Art Works Blog

Art Talk with Marc Maron

 “I think that the arts matter because they give human beings the outlet to express themselves freely and follow that compulsion or desire or need to express all their vulnerabilities and feelings and frustrations and struggles through whatever medium they choose.” -- Marc Maron

On his uber-popular podcast, WTF, Marc Maron is by turns explosive, neurotic, nurturing, insecure, and funny (of course). He’s also a Renaissance man capable of talking about everything from obscure films to poetry to punk rock with his who’s who of guests, such as Chris Rock, Bob Newhart, Melissa Etheridge, Wanda Sykes, Richard Linklater, and Keith Richards.

In addition to WTF, Maron’s resume boasts credits as a published author, television writer and director, radio personality, and composer. But above all, he considers himself a stand-up comic. As he writes on his website, he’s wanted to be in comedy since he was a kid because, “To me being a comic meant to be autonomous, angry, truthful, and funny.” Raised primarily in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Maron grew up idolizing comedians while also being immersed in the visual arts thanks to his mother and several relatives who were visual artists. He also dabbled in theater while an undergraduate at Boston University, and he ends most of his podcasts by noodling on one of his growing collection of guitars. In his own words, here's Maron on deciding to become a stand-up comic, how he’s coming to define success, and what makes comedy transcend from a craft to an art form.

On Becoming A Stand-Up Comic

[Stand-up comedy] was just something that I always wanted to do…. When I was a kid, comedians just seemed to have a handle on things, and they had a point of view. They had an answer for everything. They had an explanation. They had this way of looking at things and it made me laugh, and I think that that really resonated with me. It seemed like a great thing to project was the ability to deal with life in that way, and I think that resonated with me. I think that's probably part of the reason why I pursued it—because they seemed to be able to manage.

On Comedy as an Art Form

I don't really talk about [comedy as an art form] much, because I don't know that I've really thought about it in those terms. I don't think that anyone ever set out to be an artist who set out to be a stand-up comic. “Artist” is an interesting word. What does that word really mean? And how is it used? I think that stand-up as an entertainment came out of a tradition of Vaudeville and burlesque, and it was a popular entertainment. I think that stand-up, not unlike any other art, has a full range of freedom and emotions to express almost anything, and to interpret and change and mold almost any of the artist's perceptions into something that people will not only be entertained by but can be moved by. Some of the performance artists that came out of New York, I think, were really just frustrated stand-ups.

A stand-up comic is, in my mind, somebody whose occupation is to get paid to get laughs at an establishment or a venue. So I think that's where it becomes tricky to assess it as an art. It's a job, and it's a craft. You can do whatever you want on a stand-up stage. The only parameters are that you should get laughs. So if you want to get dark and weird and tragic, as long as you get laughs, it's okay…. You know, the palette is large and I think that, as an artist, you can ruminate and you can pursue and you can flesh out any of the strange existential truths or universal truths or struggles or victories that you want in life on a stand-up stage, and you can do it however you want.

People who do it well are incredible artists, and people who do it in a unique way, I think, are the real artists. I think that's really where you have to draw the line between the joke practitioner, an occupational stand-up, a hack, somebody who's just a joke-teller with no specific point of view…. There are people that are visionaries and truly unique voices and then there are people that are just doing the job. So, what makes it transcend from just a craft in a practical occupation that requires craft to an art is really about the point of view of any particular performer, and who are the originals and who are the authentic voices and who really uses the craft to express themselves in a unique way.

It seems that comedians serve a purpose to make people feel better about themselves and, perhaps, about the world. They can help people see themselves and the world in a different way. They can blow some minds and make people understand something that they didn't before. They can also defuse anger and hate and sadness. They can bring people together around an idea that maybe those people would not have experienced before. That can be proactive but it could also go the other way where a comic wants to push people into a direction where they experience discomfort and contempt. Those are also human feelings. It's [about] the comic's ability to provoke and to roll through the spectrum of emotions and struggle, which can yield different results. But I think, ultimately, art has to elevate and bring people to a different understanding—hopefully one that is not going the wrong direction.

On What It Takes to Be an Artist

It's my understanding that you don't really have a choice [to be an artist]. It seems like most of the people I've talked to that persevere or continue on are kind of possessed by the thing. There's usually not a tremendous amount of deliberation going on about career choices and whatnot. There's a practical way to go, like writers do their thing, and they can go to school for writing or not, and come around to writing comedy. But with painting and dance and theatrical acting, you have to be educated to do that. It's a hell of a commitment and, for me, I was just possessed by this need to do comedy, and I never really thought about it. I thought about doing a lot of stuff, but this is the life I chose and this is the life I live and it's been hard. But I never escaped from it or found some other path. A lot of times, it didn't work out that well. It just seems that artists need to be possessed. Obviously, there are people like, "Yeah, but we've got to work and we've got to do this." I mean, I get all that, and that's why not everybody's an artist, I guess. It's not an easy gig. It seems like you've got to be possessed.

On failure and success

I've failed a lot in my life—maybe not. I don't know. Over time, it was really about what am I putting my life into and is it working out? I think, as a comic, you just want to be a relevant comic. You want people to want to see you do comedy and you want to be part of the dialogue. You want your art to mean something to people, and for years, it didn't really. You start to feel like, "Well, maybe, I'm just not cut out for this, in the sense that I'm too esoteric or I'm not funny, or I'm not…." I never really set out to be an entertainer in my mind, but that's ultimately the job. I think success is really about breaking through to a level where your art is relevant to people and it has an effect on people and an impact on people, and it provokes their thoughts and emotions and maybe their creativity. On that level, through the podcast and what that's done for me, I have found some success in being relevant and having what I worked so hard to do for so many years have an impact on people. So that's very rewarding. But there was a lot of failure along the way and there was a lot of coming to terms with myself and who I was as a performer and as a person. I think that, over time, as I became more comfortable with myself, things got better personally and also performance-wise. So it was all part of the same journey.

On Why the Arts Matter

The arts matter because they give human beings the outlet to express themselves freely and follow that compulsion or desire or need to express all their vulnerabilities and feelings and frustrations and struggles through whatever medium they choose. I think it's part of human communication and it's a necessary part of human communication for the survival of community and for the survival of the joy and struggle of being a person and not feeling alone with it and not stifling it and not just being a cog in a culture that doesn't seem to have much context or make much sense anymore.

If you like comedians, listen to our interview with funny lady Paula Poundstone here. 

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