Marc Maron Tries to Make Grief Funny in His New HBO Special

In ‘From Bleak to Dark,’ the acerbic comic processes the tragic death of his partner. The results aren’t especially hilarious, but they’re very much in keeping with his prickly, pessimistic worldview
Marc Maron Tries to Make Grief Funny in His New HBO Special

About halfway through From Bleak to Dark, Marc Maron’s new stand-up special (and his first in three years), the 59-year-old comic talks about his fans. “I love my audience ‘cause I just know it’s a room full of people that had, maybe, one good parent,” he declares. “Maybe. It’s a big room full of broken toys in here. Every day is a fucking challenge. And you’re overly sensitive, battling dread all the time, and wondering if you’re talented.”

The raucous response from the crowd at New York City’s the Town Hall indicates that Maron has just hit a bunch of them where they live. I don’t want to paint with too broad a brush, but if you’re going to a Maron show, you probably also see the world as one long, infuriating insult to your intelligence and sensibility. Throughout his career, Maron has railed against the stupid, the hypocritical, the cruel, the bigoted and the conventional — all the bastards that make barely-holding-on people like himself go insane. Despite his success in recent years thanks to his podcast and his burgeoning acting career, he’s a perpetual outsider — a proudly pissy malcontent who doesn’t go in for warm and fuzzy. Neither, presumably, does his audience, which is what makes From Bleak to Dark such an oddity in Maron’s body of work. Sure, he remains cynical and peeved, but both he and his fans know that there’s going to be something else happening this night. He’s going to talk about losing his partner, filmmaker Lynn Shelton. He’s going to talk about death and grief. He’s going to mourn.

The special, which premieres on HBO on February 11th, contains the first recorded stand-up material Maron has performed regarding Shelton, who died in May of 2020 at the age of 54. A man who’s spoken frequently on stage about his romantic troubles, Maron seemed to have found a soulmate in Shelton, the director of acclaimed indies such as Humpday and Sword of Trust, the latter of which featured Maron. She had directed his last special, 2020’s End Times Fun, which was released just as the pandemic was starting to take hold. The end of the world Maron saw coming just around the bend in that special wasn’t the one that soon consumed our frazzled lives, but it was hard not to be on his doomsday wavelength as we all sheltered in place. A few months later, though, Maron’s actual world imploded, Shelton dying from undiagnosed acute myeloid leukemia.

Maron processed her loss, practically in real time, on his podcast, but From Bleak to Dark is where he turns that grieving into comedy — or at least tries to. And HBO has been leaning into that element when advertising the special, recognizing that even those with only a cursory knowledge of Maron will probably be aware of Shelton’s death and be curious to hear what he has to say. For more fervent fans, From Bleak to Dark will probably inspire the same must-see anticipation as Chris Rock’s forthcoming Netflix special, which presumably will include some commentary about The Slap. But prospective viewers will also feel a natural compassion and concern when tuning in: We want to know how our friend Maron is holding up. With that in mind, From Bleak to Dark is both a little underwhelming and utterly understandably scattershot. The poor guy has gone through hell, and he’s not over it. Who of us would be?

From Bleak to Dark starts off slowly, although Maron knows his brand — and his fans — well enough to know that when he opens the show by announcing, “I don’t want to be negative, but…” he’ll get a big laugh. Being negative is one of the main reasons we enjoy Maron’s company so much. All of us have that one friend who we don’t have to fake positivity with when we’re around them: We can be real, complaining about the petty shit that drives us crazy, mouthing off about that popular person or annoying trend that is deeply annoying. There’s no judgment — the friend is right there with you, helping to create a safe space of shared nastiness — and it feels good to let out those meaner, uglier sentiments. An oasis of sanity and petulance has been what Maron’s stand-up has long provided, and with his graying hair, bushy mustache and assortment of frowns and snarls, he’s become a delightfully grizzled, crotchety sourpuss as he approaches 60. 

But when Maron finishes that opening thought by declaring, “I don’t think anything’s ever going to get better ever again,” there’s an extra sting to his pessimism. Yes, global warming seems irreversible, fascism has hardly disappeared despite Trump losing the 2020 election and dear god the pandemic was brutal, but Maron could just as easily be speaking about his personal life. But his thoughts on Shelton’s passing will have to wait — first, he unloads on everything from “anti-woke” comedians to extreme Christians, never saying anything that profound, but saying it with his patented clear-eyed, unshowy brusqueness that never pauses for his like-minded audience to clap in agreement. Even though I often agree with progressive comics’ political and cultural stances, they can sometimes get stuck in a self-righteousness that undercuts their very correct positions. Maron doesn’t do that: He says what he wants to say not because he wants to score points. It’s because he’s pissed, and he’s got to get that irritation out somehow.

The set’s first half has some good bits. From Bleak to Dark really gets going when Maron starts detailing the ways in which the pro-choice argument could strengthen its cause. (His suggestion involves renaming abortion clinics — I won’t spoil the punchline, but let’s just say that his plan is totally unfeasible but is very funny for how blithely he delivers it.) He’s dead-on about guys only being vocal about abortion rights when it pertains to them, and Maron’s anecdote about his sonuvabitch father who’s mellowing now that he has dementia is touching and prickly in equal measure. Still, it’s hard not to feel (as its title suggests) that From Bleak to Dark is teasing us — maybe even clearing its throat a little — in preparation for the really heavy stuff to come. The special’s “bleak” section is no surprise from him, but the “dark” is new, much to his chagrin.

The Shelton material shows up at about the 30-minute mark of this hour-length special, with Maron gracefully transitioning from talking about the certainty of death in the abstract — an issue he’s grappled with before — to the very specific reality of losing his girlfriend. Sadly, talking about a dead partner isn’t new in stand-up: Just five years ago, Patton Oswalt devoted much of his special Annihilation to the sudden death of his wife Michelle McNamara. And much like Oswalt’s set, From Bleak to Dark tries to navigate between being heartfelt and funny, not always successfully. But because Maron’s worldview is several shades darker than Oswalt’s, there’s less of an attempt to find a comforting lesson or end on an encouraging note. A devout nonbeliever, Maron doesn’t sound too convinced that his beloved is looking down on him from Heaven. But he also acknowledges that, in the midst of unspeakable grief, the idea that she might be reincarnated into, say, a hummingbird isn’t the worst thought to have. 

If you’re like me, you might feel bad for not loving Maron’s Shelton bits more. Anybody who’s a fan of the comedian will watch From Bleak to Dark rooting for him — not just to deliver an incredible set but to have emerged from tragedy reborn and reinvigorated. But both expectations are probably unrealistic, and Maron exudes vulnerability in his acknowledgement that he’s still torn up about her death. 

Not surprisingly, then, the special feels like a veteran comic’s tentative first stab at making sense — and jokes — out of something unfathomable. And there are pieces that work really well. A detailed, touching story about his final time seeing Shelton, just after she’s died, is told with bracing clarity and delicacy — only to end with an out-of-nowhere absurdist thought Maron had in the moment that (no spoilers) reflects how deeply social media has broken our brains. But then other times, Maron seems to be retreating to something safer and less scary. A briefly candid discussion about comedy’s ability to attack darkness gives way for a wan gag: “I believe there were probably some hilarious people in Auschwitz. I mean, c’mon, it was, like, all Jews.” 

Anyone who’s been through grief — or witnessed it in others — will recognize the serious-then-silly dance that Maron does in From Bleak to Dark. No one turns on a Marc Maron special for pathos, but what’s most touching about this new set is that, even for someone who likes to dig around in the dirt and grime of the human psyche as much as he does, there are still some aspect of Shelton’s death that are too hard for him to talk about. For once, this unapologetic truth-teller has to look away.

While I’ve liked a lot of Maron’s stand-up in the past, I occasionally find him too surly, too pessimistic, too angry — he can drone on rather than provide cathartic insights. On some level, I think he and I are just wired a little differently: As much as I cosign so many of his attitudes, the biliousness of his routines gets a little one-note. But while From Bleak to Dark is far from his finest hour, there’s something deeply relatable about his confusion and sorrow. He’s never pretended to have the answers to his well-documented miseries, but he’s never been this unguarded. 

After about 20 minutes of talking about Shelton, he moves on to discussing the joys of being childless and why it’s better to have cats instead. These are the sorts of things we’d expect from this lifelong grump. But it’s inflected with the sadness that remains three years later and, he suspects, will always be there. It’s a testament to Maron that he doesn’t flee the darkness. He’s willing to live in it because that’s where he is in his life right now. From Bleak to Dark isn’t especially hilarious, but it feels very real. And that’s something Maron has always tried to deliver in his comedy.

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