Marc Maron’s powerful keynote address at Montreal’s JFL 2011

Marc Maron had introduced Andy Kindler at the State of the Industry Address two summers ago in Montreal, and this afternoon, Kindler kindly returned the favor with a lengthy and heartfelt introduction of Maron for his Keynote Address at the 2011 Just For Laughs Comedy Conference.

“I emailed him and said his podcast really changed my life,” Kindler said of Maron, calling him “an empathetic savant,” adding: “I feel like he’s created a place where comedians can come together, gather and learn about things.”

Maron recounted his stand-up tour with Kindler and Eugene Mirman, which happened months before Maron decided to launch his WTF podcast, slightly differently. He offered up sound-based impersonations of the trio as “very specific Jews,” told an amusing story of how Kindler’s GPS got them lost in the woods of Ohio, and then delivered a powerful keynote address about himself, comedians and the comedy industry, capping it off with tributes to Greg Giraldo, Robert Schimmel and Mike DeStefano, all of whom died too soon within the past year. Tears were shed by several audience members, and at least twice, Maron had to stop and turn from the podium to hold himself back from breaking. He earned a deserved standing ovation.

Whether they wanted him because of his attitude that yielded quotes in his 2009 Kindler intro like: “You know when you make popcorn there are always those fluffy white kernels that are fun and good to eat but there are also always those burnt, black kernels that don’t pop. You know why they don’t pop? Because they have integrity.” Or whether they are, like millions of others, fans of his podcast and wanted to hear him open up about the industry. Whatever they wanted Maron for, they got it in spades today.

This is that speech. Marc Maron’s Just For Laughs Comedy Conference 2011 Keynote Address, “First Things First.” Reprinted with permission by Maron.

UPDATED: You can also listen to Marc Maron’s JFL speech as a special WTF one-off.

Welcome to the Montreal Just for Laughs Comedy Festival and fuck you, some of you, you know who you are. Wait. Sorry. That was the old me. I would like to apologize for being a dick just then. Goddamanit. See that’s progress. The amount of time between action and apology was seconds.I am excited to be here. So, I Will now proceed to make this speech all about me and see where that takes us.Things are going pretty well for me right now and that is a problem. I don’t know what kind of person you are but I am the kind of person who when things are going well there is a voice in my head saying, “You’re going to fuck it up. You’re going to fuck it, Marc.”  Over and over and over again. I just wish that voice were louder than the voice screaming, “Lets fuck it up! Come on, pussy! What happened to you? Fuck it up. Burn some bridges, fuck up your career, fuck up this speech, break up with girlfriend, Start drinking again, pussy! You used to have balls and edge! Have you forgotten what it’s like being alone on a couch drunk and crying with no future and nothing left to lose? Have you forgotten what freedom feels like, pussy? Fuck it up!

So, that is going on right now.

When they asked me to give this speech months ago the first thing I said to my manager was, “What? They can’t get anyone else? With this much time? Really?” Then my manager said, “They want you.” So I asked, “Why me?”

Why ask why me? is the better question. This was obviously a good thing–I got the gig–but I’m the kind of person that needs to deconstruct even a good thing so I can understand what is expected of me and who is expecting it. You would think, “Well, Marc, they want you to be funny.” Not good enough. In my mind I needed to know what the angle was. Did no one else want to do this? Did someone drop out? Be honest, who said no already? Chelsea Handler? Did Chelsea Handler say no already? I don’t want Chelsea Handler’s sloppy seconds. Am I cheap? I mean, shit, I’ve been doing comedy for 25 years and I’ve been invited to this festival maybe twice before this. Which is ridiculous considering how many “new faces” I’ve tried out along the way. To their credit the festival did have me on the ‘remember these old faces’ show a few years ago but I get it. Let’s be honest.  I haven’t made anyone in this room any real money.  I’m currently working out of my garage. I am in a constant battle with resentment against many people in this room. So, again, why me?

You see what happened there? Within minutes the opportunity to give this speech became: “This is a set up. They’re fucking me. I mean what kind of bullshit is this?”

That is the kind of thinking that has kept me out of the big time for my entire career.

Okay, I’m going to try to address both sides here–the industry and the comics. It’s not really an us against them situation but sometimes it feels like it is.

As I said, I have been doing standup for 25 years. I’ve put more than half my life into building my clown. That’s how I see it. Comics keep getting up on stage and in time the part of them that lives and thrives up there is their clown. My clown was fueled by jealousy and spite for most of my career. I’m the clown who recently read The War for Late Night and thought it was basically about me not being in show business. I’m the clown who thought most of Jon Stewart’s success was based on his commitment to a haircut. I’m the clown that thought Louis CK’s show Louie should be called Fuck You Marc Maron.

Three years ago my clown was broke, on many levels, and according to my manager at the time un-bookable and without options. That was a good talk:

My manager: Nobody wants to work with you. I can’t get you an agent. I cant you get you any road work.  I can’t get you anything.
Me: Uh, okay, so, uh, what do we do…..
My manager: Are you looking at my hair? Why are you looking at my hair? Does it look bad?
Me: No, it’s fine. What should I do?
My manager: I don’t know what we’re going to do. Stop looking at my hair. Am I fat? Seriously, am I?

My first thought after that meeting was: I’m going to kill myself. My second thought was: I could get a regular job. My third thought was: I need a new manager. I think I had the order wrong. I drove home defeated. 25 years in and I had nothing. I was sitting alone in my garage in a house I was about to lose because of that bitch–lets not get into that now–and I realized. Fuck, you can build a clown, and they might not come. I was thinking, “It’s over. It’s fucking over.” Then I thought: “You have no kids, no wife, no career, certainly no plan B. Why not kill yourself?”  I thought about suicide a lot—not because I really wanted to kill myself. I just found it relaxing to know that I could if I had to. You’ve never had that moment……(do bit)

Then I thought maybe I could get a regular job. Even though the last regular job I had was in a restaurant like 25 years ago. I said to myself, I still got it! It’s like riding a bike. Just get me a spatula and watch me flip some eggs or some burgers. Then I thought, “What are you fucking crazy? You think they’re going to hire a 47 year old man who’s last restaurant job was part time short order cook in 1987? How are you going to explain those lost years? Are you going to show the bar manager your Conan reel. You’re an idiot.”

Broke, defeated and career-less, I started doing a podcast in that very garage where I was planning my own demise. I started talking about myself on the mic with no one telling me what I could or couldn’t say. I started to reach out to comics. I needed help. Personal help. Professional help. Help. I needed to talk. So, I reached out to my peers and talked to them. I started to feel better about life, comedy, creativity, community. I started to understand who I was by talking to other comics and sharing it with you. I started to laugh at things again. I was excited to be alive. Doing the podcast and listening to comics was saving my life. I realized that is what comedy can do for people.

You know what the industry had to do with that?

Absolutely nothing.

When I played an early episode for my now former manager in his office thinking that I was turning a career corner and we finally had something he listened for 3 minutes and said, “I don’t get it.”

I don’t blame him. Why would he? It wasn’t on his radar or in his wheel house. There’s no package deal, no episode commitment, no theaters to sell out. He had no idea what it was or how to extract money from it AND I did it from my garage. Perfect. It took me 25 years to do the best thing I had ever done and there was no clear way monetize it.

I’m ahead of the game.

So, back to the offer for this speech. I thought wait that’s the reason they want me—I do this podcast out of my garage that has had over 20 million downloads in less than two years. It is critically acclaimed. I have interviewed over 200 comics, created live shows, I am writing a book, I have a loyal borderline-obsessive fan base who bring me baked goods and artwork, I have evolved as a person and a performer, I am at the top of my game and no one can tell me what to do—I built it myself, I work for myself, I have full creative freedom.

I am the future of show business. Not your show business, my show business. They want me to do this speech because I am the future of our industry.

Then my new manager got back to me and said, “They liked the jokes you did when you introduced Kindler a couple of years ago. That’s why they asked you.”

So, it was the jokes about them, you, the industry, that got them interested. Hmm. Fuck. That was like two jokes. I’m not good at insult comedy. Any time I do roast type of jokes they go to far, cut too deep, too true, gets me in trouble.

I think the president of Comedy Central, Doug Herzog, is still mad at me. I would like to take this opportunity to apologize again to Doug. Years ago, when Doug Herzog and Eileen Katz first moved to Comedy Central from MTV and began re-tooling it I performed at a Comedy Central party at Catch A Rising Star. I remember the joke I did. I said, “I am glad the that Doug and Eileen moved from MTV to Comedy Central because I think that all television should look like a 24-hour, round-the-clock, pie-eating contest.” I don’t know if it was the venom I said it with or what but two days later I was in Eileen Katz’s office with my old manager, who was having a great hair day, apologizing to Eileen for that joke. So, I am not the guy to make you industry people laugh at yourselves. Kindler will do that in couple of days. And if I could, in the spirit of making an amends, I would like to apologize to Doug Herzog, again, and say, I am sorry Doug. Since you have been there, Comedy Central has become the best pie-eating contest on television.

Yes, I have been bitter in my life. I have felt slighted by the industry and misunderstood. I have made mistakes and fucked things up. That’s the kind of comic I am. It isn’t unusual. I will admit and accept my faults and mistakes but It bothers me that the industry takes comics for granted and makes us jump through stupid hoops and lie to us—constantly. I get it. You think it’s part of your job but how about a little respect for us—the commodity. The clowns.

When I was kid watching comedians on TV and listening to their records they were the only ones that could make it all seem okay. They seemed to cut through the bullshit and disarm fears and horror by being clever and funny. I don’t think I could have survived my childhood without watching standup comics. When I started doing comedy I didn’t understand show business. I just wanted to be a comedian. Now after 25 years of doing standup and the last two years of having long conversations with over 200 comics I can honestly say they are some of the most thoughtful, philosophical, open minded, sensitive, insightful, talented, self centered, neurotic, compulsive, angry, fucked up, sweet, creative people in the world.

I love comedians. I respect anyone who goes all in to do what I consider a noble profession and art form. Despite whatever drives us towards this profession i.e. insecurity, need for attention, megalomania, poor parenting, anger, a mixture of all of the above. Whatever it is, we comics are out there on the front lines of our sanity.

We risk all sense of security and the possibility of living stable lives to do comedy. We are out there in B rooms, dive bars, coffee shops, bookstores and comedy clubs trying to find the funny, trying to connect, trying to interpret our problems and the world around us and make it into jokes. We are out there dragging our friends and co-workers to comedy clubs at odd hours so we can get on stage. We are out there desperately tweeting, updating statuses and shooting silly videos. We are out there driving ten hours straight to feature in fill in blank city here. We are out there acting excited on local morning radio programs with hosts whose malignant egos are as big as their regional popularity. We are out there pretending we like club owners and listening to their ‘input’. We are out there fighting the good fight against our own weaknesses: battling courageously with internet porn, booze, pills, weed, blow, hookers, hangers on, sad angry girls we can’t get out of our room, twitter trolls and broken relationships. We are out there on treadmills at Holiday Inn Expresses and Marriott suite hotels trying to balance out our self-destructive compulsions, sadness and fat. We are up making our own waffles at at 9:58 AM two minutes before the free buffet closes and thrilled about it. Do not underestimate the power of a lobby waffle to change your outlook.

All this for what? For the opportunity to be funny in front of as many people as possible and share our point of view, entertain, tell some jokes, crunch some truths, release some of the tension that builds up in people, in the culture and ourselves.

So, if I could I would like to help out some of the younger comics here with some things that I learned from experience in show business. Most of these only refer to those of us that have remained heat-less for most of our careers. I can’t speak to heat. I do know that symbiosis with the industry is necessary after a certain point and there are great agents, managers and executives who want to make great product but for the most part it’s about money. To quote a promoter who was quoting an older promoter in relation to his involvement with the Charlie Sheen tour: “Don’t smell it, sell it.” True story.

The list.

  1. Show business is not your parents. When you get to Hollywood you should have something more than, “Hey! I’m here! When do we go on the rides?”
  2. Try to tap into your authentic voice, your genuine funny and build from there.
  3. Try to find a manager that gets you.
  4. Nurturing and developing talent is no longer relevant. Don’t expect it. If you want to hear about that talk to an agent, manager or comic from back in the day….but don’t get sucked in. They’ll pay for the meal but they’ll feed on you naïvete to fuel their diminishing relevance and that can be a soul suck.
  5. If you have a manager there is a language spoken by them and their assistants that you should begin to understand. For example when an assistant says: He’s on a call or I’ll try to get her in the car or he just stepped out or I don’t have her right now or their in a meeting or he’s at lunch or she’s on set or or or…. All of those mean: They’ve got no time for you. You have nothing going on. Go make something happen so they can take credit for it.
  6. Sometimes a ‘general meeting’ just means that executives had an open day, needed to fill out their schedule and want to be entertained. Don’t get your hopes up.
  7. If your manager says any of these: We’re trading calls or I have a call in to them or they said you killed it or they love you or their having a meeting about you or we’re waiting to hear back or they’re big fans. These usually mean: You didn’t get it and someone will tell you second hand.
  8. There is really no business like show business. Except maybe prostitution. There’s a bit of overlap there.
  9. This is not a meritocracy. Get over yourself.
  10. Dave Rath will be you manager

The amazing thing about being a comedian is that no one can tell us to stop even if we should. Delusion is necessary to do this. Some of you aren’t that great. Some of you may get better. Some of you are great…now. Some of you may get opportunities even when you stink. Some of you will get them and they will go nowhere and then you have to figure out how to buffer that disappointment and because of that get funnier or fade away. Some of you may be perfectly happy with mediocrity. Some of you will get nothing but heartbreak. Some of you will he heralded as geniuses and become huge. Of course all of you think that one describes you….hence the delusion necessary to push on. Occasionally everything will synch up and you will find your place in this racket. There is a good chance it will be completely surprising and not anything like you expected.

I’m not a household name, I’m not a huge comic, I have not made millions of dollars but I am okay and I make a living. I’m good with that. Finally. Comedy saved my life but also destroyed it in many ways. That is the precarious balance of our craft and some of us don’t survive it. We lost a few truly great comics this year.

Greg Giraldo isn’t here which is weird. He was always here. Greg was a friend of mine and of many of you. He wasn’t a close friend but we were connected by the unspoken bond between comics. After talking to hundreds of comics I know that bond runs deeper than just friendship and is more honest than most relationships. He certainly was a kindred spirit. I battle demons every day and as of today, I am winning, or at least have a détente. Greg lost that fight. He was a brilliant comedian but in a way that is rare. He was not a dark angry cloud. He was smart, current, honest, courageous and did it with humility and light. He was a comedic force of nature that is profoundly missed. He was just a guy that always seemed so alive that accepting that he isn’t is hard and sad. He is survived by his ex wife, his kids and his youtube videos. We miss him.

In an interesting twist this year, Robert Schimmel did not die of cancer but he did pass. Bob was a class act. A legacy to true blue lounge comedy and an impeccable craftsman of the story and the joke. He battled a horrible disease for over decade and brought a lot of laughs and hope to people affected by cancer. He made me laugh—a lot. I listen to his CDs if I need a real laugh. That is as honest a tribute as I can give. I miss him and I am sad I didn’t get to talk to him more.

Mike DeStefano as a person went through more shit than I can even imagine. Some of it self generated, all of it tragic and mind blowing, and he overcame it. How? With comedy. I recently talked to his brother, Joe who said, “Mike had a tough time living until he found comedy and then it was the opposite. Doing comedy is what saved him. His comedy helped a lot of people and it helped him.” I’d never met a guy more at peace with his past and present and more excited about the a future that sadly isn’t going to happen now but he knew in his heart he was living on borrowed time and everyday was a gift.

All of these guys should have had many more years of life between them but they didn’t. These guys were unique in that they were real comics, hilarious, deep, hard core, risk taking, envelope pushing artists that made a profound impact on people and changed minds and lives with their funny. I know that to be true.

I’m not sure if there is one point to this speech or any really. If you are a comic hang in there if you can because you never know what’s going to happen or how it is going to happen and there are a lot more ways and places for it to happen. I know my place in show business now. It’s in my garage. Who knows where yours is but there is truly nothing more important than comedy….well, that may be an overstatement. There are a few things more important than comedy but they aren’t funny……until we make them funny.

Godspeed. Have a good festival. We’re good, right? We’re good?

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

View all posts by Sean L. McCarthy →

21 thoughts on “Marc Maron’s powerful keynote address at Montreal’s JFL 2011

  1. I’m a fan of Marc Maron, for about 7 or 8 years now & am so happy that this podcast has worked so well in so many respects for him. I’ve really enjoyed the whole process, for lack of a better term.

    He joked that he wasn’t prepared for this speech, but I knew he’d never do that & I knew that he is an amazing speechwriter from his AAR days, & I was right, he hit it way out of the park, like historic stuff.

    Marc is probably the most talented & experienced untapped resource out there, but things are starting to look up with the book & the sitcom pilot, & the great bookings, etc. (Green Room & Bill Maher in 1 week!)

    And Marc, if you are reading this, contact me, my doctor gave me some information you should know about. I could also use Janeane Garofalo’s, Rachel Maddow’s, & Al Franken’s numbers if you have them handy, yes it was from that night.

  2. Maybe this can help other people.

    Joe Rogan talked about Maron today. Rogan described meeting Maron when he (Rogan) first started, and Maron was nice to him and gave him good advice. But over the years, as Rogan got more popular and then became the host of Fear Factor, Maron apparently resented him, going as far as criticizing the comedy Rogan was about to perform that Maron was introducing that night.

    Rogan’s point, however, wasn’t that Maron was a jerk, but that some people get caught in a loop of narcissistic resentment. He referenced this speech as the insight. Rather than accepting someone’s success, or even being jealous of it, they go a step further and take it personally (e.g. “Louie should be called Fuck You Marc Maron.”)

    This is the narcissistic dynamic: other people’s success can only be interpreted as it relates to yourself. It doesn’t exist independently, it can’t be understood as something that has nothing to do with you at all. That guy’s success reflexively means I’m less of a success; his failure reflexively means I’m more of a success.

    The result of this loop is this: “Three years ago my clown was broke, on many levels, and according to my manager at the time un-bookable and without options….I was thinking, “It’s over. It’s fucking over.” Then I thought: “You have no kids, no wife, no career, certainly no plan B. Why not kill yourself?”

    Not the suicide part, the “without options.” There are no options not because there are actually no independent options, but because there are no options which change the balance of worth between you and the other person. Because your value is measured relative to the other person, and you’ve now discovered that you have no control over that other person, you are indeed left “without options.” No obvious way to become more successful, OR no obvious way to make Joe Rogan less successful. That’s the cognitive trap.

    The point of all this is that once you’ve identified the kind of thinking this represents, it immediately suggests a solution.

    Maron was right in the middle of Erikson’s Generativity vs. Stagnation, the primary question being, “have I done, will I do, anything useful with my life?”

    Eirkson’s great insight about this stage, however, was that the word “useful” has a very limited definition, and is fulfilled only in a precise way: it has to serve the next generation.

    This isn’t touchy-feely nonsense; it explains why making millions of dollars in mid-life still brings no happiness; why having kids, being celebrated or even famous all fail, not because these are somehow “bad” but because they do not fulfill the specific human need to be useful to the next generation.

    Typically, people get through this by raising kids (not just having them), teaching them things, “getting him into college,” passing on culture. The more they feel responsible to this process the happier they will be. This doesn’t mean active parenting, it means they conceptualize their life (e.g .work all day) as for something else, rather than an end in itself. Not changing what one does, but how one thinks about it. Though it sounds like a cognitive trick, it is as simple as not saying, “I want to get rich” and instead saying, “I want to get rich so my family has a good life.” The point is not the comparative morality of wealth vs. poverty, but the inclusion of the clause “so that” which the narcissism is broken.

    Maron, however, doesn’t have kids, which leaves him with two options.

    1. Become someone’s mentor. You can unload a lot of that rage if you feel valuable, and giving of your wisdom and experience serves the dual function of confirming your identity (“I am the guy who…”) and connecting with someone else in some meaningful way. (E.g. the ex-player who goes into coaching.)

    2. Become everyone’s mentor. This is the route that saved Maron’s life, the podcast. Maron might not be sure what, exactly, he is giving 20 million people that is of value, but he knows it must be something. Maybe it’s the comedy, or the insight, or the perspective. It should require no evidence that had he simply been given a check for $20 million dollars, but no podcast, no stand up, nothing to give, he would have killed himself. If not with a gun, then with “internet porn, booze, pills, weed, blow, hookers, hangers on, sad angry girls we can’t get out of our room, twitter trolls and broken relationships.”

    Aside: my favorite Maron story. Louis CK told a joke about 9/11 which bombed; someone in the audience stood up and said he was offended, and left. Backstage, Louie tells Maron what happened, and concludes, “what a narcissist to think that he gets to decide what is funny and what is offensive.” And MAron looks at him incredulously and says, “he’s a narcissist? You told the most narcissistic joke in history, you killed 2000 people just for your punchline!”

  3. I really like Marc Maron. His jokes are brilliant! He has amazing comedy writing skills.”Get some food between you and your feelings before they lead to questions”. He reminds me of Greg Giraldo.

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