After tragic loss, Marc Maron finds joy amidst grief with 'From Bleak to Dark'
Marc Maron talks about his new HBO comedy special From Bleak to Dark.
Other segments from the episode on February 16, 2023
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Marc Maron, has a new HBO comedy special called "From Bleak To Dark." And if the title isn't enough of a clue about the tone of the show, here's how it starts.
(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "MARC MARON: FROM BLEAK TO DARK")
MARC MARON: I don't want to be negative, but...
MARON: ...I don't think anything's ever going to get better ever again.
MARON: I don't want to bum anybody out, but I think this is pretty much the way it's going to be for however long it takes us to polish this planet off.
GROSS: There's a lot of bleak subjects Maron deals with, like climate change, threats from the far right, antisemitism and his toxic relationship with his father, who now has dementia. The darkest part of his life has been the death of his girlfriend, the TV and movie director Lynn Shelton. Before becoming a couple, they'd worked together. She directed episodes of his series "Maron," the series he co-starred in, "GLOW," and the movie "Sword Of Trust." She died in 2020, unexpectedly, of a previously undiagnosed case of acute myeloid leukemia.
"From Bleak To Dark" is Maron's fifth comedy special, his first for HBO. He's famous as a comic. But in the past few years, he's been acting in more movies and TV, including "GLOW," where he played the coach of a women's wrestling team, "Joker," where he was the producer of a late-night show hosted by Robert De Niro's character and "Respect," playing Jerry Wexler, the famous Atlantic Records producer who helped Aretha translate her sound and style into soul music hits. And now, Maron's co-starring in the film "To Leslie" as the manager of a motel who helps a woman addicted to alcohol. Maron's podcast "WTF" is the first one-on-one podcast episode inducted into America's National Recording Registry.
Marc, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It is so good to talk with you again. And I have to start by saying I really love your special.
MARON: Well, it's good to talk to you, too, Terry. It's been a while.
GROSS: It seems to me that was not an easy special to do. I mean, what's the old expression? Comedy is tragedy plus time? So when and why did you start thinking it's time to turn the worst thing that's ever happened to you - the death of Lynn Shelton - into something you wanted to talk about in a comedy show? Did you feel like if you didn't talk about it, you'd be hiding an essential thing about who you are now?
MARON: Yeah, of course. It was already public, and I already addressed it on my podcast in a very painful broadcast that I chose to do days after she passed away, you know, just out of respect for what we do and out of respect for her. And it was kind of crazy. So if you listened to my podcast and you were put through that raw, uncontrollable grief that I chose to make public, you knew what was going on. And then over time, yeah, I mean, I felt like it would be wrong. I mean, I - because there was part of me that wanted to share the experience of grief or my feelings that I had within grief because I thought it would help people. I wasn't - it really was something more selfless than I think I'd done. I think there is not a very broad or public cultural dialogue around grief and around loss, and it's something that everyone's going to deal with. Everyone is going to deal with it.
GROSS: You said that when things get hard, you go mystical. What have you...
GROSS: ...Done to get through this period? You're not religious. You've been sober since 2009, so you can't have a shot or a glass of wine or cocaine. And during much of the past two years, you couldn't even socialize and see friends because of the COVID lockdown. So what helped you get through the initial period of grief, the rawest period of grief? What did you turn to?
MARON: Well, it was so isolating because, you know, sadly - you know, her and I weren't together long enough, you know, publicly or in our relationship. You know, we've known each other for years, but as partners - I didn't know her family, really. You know, I'd met them at film festivals once or twice, a couple of them, but I didn't know them. There was no relationship there. And it was just - I mean, what I was managing when that happened is, like, if I hadn't asked her, you know, they were taking her away, you know, in the ambulance when she collapsed after really, a very quick - it was not even - it was, like, a week of, you know, extreme flu symptoms.
And when they were taking her away, I said, you know, give me your phone. And she's like, I need my phone. And I said, well, give me the code. And I don't know why, but I - she gave me the code. And if she hadn't done that, I don't know what would have happened. I mean, they - because she was unconscious by the time she got to the hospital and she was fighting for her life the rest of that day. And I had to get on the phone with an intensive care nurse and say, well, here's the code, you know, get me some Sheltons because I don't know her people. And when she went into the hospital, she listed me as the point of contact 'cause she didn't think she was going to, you know, die. But I felt it necessary to have her family really to take the lead in handling a lot of this stuff.
So initially, leading up to her passing was just devastating. And then my brother came out and, you know, he stayed for, like, two weeks and we had to, you know, go through her stuff. So that was devastating but oddly engaging and somewhat distracting in the midst of, you know, just being shattered and crying, you know, all the time and on and off.
And then we also had some sort of Shiva experience happening, like, the next day after she passed. Michaela Watkins had put together, like, a Zoom thing where people - it was almost too soon in a way, and very awkward. And, you know, it was there that I started to feel a certain insecurity around my relationship with her because there were people that have known her for decades. She has, you know, a husband and a son and all these old friends. And I just felt like, you know, like, I'm just, like, I don't - I didn't have that long with her. And I'm the guy that she died with. And it felt like a horrible weight.
And it just added to the sadness and - but ultimately, what helped me in the isolation and helped me deal with things is that my community reached out in a way that I never thought possible because it was public. And I got - you know, I got phone calls from so many people that, you know, I barely knew, you know, in comedy and show business. And everybody really, you know, reached out. They sent food. Some people kind of came over despite the COVID. You know, some of my - you know, I remember that Alison Brie from "GLOW," she came over and she - and, you know, we - it was a weird time because, you know, there was this sense that even hugging was somehow life-threatening, you know?
MARON: And also, I got into the habit of doing these Instagram Lives every day where I felt a need to have an audience or to engage 'cause there was no way - there was no one - I couldn't - I was alone over here. So that became sort of essential and peculiar because I was doing basically some version of a morning show from my porch every day, sometimes for an hour and a half a day. I would have, you know, five, six hundred live viewers. And, you know, we would play music. I would be angry. I'd talk about politics. I'd talk about grief. You know, I would - you know, we - play records and, you know, play with the cats.
And it - I think it worked two ways. And it also was the beginning of the process of understanding showing up for other people without knowing it is that, you know, this is the middle - no one was going out, and I had this strange audience of other people who were alone in their homes. And they became sort of regulars and they became very grateful and it became a community. And that sort of, like, in a lot of ways, you know, got me through, oddly.
GROSS: Did you do things to try to, like, center yourself or calm yourself that you'd previously...
GROSS: ...Been dismissive of?
MARON: Sure. I tried meditating. I got into routines around that. Ultimately, it was just - it was about sort of staying busy and staying engaged and talking to people, you know, like my buddy Sam Lipsyte. You know, him and I established this sort of daily phone call, and it was sort of a beautiful thing. You know, right from the beginning, like, soon after she passed, Sam and I would talk on the phone every night, you know, for, like, at least an hour, you know, to keep that connection. And I had other friends that I was in touch with, but, you know, Sam really stepped up. And we still do it, really, not as often, but pretty frequently.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Marc Maron, and he has a new HBO comedy special called "From Bleak To Dark," and it's streaming on HBO Max, and it will be rerun on HBO. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE MOUNTAIN GOATS SONG, "PEACOCKS")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Marc Maron. His new comedy special is called "From Bleak To Dark." It's on HBO, and it's streaming on HBO Max.
So you live alone, and you've lived alone a long time. And I know even during part of your relationship with Lynn, before she passed, that you were sometimes living alone but being together most of the time, but you had your own places. Are you good at being alone? Do you...
MARON: I love it.
GROSS: Yeah? Talk to me a little bit about that, about what the value is for you of being alone and what your need is to connect with people and how you balance all that.
MARON: I don't know. But, you know, I've just been so fortunate in not having children and so fortunate in somehow turning my career around at some point that I'm relatively financially secure. And also, I've been through enough relationships and through enough things to kind of know myself, you know, pretty well at this point. I imagine, though, that - who knows what would have happened with Lynn and I, but it was really the first time in my life I had sort of relaxed into, you know, what was an age-appropriate relationship. It was a relationship based on respect and attraction and caring. And, you know, when she was here, she was spending a lot of time here because it was the pandemic, and it was nice to have a sort of home base. I imagine that her and I, in my fantasy or what I thought at the time, that I'd really found, you know, someone to spend the rest of my life with. But who knows?
So - but for me, like, people ask me, why don't you get a personal assistant? I'm like, well, what would I do with my life? I mean, I like going to the post office. I like going to the record store. I'll shop at two or three supermarkets a day. Sometimes I'll cook, you know, for hours, just for myself or for the woman I'm seeing now. I like doing little things around the house. I play guitar. I listen to records. All I know - and then I'm interviewing people for the podcast - is that by the end of any day, I feel like I've had a pretty full day by myself and a pretty satisfying day, generally, by myself. I just engage with life. I like running errands. I like going on hikes. I don't know. It doesn't - it feels totally satisfying.
So I don't know what that means about me. I can't, you know, present myself as some emotional wizard or some psychologically stable person in terms of relationships. But I just - I do a joke. Did I do it? I don't think I did it in the special - where I say, look; I know, you know, I'm a self-centered person. I know I'm oversensitive. I'm a little paranoid. I'm not great at intimacy. I know I can - I'm prone to anger sometimes. I know all these things about myself. I don't know why I would need someone in my house telling me them every couple of days. So...
GROSS: So you dropped in that answer that you feel lucky that you didn't have children, and in your special, you joke about not having children and that you never really wanted them. And you say, if you have kids, I can't begin to tell you how great it would be if you didn't.
GROSS: And I thought that was really funny. But I was wondering, when you wrote that, did you think, like, I'm going to lose every parent in my audience if I say this?
MARON: No, because I really believe, as I said, I think, in the next line or two that that paradigm is sort of shifting, in that the people that don't have kids were sort of looked at as sad, you know, freakish people, but now I can't imagine what it would be like to have kids and try to give them any advice to navigate this world that, you know, most adults don't even understand. And I don't - I just - I find that it must be difficult, and it must be difficult every day. And for me, when I say that, I think it gets a good laugh. I don't think I'm losing an audience. I think that every parent - I would say probably 80 or 90% of them, really need relief from parenting, and the fantasy of not having kids on any given day is probably, you know, pretty exciting, an exciting prospect, not a possibility any longer, but an exciting idea to have a moment of reprieve with.
GROSS: When you look at your friends who do have kids, what do you think you may be missing out on, if anything?
MARON: I think that there is something that, you know, stifles my emotional growth because I don't have kids, and I think that there's something about the selflessness necessary and the type of love that's available there that I'll never experience. But I have sort of a difficult time experiencing love with humans in general. And so, like, I'm still kind of, like, trying to let myself, you know, love in a way just to have a relationship. But I'm so terrified of it and guarded in certain ways. I mean, the people that really get the best of me are audiences that I walk away from after an hour.
GROSS: Yeah, though, but that's crazy, you know, like, 'cause you're so intimate with audiences. You reveal so much about yourself. But it sounds like you have trouble doing that in real life with somebody who you're actually trying to be intimate with, trying to have an intimate relationship with.
MARON: I mean, it's hard. And I do it with guests, too. It's like, really, if I didn't do the podcast or comedy, I would have very little emotional life. But...
GROSS: So why does it need to be mediated through, you know, like, a microphone or a stage?
MARON: That's one way to look at it, that it's the mediation that's the benefit. I don't know. The benefit might be they leave. So...
MARON: ...I'm not sure it's the public nature of the expressing of vulnerability, but that, like, OK, nice meeting you people; I am going to go.
GROSS: Yeah. Kind of like, nice meeting you, and I don't really know who you are, and you don't really know who I am...
MARON: Exactly. Exactly.
GROSS: ...And we don't really have access to each other, so...
MARON: That's right.
GROSS: ...This has been great...
GROSS: ...Good night.
MARON: Yeah. Yeah. Good night.
MARON: I'm glad you got so much out of that. I'm going to go spend the other 23 hours of my day.
MARON: But no - look, man. I mean, I am sort of getting older, and something is giving way. And I am trying to be a little more able to allow myself to be open and vulnerable. But I - you know, there's a problem because I don't have - you know, I grew up with very faulty emotional boundaries. So I couldn't keep anybody out. And, you know, and my sense of self was threatened, you know, for most of my life, you know, either by, you know, my parents' needs or the relationships that I got into that were destructive.
So it's - I really had to shut down at some point in a fairly conscious way. And now that's sort of giving way. And certainly, losing somebody you love in the way that I did - and that was really a different type of love for me - has kind of, you know, forced something open. I don't know what exactly it is, but you certainly look at life differently when somebody passes like that and does so tragically.
GROSS: And you realize how, like, impermanent things are...
GROSS: ...When someone dies suddenly and unexpectedly and you're totally unprepared for it. So did you make changes in your life after thinking about how vulnerable people are and how fragile life is and how impermanent?
MARON: Sure. I think a lot more about, you know, random ways I can die (laughter).
GROSS: Oh, that's helpful.
GROSS: Congratulations. That's just what you need.
MARON: Yeah. Yeah, I just really - I needed to...
GROSS: Someone who's already paranoid (laughter).
MARON: Yeah, I needed to grow like that, Terry. I needed to really...
GROSS: Yeah, yeah. Uh-huh, uh-huh.
MARON: ...Expand my imagination, so every moment awake is terrifying. Well, I think certainly coming through it and living with the grief, I do believe that I'd like to find some joy. I've really put a lot more thought into, you know, stopping the compulsive nature of how I work to live in a way that's present and has some happiness in it because I don't know that I ever really did that.
So in that way, I think that it makes me a little more open and a little more available for some joy if I'm capable of it 'cause Lynn was like - like, Lynn was - just exuded a sort of positivity and joy and was so charismatic and so kind of, like, all about, you know, just living and showing up and just excited. And she was such a great laugher, you know?
And the fact that, like, she loved me - 'cause I didn't believe it for a long time. You know, I really fought it. I fought her on that. And - but she kind of persisted and broke me down, and I finally accepted it. But I don't think I'd be doing some of the stuff I'm doing without her in my life. And it just so happens that some of those things are some of the things that are, you know, kind of, you know, bringing me joy now. And I don't think I would have felt confident to do them without her in my life.
GROSS: What kind of things are bringing you joy?
MARON: Well, you know, playing music in a real way.
GROSS: Yeah, 'cause you're warming now with your band.
GROSS: You didn't used to perform. You were more...
MARON: I was just terrified of it, and it was...
MARON: It made me feel very vulnerable. But, like, I got some guys together. Jimmy Vivino plays with me sometimes - Ned Brower, Jonathan (ph), Schwartzel, you know, these guys who Flanagan over at Largo hooked me up with. And we - you know, we do shows there. You know, we've done several shows where I kind of play covers and sing, and these guys are great musicians. And it's just - I don't know. You know, it's made a big difference in my life.
But, like, Lynn was always telling me to play. We used to sing together, her and I sometimes, and we were going to do it more. And she loved it when I used to sit in - like, my friend Dean Delray used to do a evening of AC/DC once a year, and I would go jam. But she always was like, you got to play. You got to play more. And, you know, and now I'm doing it. And I really think it was her belief and her pushing me to make me feel confident.
And it's the same with acting, you know? I don't think that I would have been as - you know, I don't think I would have had the courage to do the acting in the way that I'm doing it without Lynn's belief in me. And even comedy, I mean, you know, Terry, she directed the two specials before this one. And, you know, I trusted her implicitly. With everything - you know, I fought her sometimes as a director because I'm a baby. But, you know, she - you know, she directed and informed "End Times Fun" and "Too Real," which were the two Netflix specials before this HBO special.
GROSS: Marc Maron's new HBO comedy special, "From Bleak To Dark," is streaming on HBO Max. The show's theme music is performed by Marc's band with Marc on guitar. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: After a break, I'll be back with Marc Maron. And Ken Tucker will review the new volume of Columbia Records' official release of Bob Dylan bootleg recordings. I am Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Marc Maron. His new HBO comedy special is called "Marc Maron: From Bleak To Dark." It's streaming on HBO Max. Maron has also been doing stand-up comedy for decades, but he's also now becoming known for his acting. He played a version of himself in his series "Maron," co-starred in the series "GLOW" as the coach of a women's wrestling team. In "Joker," he played the producer of a late-night TV show hosted by De Niro's character. In the Aretha biopic "Respect," he played Jerry Wexler. And now he co-stars in "To Leslie." His new special is very funny about very dark things - climate change, extremism, antisemitism, his toxic relationship with his father and the death of his girlfriend, Lynn Shelton, in the spring of 2020.
So I want to talk with you about being Jewish but not religious. And you have a really funny bit about being Jewish in your comedy show that I want to play.
(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "MARC MARON: FROM BLEAK TO DARK")
MARON: I guess I should make it clear that we have found recently that there is actually something that brings most people together. It's antisemitism. And...
MARON: Yeah. I'm saying that as a Jew. And as a Jew, I'm saying that we will replace you.
MARON: It's happening. We're all part of it. We're doing it. We're all doing our bit. There's an app now we can replace you with.
MARON: And it's a commission thing. We get a certain kickback for the number of you replaced. I talked to my brother last week. He replaced, like, 76 last week. And every quarter we get a check from Global Control HQ. It's got the cool logo with the planet and the Star of David, gold leaf around it, signed by George Soros.
MARON: It's kind of cool. It's almost frameable. But we cash them, so...
MARON: And I don't know - like, I'm not religious. I'm a Jew, so...
MARON: And there's a difference between Jews and Christians, obviously. I mean, I think if the relationship with God is different, if you look at the Testaments, the Old Testament, it seemed like the relationship with Jews and God was basically - what?
MARON: What do you want me to do? Now? All right. All right. Don't yell. Don't yell.
GROSS: I love that. I think that is so funny.
MARON: And I got to be honest with you, Terry. I think I've been doing some version of these jokes since I've been doing comedy and since - it's so weird to me because for years, I didn't even identify as a Jew on stage because I didn't think there was a way to do it that wasn't stereotyping, that - you know, all I could see is, you know, like, Jackie Mason sort of like - a Jew when he goes on vacation just needs a place to sit - you know?
GROSS: (Laughter) Yes.
MARON: So it's like, I can't do that, and I can't - but all my heroes were those guys, not him particularly, but Jewish comics. And then at some point, it just became about, you know, going over the top with what non-Jews believed, conspiratorially, Jews were up to. So this theme - and even in "End Times Fun" - it's always sort of been there because I think it's important to identify - especially in the face of antisemitism being normalized culturally as something that just exists among us, and that's that. So I get aggravated.
GROSS: And everybody's upset - like, you don't have to be Jewish...
GROSS: ...About Jews will not replace us. I mean, it's just part of a larger trend of, like, the normalizing of hatred and racism and sexism. Yeah. Did your parents talk to you about antisemitism, and were you dismissive of it because you didn't necessarily see any around you?
MARON: Well, I think, you know, it was always sort of drilled in. I mean, I did go to Hebrew school. We were conservative Jews. I was bar mitzvahed. And we did - you know, we were shown those movies of, you know, piles of hair and...
GROSS: Oh, from the Holocaust, yeah.
MARON: ...Bodies in pits. Yeah. So it was - it's always been in there. And the few times that I'd encountered it was usually at a non-Jewish summer camp, where we all had to bring a hat and boots, and we're assigned a horse and a gun. So I...
MARON: ...Have that part of my Jewish history.
GROSS: You were assigned a horse and a gun?
MARON: Yeah. Well, there was shooting. We learned - I can - I know how to work a shotgun shell loader, and I can shoot a .22 pretty good. I grew up around guns because New Mexico - they kind of came with the territory. But yeah, I did go to a camp where you had to bring a Stetson, you had to bring boots, and you were assigned a horse, and you were going to shoot guns and tie flies and fish for trout. Yeah, I did that. Brush Ranch, baby. Brush Ranch.
GROSS: How did it feel?
MARON: Fine. But I also went to Jewish camp, and I also went to a music camp. I've always lived in these two worlds, Terry. Like, I went to that camp one summer, and then I went to a tennis camp. My parents just wanted us out of the house. They would send us to two camps in a summer. But I've always had these two parts of me.
GROSS: You know, you and I were in the same episode of "Finding Your Roots," the...
GROSS: ...Henry Louis Gates PBS show in which they trace your ancestry through the help of your DNA and also through these great genealogical experts. They do a lot of deep research. And this was basically like "Finding Your Roots" Jew edition (laughter)...
MARON: Yeah. Exactly.
GROSS: ...Because it was you, me and Jeff Goldblum, and...
GROSS: ...The theme of the show was - it was called "Beyond The Pale," and it referred to the Pale of Settlement which was basically the really large ghetto during the Russian Empire in which Jews were allowed to live. And it included parts of what is now, like, Belarus and Ukraine and Poland. And that's where all of our grandparents were from...
GROSS: ...You, me and Jeff Goldblum.
GROSS: And so...
MARON: Crazy. I mean, they...
MARON: They were able to track - he said they were able to track my paternal lineage back further than they ever got into the Pale of Settlement.
GROSS: And I found your lineage, like, so interesting 'cause on one side, your great-great-grandfather worked in, like, the oil business. And I'm thinking, the oil business?
GROSS: There was an oil business? So apparently...
GROSS: ...Like, peasants, which probably included Jews, were allowed to do things like schlep the oil in...
MARON: I guess.
GROSS: ...Wagons or something.
GROSS: And the oil then was used to, like, grease wagon wheels.
MARON: It was in Galicia.
GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. And then on the other side of your family, it sounds like your great-grandfather was something of a scoundrel or...
MARON: (Laughter) Yeah. And what was it? In South Carolina or somewhere?
GROSS: In South Carolina, yeah.
GROSS: And so he was in business with his son, and his son sued him...
GROSS: ...And won. The son won $50,000.
GROSS: And then there were about, like, a dozen other lawsuits against your great-great-grandfather for things like horse thievery and selling liquor illegally.
GROSS: And I wonder what it was like for you to find out that you had a, quote, "colorful past" (laughter).
MARON: To me, like, it kind of filled in the gaps around my father's bipolar behavior. I'm like, oh, this is where he got it, from his great-great-grandfather on his mother's side, you know, because it seemed like the behavior - you know, it wasn't like he was running around robbing banks. But it all seemed like stuff that could happen in a manic episode.
GROSS: Oh, yeah.
MARON: So I decided to frame it that way, yeah. I referred to it in the special, you know, that my void started in the heart of a tailor's wife.
GROSS: Oh, yes. Yes, yes, yes.
MARON: Yeah. Well, the idea is that, you know, if you have an emotional void where your heart should be, it'll pass down, you know, through generations. And I say my void - you can track your void on 23andMe. I found out that my void began in the chest of a tailor's wife in Belarus in the 1800s. It's a 99.9% Ashkenazi void. And we've all been sitting in it for an hour (laughter).
GROSS: Yeah. And Ashkenazi is a branch of Jews. So yeah, no, that was great. OK. I need to reintroduce you again, so here it comes. My guest is Marc Maron. And his new HBO comedy special is called "From Bleak To Dark." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF AMY RIGBY SONG, "PLAYING PITTSBURGH")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Marc Maron. His new comedy special is called "From Bleak To Dark." It premiered on Saturday on HBO. It will be reshown on HBO. You can also find it streaming on HBO Max.
There's a story that you tell in - or was that - actually, this was in one of our interviews years ago. I think it was in the 2000 interview. You were telling a story onstage, a funny story about somebody who seemed to have a very unfortunate job. It was a miniature golf TV show. And he was, like, the host of it.
MARON: (Laughter) Oh, yeah.
GROSS: And you were thinking, like, how awful is this? It's not even, like, golf. It's, like, miniature golf.
MARON: Yeah. Yeah.
GROSS: And you make a joke about how he probably went home and wanted to kill himself.
GROSS: And somebody ran up and tackled you onstage...
GROSS: ...And then was waiting for you afterwards, after the show, and basically threatening to beat you up.
GROSS: And what you did was you put your arm around him, took him aside and said, let's talk.
GROSS: And you did. You talked. And you resolved it. You asked him what was so upsetting. He told you his brother had just recently ended his life by suicide. You told him how upset you were to hear that. He apologized to you. And you ended as, like, two human beings being able to talk it out.
And I'm thinking, with all - with, like, comics being tackled onstage now, but also just being canceled on Twitter, like, you can't take somebody on Twitter aside and have a nice talk with them and resolve it as, like, human to human. Somebody cancels you on Twitter. And then everybody retweets it. And suddenly everybody's canceling you without any real human interaction. So I don't know. That's just my lead-in into wanting to get some of your thoughts about cancellation and some of your friends being canceled.
MARON: Yeah. I - look; I don't - it's scary, ultimately, especially, you know, on Twitter, you know, if someone digs up an old joke and it's taken out of context and some insanity is created around it. Like, look; I know that I'm saying a lot of heavy stuff, you know, about, you know, Christianity, about whatever - the climate. But ultimately, they're jokes.
I think, around those tweets especially, that if someone does a joke that is insensitive to trans people or to gay people, or to race, that you have to assume that the comedian was being insensitive but is not necessarily a Nazi or someone who is, you know, trying to start problems. And they should be able to speak their piece. And I've seen things get out of control like that. And they don't get an opportunity to speak their piece. But also, when you do say things, there are consequences. And there are reactions, public reactions, that can pick up momentum. And sometimes you have to factor in that - the fact of that when, you know, you say things.
GROSS: Do you find yourself thinking about past material that you wouldn't say now because the culture has changed, the language has changed, you've changed?
MARON: Yes, absolutely. And I don't think that there's anything wrong with that.
GROSS: No, it's good to change. I mean, it's good to change when you look back and think, like, I don't believe that anymore. I don't think that anymore. Yeah.
MARON: Well, see, it's like it's just - it's not even a belief or think. It's like, you know, jokes are jokes. And there was a time in my life where I was of the belief that you should be able to joke about anything and you should do it. And it doesn't matter how shocking it is. This is our job, is to push this envelope. I've been in that zone when I was a younger comic. And I made, you know, I would say, definitely insensitive jokes. But I also thought there was some craft to them.
But there are certainly jokes that I grew to learn. Like, I have been - in my past, I've been called out by people who saw me at shows for doing an Asian voice that was not me - it was me doing somebody doing it who I had an experience with in a cab. But her point in the email was that, you're still getting the laugh from that voice, so it's still wrong. I have been called out for a trans joke years ago, before any of this stuff, that was - I was told was insensitive and which I believed. And I stopped doing it.
I had been called out by someone - these are usually through emails of people who've seen me at shows - for exploring the R word in an earnest way. And I was schooled on that, that it's not - you know, it's not about the people who are mentally challenged or intellectually challenged or whatever the correct word is now. It's really about everyone who loves that person and everyone in that family, that when you say the R word, it hurts all the people who have someone in their life who has those challenges. So you know, I have taken the risks. And I have honored the feedback. And I - those were the consequences, is that that is the dialogue. You should rethink this. And I did, and I stopped doing it.
GROSS: So I have one more question for you, and it's kind of heavy and kind of personal, but it's in the spirit of your new comedy show on HBO, "From Bleak To Dark." So this is dark. When your girlfriend, the director, Lynn Shelton, was taken to the hospital - and you didn't know she was dying, but she was - she certainly didn't know it either. And then you got the call from the hospital saying, get over here right away. We're taking her off the life support machines. And, of course, by the time you got there, she was already gone. And they said, well, you know, why don't you go in with her? And you can spend a few minutes with her. So you did. And I'm wondering if the image of her face after she had passed stays with you and if you're glad you have that image. I don't mean glad, but, you know, if it's a good thing that you have that image or if that image haunts you.
MARON: Yeah. I - you know, I talk about that pretty specifically in the special. And so the doctor was offering me this opportunity. And it was like there was no way I was going to get there in time. It wasn't about being there for when she passed. It was just about him offering me the opportunity to see her, you know. And it seemed like when he offered me that opportunity, he knew that she was going to be gone. But I don't go there really when I think her passing. I do not regret going down there and having an opportunity to get that type of closure and say goodbye in that way. But usually, when I think about that day and the day before, I just, you know, it really becomes about, you know, you know, did I show up for her enough? You know, who was I, you know, that week? You know, because I just hope that I was showing up for her in a caring way.
GROSS: Yeah. Marc, I really - it's so good to talk with you again. And I'm really grateful for your comedy special. It really made me laugh a lot, and that felt really good. But it also is really very thoughtful, very reflective and emotional. And to do all of that at the same time is a balancing act that is really hard to achieve, but you did it. So thank you for that.
MARON: You're welcome. And thank you for talking to me. I really appreciate it. And I have nothing but love and respect for you, Terry.
GROSS: Oh, that's how I feel about you. I'm so grateful for our microphone (laughter) relationship mediated by microphones, but really important to me.
MARON: Yes. Oh, good. Well, thanks.
GROSS: Marc Maron's new comedy special, "From Bleak To Dark," is streaming on HBO Max. After we take a short break, Ken Tucker will review the new 17th volume of Dylan's bootleg recordings released by Columbia Records. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF BAHAMAS SONG, "LOST IN THE LIGHT")
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Columbia Records has released Volume 17 of its official Bob Dylan bootleg series. This one is titled "Fragments: Time Out Of Mind Sessions 1996-1997," and it provides an extensive new look at one of Dylan's most acclaimed albums, the Grammy-winning "Time Out Of Mind." Rock critic Ken Tucker says this package of five CDs offers a wealth of new ways to experience some of Dylan's most moving music.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RED RIVER SHORE")
BOB DYLAN: (Singing) Some of us turn off the lights and we live. In the moonlight shooting by. Some of us scare ourselves to death in the dark. To be where the angels fly.
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: When "Time Out Of Mind" was released in 1997, it was Bob Dylan's first album of original material in seven years. He'd just turned 56 and had survived a serious heart problem health scare. In interviews, Dylan and producer Daniel Lanois admitted to a long, often contentious recording process that took place in California and Florida. By the time the collection won Album of the Year at the 1998 Grammys, the narrative around "Time Out Of Mind" had gelled. Here was Dylan's comeback, his don't-count-him-out resurgence.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MISSISSIPPI")
DYLAN: (Singing) Every step of the way, we walk the line. Your days are numbered - so are mine. Time is piling up. We struggle and we scrape. We're all boxed in, nowhere to escape. City's just a jungle, more games to play. Trapped in the heart of it, trying to get away. I was raised in the country, been working in the town, been in trouble ever since I set my suitcase down. Got nothing for you...
TUCKER: That's "Mississippi," a song that was left off "Time Out Of Mind." It eventually appeared on 2001's "Love And Theft" in a tame B-movie Western version. Here, however, with the organ of Augie Meyers and the slide guitar of Cindy Cashdollar greasing the melody, it's a slinky roadhouse blues. This collection, "Fragments," contains five discs, including a remix of the original album and many outtakes and alternate versions. There's one disc devoted to live performances. Some of these are very rough. On one or two, you can overhear people in the audience talking to each other. You can also hear Dylan really enjoying being on his so-called Never Ending Tour, hurling himself into these performances. The version of "'Til I Fell In Love With You" recorded in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1998, is raw and funny, very rock-'n-roll-y, with a great instrumental section in its center.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "'TIL I FELL IN LOVE WITH YOU")
DYLAN: (Singing) Well, junk is piling up, taking up space. My eyes feel like they're falling off my face. Sweat falling down, I'm staring at the floor. I'm thinking about that girl that won't be back no more. I just don't know what I'm going to do. I was all right 'til I fell in love with you.
TUCKER: The more you listen to Dylan working changes on what were then fresh new songs for him, the old way of hearing "Time Out Of Mind" falls away. This isn't about Dylan and Lanois trying for a comeback or a hit or a Grammy award - I mean, it is. It probably was, but who cares about any of that now? The songs outlast and exceed their initial framework. "Time Out Of Mind" is an album about effort, about work, about trying hard, laboring to be understood and to be loved. In song after song, Dylan is walking down a dirt road trying to get to a lover, but she's a million miles away, or he's 20 miles out of town in cold irons bound, but he's not giving up. He's transfixed by earthly love, even as he's trying to get to heaven. He's sick of being in love, but he's helplessly in thrall to it. He has a long talk with a waitress in a roadside diner that only convinces him he has to continue to try. And so he keeps on in a song that didn't make the album, "Marching To The City."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MARCHING TO THE CITY")
DYLAN: (Singing) Snowflakes are falling on my head. Lord have mercy, it feels heavy as lead. I've been hit too hard, and I've seen too much. Nothing can heal me now but your touch. Once, I had a pretty girl. She did me wrong. Now I'm marching to the city bus, and the road ain't long.
TUCKER: The atmosphere Dylan and Lanois achieved remains eerie and vital, a rhythm that skeletons might dance to in a graveyard using a few discarded bones for percussion. Dylan, with his crypt keeper rasp, has the last laugh.
GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed "Fragments - Time Out Of Mind Sessions" from the Bob Dylan bootleg series. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed - like this week's tribute to Burt Bacharach featuring two interviews with him; or with costume designer Ruth E. Carter, who's nominated for an Oscar for "Wakanda Forever"; or Yannick Nezet-Seguin, conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera, who put together a playlist for us of pop, hip-hop and classical music that inspires him - check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews. And for a look behind the scenes at FRESH AIR, subscribe to our free newsletter. You'll find the link on our website, freshair.npr.org.
Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COLD IRONS BOUND")
DYLAN: (Singing) I'm beginning to hear voices. There's no one around. I'm all used up, and the fields have turned brown. I went to church on Sunday, and she passed by. My love for her is taking such a long time to die. I'm waist deep, waist deep in the mist.
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