“It’s funny, but it’s gonna hurt going in.”
A tanned, trim, and natty 56, the Marc Maron onstage for his new Netflix special End Times Fun looks, in his vest over a collarless shirt, like nothing so much as an Old West newspaper publisher. And like such a man of letters and battered idealism in a rough and violent world of barely contained ignorance and chaos, Maron’s persona remains that of the one sane person who knows he’s powerless to do anything against the cacophonous lunacy around him but make wry asides and expect the worst.
That can be an exhausting combination for some people. There’s a reason why fans of his epically long-lived podcast habitually mark out the time Maron stops monologuing and gets to his consistently insightful interviews in the comments of the WTF YouTube channel, after all. With his mordant wit and the air of disgruntled futility that’s always been Maron’s signature voice, the comic’s mix of observational humor and philosophical ranting recalls later-career George Carlin, but without Carlin’s complementary flair for cathartic performative grossness. Some of Maron’s most relatably amusing material here involves nimbly reminiscing about the pre-cellphone days where the blink of the end-of-day answering machine light called an improbably exiting end to a day’s worth of reflecting “on the sad tedium of self awareness.” End Times Fun is punctuated throughout with Maron’s heavy sigh and echoing refrains along the lines of “I just don’t know any more.” Luckily, Maron’s got a sly showmanship to his curmudgeon’s laments that stubbornly refuses to let his 71-minute set lapse into the tedium of the bitter old guy on the bus.
Starting out by bemoaning the minor but stinging irritations of being a “mid-level celebrity,” Maron remains steadfastly immune to any pretensions that his highest ever career profile lends him anything but his wonted, grumpy moral everyman authority. He does take a sideways swipe at fellow podcast powerhouse Joe Rogan, but that’s more in the nature of tossing chum to the internet swarms that he routinely battles in his quixotic quest for a little sanity. It’s perhaps surprising that Maron winds up one run on the complex war of feminism and misogyny with the simplistic-sounding advice, “Just be nice,” but, for all his misanthropic trappings, Marc Maron the comedian has always portrayed his vocation as something he’d happily abandon if people would just stop giving him a reason to point out how fucking stupid they are.
Of course, the world is never going to run out of stupid, something the grizzled Maron addresses with his usual angry, eye-rolling mockery. (There’s a reason why his podcast’s initials stand for “what the fuck?”) Anti-vaxxers, evangelicals, and Fox News junkies aren’t given much of a chance in Maron’s world view, and he does refer to Donald Trump as “the most horrible person who has ever lived in any capacity doing anything,” but otherwise, Maron’s world-weariness comes yoked here to a genuine yearning for some sort of common ground (with misogynists, with his mother, with the “grown male nerd children” who’ve made the Marvel Cinematic Universe their own fanatical religion). Even if that mutual understanding mainly involves his targets adopting Maron’s explanations of why their particular, blinkered worldview is based on stuff he can see but they cannot. A long runner about the “Jewish writer rooms” that created the masses-enrapturing myths of both Jesus and superhero comics finds a uniquely funny resonance in Maron’s dourly prankish idol-poking.
Directed crisply and unobtrusively by longtime Maron collaborator Lynn Shelton, End Times Fun is largely static, with performer and director aware that watching Maron’s mind whirr while his body stays largely hunched on a center-stage stool is what people are there to see. There’s no crowd work to speak of, although a Marc Maron set is an exercise in listening for Maron’s oblique references to you in the audience, either as co-conspirators or targets for whom he yet maintains some grudging sympathy. Segueing into some overtly political material, Maron notes that there are unlikely to be many Trump supporters in his traditional demographic before saying half-apologetically, “If there are, it’s not your night.” The former Air America host only occasionally attacks specific political topics head-on, chiding Obama-era liberals for complacently “working on me” while conservatives were busy “chipping away at state and local government.” Instead, Maron’s concerns are more with root causes and human failing, something he’s all too willing to ascribe to himself as well. Speaking of his attempts to be a feminist ally, Maron sums up his position as “85 percent woke, the other 15 percent I keep to myself,” which, in Maron’s droll, self-deprecating worldview, is about as good as human males can get.
It’s in the final 15 minutes of End Times Fun that Maron steps a bit outside of himself to channel some of that Carlin-esque disreputable showmanship. Calling back to previous themes (superheroes, Jesus, evangelical end-times scariness, Jewish creativity, current conservatism, sexual hangups) Maron tells his crowd, “If I’m terrified, I’ll go mystical,” and spins an end-of-the-world myth of his own. Drawing as it does on the problematic “homophobes are actually closeted gays” trope (which Maron cops to, then asserts he’s probably right in this case), the comic engages his physicality to craft a Rapture where Vice President Mike Pence’s Judgment Day involves an elaborately graphic explosion of repressed sexuality, Jesus, Satan, and the Avengers, a baroquely nerdy conceit that smacks more of Patton Oswalt than Marc Maron. And while it’s not entirely in Maron’s wheelhouse, finishing End Times Fun with a little flourish of scabrously funny action is energizing as much for its unexpected, long-delayed release of the special’s built-up tension as for its own not-inconsiderable merits.