I have written (too?) many times about how soul-crushing the traffic in Manila is. There are many reasons, not the least of which is a ridiculously inadequate and poorly managed public transportation system, poorly trained and corrupt traffic enforcers, the FX and jeepney drivers who do whatever the hell they want, fuck everyone else, and too many people on the road who either just don’t know how to drive properly or have a total “fuck everyone” attitude once they get behind the wheel.
My house is less than 10 kilometers away from the office.The drive in either direction can take anywhere from 45 minutes to 2 hours on any given day.
When I’m driving in the car alone, I have my iPhone hooked up to the car stereo. I have a 128 gig iPhone and 100 gig of that is music, well over 10,000 songs. (I could fit a lot more but I prefer the 320 kbps bit rate.) I could get by with less. I load new albums onto my phone every week but when I’m stuck in traffic and stressed out, I tend to want to hear comfortably familiar albums over stuff that’s new and basically unknown. But the downside is that listening to the Allman Brothers Band Live at Fillmore East for the 9,000th time doesn’t really occupy my attention. So I sit back, light a cigarette, crank the music louder, file some traffic report with Waze, but I can still get to feeling frustrated and stressed.
Then one day it hit me. Podcasts. They’re not new. They’ve been around for more than a decade. And they’re really working. If it’s a good podcast, if the conversation is interesting, then I’m wrapped up in it and not noticing the minutes tick by. I sometimes get upset if I reach my destination before the show has finished.
If you look in the iTunes store or in any other source, there’s millions of different podcasts, covering just about any conceivable topic.
The one that I’ve been following for years is What The Fuck with Marc Maron. The back story here is interesting. Maron is a 52 year old stand-up comic who went for decades without much notable success. Then he started interviewing people in his garage. His podcasts contained long rants about whatever was going on in his life but also amazingly insightful interviews with other comics. He has this way of drawing people out, getting them to talk about their lives and their own creative process and as a comedian himself with decades of ups and downs, he seems to know exactly the right questions to ask.
The result is that each episode of WTF is downloaded anywhere between 500,000 and a million times. And while it was his Robin Williams episode that initially brought him a lot of attention, in recent times his guests have included Keith Richards, Elvis Costello, Ethan Hawke, William Friedkin, Michael Moore, Lorne Michaels and … President Obama. Obama actually came to Maron’s garage and sat for a one hour interview.
WTF is so popular that Maron now has a TV series on IFC, a half hour sitcom called “Maron”, a fictionalized version of his life that initially might have been too close to comfort to Louis C.K.’s show but has significantly improved with each new season (the fourth season starts soon). The supporting cast includes Judd Hirsch as his father, Sally Kellerman as his mother and a host of other comics making cameo appearances. A number of the episodes were directed by Bobcat Goldthwait and those tend to be my favorites.
Last week Maron published his 700th episodes. Episodes because for some reason there were two of them. The first one featured a 90 minute interview with Julia Louis-Dreyfuss. The timing may have been due to the 5th season of Veep kicking off, but the interview touched on most of her career, especially the early days. The second episode was an almost-two-hour interview with Louis C.K., entirely devoted to the creative process behind C.K.’s groundbreaking Horace and Pete.
A ten part mini-series that (so far) is only available as a download from C.K.’s web site (get all 10 episodes for $31), completely financed out of C.K.’s own pocket (to the tune of $5 million), it was announced – with zero promotion or fanfare – only via emails to the people on his mailing list. No explanation of what it was about, no mention of how many episodes there would be or when the next ones would be released … and probably most importantly nothing like anything he’d done before.
He did it this way because he wanted to be completely independent. It represents such a radical departure that he didn’t want to risk anyone else’s money on it and he didn’t want any network or distributor giving him notes on what they thought it should be.
It isn’t a comedy, although there are comedians in it and there are moments of humor. It is set in a downscale Brooklyn bar that is 100 years old and always owned and run by the same family. It’s very theatrical – just two sets (the bar and the apartment upstairs) – and many of the episodes had an intermission.
[small spoiler in the next paragraph]
Louis C.K. plays Horace and Steve Buscemi is his brother Pete. Horace had done something terrible that ripped his family apart to the extent that his son doesn’t talk to him. Pete has severe mental problems and is dependent on medication that won’t be manufactured for much longer because of the side effects.
Get it? Terrible people in horribly depressing circumstances. It’s been compared to Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill but C.K. cites the Mike Leigh film Abigail’s Party as a particular inspiration.
The rest of the cast? Alan Alda as Uncle Pete, a foul-mouthed bigot who makes Archie Bunker seem like Bernie Sanders. Edie Falco as the sister who may be dying from cancer. Jessica Lange, Aidy Bryant, Steven Wright, Tom Noonan, Laurie Metcalf, Colin Quinn, George Wallace, Amy Sedaris, Burt Young, David Blaine. And featuring new music from Paul Simon.
There’s been a lot of nonsense press in the wake of the show. C.K. went on Howard Stern and said that he’s millions in debt as a result but that was an exaggeration. Even if he didn’t get enough downloads yet to pay the production costs of the show, it will eventually go to DVD and Netflix and other outlets and is guaranteed to at least break even. There are those who didn’t watch the show who reported that it was cancelled after ten episodes but that was nonsense as well. Ten episodes told the whole story exactly as he wanted to tell it.
C.K. sees the show as tragedy and it’s almost unrelentingly depressing. The ending, when it comes, seems simultaneously inevitable and abrupt. And I simultaneously hated the show and was mesmerized by it. What I’m struggling with is that tragedy, in the classical sense of the term, is said to have to be about kings and queens and gods, people in high places who are cast low, not about ordinary people. In more modern times, perhaps these stories can be seen as metaphors for the human condition, but I’m struggling to find the metaphor here.
I’m feeling that I’ve seen some great acting. And some pretty strong writing. I just don’t know what it all adds up to. I honestly don’t know what to make of it – except that it struck such a deep chord for me that I’m still thinking about it.
I watched it alone the first time and I really want to watch it again now that I’ve had the chance to give it some thought. I don’t know that it’s the kind of thing that I could put on for my wife or my mother. I know that some people will find this total nonsense, incredibly boring or ridiculously depressing.
Me? I’m just thrilled that in these days of the Marvel Comics Universe someone is trying to do some actual adult entertainment. Someone is taking real risks. We need a lot more of this, at least I do.