"I learned something about stalkers. If you just take them to lunch or talk to them for a little while, you'll eventually disappoint them and they'll go away."
– Marc Maron
Guy MacPherson: What is your day like as a comedian?
Marc Maron: Well, you get up sweating, saying, 'Am I funny?' And then you just do the work.
GM: Is it writing?
MM: Well, you spend a lot of time thinking. I do. This is what I generally do. I get up, I cook myself some breakfast, a pot of tea, I go read the news on the internet, check my e-mail because I'm a compulsive fucking e-mail person. Like, you know, if I have enough e-mail in the morning it sort of validates my day, somehow, if it's good, you know what I mean?
GM: And not just spam.
MM: Not just spam or... like I'm on some weird mailing lists, some weird sort of Jewish mailing lists that somebody put me on. Like, I get these Daily Reflection things from this Hassidic organization, you know? (laughs) And sometimes they're too heavy... It's a weird thing, you know, to do work as a comic it's very easy to do just about everything else. You can play an hour or two of guitar, have some more coffee, then go build something. But generally I try to organize my bits and think about new bits. Right now I'm just talking to somebody. I'm going to be a part of this new liberal radio network that they're launching at the end of March.
GM: I haven't heard about that. That's great. You guys have enough conservative ones.
MM: That's for sure. Yeah, this is a whole new situation. Al Franken has signed on. It's going to be a whole day of programming. They actually bought several stations. I'm going to be co-hosting the morning show with somebody. Hopefully it'll resonate, you know? But the day is really, for me, is about thinking and writing, engaging in the world a bit. Yesterday I had some Mormons come over. These two women came over, missionary Mormon people, just doing the neighbourhood. And I always sort of frighten them somehow. I don't know how. But I somehow started talking to them and they had their little Books of Mormon and I had my weird memoir that I wrote, The Jerusalem Syndrome. So I struck up a trade with them: I'll take a Book of Mormon if you take The Jerusalem Syndrome. (laughs) And they did! They were like, 'You're going to read the first three chapters of that, right? And we're going to come back and talk about it.' And I'm like, 'Only if you can talk thoroughly about my book.'
GM: That'll be interesting if they come back.
MM: They won't come back. If they do, they'll bring three other people. I always make them nervous. They're not as aggressive as some people. I find that the people that go door-to-door, if you're not really susceptible to the big mind-fuck, they won't waste their time. But if they see a way in...
GM: I thought it was the Jehovahs who went door-to-door.
MM: No, the Mormons do it sometimes. I have found that the Jehovah's Witnesses focus on black neighbourhoods, and I think the Mormons have this thing about Latino neighbourhoods. Because when I lived in Queens, that was very much an immigrant neighbourhood, and this neighbourhood that I live in now is very Mexican-American. So I think they have this thing, since a lot of these people are already programmed for the Jesus, they figure they can just shift them over a little bit, and expand it.
GM: So they've set up a deal with the Jehovahs: 'Okay, we got the Hispanic neighbourhood...'
MM: '...and you get the black neighbourhood. It's just our numbers are good in those areas.'
GM: What about performing? How often are you out performing?
MM: I try to get on every night if I can. In New York, you know, it's certainly possible. I'm pretty much a staple there. I was just in New York for two weeks. There I go on every night, really.
GM: At clubs? Or rooms?
MM: At the Comedy Cellar primarily. And here and there. Stand-up New York. At comedy clubs, yeah. And they do a showcase format where you have anywhere from four to ten or twelve people a night doing 15- to 20-minute sets. Then I did a big show up at Symphony Space in their small theatre. Sold out this 175-seat theatre. That was really pretty exciting.
GM: Where's that?
MM: That's on the Upper East Side, 95th and Broadway. It's a pretty well-known theatre space. I always work out some of the stuff... Kind of, you know, kicking around the new broad one-person thing stuff.
MM: Broad in the way that, you know, in deciding what exactly I'm going to cover. I work kind of improvisationally. I know what I want to say, I know where I want to go. It's a matter of getting there. So I did a lot of stuff I hadn't done before.
GM: I'm a big fan of yours and yet I've never seen your stand-up.
MM: You mean you've never seen me live?
GM: I've never seen you live, or your stand-up. I've only seen you on talk shows. Or Dr. Katz.
MM: Interesting. So you've only seen me sitting down doing my funny.
GM: Yes. And I realize it's from your act.
MM: Sometimes when I sit down I'll throw sort of half-baked ideas out there. But that's interesting. Wow. I should show you my CD. Do you have it?
GM: No, I don't have it.
MM: I did this CD a few months after 9/11 that was filled with weird, seething reactionary-ism.
GM: I did sample a few bits on your website.
MM: Really? I gotta check what's up there. I gotta see what's on my website. (laughs) I got two people working on my website. I had these... One was, I think, in reality a stalker of mine for years, this guy, Jason. I learned something about stalkers.
GM: What's that?
MM: If you just take them to lunch or talk to them for a little while, you'll eventually disappoint them and they'll go away. So this guy was a real techie. He used to hang around comedy clubs and he'd wear glasses like mine, and stuff like that (laughs). But he was a real bright guy so I just hired him to do my initial web work, and he's been helping me ever since. I've got this other girl who was also a big fan and she started doing it. Sometimes I lose track of what's going on up there.
GM: The stalker thing is interesting because that's my theory on huge celebrities who shun the paparazzi. If they just stopped and waved, and said, 'Hey, how you doing?', they'd be left alone because nobody wants that picture. They want the pictures of the guys with their heads down...
MM: ...running away. Or about to hit them. Yeah, it's a very true thing. It's one of the great liabilities of me – I make myself pretty accessible. Which kind of freaks people out. You know, sometimes if you're on stage, they just want to see you on stage,and when you get off, they just want you to go, 'Thank you for coming' and walk away. Not like, 'Well, I got nothing to do.'
GM: 'Let's hang!'
MM: Yeah, exactly. That's like the greatest scene in Almost Famous. Did you see that movie?
MM: It's the scene where Lester Bangs gets out of the radio station and this kid is there. He's like, 'Hey, I'm a big rock critic. What do you think, that I just hang around with my fans?' And then they cut to the two of them in a coffee shop. That was so real.
GM: And you were in that movie.
MM: I was in it. It was a very powerful 45 seconds. That took three days to shoot. If you get the director's cut, it's almost all about me.
GM: How does your straight stand-up differ from your one-man show?
MM: Jerusalem Syndrome was really a series of stories. The book covers some of it. It's weird, I did a reading the other day up in Chicago. I had a big show to do and I had a reading at Borders Books for six people. And I was reading the book, and I hadn't read it in a long time. I had forgotten how really candid it was. And I actually found a mistake in the book that really stuck in my craw.
GM: A typo?
MM: No. In the book I do this whole bit about visiting the Philip Morris factory, being taken into this theatre and there's this montage. They show all these other corporations that Philip Morris owns, like Kraft Foods, Miller beer, and Nabisco. And I said it looked like the food pyramid in hell. And they put 'from hell' which is very annoying because it's very hacky. The way I said it in the show is 'in hell'. Fuckers. They think they know how to change things. But so the difference between the one-man show and my stand-up is that... Jerusalem Syndrome was built almost entirely in alternative comedy venues and small theatres through improvising and story-telling. There's really not much stand-up in there. It's all very funny, but it's mostly me looking back at my life through this strangely narcissistic, pseudo-spiritual way. Like basically the premise is that I've had Jerusalem Syndrome all my life because I think I'm that special. My stand-up, really, is more socio-, cultural, political observations and sort of exploring my own kind of neurosis through sort of formed stuff. But I think Jerusalem Syndrome is thematic. It's a thematic sort of memoir, kind of tweaked a bit based on real stories from my life.
GM: So that's the difference? It's the theme?
MM: I think the theme, and also, probably, the storytelling element. I do tell some stories on stage when I'm doing stand-up, but mostly they're more observational and they're a little more clipped. Each segment of that show is a good 15-minute story about my life. So it's really a matter of drawing from events as opposed to observations, I think maybe... The other one-man shows you see on my website were pretty fragmented. I seem to be moving towards dealing with my parents, reckoning with them on stage a bit, because I no longer hate them. It's sad that it took to be 40 years old before I could let that go. So I've been trying to work out bits around my family, which I don't generally do because for some reason I just couldn't figure out how. I'm trying to infuse a little more of that into the show. But I think the thing you'll see up there is a lot of my current political stand-up and some other stuff. I don't know how... What's going on up there? Are you guys in tune with the whole trip down here?
MM: You know the world is ending and it's our fault?
GM: Oh yeah. We get all the American channels...
MM: I know you do. Like sometimes, you know, you get places and it's kind of weird if you don't travel. It's like they don't really care! It's not a priority for them.
GM: No, no, no, it goes over well.
MM: Oh great. I'll do some of that, and I'll do my straight standup because you haven't seen it and most people haven't seen it. I have been doing this 20 years and have remained in relative obscurity no matter how much television I do. It's pretty exciting that I haven't garnered the tremendous following because everyone I perform for barely knows who I am.
GM: Well we know who you are but in a different form. As a guest on Conan.
MM: I used to do stand-up on there years ago. I guess I should probably stand up again. When I was a kid and I watched Letterman, I just always liked the guys who were comfortable enough to sit down.
GM: Is that a choice a comic has?
MM: It's a choice that I had. Like, I'd never seen Richard Lewis do standup. But I would see him on Letterman sitting down being Richard Lewis. I'd see Jay Leno sit down and be Jay Leno. There were just guys that sat down. And I just wanted to be the guy that sat down. I did standup about two or three times on there years ago and then I just wanted to move over to the couch and do it that way. And because of that, we've developed somewhat of a rapport.
GM: Talking about your parents, you said that your mother was always supportive of what you did.
MM: Yeah. She was like an artist/painter kind of person. As supportive as someone as insecure as she is can be. Support is always loaded, you know, in the sense that she always wanted me to do... It wasn't always, like, 'Yay, Marc!', but she always made sure not to diminish my creative compulsion. There were periods in my life where we would compete. Like when I was in high school, I would do photography, silk-screening and drawing and stuff. There were times when I could tell she was telling me it was okay just because it threatened her painting. (laughs) I'm giving you too much information. That's my problem with interviews, man. You're going to have to sort through this big mound of shit and figure out how to make me look relatively sane and funny... My mother is pretty supportive.
GM: And your dad selfish. But now you're coming together. Obviously they've read your book, they've seen your act.
MM: Really, my parents have always enjoyed what I do. I think all father-son relationships are just sort of battles to the death. And I think that with the standup, I was really sort of able to detach from anything that he could possibly have any control over. It was a very liberating thing. Like, there's no way that he could do it. And that I have success in it separates me from him. He's a doctor. So that's really created a new type of dynamic with us. And he also loves when I make fun of him right to his face, which is a great relief.
GM: Ah. That's what I was getting at. I was wondering how he felt in the book when...
MM: That was a pretty low punch. I intentionally didn't write about them at all in the book. I didn't want to give them any page time.
GM: Except for your dedication.
MM: Yeah, I love that dedication. [It reads: 'This book is for my mother, Toby, who claims she did the best she could, and for my father, Barry, whose selfishness propelled me into the darkness.'] To me, it's like some sort of weird poetic thing. It's a real gut punch. People read it and are like, 'Jesus!' Yeah, I think he probably has put it in the back of his brain somewhere. Because he is a manic-depressive, which is very exciting half the time. The other half not so exciting. But the weird thing about my comedy is a lot of it, early on... My mother used to, I'd come home from school and she'd say, 'Why don't you go make your father laugh?' I'd have to talk him off the ledge. 'Take the gun out of your mouth, Dad, it's a GOOD day! Come on, let's get something to eat.' But you know, that's the way that goes.
GM: And he's still that way?
MM: Well, now he's evolved into an unemployed baby. (laughs) He does all these weird things. My dad gets these big ideas and he sits around waiting to win the lottery. He was a postman for a while. He thought that would be exciting. Anything he does is subject to the whims of his neurotransmitter tides, you know?
GM: So he was a doctor, then a postman?
MM: He was a doctor and then he retired. And then he got bored. So he got a job at Walmart for a while. He thought it'd be cool to work at Walmart. He quit after a couple of weeks and he called me up and says he quit working at Walmart, and I go, 'Why?' He goes, 'Because they don't know how to run a business.' I'm like, 'Really? Walmart's having trouble, huh? Maybe if they had a bipolar ex-doctor at the helm, they could really turn a profit next year.' But yeah, he's a character.
GM: Do you still believe comedy is the purest expression of truth?
MM: Yeah. I do. Because I think that comedy starts with an individual voice in relation to a confusing world. If it's good. Anyone's personal truth is about as truthful as you can get. All the other truths are relative to context. If we're going to get philosophical about it...
GM: Ah, so it's personal truth.
MM: Yeah. I think so. An individual is a context as well, if you go on forever with those kinds of discussions. I just think that if comedy is done well and there's a risk being taken by a human being on stage that puts their heart on the line, it's an overwhelming thing. If you watch Richard Pryor when he was great in that first movie, you can really see a guy who's really not hiding anything – other than the fact that he was turning around and doing blow between bits. But you know, everybody has a different diet.
GM: That sounds very noble: the purest expression of truth. Yet you also have said 'there's a fine line between telling jokes and smelling your own breath inside a plastic head.'
MM: It's a weird thing because stand-up is... As an entertainer, the clown tradition, the comic character is somebody who is kind of making himself available to be mocked. And it really took me a long time to let that happen. I took myself very seriously for years. I really insisted that everybody had to have the same thoughts that I did, and that people were as neurotic and hostile and bitter as I was inside. And it was only a matter of a series of jokes that would reveal that to them; that we're all the same, we all have the same existential despair. And then I started realizing maybe that's not true. Maybe there are some people that have had one decent parent and a little bit of self-esteem and really don't ruminate in the way that I do. And that was a very liberating thing because now I'm able to let people laugh at me along with the people that laugh with me. Like, some people will identify with me and laugh deeply because they're relieved that somebody is as kooky as they are. And then there are the people that are going to laugh at me for being nuts. And that's fine. There was a period in my life where it's like if you were laughing at me, I would get angry. (laughs) The plastic mask thing is essentially that you are going to appear to some people... You don't have any control over how you're interpreted. I mean, you could take a plastic mask off, clearly. But there's some part of it metaphorically that you're going to put on that head for somebody. Somebody is not going to look at you and go, 'Wow, we are kindred spirits' but 'Wow, that guy is a fucking idiot' or 'That guy is crazy.' They'll laugh right in your face, and you gotta let that be all right.
GM: I don't think as many people ruminate as much as people like you and me do.
MM: Well, some people believe in things. And in ideas. In ways of life. In political movements. In religious institutions. In God. I read this book that changed my life. Did you ever read The Denial of Death?
MM: By Ernest Becker. He's sort of an anthropologist, philosophy, psychology guy. He's an intellectual. It won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction in '74. I found it in the Goodwill because it had the type of title that I gravitate towards. He said that the primary difference between people who are neurotic fundamentally, i.e he says that neurotics are really the most sensitive people because they can't stay out of themselves long enough to find comfort in something else. Do you dig?
MM: And he said primarily what people do, they have a core need to believe in something in order to define themselves. People are able to transfer their idea of who they are onto something bigger, like religion or a sporting team or whatever it is. If the transference is successful, it alleviates a tremendous weight off their lives; they can move through life with a certain amount of comfort because they are defined by that bigger thing. And people who are incapable of holding on to a bigger thing have a rougher go at it.
MM: Am I just rambling?
GM: No, no, no. And these people never question that thing.
MM: Well, I think that's part of the game. I think that's part of the game that they play with themselves. I think Freud knew that, too. You choose the lie that you can live with. Because if you don't, life is going to be this terrifying, completely erratic, chaotic mess of terror and defensiveness and inability to sit still for very long. I think people like us – and I'm assuming that you identify with me – you find a lot of different things to make up your personality. But I think that if you start to look at all the different things that we like, there's also a group of people that likes those things in a similar way. As unique and individual as we are, there always seems to be some sort of cultural demographic that seems to be chasing the same dream.
GM: Yeah, but it's a smaller demographic.
MM: Yeah, definitely, but it still is a similar thing. Maybe it leaves a little more room for us to experience our insanity because we feel faith in doing it among that group. But yeah, I know, the big belligerent masses who just want to watch sporting events and believe in black and white politics and Jesus... it's difficult.
GM: Speaking of black and white politics, with this radio show, it's going to liberal. Is that going to be one side of the black and white?
MM: What they're really gunning for is... It's not going to be called the Liberal Radio Network; I think it's going to be called Air America or something. They're really gunning for a more centrist... encompassing diversity, I think, is the real thing they want to do. They want to satirize conservative politics but they also want to embrace voices that are diverse in their foundation. I think it's going to embrace a liberal idea in terms of engaging people that have different points of view. I think if you were to sit there and say, 'What are liberal politics?', people would still be like, 'Uh, you know, people should help people.'
GM: The problem with all these talking-head radio and TV shows that they have with the right wing is that no one's consistent. Everyone is just 'My party does it this way. And even though your party did it that way when I criticized it, now I'm just saying, “Well, you guys did it, so we're doing it.”' And I'm going, 'Well, if you didn't like it then, why do you like it now?'
MM: Yeah, it's a constant spin going on. Anytime they make a mistake, they're very quick to go, 'Hey, hey, hey, we're past that.' They're literally, I think, issued some sort of dispatch or newsletter of ways to talk. I just bought this book by this guy, George Lakoff, he's a linguist professor out of Berkely. He wrote a book called Moral Politics: The Conservative and Liberal Mind. He really believes – there's proof to this – that after the '60s, these conservative think-tanks were set up, Heritage Foundation and all these other places, to never allow the cultural discourse to become anti-capitalism or anti-American. So they literally set out to change the tone of language. And I think that a lot of what the conservatives have done is they've really become good at this weird, narrow-minded spin that will enable them to push through their very specific ideas of what reality is. And there's so many of them that even if they're caught in a lie, or something like that, it doesn't matter because it's already been established. Once you plant a seed in someone's brain, you get those followers. It's like what we were talking about before: No matter what happens, it would take a tremendous misstep or miscalculation for them to believe that their guy fucked up. Even if you catch him with his hand in the cookie jar, they're going to be like, 'Yeah, but he lost something.'
GM: Or else they'll just turn on the offensive.
MM: Exactly! It's unbelievable. It's just fucking sports.
GM: You have this really well-deserved reputation as a thinking man's comic, as opposed to a guy who just gets up there and tells jokes. But I loved what you told the NPR host, who was trying to separate you from her vision of the typical comic who obsesses about sex.
MM: There's nothing wrong with obsessing about sex.
GM: I know! That's what you told her. But she was trying to set you apart. I think a lot of times people say, 'A stand-up comic in my mind is a guy who wears a thin tie and stands in front of a brick wall and is sexist,' or whatever. And you responded that you work blue and you believe a comic should talk about sex and other uncomfortable topics.
MM: Yeah. It's a very weird thing with those people. You have this weird contingent of people like us, who are, you know, hipsters who are somewhat enlightened, self-aware, capable of appreciating irony. I've noticed within that type of person... Like, when I was a kid – because I'm 40 now – our heroes were dirty guys. That's just the way it was. Now, I don't know, there just seems to be this whole generation of hipsters that are, in a lot of ways, kind of asexual. And I don't know when that happened or why it happened culturally, that where talking about sex became a thing that people were above, not for moral reasons. But I believe it's where a lot of excitement is. And I think it's not a hackneyed place to go; it's a very difficult thing to do blue comedy. Not everyone can do it. I don't think that talking about sex necessarily has to be sexist; I think it might need to be crass, but it doesn't have to be dumbed down or stupid. I mean, it's a very real thing. And I think the greatest standups have done it. And I think when people talk about it, it's like this epidemic. Like, I don't know a lot of dudes that work blue. It's not easy to work blue. You gotta have some cajones to pull this stuff off. You can't be a mild-mannered guy and start talking about fucking. You just can't. So the cats that do it, there just aren't that many. And when someone like Terry Gross says, 'Well, you guys are sexist and all you talk about is sex,' I'm like, 'Who? Who? I don't know who you're talking about.” It just doesn't exist anymore.
GM: Yeah, it's just the image that exists. The reason the hipsters have become asexual, maybe, is because the Heritage Foundation has stamped that topic out.
MM: I don't think they have, though. There's never been more porn and more strippers in culture than I can remember ever. I don't know why that is. I haven't figured out what that conspiracy's about or why it's been so allowed, but strippers are like mainstream shit; porn is like mainstream stuff now. It's gotta have something to do with the internet. I don't know about where you live, but here porn is everywhere. And I don't know when that happened. I don't think anyone wants to cop to that being their conception of what sexuality is. I think that what's happened is that a lot of people just sort of went underground with it because they didn't want to be identified with this kind of complete and utter objectification and perverse world. Some people would rather keep that secret. (laughs)
GM: In your book you wrote that a guy named Gus Blaisdell...
MM: Oh, Gus Blaisdell. He just passed away.
GM: ...That he was the smartest, funniest man you ever met. And it reminded me of this quote from Dick Gregory. He said, 'I think the funniest humour comes from the guy in the street who's not in show business. A comic is another form of being a whore. The housewife has sex relations, but she's not a whore. A prostitute is because she's selling what everybody else is doing for free.' Now, I don't know if you believe that the funniest people are laypeople, but in this case Gus Blaisdell was.
MM: But he was a very intellectual guy who had had a pretty interesting life in terms of what he lived through. He was one of these '60s intellectuals who had seen the real deal. And he also had a very good sensibility about it and was a great storyteller and he was just a funny guy. My experience as far as laypeople, I don't know. As far as the type of things I like to talk about, I have found that, yeah, laypeople are funny and I've gotten a lot of funny moments. But usually at their expense in a lot of ways. They don't know that they're being funny. So in that level, yeah. But you know, like some of the funniest people I know are usually writers, actually. Like my buddy Sam Lipsett, who is a novelist. When I get together with him, we really have some good laughs. And my buddy Jack Boulware, who's also a writer. He's a columnist in San Fransisco. I just find that people I can talk to who understand me, then you can really go some places and really find some good times and some funny. As far as laypeople on the street, yeah, they're characters. They don't necessarily know they're being funny. But that's true. There's a lot of philosophers and prophets out there that have no idea that they're being that. And they're funny.
GM: Maybe the funny writers are just people who don't have the balls to go on stage.
MM: Without a question. It gives them a lot more freedom, too. Writers who have success at writing, it's a very gifted thing to have. Being on stage, you have to reckon with... Half the job is babysitting.
GM: I haven't finished the book. I'm only on chapter 7 or 8.
MM: It's a quick read. It's got some faults, that book.
GM: But early on, you say you don't believe in coincidences. Does that mean you believe in fate?
MM: (pause) I've grown to believe that it's relative to my perception. You know what I mean?
GM: What is?
MM: Those moments that seem to transcend coincidence. When you say, 'Oh my God, I can't believe this is happening.' You know what, dude? It's one of the philosophical problems I have in my head. Like, I know that as many things I think may fall into my lap because of a reason, millions of things fly past me that I don't even recognize. So I know it's relative to my perception. And probably is completely connected to that. But I'd like to believe in fate a little bit, yeah. Do you?
GM: No, I don't. But yes, I understand how the feeling is there to want to believe in it. I have this debate with friends of mine who are obsessed about some woman or something. 'No, it's NOT fate that you met or you happened to see her again!' A lot of times I think it's an excuse for obsessive behaviour.
MM: Yeah, I think you're right. I think it's also related to what we were talking about, the need to find something to define you as in that moment. You know, if you're really looking for something and you really want something to happen and you need something to give, you're willing to take whatever scraps are thrown your way, and connected to the bigger thing, you know?
GM: So intellectually I'm not superstitious or anything like that, but lots of times I'm like, 'Well, I don't want to tempt fate.' Or the whole karma thing. Intellectually I'm against it.
MM: You're against karma! (laughs)
GM: Who thought that up? Who knew that if you do something, it came from a past life?
MM: Well, there's something to say about taking actions that you may be aware are, on some level, morally unacceptable. So, I think the way karma works is it's your conscience that's distributing that. You will suck bad shit towards you if you are putting out that vibe. I mean, it's all relative to what you're putting out there as you move through the world. I just know that by attracting certain people. Like, if you've been alive long enough, you're like, 'Why do I keep attracting women that are like this? How did I get another one?' You could say, 'Well, I guess all women are like that' or 'Fuck, I must be putting out something that is the other side to this thing.'
GM: It's also an inherently selfish philosophy because I'm not helping you because it's an end unto itself; I'm helping you because it's going to help me later.
MM: Yeah, I think all that stuff – all that fate stuff – is definitely a by-product of some kind of narcissism. My dad is a pathological narcissist and he started getting really – and this is a guy who is a rationalist, he doesn't believe in God. But he believes in fate. Right? Which is weird. So he started getting obsessed with Christian Revelations with end-time prophesy. He's married to a born-again Christian. This is a middle-aged Jewish doctor and his wife is a Mexican-American born-again. And he started to really get into Revelations and Apocolyptic signs and everything else, and I started to realize, well, that makes perfect sense. As this aging narcissist, who's in his sixties, the idea of the world ending at roughly the same time he does is a tremendous relief.
GM: 'I'm not going down alone.'
MM: Yeah, exactly. I won't miss anything.
GM: That's the thing, isn't it? You don't want to leave the party too early.
MM: Yeah! (laughs)
GM: I have a question about alternative comedy. I take it there's almost a superior attitude among the comics in the alternative scene, like they're better than the stereotypical comic.
MM: Well, there is some of that. But you know, some of these guys who were really alternative have really managed to transform comedy and accumulate a following. And I think if you asked if they were superior, they would say yes. All the good guys really did start in comedy clubs, guys who would be considered alternative comics. Like Dave Cross and those cats. But you know, I think that he always really went out of his way to be... he was naturally different. He was not going to be stuck in any sort of mode. And he's really done great things. We were good friends years ago and I used to live with him, but even when he was doing comedy clubs, he was completely baffling to mainstream audiences. And now he's really found an audience for himself. And Janeane Garofalo was another one who really started in regular comedy clubs, but really was a prime mover in the alternative movement. I think it was initially just to give outlet to... I think that the comedy club franchises were really very specific. It's like Clear Channel or anything else – we need you to entertain these monkeys that come here. And if you don't do that, you don't work. It's not working for you here. So I think they really sought out, as culture started to change in the early '90s and into that hipster thing we were talking about, to really find these different avenues to start talking about things that were appealing to that community and relatable to that community. It's still, I think, a really small community, but it's enough to support it. And then it became very amateurish because alternative comedy, by and large, is not defined by being paid to do comedy. It's really just about setting up a room somewhere – a coffee shop or a bookstore or wherever – and doing comedy. And now in LA, that's really sort of given way to just tons of comics running what are really just open mics.
GM: So it's a place where maybe they have the freedom to go, whether they're good or not.
MM: I think also there's just regular comics trying to be regular comics. The bigger rooms in LA or New York, like the Luna Lounge and stuff, it was funny for me because I like not having the pressure to show up and do my act. I like being able to experiment, because I do a lot of my writing through improvisation, which I can do in a regular room, but ...
GM: So, as you say, it's kind of a workshop place.
MM: Yeah, absolutely.
GM: Isn't the goal to eventually get enough of a following so that they can work clubs?
MM: It's a very weird thing, you know. Someone like Dave is a great example. Dave Cross was always one of the funniest guys I ever knew. But he completely baffled regular crowds. Then when he came out here and did the Ben Stiller show, and they built Mr. Show, and now they found this tremendous following among people who think Mr. Show is genius. And he was able from that to do an HBO special. And now he has this really nice career in show business. But that's the way he went. I don't think he's for everybody. I don't think NASCAR dads are going to see him. But there's a lot of kids out there in college and kids from 15 to 35 that like what he does. He was able to find them by being out there on television as much as he was and in the context he was in.
GM: In the beginning it might be 'Screw the clubs...'
MM: The clubs will always come around if you can put asses in the seats.
GM: You were talking about the truth in comedy and how it's the purest expression. So you have the truth on one hand, but you also have to be funny. Who, in your opinion, is the best proponent of this style?
MM: I just always believe that Pryor in his prime was really the greatest example of standup, around that first movie. Just because he was dealing with cultural things, he was dealing with personal things, he was dealing with crossing cultural lines, and he was very candid. When you watch him, you really see who he is. He really puts his heart on the line. And I don't see a lot of that type of work being done anymore. And certainly the stuff that he did is trivialized by how many people have hacked him. But I really think he was great. And I also think on some level that – like I have no direct experience of the comics the '50s – but on the record there were people like Bob Newhart and Lenny Bruce that were creating a new cultural conversation that took a lot of balls. And in that, you hear a lot of personal risk-taking and taking a lot of creative risk-taking that was really beautiful.
GM: And you think it stands up?
MM: Yeah, definitely. Oh yeah, have you listened to Bob Newhart? They're great. He's really an underestimated standup, you know? But he was great.
GM: Anyone today?
MM: That I like? That's doing it? Well, you know, I can only speak of my generation of people. There are guys that I really like and I've liked for years because they're my friends. But people like Todd Barry and Dave Attell and Louis C.K. These guys may not be doing what those guys were doing, or having the same momentum as that, but they've really become great comics in their own right. Those guys certainly reveal themselves and are the real deal. What I think it comes down to now is there are dudes who are the real deal and dudes who are just sort of pretending to be comics. Robert Hawkins is another guy I think is very funny. There's a lot of cats down here that are around. Hundreds of us.