THE JERUSALEM SYNDROME
by Marc Maron (Broadway Books, $12.95) Stroum Jewish Community Center, 3801 E. Mercer Way, 232-7115 7:30 p.m. Thurs., Nov. 15 Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main, 624-6600 7:30 p.m. Fri., Nov. 16 Giggles Comedy Club, 520 Roosevelt Way N.E., 526-JOKE, $12 7 p.m. Sat., Nov. 17
RETURNING from Israel, comedian Marc Maron began to wonder if the angry, restless, cocaine-craving state of mind that had afflicted him most of his life was actually the manifestation of something grander than your garden-variety anxiety disorder with chronic insecurity.
He learned of the Jerusalem Syndrome, a psychological phenomenon in which visitors to the Holy Land start to imagine they are in direct communication with God, that they are prophets of the transcendent. "Once I heard about the syndrome I thought, well, what a great way to look at my life," says the 38-year-old Conan regular and sometime Comedy Central host. Applying that lens to his years of smoking, snorting, and "Beat religion," Maron assembled the material for his one-man autobiographical show, The Jerusalem Syndrome, which ran at the Westbeth Theater in New York last fall. Now Maron has embellished that script further and published it as a paperback (which you can easily get through on a single pack of cigarettes).
Thankfully, the notion that Maron is a chosen one, or on some kind of deep spiritual journey, is pretty much handled like the gimmick it is—a theme around which to hang the scabrous comic's tales of wretched nights at the Comedy Store, visits to corporate institutions like the Philip Morris cigarette factory and Coke museum, and struggles with paranoid delusions. "I was anything but content," he writes in a section about his doomed marriage. "I tried to be, but it just didn't stick. . . . My soul was always itchy." Maron is grimly hilarious in his portrait of Hollywood, where he spent the late '80s. "This machine, this factory, creates an exhaust that hangs over Los Angeles," he writes. "That's not smog. It's vaporized disappointment."
The climax of Syndrome, and the only chapter that feels a little forced, has Maron touring the Holy Land with a camcorder stuck to his eyeball, searching for signs of God. "I think spirituality and religion are templates you place upon your soul or your mind," Maron tells me over the phone from L.A., a recent stop on his book tour. "And if you don't commit to a template of some kind, you're sort of leaving yourself open to bounce around all over the place." But don't some people, even nonreligious people, seem to breeze by more easily? "Oh yeah, yeah, some people have self- esteem," Maron replies. "I really resent those people."
Maron has some of the dark appeal of David Sedaris, and his book, like those of Sedaris, is probably best appreciated when you hear that comic voice in your head; the style is definitely conversational. And while Maron is caustic in his portrayal of needy comedians and others he encounters—such as the "faux Bohemians in vintage clothes" working at a coffee shop ("If they couldn't find integrity in their own time, maybe they could find it in the pants of another time")—he always saves his harshest assessments for himself. The book ends touchingly with Maron making a return visit to his hometown of Albuquerque to do a benefit performance for the local synagogue. "Being on stage seems to be the only reprieve from my insanity that I have left," he writes.
THIS WEEKEND will provide three nights of reprieve. In addition to a couple of readings, Maron will do his more customary schtick—stand-up—at Giggles. Typically merciless in his attacks on American consumer culture, Maron promises, "I'm going to be doing a lot of new material about the world as we know it now." He's been working in New York clubs since the Saturday after the attacks and says he "started asking audiences flat out, 'Is it OK to make fun of the president again? Is it OK to hate the president?' And they do. I don't think this reactionary patriotism is that deep."
While Jay Leno makes bin Laden jokes, not many comics are going to really take on the current crisis, Maron contends. "Bill Maher's a libertarian. And there's no functioning Left at all. This is one of those great testing points" for comics, he says. "Are you a clown, or are you relevant?"
Conspiracy-minded as ever, Maron has one current bit in which he paints our Afghanistan engagement as an effort to "bring the global heroin industry back under the control of the CIA like it was under George Sr. This is really about not letting the son run the family business into the ground." Says Maron: "Anybody who says we're being well-informed as to what's going on and why it's happening is completely out of their mind. Don't you think?"