Marc Maron’s previous comedy special, “End Times Fun,” released in 2020, was a reflection of his preoccupation with the apocalypse. He portrayed a cynical and often exasperated view of living in what felt like the end of the world with a laughing and wry grumpiness. In his latest HBO special, “From Bleak to Dark,” Maron explores the same ideas and retains his trademark humor, but with a palpable shift. Instead of a descent into nihilism, this special exhibits a fundamentally loving and tender worldview. It is an exploration of how to keep living after the end of the world.
Despite its title, “From Bleak to Dark” is not a departure from Maron’s typical comedic identity. He is known for his caustic wit and the special’s title is an apt representation of his style. Most of the humor in the special is derived from finding humor in existentially frightening topics like dementia, climate catastrophe, suicide, death, and grief. The special opens with Maron taking the stage, acknowledging the audience, and swiftly silencing the applause. He starts by saying, “I don’t want to be negative, but I don’t think anything is ever going to get better, ever again.” The audience roars with laughter, and the special treats this as a cold open, quickly flashing a title card before Maron continues with his opening ideas.
The first 20 minutes of the special feature Maron’s classic riffs on the state of the world, with jokes about abortion clinics, “do your own research” guys, “anti-woke” comedians, and climate fatalism. These jokes ground Maron’s hour-long performance in his comedic identity and approach to ideas. He is the comedian who can make light of serious topics, such as rebranding abortion clinics as “angel factories.” He is also the comedian who references his Judaism to drive out any subconscious antisemites in the audience.
However, after the first 20 minutes, Maron begins to add other colors to his performance. He first tackles aging and dementia, focusing on his relationship with his father and the realization of getting older. This material is deliberately balanced between warmth and chilly dismissal, both in Maron’s experience and portrayal. He alternates between fondness and frustration, first sharing that his father has dementia, then scolding the audience for their growing sympathy because his father was a narcissistic nightmare for much of Maron’s life. The darkness is present, but Maron also persistently tries to find grace in the situation where his father is no longer fully himself. The final joke in this section is about the moment when Maron imagines knowing that his father doesn’t recognize him, and it’s not hard to picture a version of that joke that would be bitter. However, Maron delivers the joke with wry but loving acceptance.
In a lesser comedian’s work, a section as balanced and insightful as this one could be the centerpiece of their performance. For Maron, it serves as a bridge to the bulk of his performance, which is a tribute to his late partner, the director Lynn Shelton. This section is an extraordinary run of jokes, beginning with Maron’s initial anxiety that he would never be able to joke about this subject. He then dives into the first joke he was able to write after Shelton’s death in 2020, which doubles as an extended and lingering description of the day she died. The material flows into jokes about grief and the way sadness makes people mystical, and although all of it is distinctly Marc Maron – cantankerous, gimlet-eyed, authoritative – there is also a sense of softness that feels like a different mode. As he describes moments that have