They were just two Jewish boys kidding around.
“Not since Passover have there been so many people here,” writer/director/producer Judd Apatow announced to a full house at the Saban Theatre last week, there to see Apatow foist his comedy colleague Marc Maron into the hot seat for the popular Writers Bloc salon series.
Tribal affiliation notwithstanding, Apatow, 45, and Maron, 49, couldn’t be more different. Apatow is an uber-wealthy Hollywood hotshot, whose movies “The 40 Year Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up” and, recently, “This Is 40” have made him one of American comedy’s household names. Maron, on the other hand, struggled as a gypsy stand-up comic for nearly three decades before coming into his own as the host of the popular podcast, “WTF With Marc Maron,” which he has been recording in his garage since 2009 and has recently parlayed into a book, “Attempting Normal” and a TV series on IFC, “Maron.”
Although the comedy gurus spent time admiring one another onstage, demonstrating an easy, funny, flowing rapport, their temperaments and comic sensibilities proved wildly divergent. Apatow identified himself as having the “classic Jewish neurotic people-pleasing personality,” while Maron described himself as a longtime “cynical, bitter -f---.” But for these two wielders of wit, hot-blooded though bearded and graying, having similar backgrounds propelled them into a shared profession, as each aimed to realize comic gifts sprung from alienation.
The first topic they tackled was fathers, the most primary of influences on their life and work. Maron is candid about his complicated feelings for his father, who is often the subject of raw and even brutal scrutiny on his podcast. Apatow’s parents divorced when he was 12, and he was subsequently split from his two siblings, who each lived with different guardians. The experience clearly wounded him, to the point where even after achieving uncommon success, Apatow said he is always on guard for something disruptive to happen. “I always feel like someone’s gonna punch me in the face,” he said. “I can’t shake that feeling.”
“Well, I get into bed and think someone’s gonna hit me with a bat in my sleep,” Maron countered, followed by an anecdote depicting a sort of clueless, rageful father. “You never knew whether or not we’d spend a weekend looking for a hat.” The unpredictability sparked in Maron a kind of rueful, anxious comedy through which his sadness and self-effacement became a creative asset. “When you have a charismatic, completely self-centered, erratic parent, and you work to adapt to that your whole life, it’s like, ‘You’re perfect for interviewing celebrities!’ ”
“Maybe with erratic parents, you feel unsafe,” Apatow said, offering a reason for artistic diligence as a stabilizing force.
“I got into comedy to be OK with myself,” Maron said. “I have to explore who I am on stage.”
Sexual swagger (Maron) — or lack thereof (Apatow) — was another subject in which the comics were at odds. In his book, Maron boastfully declares his skill and virility in the bedroom, whereas on stage Apatow admitted to “awkward” experiences, in which casual sex proved empty and unwieldy and climaxes came prematurely. Apatow has, of course, long been married to the actress Leslie Mann and is the father of two daughters, Maude, 15, and Iris, 10. Maron is twice divorced and, according to his memoir, currently in a committed relationship with a woman who is eager to have children.
Apatow seized on the opportunity to nudge Maron toward fatherhood: “Don’t be a p---y,” he said. “Have a kid! You don’t want to be that guy.”
“I’m almost 50!” Maron exclaimed.
“So?” Apatow answered.
Maron explained that since publishing the book, the conversation about having children with his girlfriend had “leveled off.”
“How can it level off?” Apatow wondered. “It has to resolve …”
“I was a given a deadline,” Maron said.
“July. I have to put a baby in her by July.”
“That’s what you should tell your child,” Apatow quipped. “You were the result of a lost argument.”
For all their mutual mishegoss, they have both led wildly colorful lives. But whereas Maron regaled the crowd with tales from his early stand-up career apprenticing at The Comedy Store with stars like Sam Kinison whom he called “mad men” who liked to drink and dope, Apatow said he considers himself of a cleaner comic breed. “I was more of a Seinfeld guy. I wanted to have roast-beef sandwiches with Jerry Seinfeld. I didn’t want to stay up all night doing coke.”
“You did the right thing, Judd,” Maron said, alluding to Apatow’s first-class career, but admonished, “I have better stories.”
As Apatow pointed out, Maron’s desperation led him to a “pure-of-heart creativity” that reflects his self-doubt and self-loathing, his anger and cynicism, but also offers a raw, real honesty that the public has found endearing. What happens, though, Apatow wondered, when a person who has staked his comic career on the bitterness of life eventually achieves many of its pleasures — fame, money, maybe even love?
“I don’t know if I can completely identify with happiness,” Maron said. The feat, he said, is that “I don’t feel bitter anymore.”
Apatow said that several years ago he realized he had reached the pinnacle of his personal experience of happiness; because of his personal and professional successes, he’d gotten the chance to be “as happy as I can get.” Eventually though, he confessed, it goes away, dissolving into a kind of homeostatic contentedness. “You can’t make your life about chasing peak joy experiences,” he told Maron, this time sounding a bit like a parent.
“I didn’t think any of this was going to happen,” Maron said. “Three years ago, I thought, ‘I just have to make this podcast work so I can get health insurance.’ ” He said his podcast enabled him to work through his disappointment and anger by “talking to guys who made me laugh.” The garage as confessional — or even therapist’s couch — proved psychologically salutary.
“I got my heart back,” Maron said. “I was in search of being myself; that was my journey.”
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