Marc Maron’s comedy falls somewhere between Woody Allen’s self-deprecating rants and Lenny Bruce’s angry, confrontational stand-up. He came up in the club circuit in New York with Louis C.K. and David Cross in the late ’80s and early ’90s, making regular appearances on Late Night With Conan O’Brien, where C.K. was a staff writer. Over the years, he’s had two Comedy Central specials, written a book about his unusual religious experiences, and also had bit parts in films including Almost Famous, playing an “angry promoter.” In 2004, Maron shifted gears a bit to co-host a political-comedy morning show on Air America that featured sketches with Wyatt Cenac and others, along with commentary and interviews. He now hosts the biweekly podcast “WTF,” interviewing comedian friends out of his garage and broadcasting the show to millions of listeners. The A.V. Club recently spoke with Maron about the origins of the podcast, a chance meeting with Larry David at an airport, and the evolution of his comedy over the past two decades.
The A.V. Club: Where did the idea for “WTF” come from?
Marc Maron: I was working at Air America in my third—yeah, they fired me twice. I was doing an Internet TV show with Sam Seder, and then they fired me again. I’d done radio for a few years, and the guy who was producing my Internet TV show and my radio show, he got fired too. So we were down there in this beautiful facility. They hadn’t taken our pass cards away, so we were like, “Fuck it, let’s do a podcast. We’ll come in after hours and just hijack the studio and bring guests up in the freight elevator.” He knew how to work all the knobs, and I was ready to jam. So we did it that way. The first six or eight episodes are really us stealing time after hours at the Air America studios. Guests would come, and we’d have to be like, “Text us when you get here, and we’ll come find you.” That’s how it started.
AVC: Now you do the show from your garage, right?
MM: Yes, sir. I know enough people and the show seems to be getting popular, and people dug it. I figured out—I talked to some other podcasters; the community has been very supportive. Jesse Thorn from The Sound Of Young America helped me out. I had no idea what to do, and I’m like, “What do I need to do this in my garage?” He told me what mic to get. I got a little mixer, and then he showed me how to work GarageBand. So I basically just know what I need to do, and then I send the files to my producer, and he does his part.
AVC: How does it differ from your Air America experience?
MM: Well, no one can tell me what to do, I don’t have to talk about politics, and I can do whatever the fuck I want. I’m so relieved to not talk about politics. If I do, it’s just relative to my immediate experience of something, as opposed to having to service a point of view. I’m back to being a comic and a cultural critic, as opposed to a partisan talk-show host, which I never could do anyway. I never was that good at it.
AVC: Morning Sedition was a great show to wake up to.
MM: That show was as far away from a political talk show as you can really get. We were doing satire and political comedy on Air America. Morning Sedition was the greatest show—I’ll never forget that experience, and that show has more loyal fans than I could ever imagine. They still write me e-mails about how much they miss it. It was just this perfect storm of talent and opportunity to do a type of radio that I don’t think has ever been done before. I’m not in any way dismissing that, it’s just my approach to politics has always been through comedy and my personal experiences. Now I can really choose how and when I do that.
AVC: How do you think your comedy has evolved over the years?
MM: I think I’m finally coming into an ability to really express myself without a lot of censorship—either self-censorship or imposed censorship, corporate or otherwise. I think the podcast has helped me with that. Once I learned how to talk, personally, by myself to any number of people, which means do radio without talking to anyone in particular on the air—I just found that my brain became very free to engage in a sort of stream-of-consciousness style of doing what I do. It’s a little harder to do that on a comedy stage, or if you have a commercial break coming up, or if you have to cut to news or talk to another person specifically in the studio. So that’s helping my comedy and my voice. It’s helping me find a sort of groundedness that I’ve never really had before when I was just trying to get laughs or doing a group show.
AVC: You recently spoke with Aristocrats director Paul Provenza on “WTF.” Do you have your own version of the “Aristocrats” joke?
MM: I don’t have an “Aristocrats” joke. I’d never ever heard of it until somebody told me about the movie.
AVC: It seems your sense of humor and delivery would be a good match for that obscene circus family.
MM: I think that’s true. Maybe I should write one. Maybe I’ll write an “Aristocrats” book, a 200-page backstory of the family. A novel of the Aristocrats.
AVC: You once spoke with Larry David about divorce in an airport. How did that conversation start?
MM: That was kind of interesting. I was at JFK going to L.A., and I saw him. We were both waiting for a plane, and it was late. So I did that thing I do where I wonder if he knows me. You know, we’re both comics. We’re both kind of in show business, so I walk in front of him a couple of times to see if he recognizes me. No, he doesn’t, and it bothers me a little bit. Finally—I don’t want to be the guy that goes up to someone and says, “Hey!”, but I did, ’cause I felt close to him for some reason. You just assume that he’s the same guy as he is on the show [Curb Your Enthusiasm]. So I said, “Hey, Larry, I’m Marc Maron.” He’s like, [Imitating Larry David.] “Oh my God, Marc Maron. I listen to your show in the morning, er, the morning radio show with the black guy. What’s his name, Mark Riley.” So he was actually a fan of Sedition.
We ended up talking just about a lot of stuff about comedy. I talk about divorce, and he talks about divorce. It didn’t get really deep, but it was a long like 20, 25-minute conversation, because the plane was late. What struck me about the conversation that was weird was, he was getting on and going to first class, and I was going to coach. As he started to get on the plane, I said, “It was great talking to you. Take care, my friend.” And like, I never say “my friend.” So I had this weird moment where I couldn’t tell if I was in an episode of Curb or not. I was sitting there obsessing about whether Larry was sitting in first class going, “He’s not my friend. Why would someone be saying ‘my friend’? Why do people say it if they don’t mean it?” It seemed like such a thing that he would get hung up on, so I was actually doing my own version of Curb, being obsessed about him being obsessed about something that I said. It just got very weird. I really had to stop myself from going up there and going like “I didn’t mean to say ‘my friend,’ because I don’t usually say that. I don’t want to assume a sense of intimacy that I don’t have.” That’s why it got weird with me.
AVC: Your friend Jeff Garlin mentioned there’s a possibility of you being on Curb next season.
MM: He said that. We’ll see. You know, I’d love to do a part. He said in the fall he would try to find me something. So I’m not going to hold my breath…
AVC: Your fans bring you gifts at your shows. What’s the strangest thing you’ve received?
MM: There was a period when I was getting a lot of banana bread, because I mentioned someone cooked me banana bread, and then everyone cooked me baked stuff, and I would take it to the hotel, and it was making me fat. I also got some pretty weird cat toys. I got a weird, laminated, plastic-molded refrigerator suction thing that said “meat rules,” with a plastic pig sucking it, suspended with all this glitter around it. That’s a pretty odd one.
AVC: At a recent show, you mentioned you didn’t understand Star Trek. Is there a particular aspect of the show that doesn’t make sense to you?
MM: Yeah, I don’t know. I seem to offend everybody. I just never got into the universe. I don’t seem to have a tremendous amount of discipline or patience with having to follow a story that is really multi-leveled and science-fiction. You know, I enjoy The Wire. I’m not a moron, but science fiction to me requires a suspension of disbelief and honest curiosity or fascination in that kind of bullshit. I’ve just never been able to make that jump, really. I like things to be more organic.
AVC: Is that why you don’t use TiVo?
MM: I still have a very primitive sense that if I just turn on a radio or the television, that somebody’s playing that stuff for me. There’s a guy in the booth making a decision to put that stuff on, and he’s sitting there making sure that everything goes all right. So at least I know he and I are alive.
AVC: You came up with a bunch of comics in the late ’80s and early ’90s, including Louis C.K. How did you guys meet?
MM: I was in New York in 1989. I moved here from Boston, and he moved here the year before. We just sort of moved in the same circle. He’s a few years younger than me. We were always just around each other, for many years. We have sort of an odd relationship, but at certain moments, I could make him feel better. He’s usually pretty good at making me feel better. I guess that’s a friendship, right?
AVC: You remarked at a recent show that you actually like the humidity in New York during the summer. How is that possible?
MM: I always found it very sexy. I get very irritable, but very sex-crazed at the same time. There’s something about the humidity where it’s just like, “Oh my God, I’m cranky, but I just want to fuck everybody.” Because everybody just looks so exhausted. They look like they’ve already been fucked once today, and they’re just like disheveled, and their guards are down. It’s just so sexy. Women don’t even have the energy to give you the stink-eye when you’re kind of staring at them lasciviously. They’re just like, “Really? You want this? All right, knock yourself out. Go ahead, take it in.” I just like it. I don’t know why. A lot of people hate it. I find it very relaxing, too. The heat exhausts me, and I don’t smoke dope anymore or do any drugs, so it’s kind of the closest I can get to being high.