Marc Maron seemed to me an incongruous choice for a Princeton lecturer. Having watched some of his standup, I knew him to be both raucously funny and intensely personal, traits which aren’t particularly in demand on this campus. Even looking at the guy, you’d have a hard time placing him in McCosh 50, giving the 2015 Farnum Lecture. He looks like what every sniveling quasi-antiestablishment hipster here wants to look like, with the mustache and the square glasses and the expensive jeans.
More to the point, he is a person who has achieved an unconventional kind of success after a great deal of error, two things that seem ill-suited to the Princeton ethos. He went to BU, struggled for years as an angry comic, was a drug addict, did a leftist radio show. It’s only recently that he’s gained any kind of large or lucrative following (through his podcast and later self-titled TV show). Especially interesting to me was the dissonance between his looping and often sad-funny life story and the way he was introduced. The professors who introduced him positioned Maron as one in a long line of venerable comedians, all of whom have touched, in some significant way, on the human condition. The way this guy rattled off comedians—from Lenny Bruce to Louis CK (to Maron)—reminded me of a Forbes “30 under 30” list. These people were the best; the category happened to be comedians. The tone of the intro was one of accomplishment, more in line with the Princeton standard than with Maron, the angry liberal comedian.
This was one of the first points Marc made, after coming up on stage; this was the hall Einstein lectured in, he said, and I clearly am not Einstein. He fiddled withthe podium before dragging a stool to center stage and perching on it, a move he pulls for a lot of large shows as a type of self-effacement. Here it was a remove from pretense, same as the joke about Einstein. He quickly (but politely) dismissed the idea that he was the scion of “New Media” that the professors had introduced him as. This was his compromise, a way of both being him and being there.
What followed was an increasingly sincere look at Maron’s life story, a loose mix of the sharp comedy his standup employs and the meditative musing of his podcasts. There were one-liners throughout, sure, but it seemed like the best moments of the lecture were when people weren’t sure whether or not to laugh. He started with the neglectful Jewish parents thing, a bit he gets a lot of mileage out of. From two totally self-obsessed people he had to learn to be a person, which didn’t work out so well. For this reason, he was drawn to stand-up comics. “These guys know what’s going on,” said fifty-year-old Marc in the voice of ten-year-old Marc. He admired their ability to laugh at anything, to distill reality into soundbytes, to come up with a philosophy of the world around them in all its fuckedupedness. This systemization of the world’s ills, of the things that are supposed to make people angry, became a theme through the first half of the lecture. After his career as a standup comedian failed to take off, he took what was a vice in comedy (his rage) to a medium that might see it as a virtue: left-wing talk radio. “Once you figure out the soap opera, [you learn] where the hate is sup-
posed to be focused,” he joked, and there were ample targets in Bush-era America. However, he began to run into the same thing that blocked him in stand-up; without a nuanced understanding of the world, it became yet another soapbox for unprincipled dissatisfaction and anger. One anecdote had him searching the radio station’s email, looking for fan mail about himself. The one email he found was a polite suggestion that Marc Maron be fired, to which Marc quickly replied via the station’s company email address. “Why don’t you like Marc?” he asked. The guy replied, “He’s a child and he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” “But he’s pretty funny, right?” It soon came out that Marc was the one doing the emailing. The exchange eventually became so convoluted and esoteric that the listener ended the string: “Why do you keep emailing me?”
There was the desire to be liked, the one that had been axiomatic throughout given the parental bullshit and resultant narcissism. But something more meaningful lurked under the surface of the email chain. Later in his radio career, a lonely and sleep-deprived Maron attempted to befriend five feral cats living in his garbage, taking his first step towards real human connection. Talking about the cats the next day on the radio was the next step, and after that came the befriending of community listeners and cat ladies who called in to help him get his life in order. This formed the kernel for his podcast WTF, the thing that people—at least the folks who set him up for the lecture—are so excited about.
Normally in class when the projector comes on it’s time to check out and snag a nap. But in Maron’s lecture the interjected clips from his podcast formed the crux of his argument, and the resolution to the story he was telling. The show, on a basic level, is Maron talking shit with celebrities in his garage. He began by calling famous people he knew vaguely through showbusiness “so they could come help [him] with [his] problems. It’s veiled but it’s there.” Something about each of them, as with the standup comedians of his youth, gave the impression that they had their shit together.
One such acquaintance was Bob Odenkirk, the writer/actor/director of “SNL” and “Breaking Bad” fame. This is a guy at the top, Maron thought. He knows something we don’t. This was when he played the clip from the podcast, where, prodded by Maron, Odenkirk admitted to the same rage Maron struggled against. This excavation of the humanity of a seemingly plastic celebrity proved to be one in a series. Louis CK, whose success beginning in the mid 00s coincided with a messy divorce, called Maron out on being for focusing on his own jealousy rather than on the tribulations of an old friend. Robin Williams, in 2010, talked candidly about depression and, half-joking, mused on suicide. Here were three enormous success stories, each with serious problems that Maron (and the rest of the world) had forgotten to notice. The work of the podcast was humanizing, for both interviewer and interviewee.
The overarching narrative was, as the title to this article suggests, a movement from solipsism to understanding. Whether or not the committee that chose Maron knew exactly what they were doing—and I think they did—the lecture provided a lesson for Princeton that isn’t really taught here. The narrative of the life of a Princeton student does not include learning compassion. At best it’s assumed that we’ve long had our feelings bullshit figured out, an easy and early prerequisite on the highway from high school overachievement to collegiate excellence to getting a job and ruling the world—I mean, serving the nation. Pundits will tell you about the millennial narcissists but the truth is that compassion and connection are inborn for no one. They aren’t things you can stop worrying about after high school. They’re not skills you hone in a fucking workshop. These are extracurricular values you seek out and learn. Someday, maybe, you pass them on.