It’s been almost two decades since Marc Maron last lived in Manhattan, and more than fifteen years since he first got sober. But strolling through the East Village on a humid afternoon in June, circling the edge of the once infamously squalid Tompkins Square Park, conversation tends to hover around the topic of controlled substances.
“Maybe if we went down to that corner it might be triggering,” Maron says. His eyes are scanning for the nearby block where his old drug dealer used to live. “Most of the triggers are gone, but I spent a lot of time running around coked up and sweating in the summer drinking beers. If I think about his apartment and that scene I could probably get a little jones going.
“Up there the streets were fucking lined with homeless people selling shit,” he adds, nodding at the avenue ahead. “It was just crazy.”
Though Maron still carries himself like a New Yorker — muttering at taxis as he crosses the street, giving directions to the occasional tourist — much has changed since he rented his small studio apartment on East 2nd Street in the early Nineties. In eight hours he will perform his unique brand of introspective stand-up in front of a sold-out crowd at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It’s been exactly a week since he sat down with President Barack Obama in his garage to record an interview for WTF, his immensely popular podcast. He now resides in Los Angeles, where Maron, the IFC television show where he plays a version of himself, is also set.
New York has become something of a recurring character on WTF over the years, with Maron making reference to the misadventures and emotional turmoil he weathered here in countless episodes. The show has its roots in the city: The very first episode, an interview with comedian and “roastmaster” Jeff Ross, was recorded after Maron broke into the studio of his former employer, Air America, using an old key card. (The now-defunct radio station had just fired him for the third time.)
But it’s not just Maron who’s grown over the years. The neighborhood has changed drastically in the post-Giuliani era as well. Today, one is more likely to see a couple pushing a baby stroller through Tompkins Square Park than a dealer. The block between avenues A and B where Maron both lived and scored is now picturesque and serene, the graffiti lining the doorway of his old building kept to a bare minimum.
“As I get older, I realize that whatever I was connected to here, most of it has shifted,” Maron says. “I can remember that apartment. I remember what it looks like. I remember how it was situated. I remember when I left. I remember walking up this street and it was just like this parade of junkies. I always felt uncomfortable and nervous because there was a racket going. It was drug business.”
Since launching WTF in September of 2009, Maron has become one of the more skilled and thoughtful interviewers in recent memory. His conversations with the likes of Louis C.K., Robin Williams, and Mel Brooks have been at once deeply personal, refreshingly honest, and intensely entertaining.
But today, several dates into his current “Maronation” comedy tour, and dragged into a drama surrounding President Obama’s use of the N-word on his podcast, Maron is somehow more subdued, a bit distracted. Though he enjoys coming back to New York for the occasional gig (always staying at the Bowery Hotel), the city seems to take a toll on him. He has history here.
“The first couple of days I’m back I’m usually OK, and then I seem to get a little melancholy somehow,” Maron explains. “If you really want to pull that shit out of me, I mean, look, my first marriage fell apart here. I hit bottom here. I met my second wife and she got me sober here. I went broke here. I did Jerusalem Syndrome, my first one-man show, that was a huge deal, in the middle of all that shit.”
While drugs and danger are perhaps the starkest examples of how the area has changed over the decades, meandering from the East Village to the L.E.S., Maron grumbles about the shifts in the terrain. Like many who return to New York after years of exile, there are restaurants he once frequented that no longer exist, mom-and-pop stores that have been replaced by fast-food chains. Even Russ & Daughters — the 101-year-old Jewish appetizing store on Houston Street Maron pauses to peek his head inside — is now overrun by tourists, he says.
Still, there’s an undercurrent of familiarity that exists downtown for Maron, despite all that feels foreign and forced.
“I see things change and buildings go up and I don’t understand them. I guess it just becomes more and more an alien landscape. But the vibe seems pretty similar,” he says, adding that downtown has been able to maintain some of its authenticity more than other sections of the city. “You always feel like you’re part of something bigger than yourself when you’re in New York. You’re just a cell in this weird, massive organism.”
While many cities have attempted to claim Maron as their own over the years — Boston, where he went to college; San Francisco, where he lived briefly between stints in New York — his comedic legacy is inextricably linked to the five boroughs. It was here that Maron helped spearhead the alternative comedy scene of the Eighties and Nineties alongside comics like Sarah Silverman, Louis C.K., and Todd Barry at Luna Lounge on Ludlow Street. This month marks ten years since the legendary club closed its doors for good. A construction site currently sits in its place.
But even if Luna Lounge did continue to exist through 2015, it’s doubtful that the spirit of the place would have remained the same.
“It became a thing. It became sort of tapped out. It became this event, this ‘alternative comedy venue,’ where the New York Times wrote about it. It was all pretty crazy,” Maron says. Construction workers continue to file in and out of the space where the old club once stood. “I always felt horrible, 90 percent of the time when I left, because I don’t know if I ever did that well. I was always just yelling about something and working through shit onstage. It was very visceral and very real and very immediate and I think that’s what I took from it.”
For Maron, New York City as a whole has often functioned as a similar outlet. “I went through a lot of emotional chaos here,” he says, somewhat nostalgically. “A lot of insanity.”