The first temptation, after watching three episodes of IFC’s “Maron,” is to call it a lesser “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Both shows feature cranky middle-age men of obsession playing versions of themselves in Los Angeles. Marc Maron and Larry David are Woody Allen-style comics who talk too much, venting neuroses to anyone within earshot, giving viewers both rushes of recognition and twinges of cringe. In the first moments of the “Maron” premiere, Friday night at 10, Maron is blathering on and on about self-sabotage: “When things are going well,” he explains at length, “there’s a voice in my head saying, ‘You’re gonna screw it up, you’re gonna screw it up, Marc.’ ” His listener? His vet.
Maron and David are not afraid to be fully known, to put it mildly. But Maron and “Maron” are decidedly more healing than David and “Curb.” “Maron” has a warmer feel to it, a sense that Maron is a work-in-progress whose life is mid-arc. David has been wildly successful for a long time now, and he is who he is. Part of the humor of “Curb” is based on his stubborn resistance to change. Maron, now 49, has been in comedy for decades, having been on Conan O’Brien’s shows 47 times by his estimation. He is in addiction recovery, and still picking over his issues. His career has only recently found solid footing, thanks to his popular podcast “WTF,” where he delivers monologues and interviews with everyone from Amy Poehler and Chris Rock to James Mercer of the Shins. Suddenly a new-media must for entertainers, he gets between 2.5 and 3 million downloads a month.
“Maron” is loosely built around the making of his podcast, which takes place in his garage. In the premiere, Dave Foley is his podcast guest, and their day together evolves into a strange, pathetic adventure that finds Maron trying to track down a troll who keeps attacking him on Twitter. Maron can’t let go of the criticism, just as he can’t let go of most things. In episode 2, Denis Leary is the guest, and that day turns into a struggle to remove a dead possum from the crawl space underneath his home. A real man would, of course, just do it, Maron thinks as he spirals down into feelings of cowardice.
For those who’ve listened to “WTF,” the TV show will feel just exactly right. The stories he tells in his monologues are here, effortlessly brought to life, and the writing doesn’t corrupt Maron’s sensibility. And newcomers to Maron, who don’t even know what a podcast is (like many of the characters on the show) will catch on quickly. On both “WTF” and on “Maron,” you can easily follow his theme, which is the value of painful honesty, the relief of unburdening. Once you’ve admitted that you are scared-stupid-confused-egomaniacal-lonely, Maron seems to be saying, then you have begun to disempower those feelings. While Maron’s confessions usually lead to some kind of self-help-ish revelation – in episode 3, it’s “parent yourself” – Larry David’s confessions only seem to lock him more firmly into his crazy thinking.
Maron seems a little uncomfortable holding center stage in the premiere of “Maron, which makes sense. He has spent the past few years perfecting his role as a listener. His success as an interviewer is, in part, that he inspires his guests to be honest by his own honesty; but each episode of “WTF” is mostly about someone else. And the writing of episode 1 is somewhat predictable. But the next two half-hours show a lot of improvement. Maron is paired with a number of good guest stars, including Sally Kellerman as his mother, Judd Hirsch as his father, and, in a nod to “Curb,” Jeff Garlin as a podcast guest. Also, his assistant in the possum removal is a Hollywood wannabe – and younger version of Maron – played by Josh Brener, and they make a great team. I hope Brener, a former president of Hasty Pudding Theatricals, appears in more episodes later this season, although he was recently cast in a new Mike Judge pilot for HBO called “Silicon Valley.”
Because I am a huge fan of “WTF,” I was hoping “Maron” would be equally revelatory – in the way “Louie” has expanded the sitcom genre. “WTF” has broken boundaries by getting famous people to open up, while most TV talk shows only serve to diminish them and make them less interesting. But “Maron” is more like a good companion piece to “WTF” than anything particularly inventive for TV. It’s a likable, natural extension of Maron’s brand. Like podcast Maron and stand-up Maron, TV Maron gets lost in self-consciousness, scrutinizes human imperfection, and uncovers little bits of wisdom along the way.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.