With some exceptions, books by comedians seldom aspire to be more than bits presented in a different medium. A lot of that probably comes down to audience expectation; even though it’s a wholly different format, funny people are expected to be funny—so here’s some leftover material.
If anyone could rise above tradition and write something more interesting, it’s Marc Maron. The comedian has enjoyed a career resurgence thanks in large part to his candor: On his popular WTF podcast, he makes his personal issues plain, even when—especially when—he has baggage with a guest. His excellent 2011 album, This Has To Be Funny, put his personal life front and center, be it the prurient way he met his current girlfriend, or the horrible thing his mother said to him that inspired the title. (When the audience gasped at what she said, Maron paused and said, “This has to be funny”—because it’d be too crushing otherwise.) WTF listeners know Maron has been laboring over Attempting Normal—a perfect title for him and the current state of his life—for some time, which also built anticipation for the book. Or, as Maron would undoubtedly characterize it, pressure.
He doesn’t quite pull it off. A quick 200 pages, Attempting Normal is split in two sections: “Attempting,” about his life from childhood through the end of his second marriage, and “Normal,” about his life over the past few years. The distinction isn’t hard-and-fast; both sections pull from all eras of Maron’s life, but generally come around to comment on something either in the past (attempting) or present-ish (normal).
The first part is much more personal, and works better because of it. Maron covers familiar territory—his failed marriages, his parents, his cats, his career woes—occasionally reprising stories fans know, like his terrorist freakout on an airplane or his incredibly awkward meeting with Lorne Michaels in the mid-’90s. Other stories may just seem familiar because Maron writes the way he speaks; it takes no effort to hear his voice while flipping through the book, because no one else has a perspective like his. “You don’t want to be the bitter guy in the group,” he writes in his chapter about meeting Lorne Michaels. “That said, be careful not to medicate bitterness because you’ve mistaken it for depression, because the truth is, you’re right: Everything does suck most of the time, and there’s a fine line between bitterness and astute cultural observation.”
Attempting Normal has many moments of plainspoken brilliance, like the sad realization of how his anger poisoned his second marriage: Anger generates “in the other person a contempt that festers and swells, even if unspoken. Because the other person is afraid to speak.” It also has many laugh-out-loud moments, like what happened when he suffered immensely after eating insanely spicy fried chicken in Nashville. (“I got into bed and made the mistake of touching my balls. That was the next level of the journey.”) But it loses steam quickly, as a couple of chapters build on established bits (Chapter 14, “I’m A Good Person,” and Chapter 17, “I Want To Understand Opera”), another uses a story he’s told on WTF (Chapter 18, “I Almost Died #1: Cleveland”), and some others read like bits on paper. Chapter 23, “Googleheimers,” theorizes about a way to take advantage of seniors’ wisdom, and Chapter 19 overextends an anecdote about a mouth sore into a three and a half pages. The final chapter reprints Maron’s keynote speech from the 2011 Montreal Just For Laughs festival.
Maybe the trouble with Marc Maron writing a book is that he’s shared so much of his life already via his comedy and WTF’s nearly 400 episodes, not his to mention his new, heavily autobiographical IFC series, Maron, or the one-man show he did about his second marriage, Scorching The Earth. Still, Maron doesn’t seem like a guy who runs out of things to say. He has an incredible memoir waiting inside him. Attempting Normal isn’t it, but there’s still time.