Review — Waiting for the Punch by Marc Maron

I’ve been a big fan of Maron’s podcast for a couple of years now. I love watching/listening to interviews, and it’s amazing how Maron does it. There’s plenty of people who do gentle-questioning-as-a-friend, like Simi Garewal, there’s the shock jock sorts like Stern, there’s the structured interviewers like James Lipton, and then there’s the people who try to irritate, like Karan Thapar. And then the assortment of respectful people on whose shows celebrities go on up to promote their latest work, who don’t want to alienate any celebrities.

And then there’s Maron. He gets you to open up by opening up himself. I remember listening to his John Mulaney interview, where he abruptly cuts with ‘So when did the trouble start?’, about Mulaney’s alcoholism. And it’s not intrusive or moralizing, because, like he adds, ‘We’re both sober guys’. In Maron’s garage, it’s okay to be flawed, to be messed up, to have done terrible things, because he’s interested you as a human being, warts and all.

And this book is a compilation of all those interviews, segmented by topic. The topics cover the gamut of the human experience, like Growing Up, Sexuality, Identity, Addiction, Mental Health, Failure, Success, and, Mortality. Wow.

While listening to the podcast, a lot of the things that his interviewees said seemed unobtrusive, and ‘normal’ even, but when words are isolated and put in context with other people talking about similar things, it makes things so much more stark, so much more grotesque. Like Aubrey Plaza had a story about having a stroke and not being able to talk, and then only being able to say the word ‘sixteen’, which made her older boyfriend freak out about whether she was actually sixteen and had been lying to him. In the podcast, the notable things about it were that the usually deadpan and ‘holds-up-spork’ Aubrey Plaza was opening up about her life in earnest. In the book however, that story is under ‘Mental Health’, because doctors suspected her stroke at such a young age might have been the result of anxiety. When that story is flanked by that of Norm MacDonald not being able to cry and such, it feels so much darker.

But putting things in context also made for some wonderful bits, like where Fred Armisen’s and Carrie Brownstein’s words about each other, or Cheech’s and Chong’s, are laid side by side, and how special their relationship is reveals itself.

While I have always found solace about my mental health issues while listening to Maron’s interviewees talk about their own issues, having it all put down in the chapters on Mental Health and Addiction really made me thankful for being relatively unaffected by issues like what several of the people featured in the chapter have suffered — and it goes the whole gamut from Amy Schumer shoplifting, to Todd Hansen of The Onion and his miraculously failed suicide attempt.

I found myself less intrigued by the chapters on success and mortality, than the chapter on failure. While it’s interesting to see what enormously successful people make of their success, it’s harder to identify with it, or make sense of it in the context of your own life. Less so with failure. That’s why we like Marc Maron’s podcast, I guess. We want to see celebrities humanized, not made even larger than life.

One very interesting bit in the book is the story Louis CK shared about emptying his savings to buy a blue trumpet at Times Square because he felt he wanted it, and then going to a peep show and getting off, and realizing if he had done the peep show first, he might not have had to empty his savings. That story talks about how his anxiety manifests itself as compulsive masturbation and other things. In the light of what we now know about his sexually harassing women, this adds an even sadder light on the contributing factors, and in my head, raised the question, shouldn’t people chronically ill like this have to receive in-patient treatment at mental health institutions, instead of being among us and glorifying their sickness in their art, and using their power to feed it?

Overall, Waiting for the Punch is a one-of-its-kind compilation, which is poignant, heavy, intense, and always, always honest. There are insightful, intriguing studies of several of your favorite people in show business, and riveting, thoughtful and sensitive narratives about dark topics. However, given you might not know all the celebrities featured, or be interested in all topics, you might find yourself skipping pages wondering ‘why bother?’.

3.5 stars, but only because i’m conservative with ratings.