Can one “know” which Marc Maron special is best? It’s a question I thought about, as he opened his latest Netflix show, End Times Fun, with a riff on epistemology, and how everything we really know boils down to perception or hearsay.
Can one “know” what will be the special’s central theme, given the title? Slouching toward the apocalypse? Is this about the end of the world, or about how we know it’s coming? Or both? Ironically, thematic uncertainty becomes the only weakness.
I liked End Times Fun, overall Maron’s best yet.
The venue felt right for his intimate style. Romantic interest Lynn Shelton’s loving eye, direction, lighting, wood tone set — all fit. Thinky Pain — too small. Wait, There’s More — venue too big. End Times Fun? Just right.
Marc’s delivery was tight and focused, for a guy given to riffing, reading a room, and working out material on stage rather than writing. The special benefits from a year and a half of touring to tighten this material. A 70-minute Netflix special is no place for noodling, hoping to find something.
Content was largely fresh, which ought to be minimum criteria for a comedian’s recorded works. He could have done without resurrecting the male/female masturbation hand gesture joke from his last special. I cringe more for the recycling than the joke. But Maron is of an era when major recording artists regularly included the same songs on multiple records. Adding a few new entries to bask in the halo of known hits, maybe to take off by association?
Resurrecting an old joke felt especially unnecessary, since he had a crisp resurrection bit involving Iron Man and Jesus. Mingling super-hero comic-book culture with religious blasphemy felt spot on, and the extended bit involving Mike Pence was a satisfying climax to that theme.
His strongest moment was particularly vulnerable and open, as he explained male motivation “from age 9, until… well… yesterday,” in a stretch of thinky, self-aware analysis of why men treat women as sex objects first, people second. It felt universal, and the uncomfortable crowd response confirmed he was walking a tightrope. Risky turf, well played. Probably could have stretched and deepened it, mining another 5 minutes, incorporating call-backs to what I presumed was the thematic skeleton from the opening: epistemology.
Thematic cohesion left room for improvement. I felt shorted that his closing joke was a too-quick callback to a mid-show “woke” joke — which had little to do with either end-times or epistemic dread.
Maybe Mike Birbiglia’s last two specials, Thank God For Jokes and The One, or Dave Chapelle’s Equanimity and The Bird Revelations have spoiled me — got me expecting a well-crafted thesis, interwoven throughout, peeking slyly from behind every set-piece, coming together in a set-closing, crescendo/synthesis. Gawd, I need a cigarette.
But that’s kinda the point: the bar HAS been raised, and you can’t blame Birbiglia or Chapelle when Marc’s work is slightly less cohesive, rounded, “of-a-piece.” Standup “routines” are fit for a club or bar. Standup specials are narrative entertainment, see Hanna Gadsby’s Nanette.
But blaming the best for Maron’s current show would be like yelling at Bong Joon Ho for Parasite’s perfection making Motherless Brooklyn seem kinda “Meh.” Even though, for what it was, Motherless Brooklyn was damn good. Edward Norton called that movie his magnum opus, and likewise Maron has said he hoped the message of End Times Fun was profound enough that it would not evaporate like so much pedestrian “comedy.” They both strove, performed well above average. But, neither Norton nor Maron will be winning any oscars or Golden Globes.
Maron is at long last more or less comfortable with what he achieves. He acknowledges what he knows: he is, as he remarked in a nice bit of early self-deprecation, a mid-level celebrity. He has his niche and serves it well.
The Bongs, Birbiglias and Chapelles of the world tie it all together. They seem to know something Marc doesn’t.
Still, End Times Fun is solid work, even acknowledging it would have really been something had Maron found a way to come full circle on themes of epistemology, of knowing…
Bah… but what do I know?