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Television

Comedian Marc Maron takes a shot on TV

Comedian Marc Maron takes a shot on TV
Comic Marc Maron
(Lawrence K. Ho, Los Angeles Times)

Marc Maron slips into a chair and plunks a tattered, spiral-bound notebook onto the table. The cover, folded back, reveals dense, tight scribbling on ruled paper. Pen in hand, Maron hunches over the notes, looks up for a second to lock eyes by way of greeting, then drops his head back down.

“This bit,” he says, “I’m struggling with the ending.” He runs a finger over a line from his latest stand-up routine, then pops a guacamole-tipped chip in his mouth.

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“Anyway, hi,” he says at last. His bushy mustache rises and falls as he chomps on another chip.

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Maron can be forgiven if he’s distracted. He’s due on stage downtown in less than an hour. In the morning, he flies to New York to tape a 90-minute Netflix special featuring, among other material, “this damn bit.”

He also has a storm of projects. His memoir, “Attempting Normal,” comes out this month. And after nearly 30 years on the stand-up circuit with gigs on radio, stage, TV and the Web — including nearly 400 podcasts of his hugely popular “WTF With Marc Maron” — he’s landed a sitcom of his own.

“Maron,” in which he plays himself — an angry, self-absorbed comedian longing for connection and podcasting with abandon out of his garage — debuts May 3 on IFC.

“I really thought this wasn’t gonna happen for me. It’s all pretty astounding,” he says. “Of course I have a certain amount of dread and anxiety. It feels like this is definitely my shot.”

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Maron came up through the alternative comedy scene of the late 1980s and ‘90s with Louis C.K., Janeane Garofalo, David Cross and others. With four comedy albums, two “Comedy Central Presents” specials, and more stints on “Conan” than any other comic (42), success has not evaded him.

But even with more than 200,000 Twitter followers and some 2.5 million “WTF” downloads a month from fans drawn to his candid interviews with fellow comedians, his unbridled social commentary and unfiltered sharing of girlfriend gripes and career mishaps from his own life, among mainstream audiences there’s still a lot of “Marc who?”

As he watched his contemporaries reach ever-greater fame, he made a career out of decidedly not masking his bitterness, working candid rants into his routines.

Which raises the question: What happens to his cranky, neurotic, self-hating persona if “Maron” is a hit?

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“Wait, where am I goin’ again?” asks Maron after he’s polished off the last of a pork platter at the Mexican delicatessen near his home in Highland Park and heads toward the theater. He grips the wheel of his gray 2006 Camry, pops a Nicorette and sharply changes lanes on the freeway at 70 mph.

“I don’t think my self-loathing or the issues that are more heady or thinky about my personality, I don’t see them going away,” Maron says, pondering success. “The bigger fear is not will I get happy but how myopic will my life become.”

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It’s now less than 15 minutes until his set. “We’ve got time,” he says as he spots his exit and jerks the car to the right. “We’re good.”

Maron doesn’t get nervous before performances. He’s been doing this, he says, “practically half my life! Jeez. I’m 49 already!”

In the new IFC sitcom, Judd Hirsch plays Maron’s off-kilter father, comedian Andy Kindler plays himself as the friend who’s always around and Josh Brener plays Maron’s eager assistant, Kyle. Maron is seen taping “WTF” interviews and monologues as a classic show-within-a-show technique that allows him to comment on the world and have other comics cycle through.

“Maron” also probes the comedian’s personal demons, romantic troubles and family relationships to shed light on how he’s become the complex, somewhat tortured person he is today.

“Marc’s at this place, personally and professionally, where his bitterness and his rage has subsided enough that he’s able to play it,” says Denis Leary, who is co-executive producing the scripted show. “The reason it got picked up is because of Marc’s performance. It’s honest and heartbreaking and weird — and unbelievably funny.”

It’s the final day of shooting the last of 10 “Maron” episodes ordered by IFC, and Leary is lounging on the sun-scorched patio of the Eagle Rock home that doubles as Maron’s house in the show. It’s not unlike Maron’s real Mission-style bungalow, which is just down the street in Highland Park. “Especially the garage, where they podcast outta,” says Leary, blowing cigarette smoke over his shoulder. “It looks just like it.”

In the episode, Maron struggles to remove a dead possum from under his house, an act that challenges his manhood. Leary appears as himself, egging Maron on. None of Maron’s now-infamous cats (Boomer, Monkey and LaFonda) appear; instead, Maron says, “there’s the suggestion of cats.” He points to a couch in the living room. Its arms and legs are clawed to the bone, revealing stuffing and splintered wood.

“It’s my real couch, the cats did that,” Maron says. “I bought a new one.”

When the cameras roll, Maron turns to Kyle, who’s pleading for a job as Marc’s assistant.

“I’d do anything for you, anything.” Kyle says.

“Really?” says Maron, thinking of the possum. “Would you move a body for me?”

Crew members and writers, all wearing puffy headphones, huddle over a monitor in the next room and burst out laughing as they watch the scene play out.

“I wanted to do the best I could with the acting,” Maron says later, “because everyone’s always skeptical about comics acting. I wanna look at the show and say: ‘How can we tell the story in a deeper and funnier way?’”

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Comedy has always been an intimate part of Maron’s life, especially as a kid steeped in familial chaos growing up in Albuquerque, N.M. “My dad’s bipolar,” Maron says. “When he was around, it was very much an erratic bit of business. I spent a lot of time trying to get him to laugh.”

He set out for L.A. after graduating from Boston University and landed a job as a doorman at the Comedy Store. But things quickly soured.

“I got involved with Sam Kinison, was doing a lot of coke,” he says. “I was there less than a year before I lost my mind. I went to rehab and moved back to Boston.”

For the next two decades Maron lived the quintessential, peripatetic road-comic lifestyle. There was a stint hosting Comedy Central’s “Short Attention Span Theater,” an Air America radio show, “Morning Sedition,” and its follow-up, “The Marc Maron Show.” There was a lot of booze and coke — again — and a messy divorce. There were also falling-outs with more-successful comedian friends, C.K. among them.

Maron got sober once more after he met his second wife, the humorist Mishna Wolff, in 1999 — the marriage didn’t last, but he’s been clean ever since.

By the time he launched the twice-weekly podcast in 2009, however, he’d lost faith in his career and was near-suicidal. “I was 45, 46 and just going down. I was broken,” Maron says. “I knew I needed to talk to people that were my people. I had to get back to the kid who loved comedy.”

Not only did Maron find an audience, the podcast gave him an on-air platform to repair relationships with other comics. So rich is Maron’s history with C.K., their episode together is a two-parter.

“Louis was very important to me,” he says. “But I got consumed with jealousy. It crippled my ability to deal with him and he with me. We worked through it.”

Back in the car, after a few wrong turns and several entwined conversational threads, Maron arrives at the theater and races on foot across an empty parking lot.

The theater at the Downtown Independent is nearly full when Maron slumps into his seat and scrolls through Twitter as another comic performs.

“Holy crap,” he jokes. “I’m almost 50 years old and I’m gonna do this little alternative comedy show? At a movie theater? I’m a 50-year-old-man. How am I still living like this?!”

The answer becomes clear when Maron takes the stage, the spiral notebook flat on the ground before him. He’s killing it tonight, and the audience loves him. But he’s clearly working out this bit — the bit.

In it, he heckles his crying, chubby 9-year-old self, who fails to catch a fly ball, a defining life moment that sets off a chain of events that lead to this moment on this stage.

Occasionally he leans over, mike in hand, pausing to eye the notebook.

“Sorry, hang on … OK, where were we?” The self-conscious interruptions bring on waves of laughter.

In the car on the way home, Maron says, “I feel good about tonight. There was definitely love in the room for me.” Then he pops one last Nicorette and adds, “But the bit ... it’s still kinda seeking an end.”

deborah.vankin@latimes.com

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