The Fight and the Whale

Statler and Waldorf, The Muppets

“The Marc and Tom Show” is a recent one-off podcast featuring two middle-aged men coming to terms with their middle-agedness. As unexciting and self-involved as that may sound, hosts Marc Maron and Tom Scharpling, who are far from new to online radio, use the hour to engage in something that's different from the past work of either of them. Maron's regular podcast, WTFpod, a biweekly interview show where he trades anecdotes and shares struggles with other comedians, has become hugely popular since its inception in 2009. Scharpling has spent the past 10 years hosting The Best Show on WFMU — a three-hour weekly call-in radio show on which he plays a (slightly) exaggerated version of himself.

“The Marc and Tom Show” is neither of those things. Though it might just seem like an extra episode of WTF, those shows have a strict guest/host dichotomy. Maron might blur those lines a bit by talking about his own personal experiences and beefs with the guest, but the aim of the show is mainly for guests to tell their story while Maron guides things along to their most interesting destinations. Maron and Scharpling have both been guests on each other's show, always preserving a sense of that guest/host line. But there is no such dichotomy in "The Mark and Tom Show." Here, Scharpling and Maron are on an even level, trying to help each other figure things out in the other's life while coming to terms with the faults and failures in their own. What “The Marc and Tom Show” loses in its absence of WTF-style anecdotes and Best Show absurdity, it makes up for by being an almost inadvertently hopeful conversation.

By the end of the podcast, what they have discovered is absolutely nothing. They grumble occasionally about this thing or that thing (topics of discussion range from “This body part hurts!” to “Twitter. Ugh”), but ultimately nothing gets solved. There is no thoughtful solution to leading a better creative life, there is no poignant realization that all the work they've been doing up until now has been “worth it,” and listening to it can feel like listening to those two old men on The Muppets who complain about the Muppets. But this is precisely what's so engaging. As open and honest as the two of them are in this hour, the paths of their conversation alone are revealing about the struggle of sustaining a creative life. That these two men who have achieved relative success have no idea what to do with the second half of their lives makes me feel better for being at a loss with the next three quarters of mine.

Over the hour, they hit on a broad range of references as touchstones, some exemplars of graceful artistic success (Martin Scorsese, Zach Galifinakis), others beacons of gracelessness (Dean Martin in his last days). But most interesting are the ones that fall between these poles. When Maron and Scharpling double back and contradict themselves trying to decide whether certain artists are setting a good example, it's a bright signifier of a yearning for a deeper understanding.

Take Lou Reed, for instance. His name pops up early in the podcast in reference to his collaboration with Metallica for Lulu — an album that has, thus far, been universally panned by critics. Scharpling himself reviewed Lulu track by track at the LowTimes website, basically offering 10 different ways of explaining how awful the album is. But beyond the time the two spend bashing Reed (“As a fan, he's better off dead,” Scharpling says glibly) and beyond their reverence for his past work, there is a sense of admiration for Reed's decision to press on with his work and do something like Lulu. “Lou Reed is the last guy in the room to know that he's cooked,” Scharpling says. “But he fights it.”

This fight is central to their entire discussion — the fight to remain creative, whatever the cost to their reputations, their egos, or even their own bodily functions. What complicates things is that the fight can take on different forms. For Scharpling, it's being prolific while doing his best to not read hurtful comments about his work. In giving a hilariously convincing defense of Chrisitan Bale for his outburst on the set of Terminator Salvation, he also gives his own rebuttal to commentators who slight him without understanding the stress that goes into creative work. For Maron, the fight is a matter of balancing the very idea of being nice to those around him while still maintaining that open honesty that is his draw for much of his audience. “You're only one tweet away from being the biggest asshole in the world,” he says.

Maron and Scharpling both press on with their work, ignoring egos and opinions, but at times it seems easier to simply stop. If the eventualities of being a public figure are either putting out work as embarrassing as Lou Reed's or being publicly maligned, then why not stop the fight?

Maron: Let's say there's an outside chance I live. What are my plans? Am I just gonna stop? I'd like to stop. I would stop.

Scharpling: Would you stop?

Maron: In my mind, I would stop.

This line of discussion continues later:

Maron:  If we get happy with ourselves — because I'm happier with myself — can we stop then?

Scharpling: Stop what?

Maron: Stop the fight.

Scharpling: I think you might be happier with yourself because you're dealing better with the fight.

Maron: Oh. Okay. So the fight never stops.

Of course neither of them would ever stop, because, as they mention multiple times, their work is what makes them happy.

What frightens them is that neither of them, like most of us, have a mythologized alter-ego to take the hits for them like Lou Reed does. He's fucking Lou Reed. In Scharpling's words, from one of his Lulu song reviews:

Respect is the one thing that Lou Reed has an overabundance of: He's a walking museum piece, creator of an unimpeachable body [of] work that helped shape and reshape rock music. Reed didn't need to hire a famous artist to do the cover of his first record, because THE MOST FAMOUS ARTIST ON THE PLANET HIRED HIM TO MAKE THE ALBUM. Lou Reed is a straight-up legend.

Even given how subversive and off-the-cuff each of their respective shows are, Maron and Scharpling wouldn't be able to do their equivalent of Lulu because they have no safety net. Though Maron and Scharpling mock his detachment, Lou Reed doesn't have to deal with critics or public commentary because Lou Reed's Career takes care of that for him. Being Lou Reed is probably one of the easiest things in the world. But attempting to achieve something like Lou Reed has carries the risk of ending up like Lou Reed without the legend, and that's a horrifying prospect.

As Maron and Scharpling talk about “the fight,” the question of agency becomes hazy. Neither seems to be wholly autonomous participants in “the fight,” nor do they merely submit to some irresistible artistic calling. Instead, their drive to perform stems from an uneasy combination of compulsiveness and fear. This fear is different from the fear that they might end up recording Lulu or doing something else equally disgraceful and reviled. This fear is the fear of being forgotten, a fear of ending up like Dean Martin in his old age: hanging out for hours at Hamburger Hamlet in West Hollywood, desperately hoping to be recognized.

Maron notes, “What I learned from doing comedy, and from having a father, is sometimes these guys — if they just stop working or if they feel they are no longer relevant, they will just fade away.” That fear of fading away, of powerlessness, is what drives them to “carve something out with their own hands.” Masculinity plays a big part in this whole thing. The show would be drastically different if it were, say, the Marc Maron and Julie Klausner Power Hour.

It's fitting, then, that Moby Dick is all over the place in this. Another phrase that gets tossed around often during the conversation is “it's the whale.” Sometimes it's used as a joke; sometimes it's a serious realization of the futility of leading a creative life and the apparent inevitability of failure and disgrace. Though sometimes they use “the whale” and “the fight” interchangeably, the whale serves the two as a more ominous and palpable metaphor for why carrying on the fight can be a very bad idea. Judging by how often they return to it, the comparison to the novel resonates most with them both. Scharpling's reading of Moby Dick goes like this: “You realize how small you are in the face of larger things. You can never beat the whale, so do not go try to kill the whale. Because it is guaranteed that the whale will kill you.”

That guarantee does not stop Ahab. Like Lou Reed — and presumably like Maron and Scharpling as well — he cannot help himself. This is where persistence can easily spill over into stupidity. In Scharpling's reading, there is no nobility in this stubbornness. Instead, it is a silliness one should get over. Yet their fear of powerlessness and of being forgotten overwhelms their understanding of “the whale.” Their compulsion to do creative work allows them to selectively ignore it.

If Lou Reed represents fizzling out in an embarrassing way and Ahab represents being so consumed by your work that it kills you — and this can be taken very literally, seeing as how the show opens up with the two discussing stress-induced ailments — where, then, are the good guys? An artist like Martin Scorsese offers an ideal that seems impossible to emulate. As Scharpling notes, he was far more successful and productive in his 20s and 30s than they could have hoped to be.

A possible answer appears at the end of the podcast in the form of a throwaway joke. The ending music bed is already rising and Scharpling and Maron appear to be riffing for the sake of riffing. They joke about doing a longer show, similar to George Noory, who hosts a nationally syndicated talk show called Coast to Coast AM from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m., Sunday through Friday. Coast to Coast AM is about aliens, Illuminati, and other such mysterious things, and is the type of show that uses lightning-bolt sound effects to transition between segments and commercials about gold. (For example, a recent show summary from the archives reads: “Investigative reporter Linda Moulton Howe discussed the large number of strange and unexplained horn-like sounds filling the air since March.”)

Maron and Scharpling make fun of the show but nevertheless focus on its valiant level of consistency. Amid all the depressing discussion about the creative life, George Noory appears as something of a heroic figure, if not mockingly so. Scharpling describes Noory's thought process in doing his show on Christmas:

There's one thing that's very touching, and it's that George Noory's like, “I know there's people having a rough Christmas, and this show helps them.” It's very touching to me, but it just made me think of the UFO dude who didn't have anywhere to go on Christmas. I could start crying thinking about the guy who's talking about Area 51, and he's just like, “Well, I guess I'm not going home for Christmas. Another Christmas in the basement apartment by myself. Thank God George Noory's on tonight.”

Are there really that many degrees of separation between myself and the conspiracy-obsessed loner who turns to the radio for some companionship? Through his consistency, Noory has carved out an audience with whom he shares a connection. That connection might be over crackpot theories, but it's a connection nonetheless. It's not very different, say, from any given Best Show episode, when Scharpling plays the part of a cinephilic squirrel who has it in for the producer, or when he has comedy partner Jon Wurster call in as Timmy von Trimble, a two-inch-tall racist. Noory is quite possibly the best model either of them could hope to find — a hugely consistent radio host who has fought the fight and continues to fight the fight in the face of detractors like Maron and Scharpling themselves. Noory has created a body of work that offers craft and comfort and that can conceivably be turned to during low and rough times in your life.

Maybe Maron and Scharpling have already achieved that, or at least are coming close to it.  This simple one-off podcast offers something that is painfully comforting, even to the non-middle-aged. For someone who can literally roll out of bed because he cannot afford a bed frame, what “The Marc and Tom Show” conveys is the idea that for people wanting to work in a creative field, it doesn't get any better. In fact, to choose “creative” work is to be stupid and wrongheaded, if only for the sheer improbability of achieving even slight success. Witnessing two men at the midpoint of their lives still struggling with having made this decision is to know that you are not alone. It might not be a bed frame, but it's at least a mattress.