“Things are going pretty well for me right now, but that’s a problem because when things are going well, that means there’s a voice in your head saying, You’re gonna screw it up.” That’s how the pilot episode of Maron, the semi-autobiographical series created by and starring Marc Maron, begins. Its fourth season, which premieres tonight on IFC, makes good on that promise, envisioning an alternate reality in which the podcaster hits rock bottom.
In the Season 3 finale, “Spiral,” Maron — who in real life is 16 years sober — becomes addicted to painkillers he had been taking for a back injury and bombs his talk-show pilot. In the Season 4 premiere, a heavily bearded Maron describes his relapse in a monologue for the podcast before declaring, “Marc Maron is doing just fine.” The camera pulls back and we see Maron not in his familiar, homey garage, but a squalid storage unit, popping pills in a bathrobe. He’s stopped doing the podcast; Louis C.K. won’t text him back; the bank’s repossessed his house. At the end of the episode, his friends trick him into entering a rehab facility.
In the beginning, Maron felt like WTF with Marc Maron come to life. The show took place in and around Marc’s modest Los Angeles home, with guests stopping by the garage studio to record podcast episodes. Maron was his usual neurotic, narcissistic self, but he played that for laughs, at least in the first season —it appears that he’s delivering that opening line to a therapist, until the camera flips around to reveal that he’s talking to his cat’s veterinarian. He repeats the gag in the third episode, which opens with Maron spilling his guts to the mailman.
The timing of the fictional Maron’s downfall is odd, since the real Maron is doing better than ever. There’s been no dramatic relapse or botched pilots as far as I know, and the podcast is stronger than ever: Last year, President Obama himself stopped by the garage for a chat.
If you listen to WTF regularly, you’ll recognize a strong current of survivor’s guilt running through Maron. In the second season finale, Maron is on top: He’s been named Comedian of the Year at the Boston Comedy Festival, his podcast has been voted #1 three years in a row, and he’s slated to appear on Charlie Rose. At the episode’s start, he’s once again anxiously spilling his guts to a stranger; this time, it’s a guy selling him a car. (“Are people gonna judge me?” “Judge you? It’s a Nissan Ultima, not a Bentley.”) When Maron bumps into an old comedian friend (Peter Berman) now working as a cashier at a pet store, he squirms to get out of there as fast as he can; later, his guilt gets the better of him and invites him on the podcast.
Throughout the episode, Maron fends off good-natured accusations that success has changed him, that he doesn’t have time to help his friends’ struggling careers. “I’m just trying to keep my head above water,” he protests. He and fellow comics Andy Kindler and Dave Anthony, who play themselves, head to a desert trailer park to check up on a friend a find him dead at his kitchen table; after dialing 911, Maron takes a call from a Charlie Rose producer, prompting Dave to sneer, “I just thought I’d watch you promote your career while our friend’s organs digest themselves in a shit box about 50 feet away.”
“I could have ended up here,” Maron muses, but he didn’t, and you wonder why the real Maron feels the need to eviscerate his alter ego to the extent that he has. It’s self-loathing that after 30-odd episodes feels more like self-love, particularly as the podcast apparatus falls away and the best part of both Maron and WTF — the conversations between Maron and his guests — disappears. The set-up of the fourth season isolates Maron, which is a problem because Maron is not much of an actor; he’s best when he’s sparring with someone in front of a microphone, not dumping out his problems like Ally Sheedy emptying her purse on the library couch.
On Showtime’s Dice, which premiered in April, comedian Andrew Dice Clay performs a similar self-flagellation. “I was doing 80,000 seats a week,” he says in the opening lines of the series. “Eighty-thousand. When you reach that level of success, you know, it’s hard to stay there.” Just like at the beginning of Maron’s pilot, it turns out Dice is talking to a window salesman, not a mental health professional. Angling for a discount, he explains that he’s not the star he was back in the ’80s and ’90s (he was the first comedian to sell out Madison Square Garden two nights in a row, in 1990); the salesman has never heard of him.
Clay is a better actor than Maron, which he’s demonstrated in memorable guest roles in Woody Allen’s 2013 film Blue Jasmine and in the recent pilot of HBO’s Vinyl. But like Maron, Dice feels unnecessary, a postscript to an already-revived career. But for stand-ups who got their start in the ’70s or ’80s, landing a marquee show in which you play a version of yourself was always the end goal. That these series exist at all feels like a result of their creators having come up in the Seinfeld era, when a successful comic felt entitled to a sitcom that revolved around his life.
Dice and Maron are not the products of the Seinfeld era, but of our current era of “peak TV,” a time in which there are more opportunities than ever, through traditional networks, boutique cable channels, or streaming platforms like Hulu and Netflix, for a comedian with name recognition to get a show on the air. As this burgeoning era has already proven, though, not every comic needs a TV show all to himself. WTF is better and more successful than Maron ever was; why do we need to watch Maron exorcise his worst fears for another 13 episodes? You can already do that every week if you resist the urge to skip past Maron’s opening monologue on WTF. Clay has also found success beyond the marquee-sitcom route, in roles that have been far more interesting than this bitter alter ego who can’t stop talking about his dick.
All this would have been easily forgiven had they been funnier, but Maron and Dice are more interested in indulging their stars’ neuroses than making people laugh. At a time when even middle-class families struggle to make ends meet, it’s a bit much to ask that we sympathize with the plight of the 50-something comic who’s not as big as Louis C.K. There are worse things than no longer having the name recognition to sell out Madison Square Garden. After a few episodes, you start to feel less like an audience member than a sponge for their feelings of anxiety and shame. Maron and Dice may not be able to afford the trappings of a rock-star life, but surely they can afford therapy.