Directed by Lance Bangs, written and performed by Marc Maron.
A first, at least in a while: The opening segment of a standup comedy special is actually funny. Maron and Tom Scharpling, backstage, discuss Maron’s anxiety about walking onstage—which he’ll do a few minutes later—and worries about his relationships, about growing older, about being worth all this hoopla. Scharpling, so acerbic and vituperative on his own Best Show on WFMU, is the calming, kind force here—a surprise that made me chuckle. Maron and Scharpling talk it out, and Scharpling even says what all WTF with Marc Maron fans (and I’m one) must be thinking: “This feels like we had a mini-podcast here.” Maron emerges from the therapy session, walks onstage, and proceeds to kills for 90 minutes. Yeah, it’s a long set by standup standards. Yeah, he rambles a bit and braves moments (30 seconds, 60 seconds at a time) in which there’s no laughter. He radiates his restless anxiety to the audience, so that these laughless pauses don’t bore but somehow invigorate. What’s coming next? (I dunno.) Will this digression add up to something funny? (Yes, usually.) Will he deliver a good joke that the audience fails to laugh at? (Several times.) The venue’s perfect for Maron, a small basement room that looks to hold about 150 folks, seats incredibly close to the stage and not much below it. He feels crowded in, a caged animal. A kind animal, sure, but an animal all the same. Maron exposes his id, sometimes with seeming reluctance (as in a story of how he cured his teenage hypochondria) and sometimes with the mounting glee of release (as when he goes off on atheists—despite not really believing in God himself—and vegans, and especially atheist vegans). Lance Bangs shoots the show as if Maron’s in a prison of his own making. There are few crowd reaction shots, and the composition’s primarily midrange, so that we see tiny Maron prancing around the void of a black stage but only a glimmer of anything else (the audience, the décor) beyond it. Otherwise, the shots tighten on Maron, who crouches on a stool, clenching himself, for much of the set. Despite those physical gestures, Maron seems to be genuinely enjoying himself, and it’s clear that his audience is sympathetic. He’s 49, a point he brings up repeatedly and hilariously, and exposes his midlife crisis onstage. But he’s self-possessed and hyper-articulate too. In his discussions of vinyl collecting, fashion, love, divorce, pornography, and childhood trauma, Maron reveals an intelligence and sensitivity that’s alarming both because they move so quickly and because they go to uncomfortable places quickly. He dissects his life in real-time, almost as if he’s self-editing as he’s telling the joke, and then deciding, “fuck it, forget the edit, here it is, folks” in the midst of the joke. In one great moment, in recounting his relationship with a woman two decades younger, he destroys the myth that people (often bitter older women) have that older men date younger women to “make themselves young again,” instead showing in excruciating detail that there’s nothing that makes a man feel older and more useless than dating someone a lot younger than you. I know the territory. (This one hit especially hard: “I’ve thought about getting a business card to hand out to women when I start a new relationship: ‘Marc Maron: A Phase You’re Going Through.’”) I cringed. Cringing’s a common phenomenon when watching Maron or listening to his podcast. But so is laughter, and learning something new, and facing up to the neuroses, exasperations, and quiet joys of adulthood. The audience isn’t a surrogate psychologist, as Scharpling was beforehand. He’s not exactly working out his issues onstage but rather showing how that process might occur. Channeling Bob Newhart, Maron frequently uses the model of having a conversation in which we hear only one side of the talk. Conversation is key; I feel that Maron’s talking to us, not at us, which is surprising, given that there’s little crowdwork here, almost no direct communication between Maron and any one audience member. It’s that intimate. Because it’s intimate conversation, and the small venue helps here to convey this visually, I accept the digressions and seeming lack of structure—which Maron discusses, of course he does—as part of the package. That “seeming lack of structure,” though, is deceiving. He makes callbacks to earlier jokes; meanderings have a way of coming back to the original topic; narrative threads do resolve themselves. Thinky Pain is a show both dense in ideas and loose in flow. As with the best WTF podcasts, it feels cathartic and wise, sure, but also very, very funny.