Since 2009, standup comic Marc Maron has built his "WTF" podcast into the place comedians come to talk seriously.
Conan O'Brien, Louis C.K., and Robin Williams have talked not just about making people laugh, but how they live. They've talked about how painful it is to be funny – or worse, unfunny. Not everyone can handle the introspection. Gallagher, the famed melon-crusher, once cracked and walked out.
On Maron's new IFC series, "Maron," debuting tonight, the host gets to cut free and just make us laugh. And he does. But Maron has argued on "WTF" that the best comedy comes from the truth, no matter how harsh, and "Maron" makes a strong case that he's right.
He plays the man he was when his podcast began: A twice-divorced, recovering addict in his late 40s who lives with three cats and whose comedy career hasn't worked out as he hoped.
He starts a podcast in his garage, in part to make sense of things, and maybe because he's a little lonely.
The Maron today is much more successful, thanks to that podcast. Besides the IFC show he has a new memoir, "Attempting Normal," and he packs bigger venues than he used to. He has a serious girlfriend.
So he has a little distance to be brutally self-critical on "Maron." We see how flawed he is when he meets his ex-wife after four years, and sees that she's expecting.
"Wow, pregnant," he tells her. "So that's your move? I get it. I know who you are. You're having a baby at me. That's a spite baby."
Maron follows Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David and his C.K. in playing a version of himself on TV.HIs show may not make you laugh us much as theirs do, at first. But it feels the most authentic, particularly because "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "Louie" deliberately seek out absurdity so often. But Maron also feels like he has the least distance from the version of himself that he's playing.
The jokes cut so sharp that it can take a while to realize how deep they go. Things that seemed just kind of funny the first time – like a Maron soliloquy about his guilt over what he eats – got funnier for me the more I thought about them.
Listeners of the podcast will recognize that Maron's rough history with his exes is real. They'll also recognize his ambiguous relationship with his dad, who is played in the third episode by Judd Hirsch. The actor is funny, subtle and painfully believable as a father who let his family down, but still expects their sympathy.
Maron's take on himself is just as stark – it has the insight of now very sober man. In the first episode, "Kids in the Hall" veteran Dave Foley, playing himself, helps Maron track down an Internet troll who insists that Maron isn't funny and that no one likes him. It's based on a real-life experience in which Maron really did come to an understanding with someone who kept berating him online.
On the show, Maron comes to find that the troll isn't a troll at all: He and his friends couldn't be happier to meet Foley. It's just Maron they don't like.
Foley is one of many guests on the show who have also appeared on the podcast, and Foley's "WTF" may be the most honest in the podcast's history. He talked to Maron about his financial troubles because of child support payments, and countless fans shook their heads at the awfulness of a comedy genius being trapped in such a grim situation.
That's always been what makes "WTF" the truth serum it is: Maron puts himself out there, so his guests feel like they can, too.
It's possible I've been tricked, and the "WTF" Maron is a showbiz persona. But if it is, I'm even more impressed, because he's been playing the character twice a week for three years. And Maron seems more like his "WTF" self the more time goes by on his show. In the first episode he seems a little stilted. By the third he sounds exactly like the guy we've come to know, like, and wonder about.
The second episode, featuring Maron's food guilt, is the funniest of the three I've watched. When podcast guest Denis Leary, a real-life producer of "Maron," challenges his masculinity, Maron and an assistant (a very funny and deadpan Josh Brener) resolve to remove a dead animal from Maron's crawlspace.
It's a mental crawlspace too, where they realize they aren't as manly as they wish they were. But if manliness is bravery, "Maron" is manly enough.
"Maron" debuts on IFC Friday at 10/9c.