Recovering Messiah

By | Mar 05, 2012
2012 March-April, Issues

By Nadine Epstein

If ever there was a tale of comic resurrection, it belongs to Marc Maron. The 48-year-old comedian’s climb back from drugs, drinking and despair—with a lot of help from iTunes—is a modern-day redemption story.

The progeny of a Jewish doctor and homemaker mother, Maron began his standup career in the 1980s. A hit in alternative comedy clubs in New York in the 1990s, Maron blew his Saturday Night Live interview, then watched as his friends—and enemies—went on to sitcom deals and television specials. Jealous, angry and bitter, he turned to alcohol and cocaine. He went through two divorces, the second so contentious he based his one-man show, Scorching the Earth, on it.

In 2005, he was fired as a co-host of Morning Sedition, a talk show on the liberal and now-defunct Air America radio network. (Rachel Maddow got part of his time slot.) Desperate and broke, Maron used his still-working Air America pass-card to sneak into the studios to interview his comedian friends. Without a show of his own, he recorded the interviews and uploaded them as podcasts to iTunes. When he moved back to a house he owned in LA’s Highland Park neighborhood, Maron continued the interviews in his cluttered one-car garage. Eking out a living on the far edges of comedy, he interviewed megastar comic actors such as Robin Williams, Ben Stiller and Chris Rock, as well as radio and TV personalities including public radio’s Ira Glass, sitcom star Amy Poehler, late night TV’s Conan O’Brien and the occasional literary notable such as Lemony Snicket, aka Daniel Handler.

Ably mining his narcissism, anger management issues, food and weight obsessions, and his professed inability to get out of his own self-absorbed head, Maron brings a refreshing honesty to his interviews. They are conversations, which stir emotions in him as well as in the guests who sit opposite him. With a sharp mind fueling an even sharper and often profane tongue, Maron manages to cut through the BS to reveal new meaning for himself and for his audience, something that can elude all but the most talented comics.

He calls these blasts of verbiage—his podcasts—WTF (What the Fuck). And over the past two and a half years, they have become a must-listen for comedy nerds and insiders, plus a growing number of fans in the general public. Twice a week, Maron’s show is downloaded 230,000 times, making WTF one of the top podcasts on iTunes.

With the surging popularity of WTF—Maron seems to be pulling his life together. He’s been sober now for more than 12 years, and even gave up smoking, though not nicotine lozenges. He’s recently acquired a young girlfriend, a TV pilot, a book deal and some mainstream sponsors for his podcast, enabling him to transcend his bitterness and let go of some of his anger. Some fans have emailed Maron with fears that they may lose the tortured and hyper-neurotic Marc to a new, more stable one.

Moment editor Nadine Epstein recently stopped by the Cat Ranch—as Maron calls his small bungalow, populated by once-feral cats like Boomer, La Fonda and Monkey that his listeners know so well—to talk about his upbringing; the experiences in Israel that resulted in his book, The Jerusalem Syndrome: My Life as a Reluctant Messiah; why he diagnosed himself with this fascinating ancient malady and much more.

Tell me about Jerusalem Syndrome.
In my understanding, it is a temporary state of psychosis, a psychotic break. It’s not that common, but it happens when people travel to Israel—they sort of snap and think they’re a biblical character or the Messiah.

Did you really come down with it?
The premise of my book is that not only did it happen during a short trip I took to Israel, but it’s been happening to me all my life.

Do you still have it?
It is definitely something I’ve moved beyond. As you get older you start to question what you’re made of, and what spirituality or faith or God means or doesn’t mean to you. The questions are different.

Having seen yourself as a messiah, how would you describe the Messiah?
The Jewish Messiah is vague to me. I don’t understand it. It seems to be the domain of the ultra-Orthodox and certain sects that revolve around that. I don’t buy into all that. I’d settle for just a decent moral leader with enough juice to change hearts and minds on a scale big enough to realign us away from all this shallow bullshit, all this faith in pure capitalism.

Does the concept of the Messiah mean something to you today?
Look, if someone’s got the big trick and is going to come back and turn the whole ship around, I’m completely open to it. I’m not betting on anybody. I don’t know if that’ll happen, But if there’s a messiah who’s going to come, I don’t care where he comes from or what religion he’s affiliated with. If he shows up, I’ll be impressed, and hopefully I made the cut.

Jerusalem Syndrome aside, what did you think of Israel when you were there? 
I enjoyed it to a degree. I’ve always resisted the pressure to revere Israel, and I found it very tense, very uncomfortable and frightening. But I found the layers of history of all the different types of people fascinating. I liked going to the sites of different cultures—Roman, Jewish, Muslim—and of the different religions headquartered in Jerusalem. I was impressed with the kibbutz system, and there were some things that I found incredible in terms of what they were able to do with that dry, horrible country. It’s pretty amazing.

Where do you stand on Israel?
I’m not a Palestinian apologist, necessarily, but it seems like there are some violent and aggressive actions taken in the name of Zionism. So I’m a little conflicted about it but usually don’t engage in this conversation because I do not feel that I know enough about it—it’s fairly nuanced and complicated. It’s not my place. But I will fight against a reactionary support and defense, no matter what, of Israel.

What do you think of the American Jewish community’s approach to Israel today? 
The shift in American Judaism from its more liberal moorings toward a more right-wing agenda, because of Israel, is upsetting to me. American Jews have separated from the immigrant experience, or the first-generation experience, when they sought common ground with other oppressed people in the early 19th or 20th century around socialism, unions and everything else. Some members of my parents’ generation have completely turned now that they have established themselves. It’s Israel and economics. Israel has become like the Messiah to certain Jews. Whatever they may feel, whatever the truth may be, they are instinctively programmed to defend it. The genuine symbolic nature of Israel and what it represents was incredibly important, certainly to people who escaped World War II and to people who rode it out here. The idea that [the Holocaust] could happen anywhere was relevant. And I think that this runs pretty deep over the last few generations. But the idea of the Jew being exterminated in general and what Israel represents in the face of that is making more Jews believe in Israel than God.

You talk a lot about being Jewish on your podcasts, often referring to yourself as neurotic. If you weren’t Jewish, would you still be a comedian, and would you still be as neurotic? 
I have no idea. My family is from the East Coast. They were not that Jewy, but we did what we did. I was bar mitzvahed and I certainly lived in the trappings of middle-class Judaism. I was never taught any active relationship with God. I think that for most Jews, the cultural tradition probably has more impact on them than the religious tradition in terms of Jewish neurosis or compulsion. That’s a stereotype, but it does hold true to some degree, certainly for the late 1960s-1970s-style Jewish intellectuals defined by Woody Allen and Philip Roth. I don’t know if that stereotype existed before that.

As a kid, were you active in Jewish life?
I remember there was a period when I was in Hebrew school and I was just compulsively drawing pictures of Hitler and swastikas because it caused such a fury. I think it was probably my first real attempt at aggressive comedy.

What kind of reaction did you get? 
The standard reaction: “That guy’s a horrible man.” I’m not sure I made a connection [with what Hitler had done] until I started to see the footage of the bulldozing of bodies that they showed us in Hebrew school.

Have Jews added something to the American ethos? 
Yeah! Jews invented the American ethos in terms of how it’s perceived in a modern way. They invented the fiction. There’s that great book by Neil Gabler, An Empire of Their Own, about Jews who came here and began the film industry and, in an effort to pass, manufactured what became known as a visual American dream. They had a perception of it and they amplified it, and that fed into what it became.

Do you think you have to be religious to be Jewish?
Hell no. I don’t know what [religious] means. I mean, whether you keep kosher, light candles, go to a service in the morning or do tefillin once or twice a year… It’s never had any bearing on the connection between Jews that I’ve experienced, even in Hebrew school. Even coming up Jewish, the guys who were my friends and the Jews that I identified with had nothing to do with their religion or whether they “practiced” it or not.

Is believing in God a requirement for being Jewish?
No, I never got that sense. But then you come to that question [What is a Jew?]. It’s not a nationality, it’s not an ethnicity. It’s a spectrum of habits more than anything else, and from the best I can see, a good many of them are not hung up on belief in God. Intellectual habits, cultural habits, style habits, I mean, people aren’t called “Jewish American Princesses” for nothing.

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