One of the first paid stand-up gigs Marc Maron remembers doing was at a place called Derby Park in Lowell, but he doesn’t remember it all that well. It’s hard to blame him. At the time, Maron was performing four or five nights a week, opening for more established comedians in venues across New England so numerous and varied that he has trouble distinguishing among them now: Jimmy’s in Dedham. Frank’s in Franklin. Boston’s Tipperary Pub. He had a weeklong residency at a Vermont ski resort. He once got stranded on Nantucket following a set. He performed at Mexican restaurants, bowling alleys, and anonymous bars in Maine.
“You never knew what you were getting into,” Maron recalled in a recent phone call from Los Angeles, where he lives. “You’d get your directions and, if you had to drive the headliner, you’d pick him up and drive anywhere from 20 to 300 miles to do a one-nighter.”
Maron, who now hosts a popular podcast, “WTF,” will travel nearly 3,000 miles to be honored at the Boston Comedy Festival Nov. 16 as Comedian of the Year. The award caps off a formidable series of recent milestones: In April, he published his second book, the essay collection “Attempting Normal.” May saw the premiere of “Maron,” his IFC series, which was recently renewed for a second season. In September, Maron turned 50, and last month he released a new comedy special on Netflix called “Thinky Pain.” All the while, “WTF” has consistently attracted millions of listeners drawn to Maron’s uniquely angsty appeal and the unparalleled insight he and his guests offer into the comedy world.
Fans of the podcast should already be familiar with Maron’s Boston ties and his circuitous route to success. They should know that, after receiving a BA in English from Boston University in the mid-1980s, he set off for Los Angeles, where he hoped to become famous. They’ll know that he got a job at the Comedy Store in West Hollywood, where he spent his nights with the Pentecostal preacher-turned-comic Sam Kinison, now deceased, and of the pair’s considerable affection for cocaine. They will know that, after just a year, Maron slunk back to Boston on drugs and in defeat. (Maron has been sober for 14 years.)
“I really didn’t know what the hell I was going to do,” Maron says. “I left LA in a bad way, and I had no plans for the rest of my life, but I knew Boston, and I knew I wanted to be a comic. So I came back.”
Upon his return, Maron moved into the attic of an overcrowded Somerville apartment on Cottage Avenue and worked a series of food service jobs. “By the time I committed to comedy, I didn’t give a [fig] about jobs,” he says. He sliced meat and eggs at Gordon’s Deli in West Roxbury, worked as a short-order cook at Edibles in Coolidge Corner, and waited tables at Matt Garrett’s down the street. “I was too drunk to be a waiter,” he says. “I was not cut out for that line of work [because] I can’t entertain fools gladly.” He preferred cooking because he found it “very exciting to be in the grease for two hours and come through the other side.”
While working at the Coffee Connection in Harvard Square, Maron met a group of other aspiring comedians with whom he shared a sensibility. “I was doing a lot of shows around town and not sleeping, and David Cross [of ‘Mr. Show’ and ‘Arrested Development’] came in with a couple other people, and they got me hip to the Catch a Rising Star thing,” he says, remembering the edgy Harvard Square comedy club, now closed. “Otherwise, I spent a lot of time at the old Tasty’s — it was open all night.”
In 1988, Maron’s fortunes changed forever when he came in second in a local comedy competition, an event he considers the real beginning of his life as a professional comedian. He has not worked a day job since.
Looking back, Maron sympathizes with comics trying to get their start in today’s business. Now, “you don’t have a comedy club system, a terrestrial radio system, a television network system, or a management community that develops talent,” he says. “A lot of the responsibility falls on you.”
Even though success did not fall on him until decades after his tenure here, Maron remains grateful to the city where he got his start. New England’s tight-knit nexus of agents and club owners allowed him to hone his skills while making a living, an experience he likens to a baptism by fire. And it couldn’t have happened anywhere else.
“It was one of these rare places where guys could work all year round,” he says. But even though the business has changed, “Boston was a real comedy city, and it still is.”