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Marc Maron - This Has To Be Funny

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Artist: Marc Maron

Album: This Has To Be Funny

Label: Comedy Central

Review date: Aug. 31, 2011

For avid listeners of Marc Maron’s podcast WTF, Maron’s new stand-up album This Has to Be Funny may be rather disorienting. His last album, Final Engagement, was released in 2009 (about the time he started the podcast), and in the interim, listeners have been greeted twice weekly by his stream-of-consciousness monologues that run before every interview. With so many podcasts (200 and counting) and so much off-the-cuff material, it’s easy to forget that Maron has been in stand-up since the mid-1980s and that he’s an incredible craftsman and performer, with an expert’s rhythm and control of the stage — the right timing, the right pause, the right phrasing.

Of course, there are a lot of comics that get the mechanics right. They make you laugh; they know how to lead you away from the joke. They’re good architects. But after leaving the club or theater or after turning off their Comedy Central special, you forget about them. What makes Maron more than just memorable — what makes him a comic that actually affects you — is his vulnerability and his capacity to be as honest and as genuine as possible on stage.

Being vulnerable is one of the elements of being a good comedian because being vulnerable attunes you in a certain way to the world. To be vulnerable is to be open to things that people who aren’t attuned that way won’t notice. This can be in a superficial way, like the onslaught of observational comedians that appeared in Jerry Seinfeld‘s wake, or in a deeper way like Maron’s existential comedy. When you are vulnerable, you can see the truth about things, and commenting on that truth — which everyone else is aware of in a peripheral way — bringing that truth to the forefront breaks the tension most people feel by sensing what is really going on in the world but maybe not having the ability to verbalize it.

There’s lots of ways for something to be comedic, but one way that is fairly standard is pointing out something unusual and then picking at it like a thread on a sweater. Whether it’s stand-up, sketch or improv, you take this unusual thing and dissect it from every angle. In the case where what you are discussing is what’s true about the world, a truth that no one is talking about, that truth is “the unusual thing.” It goes beyond the joke line “he’s saying what we’re all thinking” to “he’s saying what we’re all nominally aware of but know to be true.”

Now, truth on its own isn’t funny. Truth is just facts. Having an interesting take on that truth and playing with that truth and bringing the audience in on it (making them feel included in the truth), well, that’s what comedy is. One has to be vulnerable to see the truth in the first place but then — and all good comedians have their own way — they must have a further, or more highly-developed vulnerability that allows them to take an even-further step back and see why it is unusual, conveying that deeper truth to the audience.

Now Maron can write a joke if he wants, and he can make observations about things and be funny. On This Has to Be Funny, he does an almost 20-minute chunk on the Creation Museum. However, where Maron is unique is in admitting to the world that he and his life are the unusual thing, and then in deconstructing that fact in front of the audience in a joyful way. Comedian Jimmy Dore, who hosts the great podcast Comedy and Everything Else, is fond of quoting, “Comedians don’t say funny things, they say things funny.” This is the difference between a good comedian who knows the mechanics of hiding a punchline, and a really deep, affecting comedian who can make anything funny. Lots of people can create jokes, but not everyone has the capacity to open themselves up and be truly attuned to all the discrepancies of existence. Maron says things funny. Ninety percent of his material would fall flat coming out of the mouth of another comedian, but with his way of speaking, his way of conveying what’s true about his life, the material is real and vital.

On the 200th episode of WTF, instead of being the interviewer, Maron sat down with comedian Mike Birbiglia and was interviewed by him. In the course of the discussion, Maron said, “The best thing you can do as a comic is make someone feel less alone. … There are two things that I think are essential with good comedy: That you actually make somebody see something in a different way completely. Or that you make people feel less alone.” Being vulnerable opens one up to seeing the world in different ways, but it also makes one an exemplar. It shows people that they too don’t have to be closed off and guarded. Maybe people believe that to let someone in is to show weakness, and in a world drained of color by rampant capitalism and Rand-ian self-interest, letting someone in is devalued, so cultivating that vulnerability is a skill that few work on (because it is a skill that takes a lot of hard work and the results aren’t always immediate or easily commodified), but luckily there are people like Maron out there to show that there is meaning and there is purpose in breaking down one’s defenses and opening up.

By Andrew Beckerman

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