An exclusive excerpt from Maron's upcoming book turns 'WTF' interviews into a gorgeous running narrative about failure
For years, Marc Maron has produced some of the most intimate, revealing, and frank celebrity interviews on his acclaimed podcast series, WTF.
The comedian has culled from hundreds of these interviews for his new book, Waiting for the Punch, out Tuesday. The book is less a by-the-numbers transcription of great quotes and more a running narrative of how top public figures and comedians talk about their mental health, their childhood, their sexuality, and so much more.
In an excerpt from Waiting for the Punch, exclusively obtained by EW, Maron interweaves commentary from the likes of John Oliver, Jason Segel, Danny McBride, and much more on a particularly sensitive topic: failure. Read on below to see how some of the biggest names in the industry have coped with some of the lowest moments in their lives.
Excerpt from “Waiting for the Punch,” by Marc Maron
FAILURE: “An Uppercut Right to My Feelings”
I knew what I wanted. I wanted to be a great, relevant comic. It was black or white, life or death, success or failure, mostly failure in my mind. I was only as good as my last set, and I never got the break I wanted. I just knew I didn’t have it and wasn’t getting it despite the fact that I worked obsessively hard. It was never enough compared to __________. I was desperate and angry all the time. I lived in a failure state of mind all the time. I was sinking.
With a failure state of mind you are susceptible to massive resentment, jealousy, bitterness, self-hatred, creative paralysis, anxiety, and dread. Most of these are just fuel for the fire of failure. They were also the engine of my creativity. They were my themes. They drove me. I thought they were all the keys to my success. The bitterness started to erode my ability to create. Bitterness is just amplified self-pity, and self-pity in any form is not entertaining, but I insisted that all people must feel the same way I did.
I used to think people who didn’t fail were somehow shallow sellouts who just knew how to sell themselves. I still think that is partially true, but what I have learned from talking to people is that those who work really hard and harness their talent, if they have it, can find a way. People I talked to, like Danny McBride, Terry Gross, and John Oliver, are all tremendously talented, all incredibly hard workers, and all well experienced in enduring soul-crushing failures. I also learned that acknowledging your victories, even minor instances, is important. Success or failure as a general description or overview of a creative life is ludicrous.
When I started the podcast I had failed. I was in my mid-forties. My comedy career hadn’t panned out. I had no real prospects in my mind. I was broke and coming out of a second childless marriage. I thought I was the victim for a while, but then started to see my part in my position in life. I had to accept it and try to move on. I had to really let it all go in my heart and just start the podcast with no expectations and no income and keep working. I believed I wasn’t ever going to be a relevant comic and that all my opportunities were behind me. I was old and had missed my window. It wasn’t until I let go of expectations and let the humility settle in as opposed to anger, self-pity, and the idea of failure that I became grounded in my body and a fucking grown-up.
Oddly I still talk about all the themes that once hobbled me but know that I can walk and have some hindsight. They are a cautionary tale or a struggle that can be won. Without failure, I would not have any success.
JASON SEGEL—COMEDIAN, ACTOR, WRITER
If the criteria of success is that if you don’t make it, you’re a failure, then a lot of people are walking around feeling shitty.
AMAZING JOHNATHAN—COMEDIAN, MAGICIAN
The school talent show stopped me from being a real magician. The talent show at my high school went so horribly wrong that the next day in school, the kids didn’t tease me. Kids are cruel about that stuff, but it was so bad they didn’t say a word. They avoided me.
I did six tricks, and all six tricks went wrong. I mean, the girl in the sword box had a leg cramp, and she said, “I have to get out! I have to get out of this.” She got out of the sword box halfway through the trick and knocked all the sides off. Two mirrors smashed.
I killed my dove. I produced a dove and it ran. It got out of my hand and was running and I chased it and it stopped real fast. I couldn’t stop that fast. I ran right over it, squashed it with my foot.
Then, oh, I exposed the levitation. You could see the steel bar holding the girl up in the air the whole entire time. It was supposed to be hidden until I got right in front of it.
This was going to be my big thing. This was going to get me chicks in high school. This was going to be what made me from an idiot to a champ.
Then the final thing was the guillotine. I said, “That can’t go wrong,” because the blade falls. It penetrates the neck and doesn’t cut the head off. That’s the trick. Then they shut the lights off. Well, they shut the lights off just as the blade started to drop, so you never saw it penetrate the guy’s neck. It just blacked out. That was it. That was all done to Elton John’s “Funeral for a Friend.” I’m dressed like a dick from Godspell with those rainbow suspenders and the heart on my forehead. I thought that was so cool. I had my hair permed like Doug Henning. I just tanked, man. I went to Toronto and got so shitfaced after that night. I said, “I’ll never do magic again.” I never did. Never did a serious magic show after that.
JON BENJAMIN—COMEDIAN, WRITER, DIRECTOR, ACTOR
I’ve done phone pranks that have gone awry. One involved the FBI.
My friend Charlie, he lived in Boston, in the South End, and I would occasionally stay at his apartment when I didn’t have other places to live. The gist of it was, we were watching TV, we were getting high. My mom is a ballet teacher, and me and Charlie grew up in the same town where his sister lived. He was telling me that his sister’s kids are going to go to this other ballet school that was in Worcester. It was kind of a rival to my mom’s.
So I jokingly said, “Let’s call her. Give me Didi’s number, I’m going to call your sister and tell her not to do that.” So I called their phone. It was a machine, and the message came on, and I left this message in an old lady voice or something, like, “This is Diane, from the Charlotte Klein Dance School. After reviewing your daughter’s application, we don’t feel she’s ready for the Charlotte Klein program. Perhaps you should try Performing Arts School in Worcester.” My mother’s school.
Whatever. It was dumb. That was it. Hung up. I don’t even think Charlie laughed. He was just watching porn or something.
Three weeks later, I got a call from Charlie saying, “This is all fucked! I went to Worcester, and we are fucked! You’re fucked!”
“What are you talking about?”
“What do you mean?”
His sister was a lawyer who worked for his father, who was also a lawyer. He was a big divorce attorney in Worcester. The sister was working on a really ugly divorce case, where the mother of the woman was harassing Charlie’s sister. The mom was a mean angry person. So they took the joke message that I left to be the mother of the woman involved in the case, and they took that as a threat on Didi’s daughter’s life because, according to the message, she knows where the kid goes to ballet school.
Apparently, in the three weeks before Charlie’s call, they had called the FBI, they pay like eight grand to do voice match from the machine, the tape of me, going “This is Diane, from the Charlotte Klein. . . .” I don’t know how they jumped to that conclusion. I must have sounded just like that woman, and that woman was making this veiled threat about “I know where your daughter goes to ballet school.”
How did it get resolved?
Charlie’s father called me up and he was like, “You psycho fucking idiot! You will never make a cent! I’m going to sue you! You’ll never make a cent for the rest of your fucking life, you psycho! How could you do that?” I was like, “I . . . I didn’t even . . . How was I . . .”
Charlie, apparently, completely sold me down the river. When he got home, it was like that scene from The Godfather. The father is pacing.
Charlie is like, “What’s going on?”
They’re like, “This is bad.”
“This woman is trying to kill Didi’s daughter.”
They told him about the tape, and the message, and Charlie’s like, “That was Jon Benjamin.”
Immediately. “That was my friend Jon Benjamin.”
BIG JAY OAKERSON—COMEDIAN
I was driving strippers and escorts to bachelor parties. A friend of mine said his girlfriend’s dad works for this company.
“Yeah, he just goes and drives the girls and you stand there and collect the money for them and then you leave.”
I thought it was going to be the best job ever, but it’s a very dangerous job. You get a bunch of drunk guys around like one vagina, it gets hostile pretty quick and they’re all jockeying for position. The thing is, on the phone you can’t call a company like that and say flat out, “Do these girls fuck if you pay them?” They’ll always be like, “You know, they have fun.” When you get there you never know what’s going to happen.
You walk in, nine times out of ten, these guys have an expectation like, “Well, how much does it cost to fuck the girl?” Then I got to go, “Ahh, she doesn’t really do that.” They’re like, “What?” They get angry and they start getting aggressive.
You would go bring one girl to a place and there’d be five guys who want to fuck her?
Oh man, I wish those numbers were right.
No, it was one or two girls and there’d be fifteen to twenty guys.
I thought everyone would be docile like myself and they’d be excited there was pussy in the room and they’d be too nervous to try to do anything else and they’d leave.
I had a gun pulled on me. The first time I ever got confident in a physical confrontation in one of these shows, a guy pulled a gun on me in Atlantic City. It was two girls and they were getting changed back into their clothes. It was after the show. An old Italian guy is banging on the door trying to get in. He wasn’t a scary-looking guy at all. I walked out of the room and I told the guy, “You can’t go in. The show’s over. It’s all done.” He says, “No, I’m going to go in. I paid for this.” I was like, “No, no, what you paid for is over. The show’s done.” He says, “Well, I paid for it so I say I can go in there.” Very confident I say, “Well, I’m saying you can’t go in there, so what are we going to do?”
He pulled out a gun and put it right between my eyes. Loaded, cocked, I have no idea, but he put it right between my eyes. I remember the first thought in my mind was “I don’t give a shit about these two girls at all. They’re just animal drug addicts. Why do I have a gun in my face?” I used to be afraid of rain when I was a kid. I’m a mama’s boy and I cry more than I should and now I’m trying to be here and be like a badass to protect these two animals. They don’t give a fuck if I get shot for them. They’ll go out there and fight the guy themselves. This is better than their home life, what they’re living right now.
What did you do?
I said nothing and then he laughed and put the gun down by his side and walked away. I love telling stories like that and your friends always say, “Dude, he just walked away and put the gun down by his side. I would have fucking tackled—” I’m like, “Would you have? I’m happy he didn’t shoot me in the face.” I feel like I won.
“Oh, dude. Man. He turned his back on you? You could have—” “Could have what?” I was proud of myself for not shitting my pants when he did that. Proud of myself. That was one of the scares, gun in my face.
Another time I had to drive two miles down a dirt road. The boss called me up and he really presented it to me very bluntly. He says, “You’re going to drive this black girl and this Puerto Rican girl to a racist biker party.” I thought he was kidding. Do you care about these girls’ safety at all, because what am I going to do?
We met the guys at a liquor store because they said we wouldn’t find the place. This was in South Jersey. Right when we’re driving down that road, I always assume we’re in agreement. I always think these girls aren’t, like, ballsy and they’re afraid too, but they’re never afraid. We drive two miles down this dirt road, and as I’m driving on the road, I’m looking at the girls. I thought we were all in agreement that we’re going to leave. We’re going to wait for them to get far enough ahead where we can just turn around and we can bug out of here. The girls just wanted to go in and make the money. They really didn’t care. They kept saying, “We’ve got a job to do.” Like they were doing noble work. “Hey no, we signed up for this. We’re not going AWOL.”
I had to go in first to call the boss, and when I walked in, everything was confirmed. There was a bed. There were guns all over the bed. It was the biker version of when you come to a party and someone’s like, “Put your coats on the bed.” There were guns all over.
I called my boss. He says, “How is it?” I was like, “Nah.” He goes, “Is it scary?” I was like, “Yeah.” The bikers were all around me, so I can’t say that there are guns. He says, “Are there are guns?” I’m like, “Uh-huh.” He says, “Are they holding them on you?” I say, “Not yet.” He says, “I talked to them on the phone, they’re good dudes,” and just hung up.
They actually didn’t cause much of a problem with me. There was an internal biker problem. It scared the shit out of me. The girls went into the bathroom to change into their stripper clothes and a lady came out in a robe from a bedroom, clearing her eyes like she didn’t know that there was, like, a very loud biker bachelor party happening in the next room. Just confused by the whole thing. Tries to go to the bathroom and the strippers, they have the class of nothing, so they were like, “Bitch, we’re in here.” She got mad and started a big fight.
Then her husband, I guess, her old man, he came out of the bedroom in tighty-whiteys and nothing else. Real scrawny, feathered hair, and he starts arguing and I guess one of the bikers was his brother and they went over and started fistfighting right in front of me. My jaw was on the floor. I was very visible at this point. All these bikers are like, this guy’s not going to do anything. I was terrified. They pulled out a gun and the brother in the tighty-whiteys ran through the screen of the back door. Right through it. Just took the screen right out and jumped over the deck and took off into the woods. The brother shot into the woods like nine times.
For the hour I was there, he never came back. I don’t know if he was dead or hiding, but either way, that was the least of my concerns. At least it wasn’t me they shot at. Now I could try to brownnose up to him like, “Your brother’s kind of a dick, huh? What a weirdo. Stay out there in the woods, jerk-off!” I was trying to be on their team.
Then, I never confirmed if it was a joke or not, but they were in earshot of me. I guess they didn’t know that and the girls were changing back into their clothes and I heard one guy say, “What do you want to do with this fat kid when we fuck these chicks?” I yelled out the words “Thirty seconds” to the bathroom. “Thirty seconds!” Then I went and started the car and we got the fuck out of there. They didn’t come after us. I guess they were preoccupied, thank God.
It was a forty-five-minute drive back to Philly, and all three of us were teary-eyed. I was crying. They were yelling that I’m the worst bouncer and I knew it.
I know, I’m awful.
DANNY MCBRIDE—ACTOR, WRITER, PRODUCER
I went through a really bad breakup with a girl I’d been dating since college. She moved to Los Angeles with me. Then she started wearing slinkier clothes, and everything just went downhill really fast. When you move here as a young kid, you’re right out of film school, you’re twenty-one years old, and there are guys who are twenty-eight and have some real money, and you’re still living on $25 a week.
And you realize that you’re just there to provide them with new girlfriends.
Exactly. I can remember still today when I found out that it was over with. I was working at the Crocodile Café in Burbank, which is no longer there, and I went to the manager and just told him, “I don’t think I can do my shift today. I don’t know. My girlfriend just broke up with me.” I’m sitting there like, “Don’t cry,” and I start crying in front of this guy who doesn’t give a shit, and he’s just looking at me. He’s like, “All right, just get yourself together. Go take some time off.” He puts his hand up. I assume that he’s going in for a hug, but he wasn’t. He was going for a handshake and I’m hugging him, crying, with my apron from Crocodile Café on.
I remember just walking back to my apartment with my apron wrapped up and my white polo shirt with my name tag. I’m just like, “Fuck LA. I hate this out here. This is the worst.” I hit rock bottom with that, definitely.
Something even worse happened with her, which was when I got back on my feet in Glendale, starting a new life with me and two of my other buddies. I got a job, I got things going. Then I get this phone call. One of my roommates answered the phone and it’s the ex. He was not supposed to give the phone to me. That was a solid rule, but he smiles. “Hey, the phone’s for you.” This had been about six months since we broke up. She is on the phone and she’s crying.
She’s like, “Danny, you got to come get me. The guy that I’m seeing just threw me down the stairs and beat me up. You got to come pick me up.” I don’t want to be with her, but I still am tortured over this. I’m like, “Okay, I’m all in.” I get my two roommates, and I’m like, “We got to go over there and kick this guy’s ass. We’re going to go save her.” We get the golf clubs out of my roommate’s car and we’re driving to Burbank. I remember “Satisfaction” was playing. We could have no hesitation. We have to pull up and smoke this fucking guy.
We roll up to where she’s at. We’re looking for this street. It’s in Burbank. We pull up, and she’s just standing there on the corner with this dude who’s six five. He’s a personal trainer. He’s this huge muscle-bound dude, and all of us just stay in the car. We’re just like, “Okay, come on. You can just come on in this car. Just get in here.” She goes to the car and he doesn’t let her in. He grabs her back, and so I’m in this weird position where it’s like, “Fuck, I guess I got to get out,” so I get out of the car and none of my roommates come out. They just hand me the golf club through the window, so I’m just standing there with the golf club. I’m just like, “Come on, man. We got to let her get into the car now, man.”
The guy just looks at me and he’s like, “What the hell are you going to do with that golf club, huh?” He comes up into my face. I’m like, “I can’t believe you’d hit a girl, man. What’s wrong with you?” He’s like, “What are you going to do with that golf club?” It’s this big challenge. He had challenged me, so I had to do something with it, so I fucking swing back and crack him in his knees as hard as I can and I just hit him with the shaft. It literally just breaks, and he’s just standing there looking at me. I’m holding just the handle of the golf club. Eventually, I just try to chase it with, “Aw man, how messed up are you that you would hit a girl.” Needless to say, that dude just fucking pounds on me. I’m getting the shit beat out of me. My roommates are still sitting in the car watching it all. The ex-girlfriend gets in there and she’s hitting him and finally I’m trying to get everyone in the car.
The dude just walks over to the passenger seat. My buddy is sitting there with the most useful weapon, which is a baseball bat. Just sitting there, shaking in the passenger seat. The guy just comes over, opens up the door, and just grabs the baseball bat out of his hand and then just starts going to town on my car, and it’s just like, Jesus Christ, this whole thing failed. So we get her in the car and get out of there. Then on the way home, it’s just like, “Who the fuck are you dating? What is this? What’s happened?”
We get back to the apartment. That’s when she tells us that this guy knows where we live and all this stuff, so we’re screwed. We found out that this guy has a criminal record and he’s coming for us. I’m trying to calm my roommates down. They’re pissed, like, “Why the fuck are you getting us involved with this shit?” I’m like, “It’s going to be fine. This guy’s not going to mess with us. He has his own deal with her. We were just picking her up.”
Next thing we know we look out our window, there are six SUVs circling the front of our place. We’re in this really weird apartment complex that was backed up to the LA River. Apparently they had been on a date before, so he knew where our house was from across the river. They’re trying to find out where we are.
My roommates are gone. They’re out to their car. I just grab a handful of stuff and a kitchen knife and I’m moving through this fucking apartment complex. We’re the only white guys that live at this apartment complex. It’s all Asian families. They’re all eating dinner and I’m crawling around with this knife looking for my roommates and end up getting into the parking garage. I get to my car, but my roommates’ cars are still there, and I was like, “Fuck, these guys, they haven’t got out. This is my responsibility. I got to go back for them.”
I’m looking for them. We all run into each other, scaring the shit out of each other. We got in the cars and literally left and never went back to that apartment for six months. We were paying rent there. All of our stuff was there, but we were so fucking scared, we just never came back there until we had to move because our lease was up. Even to that day, we were tiptoeing in, in disguise, trying to take things out.
TOM SCHARPLING—COMEDIAN, WRITER, RADIO AND PODCAST HOST
I was at Luna Lounge with my friend, and at that point I was working in a music store. My friend was writing for MTV, writing commercials. And there’s young Marc Maron onstage. I was already feeling not good about where I was in life, and you were telling some story up onstage there, and then you said, “That’s like the difference between someone who works at a music store versus a guy who’s working up at MTV.”
Literally, I was next to my friend, and it was that dynamic. I was like, “Oh, this is not good. I am not in a good place at all. Now people onstage are making fun of the hole I’m in, like using it as a demarcation point where I’m actually at in my life. My friend is literally working at MTV now, writing up there.” That kind of spurred me, I was like, “I have to change things.”
BIG JAY OAKERSON
I wasn’t getting enough work with the strippers, so I asked the boss, “Can you give me a little more?” He says, “Well, by day we send out people to kids’ birthday parties dressed up like characters, like Elmo.” He goes, “Would you want to do that?” I was like, “Sure.”
The costumes were awful. He bought like these generic ones. Not the real characters. It was like a brown Winnie-the-Pooh. The first one I ever did, I was Elmo, but the outfit had no feet coverings so it was just my Nikes sticking out. It was sweltering hot, there’s no AC, and these outfits are like a burlap sack, a costume made out of carpet. Rug art. You know like the hook art? It’s like that. I’m profusely sweating and miserable and the mom kept yelling for me to do the hokeypokey. That’s the only kids’ song she ever heard of. She kept screaming that and called me motherfucker. There were children everywhere. No one cares at all.
The guy gave me a tape of the hokeypokey and a costume and I don’t really know what in the hell I’m supposed to do. I don’t know if I’m supposed to talk. I’m familiar with Elmo. Not super familiar, but I just didn’t know if it was just dancing the whole time or playing with the kids or do I play a game with them. I had no preparation. He just told me, “Go be Elmo for an hour.”
I have a bag and an audiocassette tape.
The moment it started to feel good was like the little girl whose birthday it was, some of those kids were really shy, but she was affectionate. She hugged me and she said, “I love you, Elmo.” I thought she was a pretty cool child. It was pretty neat. I had younger siblings, so I’m good with kids.
Then the punk kids in the neighborhood showed up, fucking destroyed everything that I just built with this little girl. They started telling everybody that I’m not the real Elmo. One kid called out my sneakers, which really stung, because I was like, “Maybe this girl won’t notice I’m wearing Nikes.” He says, “If he’s the real Elmo, why’s he wearing Nikes?” Then he started looking through the mouth. He’s obnoxiously looking right at my face through this little thin screen and then when he realized that I was white he lifted the sleeve of the outfit and screamed, “Elmo’s white!” Like Paul Revere’d it, to the left and to the right. People really stopped what they were doing. Everything was sort of like the record scratching, everyone turning around. Like everyone was shocked that I was white. The kids didn’t like me anymore. It was so weird. I got awkward.
Then the kid goes, “Let’s see if Elmo has nuts.” I lost him in my vision because I had about a six-inch range and I remember my plan was just to start spinning in circles and I would see him, and then I wouldn’t and I’d try to go the other way. I tried to keep him in front of me and he kicked me from behind. He got behind me and fucking put a foot deep in my ball bag.
Because it was so hot I wasn’t wearing pants. I just wore my underwear underneath. It was the most flush shot I’ve ever taken. I went down. The mom just kept yelling at me to get up and it was hell. I felt that the stripper things were going to be the worst, but I’ve been equally scared at those kids’ parties.
LOUIS CK—COMEDIAN, WRITER, DIRECTOR, PRODUCER, ACTOR
In the late 1980s, you could do ten sets a night at all the comedy clubs and they were fifty bucks each. I had a motorcycle then. A Honda Super Sport 750. I used to go on the FDR Drive doing literally a hundred miles an hour so I could get to shows quicker. I’d do two shows at the Boston Comedy Club in the Village, one at The Cellar, two at The Village Gate, and then I’d run screaming uptown to do Catch a Rising Star and The Comic Strip. We’d get fifty bucks a show. Pockets full of cash.
I remember one night I had done ten shows and I was like twenty-three years old. I parked my bike at my garage in the Village and my pockets were bulging with cash that I had made. You know, fifty bucks a show, ten shows. That’s five hundred dollars. Five hundred bucks for a night’s work, twenty-three years old. Then I’m walking to my Bleecker Street Village apartment.
I thought, “I have the greatest life in the world. I don’t even care if I don’t become famous or anything. This is the balls. I have the world by the fucking balls.” I had that thought that night.
The next night I was going down Second Avenue doing about seventy miles an hour and a car went through a red light going perpendicular. I never even touched my brakes. I just plowed right into this car. I flew over the car. I lost my sight, but I was still cognizant. The bike was in pieces. My sight came back and the bike was in pieces in front of me. I heard a woman scream. It was a nightmare. I got strapped to a board and taken to a hospital. After lots of CAT scans and tests and shit this doctor came to me in a hallway. He said, “You’re fine. You’re stupid, don’t ride motorcycles anymore, but you’re fine. Take it easy for a while.”
I hopped off of this table and I thought I’m just going to go home. The threshold to which you need to be hospitalized is still pretty high, but I really fucked myself up. I could barely walk. I hadn’t broken anything, but my whole body had bruises all over the side of it that grew as the weeks went by. For two weeks I was in bed. I was a fucking wreck and my motorcycle was gone. I slept that night and I just felt really terrible. I think I peed myself. It was just a really bad, humiliating experience. Then I looked in the mirror the next day and I was balding. I saw it for the first time that I was losing my hair.
Within that week Catch a Rising Star closed. Catch and The Improv went down like one-two. They both closed and things started getting really bad. Things immediately started getting bad and the 1990s came and all the clubs started closing and I couldn’t make a living anymore and I couldn’t pay my rent. That night was a huge, instant turning point. Everything from that night on in my life went badly for like three, four years.
I was in graduate school and I was a versatile actor. I always played the old men. I was playing, like, an eighty-year-old man in this play and I was spraying my hair with streaks and tips as opposed to wearing a gray wig so I wouldn’t look like a huge transvestite. The last day of the show, I went back to my little apartment and I washed my hair, and as I’m washing my hair, huge clumps of hair started coming out in my hand. I mean, gigantic clumps, like I was around radiation or something.
I don’t remember if I cried, but I felt like I cried for a month. I felt like it was the end of all my dreams. This is the end of me being a star in show business, this is it. From that moment on, in the shower that afternoon, I could look and I could see I was going to be one of those guys that looked like I was balding. I was devastated. I didn’t know what I would do, and I think I was in kind of a denial, really, for months.
I didn’t see a woman after that that didn’t look up to the hairline and go, “Oh, okay, bad DNA. Okay, we’ll move on.” Every casting director smiled at me and then the little eyes kept going up, saying, “Okay, maybe a professor or teacher down the line.” It just happened that I didn’t quit, I guess.
I substitute taught for a while. When I moved back to Virginia, I was bartending at night and substituting in the daytime. I was making an honest living. The first day I was a substitute teacher, I was in there and I was just feeling weird.
The first group of kids came in. I had written my name on the chalkboard, doing the shit that I remember people would do when I was in school. I just started unraveling with the first kids. I was introducing myself, and then all of a sudden, I found myself having to justify to these kids why I was a substitute teacher and just tell them, “I got real plans. This is a fucking stop on the block for me. I’m on my way back out to LA after I save up some money.” These kids are just looking at me, like, “We don’t give a shit. We’re not even listening.” These were probably ninth or tenth graders.
I needed to justify it. “Hey, this isn’t my full-time thing.” All they cared about was like, “Mr. McBride, you smoke weed?” All they cared about was if I smoked weed and what kind of car I drove. “What kind of car are you driving?” I’m like, “A Hyundai Elantra.” They’re like, “Pssh.”
TERRY GROSS—RADIO HOST
I taught in the toughest inner-city junior high school in Buffalo, New York. Eighth grade. This would have been 1972.
I wanted to be the teacher who I wanted to have when I was in junior high, so I foolishly went to school dressed in my purple corduroy pants and work boots. How am I doing?
It was terrible, it was so stupid. I probably did my fair share of weeping the first day. It got worse as things went on, because it just fell apart. The first day they’re testing you. Then they realize how weak you are, how bad at this you are. I couldn’t keep the students in the classroom, I couldn’t teach them a lesson, I couldn’t do anything.
You were a teacher with a personality of a substitute.
I was a child. I was twenty-two. I was shorter than they were, and I didn’t know how to be the authority figure.
I got fired in six weeks.
People say there’s no way of firing teachers. Well, they fired me. I’m living proof.
This is a really chaotic, violent school and one day one of the students took out a knife and dropped it just to see, what is Ms. Gross going to do?
What did Mr. Gross do?
Ms. Gross watched. Ms. Gross acted like she was in a movie and she went oh, a kid just dropped a knife, I don’t know what to do. I felt like they’ve written this really interesting movie and they cast me in it and they forgot to give me the script. I had no idea what to do.
Thank God I got fired. The principal observed me and the administration graded me. They’re like, “Okay, you’re from New York City, so we’re going to give you a high grade in culture.” And they gave me below average in dignity and self-respect. What the hell does that mean? Who is measuring this?
But what gets respect in inner-city schools was not something that I had. In other words, you have to be tough, you have to be the authority, you have to draw the line, you have to meet certain challenges. I’m the opposite, I’m shy and introverted and use self-deprecating humor. How does that go over when you’re teaching? Not good.
BILL BURR—COMEDIAN AND ACTOR
I live in this old building. There’s no insulation in it whatsoever. I’ve been sitting on my couch late at night and feeling like I’m the only person in the world. All of a sudden you hear somebody clear their throat and they sound like they’re on the couch with you, like the place is fucking haunted. They’re literally across the courtyard. I don’t know if it’s the acoustics. I don’t know what it is. Everything’s fucking loud as hell in there.
We live above this old guy, the classic old guy you don’t want to be. Living alone, no pets, blinds pulled. You don’t even know what the fuck he does. He’s always really sarcastic. If you drop something because there’s gravity, you just hear him muffled downstairs, “Do it again!” He’s doing that. “Keep it up!” He does that. I think it’s funny. If he says, “Do it again,” I do it again. I don’t give a shit. My girlfriend, maybe because it’s a guy, she feels bullied by him. Two months ago she tells me, “You really need to go down there and talk to this guy.” What am I going to do? I’m going to go down there and what’s going to come of this? I don’t want to do this shit.
Two or three days ago it’s the end of Christmas. I’m dragging my Christmas tree down. It’s like ten in the fucking morning. Legally I can start building a house at 7:00 a.m. I’m bringing a tree down. He comes out and sarcastic as hell to the point I didn’t even get it, but he just had this bizarre look on his face and yells, “Beautiful morning, isn’t it?” Yelled that. I was looking at him like, “What the fuck? Is this guy out of his mind?” I realized he’s being sarcastic. He heard the tree coming down. I’m like, “Whatever.”
I go in the house. My girl’s like, “He was yelling again. Go down there and talk to him.” I’m like, “Fine. You want me to talk to him.” I go down there to talk to the guy. As I start walking up his walk he’s sitting there. I see this little kind of look of fear on his face. I didn’t go down there to have an argument. I was just like, “Listen, man, you’re always yelling up there. What is the problem?” He goes, “It sounds like she dropped a brick!” He just starts screaming at me. I say, “Look, we have hardwood floors. I came down here to work it out.” He says, “What does that mean? What is that, some sort of hip, new saying?” I swear to God.
I kept my cool. I kept saying, “Dude, I’m just coming down here to blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” He just kept yelling at me. At one point he made a reference to my bad guitar playing. As sarcastic as hell, he says, “How’s your band? Ha, ha, ha.” Laughs.
I swear to God, if there is an afterlife I want kudos on this because I immediately wanted to be like, “How’s your fucking life? Really. Is this what you dreamed of? Huh? Who’s your last roommate, fucking Larry Fine? You fucking asshole.” But I have a line. I don’t yell at old people. I don’t.
“How’s your guitar?”
It really hurt my feelings because that was outside the realm of comedy. I don’t have musician walls built up. He got in. He fucking gave me an uppercut right to my feelings.
There was a point where the toilet was leaking, and I’m just like, “I can fix that. I’m not going to call a guy at $150. I’m just gonna learn about this, do it,” and I did it, and I was way too proud of myself.
Then another toilet started doing it, like a year later. I tried to fix it. It was something different, and I’m just like, “Oh, boy. I’ve hit the ceiling.” The bar was very low on my ability to fix a toilet. I couldn’t. “I can’t get this chain. It’s still running. Oh, come on. I thought I had this aced. Fine. What’s the guy’s number?”
I think a thing that helped me a lot, and it’s a weird thing to say, was sports. I loved sports a lot. The thing that helped me as a character actor is that I was a very poor basketball player and a very poor football player, but I knew from sports what it meant to be on a team. That sometimes you score, sometimes you play defense, sometimes you throw the ball out of bounds, but you have different roles to do.
Also, in sports sometimes you lose. My biggest regret in life is I was not taught some sort of reasonable sense of competition. For me, losing or being rejected is life threatening. If you like sports or you played sports, even if you weren’t good at it, I think the most important lesson is that losing is not the end.
I think it was, and I believe it was Eugene O’Neill who said, “I hope always to have the courage to push on to greater failures.” I think it is important to understand that failure is not part of the bad stuff. Failure is actually a building block of the good stuff, if you have the courage to keep going.
But it can break you.
JOHN OLIVER—COMEDIAN, WRITER, ACTOR, TELEVISION HOST
There are moments in sports, especially when you’re a kid, that really hurt. I remember missing a penalty when I was twelve years old in a local competition and it probably took me three years to get over it. I just felt like at that point it was the worst thing that had ever happened to me, even though it wasn’t.
A penalty shot is all built around individual failure. You are the person who has lost it in that single moment, that single kick of the ball. It absolutely broke me.
My only redemption for that was that years and years later, at the Edinburgh Festival, there was this charity football match that I played in, and I had to take a penalty, and I scored it, and I nearly burst into tears. There was an internal closure. No one knew, and they were probably concerned as to why in this equally meaningless game there was a guy who doesn’t cry, visibly on the edge of tears.
I scored another goal in that game and we won, and my dad was watching. My dad always wanted me to be a footballer more than he wanted me to be anything else. And as a joke I took my shirt off. Sometimes footballers do that celebration, so I took my shirt off and I ran up into the crowd and gave it to my dad as kind of a joke, and he was actually moved. I’ve never really seen him moved much in his life, and I think he realized, this is as close as I could give him to the son that he wanted.
I went as hard into sport as I could, but I wasn’t good enough. I can’t even believe I’m saying that out loud now, but I wasn’t good enough. I was never going to make my career as a professional footballer.
Exactly what year did you realize that?
Probably about three years ago.
I mean the fear of success is not the thing for me. I think the fear of failure is almost all of it for me. I feel that looming. I’ve always thought it’s like, the amount of geniuses that are out there, there’s like five of them, maybe. Like Paul Thomas Anderson, that guy is on a different plane than all of us.
Then there’s the bottom 20 percent that’s like the Rupert Pupkins of the world that are just completely talentless and they have to learn that when the cards get dealt, that, “Okay, it wasn’t for me.”
That middle stretch, all that separates the people is just how hard you work and if you kind of keep your head in the game.
I was just like, “I can do okay in that mix. I know I’m not a genius, but I’m pretty sure I’m not like Rupert Pupkin, like I know I’m not a fraud.” It’s like if I do the best that I can do, then that takes care of a certain amount of it. I’ve always kind of operated with that in mind.