” should have been written as a broad, character-driven comedy.   In that case the lack of realism wouldn’t have mattered.  They key is “broad” though, think early Woody Allen.  An alternative would have been to go for realism – to make Boris Yellnikov a serious person, someone more like Sherwin Nuland’s old-world father in “Lost in America” (the book, not the Albert Brooks movie), someone who has seen their beliefs fail.  This would raise the stakes tremendously when the character finally goes against all his fears and falls in love, only to be abandoned.  Von Sydow and Hershey approached this in “Hannah”:

“Lee, you’re my whole world….Good God.   Have you been kissed tonight?  Yes, you have.   You’ve been with someone!

Stop accusing me!

I’m too smart. You can’t fool me!  You’re turning red!     Leave Me!  Oh, Christ! What’s wrong with you?

I’m sorry.

Couldn’t you say something?  You slither…”

Tough stuff and I liked it a lot better.  “Hannah and her Sisters” stopped there though, it tacked on a sentimental ending with a pregnant Hannah and all the main characters neatly paired up.   I wonder if Woody Allen subconsciously put Larry David, in some ways his spiritual heir, into a movie he can’t have helped knowing was a weak imitation of earlier work.  On the other hand he has put out a lot of weak imitations.

Most of the reviews I’ve read for “Whatever Works” have praised the “sunny” performance by Evan Rachel Wood is the best thing about the movie.  To me this is an intellectual shortcut because Wood was in fact playing a “sunny” character, it’s like saying someone gave a “tired” performance when they were playing a fatigued character.  Argh, like Boris Yellnikoff sometimes I hate everyone.

If there is a positive aspect to this film, it’s to put in sharp relief what an original, strong and interesting character Allen Stewart Konigberg created in “Woody Allen”. Woody Allen, more than any other public figure of the time,  broke through the dominant American “Gunsmoke” culture of anti-intellectualism and anti-semitism.  He snuck in through the back door of comedy and soon could not be ignored.

It’s no suprise then that growing up, Allen Konigsberg was an capable athlete, musician, magician and all-around non-schlemiel. These days I can’t keep up with the churn of his mediocre movies.  It was only because of Larry David that I watched “Whatever Works”and I was disappointed on all counts.

The Charles Nelson Reilly Conundrum

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I’ve recently run into several mid-30’s, culturally hyperliterate NYC women who, when asked if they know who Charles Nelson Reilly is, respond with a blank stare. Although the Krapmeister is no spring chicken, this is making me feel Really Old, it’s putting me into Ian McKellan in “Gods and Monsters” territory.

CNR was a gem, one of the first openly gay comedians on network t.v. I don’t think Paul Lynde was “out” to the same degree.

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Charles Nelson Reilly started out taking acting lessons with Steve McQueen, once married to the lovely Ali McGraw, (see previous post, ed.) He appeared on Broadway and won several Tonys and later became a “game-show fixture”. His spluttering, sailor-hatted, giant-glasses-wearing, ascot-sporting persona was funny and refreshing to me, and I always imagined him as a calm, honorable mensch underneath.

This would distinguish him from Paul Lynde who was also very funny but with an air of menace that hinted at the mean-ass alcoholic he was in real life. There is an apocryphal story of how, as a confirmed kid-hater, he was driven crazy by a squalling baby on a long plane flight. He is said to have left his seat and confronted the baby’s mother, saying “Madam, if you don’t quiet that baby I’m going to fuck it!” It’s bad enough he says “fuck” in regard to the kid but he also calls it an “it”. Drugs, rough trade, booze, early death… standard Hollywood story arc.

But back to me. Why is it that it’s so difficult in the ostensible cultural capital of the world to find a woman who knows who Charles Nelson Reilly is? I’m not big on cultural litmus tests but I’m feeling a little isolated here. Now if I could only find someone who knows who this man is:

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