Marc Maron Enjoyed the Tension at South Side Music Hall Sunday

By Jeremy Hallock After struggling as a comedian for over 20 years, Marc Maron finally started hitting his stride in 2009 with his enormously popular "WTF with Marc Maron" podcast and then the IFC TV series, Maron, which debuted in 2013. He easily commanded the large crowd from the huge stage at South Side Music Hall Sunday, telling everyone standing to find their seats ("Sit down, fucker!") as he stepped into the spotlight.

If you are familiar with his stand-up mainly through his 5 comedy albums, it was surprising how physical he was onstage. The 51-year-old frequently jumped off his stool, running around manically, grinning from ear to ear and making erratic facial expressions. And, of course, Maron's dark, dry, self-deprecating humor was on full display and in top form.

Opener Ashley Barnhill had strong material, sardonic enough to make her a good match for Maron. But she seemed nervous by the size of the crowd and stage, got off to an awkward start and never seemed to fully recover by the time her quick set ended. Without coming out to the stage, Maron said the show was about to start. The crowd roared, likely expecting him to come out, but the noise level quickly dropped when he announced his opener and Barnhill appeared.

This was a tough way for Barnhill to begin the show, but her awkward pauses and lack of confidence seemed to undermine her otherwise dark, interesting material. She came across like Amy Schumer with a slower pace and less pep. Repeatedly acknowledging that the set wasn't going well by saying things like, "This is going to be fun..." and "I gotta get out of here..." did not help her cause. Barnhill also had a recurring motif about committing suicide or killing someone with her car that seemed a bit forced after, say, a joke about juice bars being adult lemonade stands.

Nonetheless, she seemed like a smart comedian and probably just had a tough night. With a little more attitude, jokes about romance not being dead so much as suffering a severe head injury probably would've gone over well. For example, sarcastically asking, "Too close to home?" after a particularly offensive joke served her well. She also had a great dark poetic sensibility, reinterpreting an inspirational quote into, "I think you mean a skeleton wrapped in crazy."

After she wrapped up, Maron quickly turned things around simply by walking out on stage. For good measure, he also had the house lights turned on to bounce off the disco ball and trashed Houston ("Fuck Houston") and Austin ("Hipster Alamo"). His entire set was incredibly strong, with only a few missteps like half-baked impressions of Dave Attell, David Cross and Brian Regan. But the crowd even seemed happy with those.

Some of his material was cringe worthy, like his insistence that everyone in the room has had semen on them at one time or another. But he was always happy to fully explain his disposition, looking people in the eye, completely fearless. And he suffered no fools. For example, he made fun of a guy who walked right in front of the stage and raised his drink during a bit several times before letting it go, getting a little meaner with each quip.

Maron's humor is all about bringing what goes on behind his face out of his mouth. This is stuff that most people hide, things like getting angry at beards and loose fitting pants for reasons he can't explain. To him, small frustrations are huge conflicts that marinate in his mind until he can find some way to convince himself that he won.

Adding another level to that, he periodically tapped into the idea of a blogger living in his head who made snide comments about how the show was going so far. He also has an almost Seinfeldian way of wringing out lots of great material on, well, not nothing, but very little. Some of his strongest stuff was an extended take on living in a "Mexican neighborhood" and disliking a pizza place near his house.

Like the late great Patrice O'Neal, Maron's approach often made it seem like the material was coming right out of his head and he was randomly deciding which direction to take the show in between bits. But a few jokes about Texas aside, he obviously knew what he was doing the whole time.

Towards the end of his set, his take on Christianity was particularly hilarious and brutal. The notion that Jesus came back from the dead less than a zombie, actually just being propped up by a few people to scare others made the crowd's eyes wide. But no one could help laughing. His take on how The Ten Commandments was equally hilarious, imagining a bunch of people behind closed doors trying to setup some basic rules in a chaotic world full of idiots in order to create an environment suitable for business.

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