See also: - Obama talks getting stoned and Conan rips GOP at D.C. Correspondents' Dinner - Louis C.K. debuts new HBO special, continues frightening us all with his vivid logic - Comedian Chris Hardwick on hipsters, sobriety and the true meaning of being a nerd
"Things are going well for me right now, and that's a problem," Marc Maron says in the opening scene of his show's debut episode, speaking to someone just off-camera. "Because when things are going well, there's a voice in my head that says, 'You're going to screw it up. You're gonna screw it up, Marc.' Over and over again. I just wish that voice were louder than the voice screaming 'LETS SCREW IT UP!'"
Throughout this cold open, you assume Maron is speaking to a psychiatrist as he talks of suicide, his unsatisfying accomplishments and the bizarre sex dream he had involving the person he's talking to. Then the camera pulls out and we learn he's talking to his veterinarian, who was at first interested in this stranger, but eventually became irritated and mildly horrified by him. And just like this vet, I, too, was at first charmed by the first glimpse I got of Maron -- which roused the same empathy and amusement I've felt listening to his podcast over the years -- but ingesting more than a few moments of his on-screen character, I quickly began wishing that one of us would commit suicide before the 22 minutes were over.
It's not that the show was poorly conceived. The episode has a great premise (tracking down an Internet troll) and co-stars Kids in the Hall's Dave Foley, who was scheduled to guest on Maron's podcast but showed up wearily drunk a week late. All of the ingredients that have made Marc Maron a success are there: comedy legends, awkward social encounters, cats, podcasting out of a garage. It's basically a replica of his real life, sometime early on, after he started his podcast yet before he met his girlfriend, Jessica, and his cat Boomer ran away (a Boomer look-alike features in the episode).
Yet when I and so many thousands of others became enchanted with this 25-year veteran of standup comedy, it was through a much different lens. His discontentment and vulnerability were refreshing when viewed on Conan (where he's appeared 47 times) or listened to on his WTF podcast. But when you place that same character on screen in a hyperreal scenario, he's just annoying. As an actor, Maron is as useless as a cat turd in a knife fight; he has a kind of anti-charisma that just leaves you feeling exhausted. When he runs into his ex-wife for the first time in four years at a coffee shop and claims her pregnancy is a "spite baby" that has everything to do with him -- a joke I almost laughed at -- I didn't relate to him as an anti-hero of social awkwardness (even though I can definitely relate to humiliating myself before an ex); I just felt sorry for the girl who used to be married to him. I would divorce that guy, too, and plan to take a similar route with future episodes of Maron.
A simple illustration of Maron's shortcomings can be seen when placing the show next to the FX series of his standup frenemy, Louis C.K.'s wildly brilliant Louie. While Marc Maron found his national spotlight through podcasting, C.K. became a household name through a brilliantly written, directed and produced television show. And even though Maron has none of the wit or accessibility of his similarly named counterpart (all of the actors, not just its star, are shockingly unfunny, reciting dialogue as engaging as a tax form), the biggest contrast between the two comedy programs is the empathy factor: Louis C.K. inspires affinity and compassion, while TV's Marc Maron only arouses the need for distance.
William Faulkner once said that "the best fiction is far more true than any journalism." And perhaps this fictionalized world of Marc Maron is more true to reality than the Maron we've known through his years as a journalist on WTF -- where his interviews were a kind of reporting on comedy past and present, thereby also revealing a character that was as likable and magnetic as a three-drinks-deep Diane Sawyer. But if that's true, I'll take the phony, non-fictionalized star of stage and earbuds any day.
For more comedy commentary, follow me on Twitter at @JosiahMHesse.