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Marc Maron Explains Why You Can’t Use Slurs in Standup and How He Became a Movie Buff

The comedian-turned-actor addresses his affinity for filmmakers ranging from Luis Buñuel to Yorgos Lantimos, as well as today's evolved cultural climate.

This photo shows actor, comedian and podcaster Marc Maron posing for a portrait in Los Angeles to promote his new indie comedy "Sword of TrustMarc Maron Portrait Session, Los Angeles, USA - 11 Jun 2019

Marc Maron

Rebecca Cabage/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

Marc Maron keeps cranking out his podcast, “WTF With Marc Maron,” but there’s a lot more to him than his comedic interviews. While he continues performing standup, Maron’s acting career continues to evolve. In Lynn Shelton’s newly released “Sword of Trust,” Maron plays a downbeat pawn broker who gets involved in a peculiar scene with a group of southern conspiracy theorists. The collaboration with the improv-friendly Shelton has given Maron one of his finest roles to date, following up on his acclaimed supporting turn on Netflix’s “Glow.”

However, Maron’s affinity for movies predates his own involvement with them. In a recent conversation at the Ludlow Hotel in New York, he spoke about the evolution of sensibilities, as well as the way the changing cultural climate impacted his relationship to political correctness.

How comfortable are you with improvisation?

I’m a stand-up guy, but almost all of my material is generated through improvisation. So I’m pretty comfortable with holding onto the emotional construct of a character. It’s exciting. You get this organic feeling that’s very watchable, and the comedy comes naturally to it. It doesn’t feel labored, like big-budget comedy movies where the jokes are so meticulously structured and delivered.

You studied film in college, right?

Yeah, I minored in Film Crit. I was just fascinated with what I didn’t understand about movies. When I see something I can’t fundamentally understand, I always think I’m stupid, and I put the burden on me. But when you study film, there’s a lot of stuff that is so important in the history of film, and no amount of explanation can make me get it. I read Yuri Lotman, I read about semiotics, but it’s not my life. I guess maybe some of the information went in. In high school, I had a buddy, Devon, and we’d really get excited about Scorsese and Coppola. And then there was a moviehouse in town, some foreign movies, and that world of film.

I get this sense from you on the podcast that you’re sort of reticent to reveal that side of you. I listened to your interview with Yorgos Lanthimos, where you sounded so baffled by the meaning of his movies, as if you were demanding a literal explanation. But at some other point, you were talking about how you loved Buñuel films. So I figured you knew better than that.

I know Buñuel, sure, and I know Ionesco plays, and I understand absurdism. But as a person who takes things in, a lot of that stuff still seems to be an intellectual exercise. So I think that instead of making the references and putting him into some sort of historical context, I had an opportunity to try to investigate intention, and I think that’s really what I wanted.

But would you want that from Buñuel?

I think that Buñuel, maybe given where he was in the history of film, had an intention not unlike the French New Wave, to break some of the genre expectations and take chances that were provocative solely for the means of being provocative. That established a new territory for film, and it added to everything that came after that. But here you’ve got a young guy, a new guy, doing confounding things that have a visceral effect. I’m a guy who likes to be moved. I’m a sap. I’ll watch a romantic comedy and cry, and I don’t admit that all the time either. But I wanted to know if there was a deeper thought process here. A lot of times with artists, even with everything they put into their vision, they don’t have an explanation. Paul Thomas Anderson is like this, too. They have the confidence and the freedom of mind to pursue the vision without overanalyzing it, which is our job as viewers. “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” has fairly confounding moments in it that transcend explanation. But he had to create a mise-en-scene for that movie, and the way he framed it, with its tone and the consistency of the environment — well, he must’ve had a reason. I think he puts things together, and he’s like, “This is profound.”

"The Killing of a Sacred Deer"

“The Killing of a Sacred Deer”

What sort of movies excite you these days?

I’ve grown a little more confident in defending movies that other people don’t defend, masterpieces, and for why I think about them. I think “Three Kings” is an American masterpiece. I enjoy everything that’s going on in that movie, especially the choices he made with these weird cutaways to bullets entering anatomy. I don’t tow an intellectual party line on films, but over the years I add information to my mind that enables me to see things in different light. David O. Russell really sealed the deal for me that there doesn’t need to be intellectual intent on behalf of the filmmaker. I’ve watched Citizen Kane, and enough talk about Citizen Kane on some level.

Let’s be honest. “Touch of Evil” is better.

“Touch of Evil” and “The Third Man,” really, and that wasn’t his movie — but it really was. And then you’re wondering, “Well, who owns a movie?”

That movie belongs to its score.

Oh my god, that zither? I think that movie is amazing.

Has cinema lost its permanence in our culture? Will we talk about movies being made today the way we recall others from earlier eras? 

I think so. It’s really about risk-taking. I think the bigger risk is that when all of a sudden indie movies have a ton of familiar structure, that there’s an expectation they’ll contain these usual bourgeoisie white people problems. Like these Laurel Canyon movies, and the Duplass oeuvre. My fear around the future of movies is, how do we embrace and encourage new voices, and how do I get out of my comfort zone and go see those things without going, “That doesn’t sound very familiar”? You got people like the kid who did “The Florida Project,” Sean Baker. What is that movie? Things like that give me hope in a visceral way.

Is it harder to be funny now?

Yeah, it’s difficult, but you just have to be more thoughtful about the risks you’re going to take and make sure you understand why you’re taking them. You have to engage empathy and sensitivity to make a comedic point. It can be done. I’m not someone who thinks this political correctness is killing us. No one’s telling you not to say anything. You can say whatever you want, but just know that there’s going to be repercussions. I think that it’s important that comedy pushes back and punches up and all that stuff. But you also have to pay attention: How is this detrimental? If I’m going to be wrong-minded, is it making a point? Is it ironic or satirical, is it meant to push the envelope in a direction that makes people see things differently? Or do you want to just be a mean motherfucker? There’s this an attachment to words. “But you can’t say fag anymore?” No. It’s diminishing. It’s a slur.

There was a time where calling Asian people “Orientals” was just what people did. Are you that hung up on saying “tranny,” or “fag,” or “Chinaman”? The language evolves, you evolve, culture evolves. Some people say comedy has to stay in the middle. Not really. It has to be part of the evolution. If you’re going to talk about Lenny Bruce and language and all that stuff, whatever he was doing, it was progressive intent.

You started a podcast in your garage. Just how easy is it for anyone to break through these days?

I guess anyone can do it, but do they do it well? I mean, the technology for everybody to do everything is there, but can they connect through that technology? I don’t know. The weird thing about our culture of entitlement and careerist ambition — self-branding and what-not — is that just because people have access to the equipment necessary to do something, they decide that they are that thing: “I’m a director. I’m a comic. I’m a podcaster.” And there is still a requirement to have a degree of experience and a learning curve.

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