It’s not that Marc Maron predicted this moment, per se. It’s extremely unlikely that when he posits in his new Netflix stand-up special, End Times Fun, that “something terrible” might be coming, he specifically foresaw the coronavirus pandemic, a black-swan event threatening to dismantle the global economy and sicken the world. If he had, he might have touched his face less—every time Maron wearily rubs his eyes during End Times, I shuddered.
And yet. If End Times lands aptly during a week in which more and more people are confined to their homes, newly reliant on Netflix for company, is it really surprising? Maron—acerbically cranky, perennially fretful, and, it turns out, appropriately cynical—reveals himself in the show to be something of an anxiety prophet. End Times, which runs a little over an hour, was recorded late last year, but its spirit is branded with some of the symptoms of early-stage apocalypse that have characterized 2020 thus far. Certainly, Maron tells his audience, the world is ending, at least from an environmental standpoint. “I think all of us in our hearts really know we did everything we could.” He pauses, as the audience laughs nervously. “I mean, think about it, we brought all our own bags to the supermarket. Yeah, that’s about it.”
One of the surprises of the coronavirus outbreak thus far has been that so many people have responded to it by watching Contagion, or reading Station Eleven, or revisiting Severance, all bleak fantasias about disease-ridden worlds. Watching End Times, though, I got it—there’s something inordinately soothing about seeing people responding appropriately to panic-inducing events, or at least radiating palpable anxiety in a way that makes one feel less lonely. This is Maron’s moment to shine. The comedian, actor, podcast host, and oddly empathetic interviewer of people from Brad Pitt to Barack Obama is, for the chronically angsty, a surly priest of powerlessness. “I just don’t know anymore,” he says over and over during End Times, a mantra that becomes its own strange benediction. “I don’t know. I don’t know what’s gonna happen. I don’t know what we do. I don’t know.”
Still, this is formulaically a comedy show, even if the punch lines hurt a little. Vivisecting the absurdity of, say, anti-vaxxers or right-wing media is easy enough, and Maron does that. (“Lotta jobs in a burning sky,” he imagines Sean Hannity saying in the middle of the apocalypse.) But he seems more compelled to pick apart the kind of mainstream lifestyle trends that people mistake for panaceas. “You never know when someone’s gonna dump some shit in your head that’s gonna ruin your life,” he says at the start of a mercilessly funny bit about turmeric, that popular cure-all for the scourge of “inflammation.” The punch line? “I am taking turmeric, and I feel less inflamed.” Yoga, plastic-straw bans, inspirational Instagrammers—they all end up being skewered into one big curmudgeonly shish kebab.
As Maron cycles through snake-oil salesmen and the Fox News bubble and the discomfiting “dovetailing of late-stage capitalism and Christian end-times prophecy,” he seems to touch on a timely insight. The most natural instinct of humankind is to want something to believe in. Whether that’s the second coming of Christ, the affirmation of asanas, or even just the momentary self-definition that comes with posting a picture on Instagram, the desire is the same: to feel like more than an aberration, more than a squishable bug on a giant shoe. Maron knows this better than most. He’s the rare star who found real fame in his 50s, after an early career defined by bit parts and failed auditions and canceled radio shows. Standing onstage now, in a waistcoat and jeans that make him look like an agreeable farmhand or charismatically rumpled English teacher, he seems unmollified by success. He is, he says, still “terrified all of the time, and I think a lot of us are.”
What this means in the show is that Maron slyly morphs into the figure he most disdains: the false prophet. In the final 10 minutes of End Times, he reinvents himself as a mystic (“It’s my birthright as a Jewish writer,” he explains), launching into an obscene divination involving Jesus, Iron Man, a sky on fire, rising waters, and Mike Pence. It’s filthy, cynical, petty, and ends—as civilization almost certainly will—with no hope beyond the inevitable expansion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Still, it’s consoling to watch Maron dismantle this particular moment in history so ruthlessly—refusing to allow for the possibility of absolution, but still crankily taking the turmeric anyway. Because in the end, you just don’t know.