“Thankfully, persistence is a great substitute for talent.” -Steve Martin
In 2010, I was certain that I was spinning my tires.
I was two years into comedy, and my friends and I were performing a monthly sketch comedy show called The Furious Anger Fun Hour, which is, without question, the most atrocious troupe name in the history of comedy. Making matters worse, we were performing in the worst imaginable room for comedy, the now defunct Café Montmartre on Main Street in Vancouver. It was a disaster – the lone stage light never worked, and most of our sketches would be drowned out by the sounds of the cutlery being sorted and the abrasive shriek of the fucking latté foam.
The five of us in the troupe had committed to each other that we would write, rehearse and memorize 90 minutes of sketch comedy to perform every month. About a year in, though, I found myself wrestling with the same question all the time:
Okay. We’re putting in A LOT of blood sweat and tears into the writing of this show. I’m booking off work, and then we’re performing for just 20 of our friends every month. This doesn’t seem worth it. What’s the fucking point?
It felt wasteful to spend so much time writing sketches that would be performed once and then never exist again. But we stuck with it for some reason – a reason that wouldn’t become apparent until much later.
Because one day opportunity knocked. And when it did, it asked us, “Hey. Do you guys have any sketches I can read?”
“Um. Yeah. Actually, we have 300 sketches you can read. Tell you what — we’ll send you the three funny ones.”
As those of you close to me inevitably know by now, I’m a huge fan and devout follower of Marc Maron’s WTF Podcast. Huge! Like, if I’m at a party and I find another “Whatthefuck-er” or “Whatthefuck-aneer”, it’s over. Me and that person are going down the rabbit hole and not coming back. I just love the show. With my heart. It serves as the semi-weekly cup of inspiration, depth and humour that I need to help me get through the [sometimes] lonely days of being a writer.
For those of you unfamiliar with the podcast, there just simply isn’t a better long-form interview with creative-types to be found anywhere. The 1-on-1 conversations are at turns heart-wrenching, hilariously candid and even strangely magical. Maron is a gifted interviewer, and has a unique talent for disarming artists, often by over-exposing himself first to create a safe environment in which the guest can willfully unpack their skeletons one-by-one, often resulting in audio gold. I rarely will finish an episode without feeling wholly rejuvenated and eager to get back plugging on my own work. The podcast has been a mainstay in my weekly routine for over five years now – and remains the only thing I’ve committed fully to during that time. [Sad face].
I spend a lot of time thinking not just about the interviews on the podcast, but of Maron’s overall trajectory as an artist. It’s inspiring. I mean, his current success, at age 51, is staggering: He has perhaps the most critically-acclaimed podcast available for download, his live shows are selling out theatres across North America, his recent memoir made a big splash in the publishing world, and he currently stars as the eponymous hero of his own television series Maron.
But his success certainly didn’t seem inevitable.
He was always talented, no doubt, having earned the praise of the comedy community early on with his decidedly alternative approach, being more willing to “make something interesting happen” onstage every night than to roll out the surefire material. He achieved lots of [relatively] modest success throughout his career: he was a left-wing radio personality, he tried his hand at hosting game shows, he wrote a critically-acclaimed one-man show, and impressively appeared on Late Night with Conan O’Brien more times than any other comic. But despite his visibility, the mainstream never took to Maron with the same fervour with which they embraced so many of his contemporaries. His brand of comedy seemingly didn’t jive with the bite-sized portions the YouTube generation tends to demand of its comedians. To fully appreciate the genius of Maron, though, you need to see him do an hour – not a three-minute bit. But there were scarcely few opportunities to access an hour with him.
Maron claims to have seriously considered walking away from comedy altogether. In the early 2000s, his “ascent” in show business was looking more like a decade-long plateau. He was doing the same clubs for the same house sizes. Being ignored by the networks. But he just didn’t know what else to do. I suppose at a certain point it becomes more difficult to locate your old work resumé on your hard drive than it is to just keep doing what you’re doing. So he kept doing the late shows. Kept hosting the morning radio. Was still writing new bits to try onstage. Still striving to grow his comedic voice every night. And then, after a second epically awful divorce, he found himself in the familiar financially [and emotionally] precarious position of not knowing what to do next. It felt like he was spinning his tires as a comedian, that he’d gone as far as this unforgivingly shallow business would let him.
Unbeknownst to him, however, the thing – the technology – that would finally establish him as a household name was still in the process of being invented.
Looking back, it’s almost as if the medium of podcasting were tailored specifically to fit Maron’s unique skillset. He had thousands of hours of on-air experience. He has a virtuosic ability to embrace spontaneity. He happens to be friends with and have access to some of the most culturally relevant comedians and artists of the 21st century. Oh yeah, and Maron himself happens to be one of the funniest, most intelligent comedians of his generation. Podcasting is truly a comedians’ medium. But best of all, podcasting gave him complete and utter freedom to make the show he always wanted – without the networks, the agents, the sponsors, or the suits stepping in to fuck it up.
And, rather poetically, it all came together for Maron in the same place a lot of men of his generation had their breakthroughs – in his garage.
He had found his thing – his way in. And he did it on his own terms.
Obviously, not all of us will have a medium invented specifically tuned to showcase our strengths, catapulting us to comedy superstardom in our late 40s. But there is something to learn here.
The lesson, I think, is that if you’re relentlessly making things, if you’re in a constant pursuit of growing as an artist and person, there’s no such thing as “spinning your tires”.
Because you never know what you’re preparing for.