Marc Maron's Private Grief on a Public Stage
The risky healing power of Marc Maron's WTF podcast eulogy to Lynn Shelton.
One of the more memorable and meaningful moments of grief in Shakespeare's canon comes in Act Four of Macbeth. Malcolm and Macduff have been conspiring against Macbeth for the course of the play. After Macbeth's madness manifests through the irreparable act of murdering his wife and children, Macduff is bereft with grief. Malcolm sees a way to grab the throne of power and consoles Macduff by suggesting he turn the grief into revenge, to not suppress what's destroying his core. It's counsel that will eventually destroy him, but outside the context of the play's narrative Shakespeare's words hold a universal truth:
Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak
Whispers the o'erfraught heart and bids it break.
Not many contemporary media personalities can surface from the horrible cloud of immediate grief with their outsider reputation intact, but comedian and WTF podcast pioneer Marc Maron opened the 18 May 2020 episode with the most heartbreaking, raw, and somehow healing expression of sorrow and love most of us will probably ever hear outside of our own darkest personal losses. Shakespeare's mission to "give sorrow words" might have had duplicitous ulterior motives for Malcolm, but they still seemed to start the healing process in almost real time.
Maron's girlfriend and creative partner, film director Lynn Shelton had died suddenly only two days earlier of a previously unidentified blood disorder. Their first meeting was August 2015, when she came to record the interview that would be the focus of Monday's Memorial re-broadcast. Shelton went on to direct episodes of Maron's self-titled IFC show, two of his comedy specials, the Netflix show Glow, and four episodes of the Hulu original Little Fires Everywhere.
Long-time listeners of WTF unaware of Shelton's passing knew something was different from the first moments of Maron's episode. We didn't hear who was sponsoring the episode, and we didn't hear the familiar "lock the gates" opening theme song.
Maron and his producing partner had released an impressive archive of twice-weekly interviews with cultural movers and shakers since 1 September 2009. Over more than 1,100 episodes, listeners have been able to chart Maron's progress as an interviewer whose initial goal seemed to be trying to heal bad blood between himself and his comedian friends. This included LouisC.K. and a memorably unstable Gallagher. Maron's interview with Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels was tantamount to Ahab finally catching his white whale. This is saying a lot, considering that the historic interview with then President Barack Obama came 40 episodes earlier.
It's unlikely Maron would have been able to forecast that his podcast would have evolved as it has today. In the old days, he was a cranky, sometimes spiteful, always cynical road comic using the forum (a one-to-one interview between himself and a fellow comic or performer) as a way to settle grudges and set the record straight. By ending most episodes with an "Are we good?" question posed at his guest as more threat than sincere inquiry, the listener usually understood that things weren't really "good". Maron would still have mixed feelings, and he'd still keep his distance from the mainstream crowd.
The years rolled on and many guests passed away, some at their own hands (Robin Williams, Anthony Bourdain) and others from medical issues (Garry Shandling, Sam Simon.) After the death of each former guest, Maron would re-release the episode in the podcast feed with newly recorded introductory reflections on their lives and legacies.
It was in the process of these reflections that Maron seemed to find a direct and clear communicative approach. How did that guest convey themselves when sitting across the table from Maron in the podcast's garage studio? Maron starred as a fictionalized version of himself in the critically acclaimed short-lived IFC series, Maron. In that show, as in real life, he was a stand-up comic recovering alcoholic/substance abuser who'd found a new direction through the podcast. The show got dangerously and bravely dark in its final season as it suggested that starting the journey of recovery is never a guarantee.
The real-life Maron proved stronger and more resilient. Listeners followed the stories of his controlling mother and narcissistic father. Maron was twice married and welcomed his listeners into his relationship stories. Girlfriends came and went. Shelton's presence seemed to level Maron's neuroses. From their August 2015 meeting on WTF, their professional collaborations, the dissolution of her marriage, and the end of his relationship, they came together. Maron would regularly clarify to listeners that she had not moved in, but they were living together during the pandemic. She'd been briefly ill with what they considered a sore throat, but it got worse. She collapsed in Maron's house and died on 16 May. Two days later, Maron dedicated his show to her.
Is there a "right" way to grieve? Simple answer: no. The first eight minutes of the episode, Maron's immediate reflections on Shelton's death, are devastating. The listener feels both heartbroken for Maron and compelled to suggest he keep it to himself. We don't understand grief. We don't all conduct ourselves from a universal playbook. "I don't even know if I should be out in public talking," he said, "but this is what I do." It was a careful, considered, measured balanced between the personal and professional he played out in that opening monologue, appropriately allowing work to take priority:
So this is what we do here at WTF… When somebody who's been on the show passes away, we repost the episode… Not just out of respect or in memorial but as a portrait of the person, a reminder, a reconnection with an artist, a reminder of who they were when they were vital and alive and connected and expressing themselves and talking about who they were and how they expressed themselves- an audio portrait of that time.
The episode ended with music, as usual, Maron thanked the listeners and again reflected (almost in preparation for defending himself against accusations of sharing too much information) that this is what he does. He then played one of his electric guitar improvisations Shelton used on the soundtrack to her 2019 film, Sword of Trust (co-starring Maron), a song she loved, and the show ended.
Listening to Maron's raw grief is disturbing, but also pure and immediate. There's no telling if he's been thinking of Shakespeare since Shelton's death. Maybe he's thinking of the line "The stupor passes-something else begins," from Walt Whitman's 1882 poem " Specimen Days". This too shall pass. Grief is becoming all too familiar for so many of us in these COVID-19 days. Coping with the loss of a loved one is seemingly unbearable. This episode of WTF is brutal, but hearing it will prove revelatory for those willing to listen.
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