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After tragic loss, Marc Maron finds joy amidst grief with 'From Bleak to Dark'

Marc Maron tackles an array of serious subjects in his latest comedy special,<em> From Bleak to Dark.</em>
Oluwaseye Olusa
Marc Maron tackles an array of serious subjects in his latest comedy special, From Bleak to Dark.

As its title suggests, Marc Maron's new HBO comedy special, From Bleak to Dark, takes on an array of very serious topics. There's climate change, threats from the far right, anti-Semitism and his toxic relationship with his father, who now has dementia. But perhaps the darkest part of the special is when Maron talks about the loss of his girlfriend, the TV and movie director Lynn Shelton, who died unexpectedly in 2020, of a previously undiagnosed case of acute myeloid leukemia.

"Certainly losing somebody you love in the way that I did ... forced something open," he says. "I don't know what exactly it is, but you certainly look at life differently when somebody passes like that, and so tragically."

Maron paid tribute to Shelton on his WTF podcast, in an episode produced just days after her death. But he says he was in a different place with his grief when he taped the HBO special, and he thought it was important to acknowledge that.

"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," he says. "There was part of me that thought, to be public about this is going to bring relief to people in a very tangible way."

In the years since Shelton's death, Maron took on more acting jobs and began playing music publicly. He says he's become more present, and even more joyful — changes he attributes to Shelton's influence: "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 [those are] the things that are bringing me joy now. And I don't think I would have felt confident to do them without her in my life."

Interview highlights

On grieving Shelton's death in isolation, during COVID lockdown

I started to feel a certain insecurity around my relationship with her because there were people that have known her for decades. She has a husband and a son and all these old friends. I just felt like 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. 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. I got phone calls from so many people that I barely knew in comedy and show business. And everybody really reached out. They sent food. Some people kind of came over despite the COVID. ...

I got into the habit of doing these Instagram Lives every day where I felt a need to have an audience or to engage because there was no one. 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 500, 600 live viewers. And, you know, we would play music. I would be angry. I'd talk about politics, I'd talk about grief. I'd play records and play with the cats. ... It also was the beginning of the process of understanding, showing up for other people without knowing it. 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, in a lot of ways, got me through, oddly.

On why he likes living alone

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 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, and then I'm interviewing people for the podcast. 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. It feels totally satisfying. So I don't know what that means about me. I can't present myself as some emotional wizard or some psychologically stable person in terms of relationships. ... I 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'm prone to anger sometimes. I know all these things about myself. I don't know why would I need someone in my house telling me that every couple of days?

On if he ever feels like he is missing out because he didn't have kids

The people that really get the best of me are audiences that I walk away from.

I think that there is something that 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. I'm still trying to let myself love in a way just to have a relationship. But I'm so terrified of it and guarded in certain ways. The people that really get the best of me are audiences that I walk away from.

On his favorite joke in the special, about his generational trauma

The idea is that if you have an emotional void where your heart should be, it will pass down through generations and I say, "You can track your void on 23 & Me. I found out that my void began in the chest of a tailor's wife in Belarus in the 1800s. It's 99.9% Ashkenazi void and you've all been sitting in it for an hour." ... That's my favorite line in the special. And it just sits there. Like, the idea that the audience has been sitting in my void for an hour — in my mind, it didn't really land, but to me it was a fairly profound poetic truth.

On receiving feedback about jokes that were considered offensive and changing his material

There was a time in my life where I was of the belief that you should be able to joke about anything ... and it doesn't matter how shocking it is. ... Our job is to push this envelope. I've been in that zone, when I was a younger comic, and I would definitely say insensitive jokes, but I also thought there was some craft to them. ... I had been called out for a trans joke years ago. ... I was told [the joke] was insensitive ... and I stopped doing it. [I was called out for] exploring the R-word in an earnest way. And I was schooled on that, that 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 I have taken the risks and I have honored the feedback. And those were the consequences, that is the dialogue. "You should rethink this." And I did and I stopped doing it.

Audio interview produced and edited by: Lauren Krenzel and Thea Chaloner.

Audio interview adapted to NPR.org by: Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.