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'Don't Let It Get Weird'

SXSW Comedy bits: Maron offends Franco, Adomian in your face
Russ Espinoza, 1:52pm, Mon. Mar. 11, 2013
Courtesy of Cassie Wright/SXSW
Comedy gold, Franco incensed, and "um, err": Marc Maron

The first weekend of SXSW Comedy offered several examples of comedians not engaging in the most socially gracious behavior – surprise, surprise! – but that was balanced by at least one notable instance of a comic going out of his way to be nice to his fans.

The hybrid podcast/IFC program Comedy Bang! Bang! kicked off its busy festival junket on Saturday evening at Esther’s Follies. CBB patriarch Scott Aukerman – an annual South-By fixture – and partner Reggie Watts (the Shaffer to his Letterman, if you will) treated the packed house to a round of patented Scott-and-Reggie-brand chitter chatter.

Maybe it’s the Day One amnesia talking, but I can’t remember what the hell was said. But that’s Comedy Bang! Bang! for you: a forum for pointless discussion and more that somehow becomes irreverent comic art.

What in god’s name am I talking about? Watch the show. Season one is dangling from the vine on Netflix.

Watts, a giant teddy bear of a man, lumbered onstage having pulled his famous ‘fro back into a, shall we say, ‘froney tail. Both were later accompanied by Burning Love personalities Rob Huebel, Natasha Leggero, Ken Marino, and some guy sitting there in a white T-shirt and Red Sox hat. He wins the designation “some guy” because he was planted, inanimate, and mute like one of Zach Galifianakis’ ferns.

What mostly stuck out to me, however, was the gender disparity. Leggero, up there as the lone female voice in a veritable sea of men, was constantly being talked over by her web series cohorts. I wanted her to have room to expound and crass-it-up a bit, but Huebel in particular derailed her more often than not.

But here I am engaging in the folly of reprimanding a comedian for lacking in social graces. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

It was teatime when former fake-wrestler and Minnesota governor Jesse “The Body” Ventura hijacked the set to psychobabble with gravel in his voice and conspiracy on his mind. In actuality, the Ventura persona is comedian James Adomian in a conspicuously loose-fitting bald cap as part of an ongoing project of his. What Adomian’s portrayal lacked in personal space, it made up for in laserlike intensity. Ventura broke the hard truths about America’s degeneration into a fascist police state while generally a hair’s breadth away from whomever he was addressing.

Adomian – excuse me, “Governor Ventura” killed it.

Marc Maron’s live WTF podcast taping on Sunday at Esther’s Follies was a pretty surreal experience. For one, the 49-year-old standup veteran definitely went above and beyond the call of duty by hanging out with the crowd well in advance of the 4pm taping. Maron looked right at home with his fans as he fielded questions, passed out WTF buttons and stickers, and generally acted like a regular dude. It was the type of outreach that really endears a performer to an audience and a great illustration of the oftentimes symbiotic and codependent relationship between WTF and its cult-like followers.

This day, Maron spent time with Peter Sagal (host of NPR’s Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me), comedian Nate Bargatze, writer/director Harmony Korine (Kids, Gummo), and actor James Franco (Oz the Great and Powerful, 127 Hours, Freaks and Geeks).

Maron’s colloquial, free-form interview style translates smoothly to the stage, but it got weird at the end. Franco seemed to resent an offhand remark by Maron that insinuated the actor takes himself too seriously. That perception is definitely out there because Franco is a public renaissance man as an actor, filmmaker, author, teacher, and Ivy Leaguer who people also find extremely hot. The last thing never hurts.

Given the elite and highly accomplished entity that he is, it’s entirely, and perhaps forgivably possible, that Franco has an ego so inflated that he would take genuine offense at such a passing and ostensibly innocent comment. Or am I unfairly stereotyping Hollywood’s upper class now?

In the show’s final moments, Franco projected the stiff expression and body language of a man slighted, and Maron – true to form – agonized and moaned, “Don’t let it get weird now.” With downcast eyes and a hunched and rigid posture, the actor lightly scratched his face with two fingers as if contemplating telling Maron to go fuck himself.

Later that evening, the comedian was at the IFC House down the street previewing and discussing his upcoming IFC television series, Maron. During the Q&A session that followed, I got to ask him about the end of the Franco interview. Did it, in fact, “get weird?”

To paraphrase his response: Absolutely. Franco did take offense at being briefly and jokingly called out, and the mood was tense at the end. There may be mutual discomfort when or if the two meet again – podcast or otherwise – but there’s no real rift between subject and host, according to Maron, even if Franco may have left the building a bit stung. Maron even defended the actor’s right to a, shall we say, humorless sense of self-importance (my phrasing, not his). Reasoning that Franco takes himself seriously simply because he takes his work seriously.

Think of that what you will.

(The special live SXSW edition of WTF with guests Peter Sagal, Nate Bargatze, Harmony Korine, and James Franco will likely be available for download by mid-week.)

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