[COMEDIAN, PODCAST HOST]
What… the… fuck. The phrase has been floating around for ages, but lately, these three words have come to signify something new: the fear, doubt, selfishness, neediness, territorial desire, and emotional instability of the comedian Marc Maron. After having performed stand-up for over twenty-five years—he is now forty-eight—Maron has finally found his niche in show business, a place where he feels he belongs, and is at last beginning to grasp whatever amount of fulfillment he might be able to in order to keep talking. And his nest? The place he belongs? It’s in his very own garage, one mic in front of his face, the other in front of his guest.
Having struggled with alcohol, drugs, divorce (twice), denial, recovery, success, fame, and uncertainty, one can only imagine the various contexts in which his trademark phrase has been delivered. Yet in 2009, it found its perfect form in the name of his masterpiece, his critically acclaimed podcast, WTF with Marc Maron, for which he interviews mainly comedians, but also comic writers, at length, about their careers, their relationship to their art, their lives, and their darkest thoughts. He seems intent on interviewing everybody great in the business; his guests have included Chris Rock, Sandra Bernhard, Doug Stanhope, Andrew Dice Clay, Amy Poehler, and many more.
Maron has been called a “comedian’s comedian” by many of his peers, meaning most of his fan base for many years were his fellow comics. Onstage, he plays the neurotic, venting about his own life and personal struggles through long-form stories. He’s also been called one of the original “alternative comics,” and continues to be a significant fixture in today’s comedy scene, with two Comedy Central specials, a record forty-six appearances on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, four comedy records, a book, and performances in clubs all across the country. Before WTF, he hosted his own morning radio show on Air America, titled Morning Sedition—a three-hour satirical sketch-radio program. The success of his podcast (with thirty-two million downloads and counting) has propelled him into writing a second book, and he’s currently shooting his own television pilot with the production company Apostle.
Fellow comedian and friend Louis C. K. has called Maron a “compelling and hilarious comedian-poet; truly one of the greatest of all time.” Director and writer Judd Apatow said of WTF, “As a comedy nerd, this show is my nirvana.”
I was lucky enough to speak with Marc on the phone for well over an hour, me from New York City and Marc from his home in Highland Park, California. It was the day after the Santa Ana winds blew through L.A., and he explained that his entire neighborhood was out of power—or “fucked,” as he said. Trees were on the roads, some smashed on cars, and people were frantic. “It’s a fucking nightmare,” he said. “But that’s not your problem man. Let’s do this.”
I. BUILDING THE CLOWN
THE BELIEVER: What was it about comedy that made you think, This is where I belong?
MARC MARON: I found a great deal of relief and excitement watching comics when I was very young. My grandmother was very into them and so was my grandfather. They had a profound effect on me, so I just found myself watching comedians on the after-school shows: Merv Griffin and that kind of stuff. I became relatively obsessed with Jackie Vernon, Don Rickles, and Buddy Hackett. As I got older it just sort of continued, my fascination with it. Comics seemed to have a handle on things. They could sort of disarm and get control over reality. I found it very comforting to laugh. My brother and I used to sit around listening to records: Cheech and Chong, George Carlin, Steve Martin, Richard Pryor. I remember seeing Richard Pryor’s first movie; it was a midnight movie when I was in high school. I must have been about fifteen. It was one of the most cathartic experiences of my life. I’d never laughed that much. So I always had it in the back of my head to do it. I just wanted to be a comedian. I had no concept of the business.
BLVR: You’ve said that you don’t write jokes, that they tend to write themselves.
MM: I think things evolve into jokes. I don’t generally write them down as jokes. I talk them out. But, you know, through repetition, jokes form.
BLVR: I remember you once saying that sometimes it takes five years to write a good joke.
MM: Yeah, jokes do finish themselves. I really do see them as ongoing conversations about personal themes that I ruminate on. Then my attitudes change and I sort of add that to the conversation. Whether people know the evolution of the conversation or not, I don’t know, but thematically, as a comedian, I stay in the same ballpark—around my issues and my philosophy of life.
BLVR: That idea of the ongoing conversation is very present in both your act and on WTF. Where did the concept of an “ongoing conversation” come from?
MM: I think I got it from my grandpa Jack. He used to have a hardware store and there was always this weird klatsch—is that a word?—of, like, these old men that you could just hang around with in his hardware store and just bullshit. I found it so fascinating. You know, for the years I was doing stand-up, I kind of lost touch with that.
BLVR: Until you started the podcast?
MM: Yeah, but that’s not why I started it. At the time, I didn’t know what else to do. I had nothing going on, and I was working with a guy who’s a genius radio-producer, and I said, “Let’s try this.” The only thing we really committed to was the schedule. I said, “I don’t know what the show’s gonna be, but let’s put up two a week, at this time, and just honor that and see what happens.” That was really the only intention. I didn’t know if anybody would listen to it. I knew most of my radio listeners were lefty political people, and I decided definitively not to be that guy—not to address politics—so I didn’t know if I would lose them.
BLVR: So what ultimately made you decide to do it?
MM: I think, in retrospect, in a very genuine way I was at the end of the rope when I started that show. I really had no other options in my life. I was very depressed. I was very broke. I didn’t have a lot of options performing-wise, because I had marginalized myself one way or the other through radio or just bad social politics. I kind of hit a wall. So I think in a very real way I needed to continue talking, and I needed to talk to my peers. Some of that was to engage in the community. I was isolated, in a bad place. It really started with just having to talk. I like to talk. I’ve always been someone who likes to talk to people. When I was a little kid, I sought out freaks and weirdos that wandered the streets by where I worked in high school. I would just bring them in and talk to them.
II. COMEDIC THERAPY
BLVR: Your genuine curiosity about people really shows in your interviews. You’re able to help others dissect their personalities and bring them to the core of themselves. WTF displays comedians opening up as people.
MM: I think it’s because I show up with my baggage, and I’m not afraid to unpack it. In a lot of ways, I’m seeking some sort of peace of mind for myself. I’m a fairly emotionally petty, resentful guy who has an inflated sense of himself, and I needed to take that down a notch. I really had isolated myself in this weird, entitled paranoia because of my marginalization—either self-imposed or otherwise—from the comedy community and stand-ups at large. There’s nothing more horrifying than the possibility or the idea that you will just fade away into obscurity. The idea that I would just fall off the map was paralyzingly horrifying, and it was a real possibility.
BLVR: In 2011, you were asked to give the keynote address at the Montreal Just For Laughs comedy festival. In it, you mentioned that talking to other comics saved your life.
MM: It did.
BLVR: Comedy does that for a lot of people. It helps you realize that you’re not the only one who’s perhaps messed-up in the head.
MM: I’m not a narcissist, but I definitely have gotten enough explosive narcissistic shrapnel from my father. I’m sort of wired that way, but I don’t feel that I’m pathological, so all I can pull from is my own existence and my knowledge. What comics sacrifice and what lives they live—I know that most of their lives, their adult lives, they’re sitting around or walking around with notebooks, writing things down. Usually they’re fairly sensitive. Usually they’re very bright. And that makes them poets. That makes them philosophers, in my mind, and also psychologists, to some degree, because they had to put their lives together on their own in a way that’s fairly risky and weird. So the relief that people get from watching comics—and I think that speaks to you, and what spoke to me—is that they seem to have an angle on shit. I mean, the worst thing about living in this world, in general, is that things get overwhelming, and things cause a tremendous amount of despair and anxiety. With two or three lines, a comic can disarm that and just fucking slay it, just slay those fucking dragons and despair and depression. But as dark as it’s ever going to get on my show, the great thing about comics and our comedic personalities is that they can talk about anything and some part of them is not going to allow it to drift into a ditch completely. I mean, I’ve done that, but most comics don’t.
BLVR: It’s really almost therapeutic for us listeners.
BLVR: Hearing you all talk about your insecurities, both onstage and on the podcast—it’s like treatment twice a week, to a degree.
MM: I’d like there to be some denouement to an hour. I’d like something to turn. And usually, oddly organically, around forty minutes in, whatever defenses may be intact will slightly diminish, and you get into something different. So it’s sort of a curse. But I’m not against people just being funny or telling stories, you know? I don’t need to delve into the soft, dark core all the time. If it happens, it happens.
BLVR: Either way, it’s always entertaining.
MM: Any comic can get on the radio show and be funny. I mean, you can get that on any morning radio show or afternoon radio show. There are plenty of people who do that. It’s not a difficult format, to sit around with two or three comics and be funny. It’s really sort of a terrestrial model of broadcasting—it’s a model based on drive time, and it’s also not that difficult to be a shock jock. Those models didn’t appeal to me. What appealed to me was the intimacy of the medium, the fact that I was doing it from my home, and the fact that I wanted to talk. I was not there to plug things. I don’t do a hell of a lot of research. I go on a sort of kindred-spirit bonding that preexists the interview, and just see what unfolds. I’m just looking for authentic engagement of some kind, and usually, after an hour or more, you get that. Some people talk at you. Some people just want to answer questions, but a lot of times, all of a sudden you drift away, and you don’t remember you’re on the mic, and you’re in something real. That, to me, is great. The medium of podcasting and the personal nature of it, the relationship you build with your listeners and the relationship they have with you—they could be just sitting there, chuckling and listening… there’s nothing like that.
III. THE JEWISH BOURGEOIS
BLVR: How often do you get out on the road now?
MM: I’m out more than I’ve ever been. This is the first time I’ve been able to sell tickets. I spent twenty-some-odd years pounding the pavement, kind of not building relationship with clubs, not really being a ticket-seller. I was in that pool of comics that was like, “Yeah, he’s been around a long time. Maybe we can throw him a week, but we’ve got our new guys and he doesn’t sell tickets. Maybe we’ll throw him a twelve-hundred-dollar week,” or whatever. So this is really the first time in my career that I’m in demand. I go out a lot.
BLVR: Does that give you a bit more confidence in getting up onstage?
MM: Yeah, I’m honestly fearless onstage. That’s after spending a lot of my career pretending to be fearless, which I think for the first however-long-it-takes is about 80 percent of the job. And, yeah, I do have a lot of people coming to see me. I’m excited to go out, but I still do clubs, and, you know, a third of the audience might not know who I am, but I enjoy the challenge of making them laugh. I always thought I was funny, but I was very sensitive, and very provocative just to get a rise out of people, and now I’ve sort of let myself be onstage, as opposed to being defensive, and it’s great. It’s great to have people come out. I do worry, though. They know me very intimately, in a way, if they listen to my show; they know a lot about me.
BLVR: Stand-up comedy seems to be a tight-knit community, meaning if a comedian meets another comedian once and then they meet up years later, you have that bond that I think is very rare in any other profession.
MM: It’s a community of relative loners. We live this peculiar life that is really, in a lot of ways, off the cultural grid. Not very many people take the type of risks that comics take in pursuing this. And guys who actually find success in it, it’s a fucking miracle. It’s sort of like that thing, “I’m Jewish.” When you’re a kid, you always feel you have this weird kindred-spirit thing with other Jews, until you get older and you realize it’s just, you know, middle-class bourgeois Jews that sort of fit a template that your family fits into one way or another.
Most of the comics that I talk to I’ve never talked to for more than ten minutes ever. So 95 percent of the time you’re really hearing the first conversation between me and that guy on the podcast. Because we’re comics and we pass each other on campus, we know of each other, and a lot of the time there’s a mutual respect there. Also, we know that we live this life. In some way or another, I don’t know how, it always astounds me that over the course of my career, and having lived in four comedy cities—New York, Boston, San Francisco, and Los Angeles—there’s very few people I haven’t run into. And I’m weird; I have a very strange emotional memory. I really somehow hold on to even passing moments with people, so in my mind and my heart my connection feels very deep to all these guys and these women because I’ve watched them on TV, I’ve either enjoyed their work or envied them. I am one of them, so I have a pretty weird and formed emotional bond that probably doesn’t exist on the other side. So I bring that to it.
BLVR: You’ve admitted that when you were a younger comic, you were bitter. With the comedians you have on WTF, so many of them talk about how you’ve evolved as a comic and as a person.
MM: I think that I put off a different vibe when I was younger. I was certainly prematurely bitter. It was some sort of manifestation of pride and paranoia and, you know, not really a full grasp of what being an entertainer was supposed to be about, on a business level or even a performance level. A lot of these people, they just avoided me. It wasn’t like they had any set opinion. And here I thought everybody was ostracizing me or thought I was a fucking idiot or an asshole, and it turned out that they were just like, “Oh, there’s that guy. I think I’m gonna walk this way.”
BLVR: Most of the comics you apologize to on the show—for being spiteful, jealous, or just rude—seem to be forgiving.
MM: Because I was holding on to that feeling in my weird, needy, boundless emotional memory bank as something that was pivotal in my life or at least scarring or memorable. For them it was a passing moment that they may or may not have acknowledged at all.
BLVR: That bitterness or inability to be content seems to be a running theme with comedians. Would you say that you’re finally happy? Content?
MM: There are a lot of things that I’m allowing myself to be, but it’s a conscious effort to experience contentment for me. My brain doesn’t do that naturally. I’m very overwhelmed all of the time. I don’t really compartmentalize well. I’m in a state of anxiety and panic a lot, but it’s for different reasons. It used to be because I had nothing going on, but I work very hard and there doesn’t seem to be an end to it. I don’t really know how to take a break, because I never saw what I did as work, so I just don’t stop. And you know, I’m afraid I’m going to fuck it up. I have other fears, but I’m happy, certainly, given the times we’re living in, to be doing OK, and to not be worrying about money, and to be producing something I enjoy. I think this is the best representation of who I am, and people seem to dig it, so yeah, those things are all good. When I allow myself to experience those feelings around that stuff, it’s nice. But again, I have to choose to do it. It doesn’t come naturally to me.
BLVR: It seems the great thing about this podcast is that it’s truly yours. The industry had nothing to do with it, but you must be getting a lot more buzz from producers, agents, and networks.
MM: It’s definitely on their radar, but not necessarily in a huge way. I’m very happy that it’s functioning somewhat as a comedy community service. I’m now getting emails from people to plug their gigs, and I’m finding that comics are finding that some people are getting turned on to their comedy because of the show. But yeah, industry-wise, people listen to it. It’s widely listened to within the industry on all levels.
BLVR: It must feel great because it’s truly yours. No one can touch it.
MM: It’s very gratifying. It’s a kind of gratification I’ve never really felt before, because it really is only me. It’s me and my partner; we sort of built this thing and maintain it. Neither one of us is really a business guy, and to see it start to make a little money and start to be liked and start to be referenced throughout other publications and the culture in general—it’s very exciting. But I’ve never felt that weird kind of entrepreneurial gratification that you so often hear about in political pitches—the idea of sort of starting something on your own and seeing it through, seeing it become successful. It’s very gratifying, and a little humbling. It’s better than having to wander around doing nightclubs and having to pander to morons and deal with Napoleonic club owners and wondering whether or not you’re being pleasant enough to be asked back.
IV. UNEXPECTED ENTREPRENEUR
BLVR: What would you say is your favorite part about doing the show?
MM: My favorite part is being engaged with somebody’s story and life, and getting a laugh with people I have a tremendous amount of respect for or not, and being challenged by the immediacy of conversation. You know, sometimes I don’t know what the fuck I’m gonna talk about. I go out in the garage and Norm MacDonald’s here and I’m like, I don’t know this guy. We’d run into each other. I knew his comedy, but I didn’t know if he could talk, because he plays his cards very close to his chest; his persona is very cagey. I was nervous, but he turned out to be incredibly personal and sweet.
BLVR: That was a great episode. It got really deep. The Penn Jillette episode was great, too. You guys were speaking about God and health care and such.
MM: Oh, yeah. He’s a good example of the politicos busting my balls. They say, “Why didn’t you challenge him?” But that’s not what I do. That’s not what this show is. I don’t seek controversy. I don’t seek to antagonize. Sometimes it happens, but I’m not there to argue politics with Penn Jillette. If you let someone talk for an hour, you’re gonna have a pretty good idea of who they are, and I think that’s more rewarding than me sitting there going, “That’s complete bullshit about health care.” I mean, who wants to get into a talking-point argument with a guest on a show that’s not political?
BLVR: Is there anyone you haven’t had on the show that you’d like to have on?
MM: Yeah, there’s a lot. There’s guests within the comedy community. There’s guests in music. I want to branch out a little more to guests who can teach me things to broaden my mind. Now that I feel a bit more grounded in my personal and emotional place, I’d totally like to talk to Tom Waits, Albert Brooks, Will Ferrell. Iggy Pop is sort of an obsession of mine. I’d like to talk to Bob Newhart. Those guys.
BLVR: I remember you saying Dave Chappelle, too.
MM: Definitely. I would do it in a second, but I have no idea how. You have to run into him in order to talk to him.
BLVR: What do you do when you’re not working?
MM: Well, I find that if I don’t do interviews, I get a little squirrely. I think that when you engage with someone else, or when you engage in something you’re passionate about, you’re sort of out of your own head. And also I like to laugh, and it’s fairly recent that I’ve been able to really do it again, and to be an active listener and to have some empathy. I sort of shut that stuff out of my life. I haven’t had time to read much. I’m currently with a girl who requires a lot of connection, and there’s no sleeping with the light on, so there’s no reading involved. I’m always doing something. I’m just very sort of compulsive and lack the ability to keep things in perspective. If I’m not writing or playing guitar or on the microphone or out on the road, I’m cleaning pots and pans or freaking out about some plumbing issue or tweeting. I don’t seem to stop much. I started going back to the gym again and was hoping to do some yoga, but I just don’t know where people find time to do shit.
BLVR: That reminds me. I listened to the Henry Phillips episode earlier, and in the monologue you played the guitar and sang. It sounded really good.
MM: Oh, thanks, buddy. I don’t know why I did that. People had been asking me about my guitar, and I wanted to play. I’m glad it sounded good. I decided I wanted to try and play and sing, and I went over it so many times, and I thought, This is fucking ridiculous. I was getting lost in a loop and I started to obsess on it and I got angry, so by the time I did the one that you heard, that was straight though. I did the monologue and I said, Fuck it, and I just picked up the guitar and played it and I didn’t listen to it. I just left it.
BLVR: With forty-six appearances on Conan’s late-night show, as well as countless other appearances elsewhere, years of press, one book, another coming out, four comedy records, a couple Comedy Central specials, a new television show, and a podcast boasting over thrity-two million downloads, what would you say is your greatest moment in comedy?
MM: Probably my first Letterman. Yeah. The podcast is the best thing I’ve ever done, there’s no doubt about that, and I never was really hung up on a legacy or anything else, but I’ve gone out of my way to make these things as evergreen as possible, so they provide people an outlet into this world. If I were a young comic and had access to these interviews, my head would have exploded. I’m thrilled that they love it so much, because the idea that you can listen to a personal conversation with one of your heroes is just so fucking glorious. I mean, even reading the Keith Richards book, I was like a child. To provide that experience for people—especially for comics—is very gratifying. But that first Letterman… just to walk out on that stage and see Dave. It’s all cold in there, and a big theater. To really do well… it was tremendous. Doing that show is just tremendous. But I also loved him and I do love him, so really, that feeling of “I’m doing Letterman!” at the time was really overwhelming.
BLVR: I know you’re writing a book. Can you tell me about it?
MM: It’s a book of personal essays, some observational stuff, a lot of stuff about the podcast, a lot of stuff about my life. I’m really dreading the whole thing, because I can’t seem to do anything until I’m up against the wall with it. I’m not fundamentally a writer. I know writers, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for them. It bothers me that no matter how well I do it, it’s not really my format. So I’m beating myself up about that. I’m drawing a lot from WTF monologues, because there are very few things I haven’t covered. It’s going sort of slowly, but it’s going. I’d like to include some stuff from my notebooks, which are kind of fragmented and odd. It’s just hard to make time, dude.
BLVR: Yeah, understandable. And you shot a pilot, right?
MM: Yeah, that’s still being negotiated. We’ll see if it happens.
BLVR: Are you starring in it? Did you write it?
MM: Yeah. It’s based on my life and the podcast. It’s a single-camera kind of thing. I’d like to try to honor what I do in a televised format. It’s kind of a challenge.
BLVR: There was one WTF episode that you began by speaking about the rarity of conversation. You said, “How often do you actually sit down and talk to someone for an hour, hour and a half?” I think that I appreciate conversation much, much more since I’ve begun listening to your show.
MM: Yeah, conversation is a beautiful thing. When I was a younger guy, just wandering around talking to people was what kept me connected to the world. When I was a young comic in New York and I wasn’t getting any work, I was wandering around the Lower East Side with my notebook. I would stop at the guitar place on St. Mark’s and talk to that dude for a while, then I’d go to the bookstore and talk to that dude for a little while. I had a guy over at the record store, and I’d talk to him for a while. It kept me connected to life, and I just think a lot of that’s been lost. Just that idea of, I’m gonna hang out and talk for a little while.
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