In his new memoir, Attempting Normal, comedian Marc Maron describes several of his more arduous experiences, from eating extra spicy chicken to rescuing feral kittens to bedding down-and-out prostitutes (only twice; he's "not a hooker guy"). Maron's comedic persona, which he has honed for the past thirty years, is both hostile and hypersensitive, and listening to him on stage or on his critically acclaimed podcast WTF can feel like eavesdropping on a therapy session. Airing painful personal history might not help him work through his issues ("if your life is disintegrating, saying so publicly doesn't necessarily reverse the rot") but reading about Maron's capers certainly makes us feel better. As the comic himself says, "when you hear the things that people have gone through and realize you've gone through the same, it provides an amazing amount of relief." But first, let's get back to that chicken.
Maron is a master of spinning humor out of anguish, and he sometimes seems to seek out pain for the sake of his comedy. In the chapter "How I Almost Died #3," the comedian recounts an expedition to Prince's, a Nashville culinary institution, where he chose to partake in the notoriously hot chicken option. After a single bite, the comic's face "started burning," his tongue "was swelling," and he "couldn't talk or listen." He nonetheless remained focused on finishing the meal: "I was just trying to get through this thing that was happening, this holocaust in my face… I was completely consumed and present in this fire in my being." The entire experience sounds like a meeting with the devil—but it was worth it, it seems, for the laugh.
But even when he's not looking for grief, Maron finds it easily enough. Throughout Attempting Normal, the author delineates various woes involving narcissistic parents, a bumpy career path, and requisite troubles with women. The comic has a long history with self-medication, and during the painful aftermath of his second divorce, Viagra served as a crucial curative, allowing him "to fuck [his] wife out of [his] heart and mind." Although the little blue pill seemed like a "valid therapeutic approach to healing heartbreak," the comic ultimately grew tired of acting like "a lying dick with a lying dick." By the chapter's end, Maron exhorts himself and his readers to abandon "fraudulent" additives and instead face reality head-on: "This is real life. Feel it."
The comedian knows well, however, that real life" can be a real challenge: "If you are alive and awake, sadness is a fluctuating constant." As Maron explained during a keynote address at a comedy festival in Montreal, which is reprinted in the book alongside personal anecdotes and excerpts from WTF interviews, humor is one of our greatest analgesics. Growing up, he felt that comics "were the only ones that could make it seem okay. They seemed to cut through bullshit and disarm fears and horror." At certain key moments, Attempting Normal does so as well.
For comics like Maron and his colleague Louis C.K., stand-up is not simply about making people laugh. It is about making people laugh by exposing one's innermost vulnerability. Maron's greatest comedic successes, including his podcast and his self-titled IFC TV show, have come from speaking honestly and emotionally about his life. As C.K. put it in his epic two-part interview on WTF, a portion of which is included in this memoir: "I've always [thought] that your progress [came from] taking away more and more layers of your defenses"; and "I started watching you humiliate yourself more on stage, which is a good thing."
This book reveals that more than ever; Maron's defenses seem to be down. Despite his tendency for abrasiveness, Attempting Normal is filled with softie remarks like: "I felt my heart open in relief"; "there are beautiful things in the world if you look"; "sometimes you just can't fight being in love." And if the comic has been caustic in the past, he claims to "mean well," as he tells us in "I'm a Good Person," a chapter chronicling his fantasies of the many great deeds he might someday enact. Though Maron has claimed that achievement makes him uneasy ("oh my fucking God I cannot handle the fact that things are going well," he agonized on his latest album), as his accomplishments accumulate, he just might learn to accept them. For his next act perhaps he'll find comedy not in horror but in joy.
Miriam Katz is a New York-based writer and curator, and the host of the "Breakdown" podcast (breakdownshow.com)