You never forget your first time, but the way you recall it changes.
In 2001, when the comedian Marc Maron wrote about his teenage deflowering — a waitress was paid to take his virginity by their boss at the bagel store where they worked in New Mexico — he described it offhandedly.
“It was awkward,” he wrote of the experience in “The Jerusalem Syndrome” in 2001, “but a relief to get it out of the way.”
In his superb new memoir, “Attempting Normal,” the episode is fleshed out with sexual details and a pessimistic context. Framed by his increasingly anxious thoughts on the danger of pornography, the episode is filled with panic, shame and failure. “I left,” he wrote, crafting a poetic coda, “apologies abounding.”
It’s a better story. Analyzing yourself (one of Maron’s favorite pastimes) can be as important in art as in life, and this evolution reveals a writer who has discovered his best voice. A longtime stand-up comic, Maron made an unlikely midlife breakthrough with a popular podcast that he records in his garage. Its success has led to more exposure and higher-profile projects.
His new book and far-less-assured show on IFC, “Maron,” focus on what has become his calling card: digging deep into emotional and psychological corners of his psyche, and then making that mess funny.
In his first two comedy albums, Maron, 49, told a joke about how he’d stopped growing and the best he could hope for is “decay management.” His career has proved him wrong.
In middle age, he has reinvented himself as a singular podcaster whose characteristic crankiness is not only narrower but deeper.
Maron’s comedy is made up of riffs rooted in the humor of his intense, searching character. What distinguishes him from other bluntly honest comics is the gravity of the questions he asks and the doggedness with which he pursues them.
Like his podcast, “Maron,” a single-camera half-hour show in which Maron plays a slightly less successful version of himself, chews on love, betrayal, envy and forgiveness. Discussions of his dysfunctional relationships with his parents, critics or ex-wives are wrapped into scenes of him doing his podcast. The mix doesn’t always work. Detours through his past, emerging in speeches to friends, often feel shoehorned in. Conflicts are resolved in tidy ways that seem schematic, conventional.
The backbone of the show is the monologue, sometimes spoken into a microphone, other times delivered in scenes. What’s exceptional about his podcast, though, are the exchanges with his guests, dialogues that have the brass-tacks feel of a heart-to-heart that you’ve eavesdropped on. He’s a gifted conversationalist, particularly with peers.
Few entertainers are good interviewers. Maron is a great one, as skilled as he is tenacious. His onstage comedy has always emerged more from windy musings than tightly constructed jokes, so it’s no surprise that he’s a terrific talker — but pay attention to what he accomplishes with a pause. Some of his most memorable interviews (Carlos Mencia, Matt Graham) occur when his silence forces the guest to fill the space.
At the same time, Maron knows when to towel-snap verbally. He can make comics in whom you might not have any interest (say, Rob Schneider) sound fascinating.
A reason that “Attempting Normal” is a superior example of an overcrowded genre — the comedian memoir — is Maron’s hardheaded approach to his history, the wisdom of experience. His show-business stories cover well-worn territory (like a bizarre meeting with Lorne Michaels) with specificity and surprise. His sexual vignettes illustrating the absurdity of past lives do not disappoint. When he describes an encounter as the “perfect storm of shame and self-hate,” you believe him.
He’s also perceptive and complex in his analysis of people close to him, like his father, a manic-depressive whom he calls an “emotional terrorist.” That’s not a punch line or merely an attack. It’s part of a rich character portrait emerging from love.
“Maron” is an intriguing portrait of an psychologically complex character, but I hope it will better explore how his neurosis animates him. The important thing about Maron’s art is not the veracity of his stories, but the authenticity of their emotions. If you follow his career, you learn that anguish is not a gimmick. It drives him.
“Pain makes me know I’m alive,” he writes. “Joy and comfort are awkward and make me want to die.”