To a certain extent, Marc Maron is lucky to be alive, what with the amount of drugs and partying he did throughout his career before sobering up. But he has to couch that air of harrowing experience and dread in the caveat that truly, it could have been much worse. Maron didn’t suffer significant health problems, turned his life around, and got a whole lot of good luck at a very important time. Danny Trejo’s ex-con named Manny has gone through far worse, being beaten by his parents, turning to crime, going to prison, and living in a hellhole of a halfway house. It’s a good contrast because it makes Maron the butt of the joke when he still turns the conversation around to his lingering psychological and body image issues that are mostly up in his head.
This is the day-long journey episode, making a bunch of stops that carry the characters through an emotional arc. At the beginning, it’s Trejo who wants to give up and resign himself to ruin, even if he got out of prison, because he can’t take the strain of sobriety. So he seeks out Maron as a sponsor after Maron’s story in a group meeting, which seems ill-advised from the start due to Maron’s particular coping mechanisms of constantly breaking every little detail apart.
Maron begins the episode with a tirade against an idiotic barista who stands up for the “integrity of the bean” in refusing to pour Maron’s espresso order over ice. And as he and Trejo stand in line for coffee, they trade “war stories” of their spirals, reveling in the positive hangover of their drug memories that it almost seems like a good idea to give in to temptation. But slowly—just as Maron does in the opening with Ken Jeong—he brings it all to him, how he’s not sure he can handle being Trejo’s sponsor, how he should maybe give up on starting a new life. And that’s the right comedic beat for a Maron to deliver a piñata to Trejo’s granddaughter, putting a resonant (if expected) dramatic button on the plot of the day.
It’s still a pretty stock sitcom plot, but that’s better than the “woe is me for attracting younger women” act from last week, plus Trejo puts in a better guest performance than Gina Gershon. The best scene isn’t a literal Mexican standoff, as Maron puts it later in the episode, but functionally it works like one. Trejo’s character tries to buy his way out of his former life of crime to start over, but the boss man refuses. Before they enter, Trejo tells Maron not to say a word, but of course he’s too nervous to keep his mouth shut, and starts spouting off his observations and diffusing the tension of the room by saving a guy lifting weights without a spotter. And when the dealer tries to seal everything with a shot of classy mescal, Trejo and Maron exchange a significant look—they’re trying to stay on the straight and narrow, even if they can casually talk themselves into perhaps buying smack while waiting in line for coffee. This is Maron’s best monologue of the episode, about how addiction is a disease, and it wrenches loose the bit of information that the guy across the table has an uncle who is seven years sober.
The rest of the episode traverses through some less well-constructed bits, like Trejo beating up the snitch who got him sent to prison, and Maron sniveling about his body issues in a way that recalls his feelings of emasculation back in the second episode. That’s a bit of a retread, but it brings up how cyclical all of these insecurities are for Maron. He gives into them, recognizes them, slowly improves until he gives in and tumbles back down—just like his former vices. Now, he just goes through emotional cycles of crippling self-doubt and neuroticism instead of drowning those feelings in chaotic binges.
Maron aims for that midpoint between Seinfeld and Louie, but now that it’s more than halfway through, the show hasn’t succeeding in doing much other than holding the needle between those two extremes. Episodes like this one, which show elements of repetition with the podcast interview and the capstone monologue, but otherwise take off in one direction and run, show how difficult it can be to combine those styles. The sitcom tradition is what happened to comics around Maron when he was young, angry, bitter, and watching others around him succeed while he got left behind. And now comics like Louis C.K. have broken through while maintaining absolute creative control.
Inverting Maron’s podcast episode structure because it works better for TV betrays that sense that it’s beholden to the old-style comedian-turned-sitcom-star tradition even while being alternative—though, that “alternative” description amounts to observation instead of “joke-jokes,” as Maron tells Trejo when describing his act. Maron can’t help but be anyone but himself, even while he reaches to emulate what worked for Seinfeld and Louis C.K (not explicitly, but stylistically). And more importantly, while he quibbles constantly and jolts back and forth between moods, he eventually settles on wanting to be himself no matter the consequences, and taking solace in whoever accepts him.
If Louie takes the medium of television and jerks it in the direction of short fiction with self-contained stories and distinct style episode to episode, then Maron represents tugging the medium toward creative non-fiction. It’s more overtly based on real experience, exaggerated for entertainment, and expresses a worldview or a lifestyle more than it has something to say about the way life works.
But like Maron’s podcast, and especially that initial scene with Jeong, a lot of the time it comes down to Maron talking through his own philosophy about tiny, seemingly insignificant events that others would let go as part of daily life. It’s all distinctly Maron’s voice and worldview, but so far Maron has become a fictional translation and distillation of his previous work, instead of a chance to explore what he can do in a different form.
- By far the most fascinating thing about Ken Jeong is that he’s a licensed physician in California who developed his stand-up while working through his MD and residency. He’s seen totally different shit than Maron, but that doesn’t stop the host from hijacking the interview to talk about his vendetta against a barista, and Jeong’s slow retreat from the conversation is one of the funnier moments in the episode.
- Note the quotes around “Karma” on the tip jar at the coffee shop. Even that idea of putting out good feelings into the world doesn’t sit well with Maron’s view of religion and coincidence.
- Maron describing how close he lives to the drug dealer’s house to prove he isn’t a total foreigner to the neighborhood: “You know…the address doesn’t matter.”
- Maron, to some kids sizing up his Toyota Camry, obviously an easy target for crime: “Do I look stupid to you?” “A little.”