For stand-up comedy nerds, there's no tool more valuable than YouTube for tracking the evolution of our favorite comics. For comedians who came up in the 80s, we can start with their earliest TV appearances on shows like An Evening at the Improv and HBO's Young Comedians specials, through their various sets on Carson, Letterman and Conan, and on to the modern stand-up comedy special.
With some comics, watching their stand-up evolution is akin to watching a costume-test montage, where they appear to "try on" different personalities before finding their own. For others, it's a more iterative process.
One of the patron saints of stand-up comedy nerdom, Marc Maron falls squarely in the iterative camp.
Though he's a prolific podcaster, an author, an increasingly skilled actor and the creative force behind four seasons of his own IFC series, Maron has always first and foremost been a stand-up comedian. The oft-told story of his career is that the Jersey-born, New Mexico-raised, Boston-comedy-club-bred comic was a rising stand-up star with an acerbic on-stage persona, substance addictions, and a talent for burning bridges with many of his peers. Facing a kind of midlife career crisis, Maron got sober and later started WTF — a podcast recorded in his Los Angeles garage — which revitalized his career, rehabilitated many of his industry relationships, and led to new on-camera opportunities and bigger audiences for his stand-up comedy.
But that bit of biography doesn’t get at why Maron was long admired (and sometimes feared) by other comcs, and how he's matured into a performer who still drops well-reasoned truth bombs on stage, but with more heart and vulnerability than in the past. And so, down the YouTube rabbit hole we go...
Though he first started performing stand-up at age 24, famously working the door (and befriending Sam Kinison) at The Comedy Store in the late 80s, his earliest stand-up set currently on YouTube is a 1992 appearance on Comedy Central's The A-List, hosted by Larry David’s pal Richard Lewis. Look at how physical Maron is on stage, ducking for a punchline, leaning an elbow on the mic stand, pacing the stage at a manic pace after taking shots at George Bush.
A less amped-up version of Maron’s material shows up on Jonathan Katz's animated series, which it seems all stand-up comics did at one point in the late ‘90s. The delivery is still pretty speedy compared to the Maron we know today, with the comic rushing through a bit about phone pollsters that stands in stark contrast to Katz’s slow-as-molasses responses.
A frequent guest on Conan O'Brien, Maron appears to be at a crossroads in this 1997 appearance, where it almost seems like he could have gone the doughy dad comic route before instead leaning toward grizzled hipster uncle later in his career. He does a long, phlegmy bit about smoking, but keeps shifting in his chair, never seeming completely comfortable in his own skin. Maybe it’s because he looks nothing like the Marc Maron most of us are now used to seeing. As one YouTube commenter astutely points out, “Christ, he looks like he works at Microsoft.”
This is the special where Maron starts to feel a lot more like the seasoned stand-up we know today, especially in this lacerating examination of the banality of marriage. Even without his trademark facial hair, the coarsening vocal chords and attitude begin to solidify into a very familiar voice.
Nearly 10 years (and several comedy albums later), Maron returned to Comedy Central for a new stand-up special in 2007, sounding more controlled and deliberate, his speedy rants replaced by thoughtful pauses and a better mastery of crowd work.
It the mid-to-late aughts, Maron took to the radio (and ultimately the internet), hosting a string of shows in affiliation with the left-leaning talk radio network Air America. As you might expect, his material got a good deal more political and topical at this point, but it was also during this period that Maron's skills as an interviewer and a broadcaster first came to the fore, leading directly to the start of his podcast in late 2009.
By 2013, Maron's WTF had rejuvenated his stand-up career, drawing larger crowds and further evolving his act. Thinky Pain feels more like what fans of his podcast would expect: a thoughtful, sit-down comedy experience that reflects on his personal relationships and past drug abuse.
Maron’s next two specials — More Later for Epix (above) and 2017's Too Real for Netflix — show a comic who's truly come into his own. Most of the anger and resentment that fueled his earlier stand-up has receded, replaced with a confidence in his idiosyncrasies, more likely to use his inner-voice-battling-with-outer-voice meta-commentary, and more engaged with his live audience. As I wrote at the time, “Maron has somehow come out of his years of struggle, self-defeat and frustration as that rarest thing: a polished, stressed gem who also happens to deliver consistent, deep laughter.”
Maron's new special reunites him with Lynn Shelton, who directed his Too Real Netflix special and later cast him in her feature film Sword of Trust. Maron has spoken on his podcast about wanting the new special to stand apart visually from other comedy specials. Indeed, End Times Fun shows a stronger visual aesthetic than his past specials, with more close-ups on Maron and less focus on audience members and stage design. Most importantly, it’s still funny. He may be a multi-hyphenate now, but Maron's stand-up is sharper than ever — he's a master comic at the top of his game.
Marc Maron: End Times Fun is now streaming on Netflix.
Omar L. Gallaga is a longtime technology and culture writer with bylines in The Wall Street Journal, NPR's All Tech Considered blog, Rolling Stone, The Washington Post, CNN and the beloved TV websites Television Without Pity and Previously.tv. He's a former newspaper journalist who now lives in New Braunfels, Texas. You can find him on Twitter @OmarG.