October 3, 2011

Marc Maron's Mid-Life Crisis

but the point is to go slower, not faster

Comic Joe Rogan's podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience, this week mentioned a speech by comic Marc Maron.

Marc Maron is a great comic I've referenced before.  It's probably not overstepping for me to say he suffers from narcissism, i.e. not that he is a narcissist, but that he suffers its consequences.

Rogan said that when he was first starting out in comedy, Maron (who was already well established) was nice to him and gave him good advice.  "I've always tried to be nice back to him because of what he did for me in the early days," said Rogan. 

But over the years, as Rogan got more popular and then became the host of Fear Factor, Maron apparently resented him.  Maron insulted him whenever he came up; he said Rogan was worse for comedy than Carlos Mencia (the two had a public battle over stolen material), and one night Maron had to introduce Rogan to the stage, and did so with a dispraging diatribe.

Rogan is a savvy student of human nature and a well practiced judge of character; and I'd trust his insight way before any psychologist, let alone the armchair variety they use to stabilize the chairs at The Atlantic.  Rogan's point, therefore, wasn't that Maron was a jerk; Rogan still believed Maron was a great comic and a nice guy.  The point for Rogan was how some people get caught in a self-hating, self-defeating loop of narcissistic resentment.   Forget about being happy for Rogan's success; or accepting it, or even being jealous of it.  Maron took it personally.

For example, from Maron's speech:

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.

Whether Maron is or is not a narcissist is not the point; this thinking is narcissistic.  Anything that happens he relates back to himself, even if it reveals him to be a loser.  (Hence the statement: the belief that narcissism is synonymous with grandiosity is itself a narcissistic defense.)  So other people's successes don't exist independently, they necessarily provide a commentary, a value, about oneself.  His success reflexively implies you're less of a success; his failure reflexively means you're more of a success.

The end result of this thinking 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?"
By "the result" I don't mean the suicidality, though of course that option is never flatly rejected, it is a last chance at immortality.  The result of this loop is the first sentence, 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.


I can't tell you how to be successful, but I can tell you how to successfully get through this kind of misery.  Note that this advice is not for people in their 20s, it will not work for you, it will only work if you're over 40. (1)

The trick to solving physics problems is to recognize the form of the equation; the trick to solving your life is to know the form of the conflict.

Maron was having a mid-life crisis, which is always of the form:  "will I do anything useful with the rest of my life?"  Note the emphasized "always."  There is no alternative question.

Typically, people misinterpret the mid-life crisis as, "I'm 45 years old and I've never done X" where X equals: blondes; car collecting; skydiving, a book, loved, learned Italian.  And while these things are enjoyable, and will bring the person happiness of varying amounts, they don't solve the crisis because the crisis isn't about doing things but about running out of time.  "That was fun," you say as she drives back to Wellesley, but then you glance at the calendar and it says you're still 45.  There are only two things that will make that 45 less painful, and one of them is alcohol.

All the maneuvers indicative of a mid-life crisis-- younger women, sportscars, new hobbies, new careers, new looks-- are easily interpreted as new beginnings to help you trick yourself that the clock has been rolled back.  (That these things do, in fact, make you slightly younger is not here the point.)

So other than alcohol, what answers the question, "Will I do anything useful with the rest of my life?"  The key to navigating this stage is to understand that the word "useful" has a very specific definition and can only be fulfilled through limited ways:  it has to serve the next generation.

I can see you rolling your eyes. (2) This isn't touchy-feely nonsense; this is how humans were built, no different than they were built to see Roy through Biv or to find the absence of eyeballs uncanny.  It explains why happy people still go through this; why making millions of dollars doesn't solve this; why having kids, being celebrated or even famous all fail, not because these are intrinsically "bad" but because they do not specifically fulfill the human necessity to believe it is useful to the next generation.

Most people get through this by raising kids (not just having them), teaching them things, "getting them into college," passing on the culture. The more you feel responsible to this process the easier mid-life will be.  Nor does it require active or even good parenting; it is an internal conceptualization of your life, rather than any external activity.  Not changing what you do, but how you 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."  To emphasize, this is not about the comparative morality of wealth vs. poverty, but the inclusion of the clause "so that" by which the narcissism is dissolved.  (Yes, this means one could fool themselves into thinking they are "useful," thus passing through the crisis with not having accomplished anything.)

Maron, however, doesn't have kids.  Other 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.)  (3)

2. Become everyone's "mentor."  This is the route that saved Maron's life.

Broke, defeated and career-less, I started doing a podcast in that very garage where I was planning my own demise... 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.

The mistake is to think it is the fame that saved his life.  Maron might not be sure what, exactly, he is giving 20 million downloads that is of value, but he knows it must be something, which is why being more famous isn't helping, say, any of the Real Housewives from suicide by collagen injection, but an aging ex-football hero can get a patent extension as a sports commentator.  Maybe it's the comedy, or the insight, or the perspective-- what specifically it is doesn't matter, just that he feels as though it is something he is giving others.  If Maron had simply been given a check for $20 million dollars to perform one last show and then obligated to disappear, he would have happily taken the money and eventually killed himself,  if not with a gun, then with

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.


Unrelated, but a great:  Louis CK, on the Opie and Anthony show, relates this story:

I'm at the Comedy Cellar, and I make this 9/11 joke.  Basically, I was talking about how when you're in a marriage, you always feel like you're doing something wrong, in trouble for something.  So the joke is I'm in a hotel, and my wife calls, crying, and I'm thinking, what the fuck did I do now?  Did she find a sex phone bill?  So I say, "what's wrong?" and she just cries, and finally she says, "turn on the TV" and I see the planes crashing into the towers.  And my first thought is, "Yay!  Phew!  I'm not in trouble, it was just thousands of people getting killed."

So I tell this joke in the Cellar, and some guy just stands up and says, "that, that is not funny," and he stomps out.

Later on I'm upstairs talking to Marc Maron, and I tell him this story, and I'm telling him how much I hate it when people choose their one thing to be offended.  All night I'm doing rape jokes and racial jokes and he has no problem, but this is the one thing he decides goes to far.  How narcissistic this guy must be to think that he's allowed to decide that what offends him is what should be off limits.

So Marc looks at me and says, "dude, are you insane?  He's the narcissist?  You just told the most narcissistic joke in history, about how relieved you were that thousands of people died just because it got you off the hook with your wife..."


1. When a 20 year old says, "why is he famous?!  For what?  I hate that guy?" It's normal.  As you get older, you learn accept the unrelatedness of people's successes to your own.  "I still hate him, but it's got nothing to do with me."  It is a mental disease when a middle aged man reacts with rage to the success of Kim Kardashian, however underserving she may actually be.

2.  "I hate these 'solutions' because they aren't really solutions," you say.  "It's noble and all, but I need specific advice that can help me."  That's the narcissism. You don't want the solution to be "it's about the next generation" because what you want the answer to be is about you-- your own fulfillment, your own happiness, your own safety, your own sanity.  All of these are defenses, and none of them will work, viz Marc Maron.

To use an example from The Matrix: The Oracle "lied" to Neo when she said he wasn't the One, but she had to lie in order for Neo to believe that Morpheus was more important than he and to risk his life to save him; only by making this sacrifice, by being willing to exist for someone else, could he actually become the One.  Had he "known" he was the One, and then let Morpheus die so that he, the One, could live, then by the atemporal nature of existential  logic, he wouldn't have been the One after all.  

3.  This is how you could help someone else with this kind of "mid-life depression:" making them feel valuable in a consistent way.  If this is where, say, your father finds himself-- empty nest or career gone flat-- regularly soliciting his opinion on things he considers himself an expert in can help remind him of his value.  The point is not that he needs to accomplish something, the point is that he needs to feel he is valuable to you accomplishing something.