Why Comedians Can Be Prophets, Too | Sojourners

Why Comedians Can Be Prophets, Too

Photo via Elisanth / Shutterstock.com
Photo via Elisanth / Shutterstock.com

You may not know Marc Maron, but you should.

Originally known as a crass, nihilistic comedian, he’s found a remarkable second life for himself in podcasting. And before you stop reading right there, consider that Marc’s “WTF” podcast is the first-ever podcast to be catalogued by the Library of Congress. The modest show that he records in the garage of his house also gave birth to a TV show in the Independent Film Channel, called Maron, in which he talks with podcast guests in his garage. The show is now into its third season.

Maron isn’t the first to find fertile ground for himself in the alternate media world of podcasting. Adam Corolla, known as the voice on a handful of mostly bad cartoons and as the clown serving as foil on the old Dr. Drew radio sex talk shows, has a huge following on his podcast. Even I have found my largest audience through our Homebrewed CultureCast, with approximately 25,000 downloads and listens per episode, and which we record on a laptop in my office at the back of my house. But when done right, it’s a phenomenon in itself.

Marc Maron isn’t podcast-famous simply because he’s some kind of podcasting genius. It’s because of a combination of things. Terry Gross, host of NPR’s epic interview show, Fresh Air, explained why she allowed for the rare exception on her own show, welcoming in Maron to play host and interview her, instead of the other way around. And on top of that, the interview took place in front of a live audience of 2,000 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

No pressure.

But in true Maron form, he lived up to what Gross loves about him in spades. He started the whole interview by doing three things: he admitted he was nervous, he made fun of himself, and he made people laugh. And though all of this may have been done intuitively, it’s all part of the Marc Maron magic formula that leads millions to pay attention on TV and to his podcast.

Incidentally, Maron’s podcast is currently in the top ten most popular podcasts on iTunes, and his interview with Terry Gross is among the top ten episodes among all podcasts as well, in case you don’t want to take my word for it.

So what does Marc Maron do that is so magical? In a word, he represents and delivers what so many of us are seeking in our culture today. We want to know people. Like, really, really know them. Or at least we want to think we do. And Marc does this brilliantly, both about himself and the people he interviews. How, you might wonder? That gets back to the three special things he did to start out the Terry Gross interview.

First he admitted a weakness or flaw by confessing he was nervous. Of course everyone wondered if a guy who does his show from his garage was anxious about interviewing a notoriously private radio personality on her own show in front of an audience of thousands. So he named what a lot of us were thinking. Plus, he made himself seem more human. After all, who among us wouldn’t be feeling the same way? So he came across as just like us in that moment.

Second, he offered some self-deprecating comments. This is typical of comedians, especially today. This is because it gives other people permission to laugh at them, for one. Also, it makes us feel like we can trust them. It’s a way of saying “don’t worry; I have my guard down.” It’s a way of coming across as unthreatening, which is critical for comedy. We have to trust the comedian (or interviewer) to take us somewhere, and unless we already know them (or think we do at least), it’s hard to trust that. This is especially the case with edgier comedians like Maron, Louis C.K., and the like, who touch on so many taboo subjects. So how do we know it’s OK to laugh? Because they are willing to laugh at everything, including themselves. And we’re invited to laugh along with them.

That’s the final piece that’s so important: humor. More than anything else, laughter helps disarm us. It helps relax us. It breaks any tension between two people, or between a crowd of people and their guide, even with millions of listeners. Once someone makes you laugh, you feel like they “get you.” They must think like you do, or at least understand how you think, in order to get inside your head and make you laugh. Once someone has you laughing, they usually have permission to go much, much deeper.

And that’s what Marc Maron does so incredibly well. The thousands of onlookers or millions of listeners later on sort of vanish, or better yet, become advocates and fellow travelers because we’re all in it together. We’re sharing a personal experience, and in a way, it becomes sacred.

This is why crass, dark, edgy people like Louis C.K., Marc Maron, Amy Schumer, and Jon Stewart are the priests and prophets of our time. They’re not just entertainers; they’re cultural curators, voices who help us understand ourselves and the world around us better. And they do it all not in spite of the fart jokes and coarse language — in a way, they’re able to achieve all of this because of the off-color humor.

You may notice I qualified statements about really knowing these people. We tend to feel like we really know them when they share so much through their various media. Marc Maron got choked up and started to cry at the end of his interview with Terry Gross. And it felt real. I’m not saying it wasn’t real, but we know only as much as he wants us to know. He has created an artifice of authenticity in his work that feels real enough to us to suggest real intimacy, and this is what we lack so profoundly in today’s culture.

We’re too busy, too scared, too incapable, or maybe all of the above, simply to sit down and have “real conversations” with friends and loved ones like the ones Marc has on his shows. We find something wildly cathartic about the outrage Jon Stewart expresses about current events, and about the depths of apparent vulnerability Louis C.K. offers in his comedy routine and in his T.V. show, Louie. Amy Schumer takes the teeth out of human sexuality by helping us laugh at it, robbing it of some of its power.

We want in our lives what they are able to do, apparently so effortlessly. They’re emotional and social surrogates for us. And as any great artist does, they practice getting to know their medium and honing their voice so much that by the time they’re in the public eye, it is second nature. It’s effortless. It’s a part of them.

But that doesn’t mean it’s all of them.

I know that sounds dark, and it is in a way. But it can also serve as a model, as a means of permission-giving for us to do likewise. That is provided we don’t stop with the quick fix offered by the media itself, accepting this demonstration of apparent reality as sufficient to keep our own loneliness and social stuntedness at arm’s-length.

I love all of the comedians I mentioned in this piece, and I’d like to think I’m learning something from all of them in my own work. What they offer has value. But it’s not enough to replace our own socio-cultural grammar. We have to learn to live by such an example, and not just find it sufficient to try and live through it.

Christian Piatt is an author, editor, speaker, musician, and spoken word artist.

for more info