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Marc Maron has been the host of the podcast WTF With Marc Maron for almost two years, but over the last year, his twice-weekly interview show has become required listening. His chats with Robin Williams, Judd Apatow, Louis C.K., Ira Glass, and Dane Cook have been revelatory, and his two-parter with Carlos Mencia—during which Mencia finally copped to his universally despised habit of stealing jokes—opened eyes as to what a comedy podcast can be. There’s a sense that when Maron has a new guest in his garage (where he records the show), the ensuing interview will be the definitive interview. Comics seem at ease chatting with a peer, and Maron, a famously neurotic personality, is upfront about his own struggles, opening the door for his guests to be just as transparent. Though the podcast has taken off, Maron mostly maintains that he toils in obscurity—an attitude he likely picked up early in his stand-up career, as he watched peers like C.K. and Janeane Garofalo land industry jobs. Or perhaps it was when he worked at Air America and was fired twice. But that all might change soon: WTF episodes are going to be syndicated on National Public Radio, and Maron is currently working on a TV pilot about his life as a podcaster. Mostly, though, he’s pounding the pavement again as a stand-up (with regular stand-up dates and live WTF tapings), and discovering that fans are seeking him out. The A.V. Club recently called Maron to discuss the new TV pilot, the relationship between comedy and darkness, and why his personal beefs with comics will always make it into the podcast.
The A.V. Club: You’ve spoken in your podcast about problems you have with the industry. Now you’re working on a TV show about your life. What changed your mind about pursuing industry projects?
Marc Maron: Well, the truth of the matter is that all I can do in the context of pursuing any sort of TV thing, and all I’ve done in the past, is offer your life at any given point in time to whatever situation you’re in. When I was starting out, one of the things you would work for was, “I’d like to have a show built around me and my personality.” And at different points in my career, I had those opportunities—some relatively large, and some small—to write scripts based on my life. And all of them led to disappointment and heartbreak; when something is rejected with something that is your life, at some level, you’re being rejected. And I only have so much life. So at those different junctures, things got disassembled or lost or blocked out by virtue of relationships with executives or timing or whatever. So that was that. In the sense of pursuing them, my attitude is that I don’t have anything to lose anymore. It all seems to be such a crapshoot. And I don’t have a lot emotionally invested in that type of success at this point. But as an opportunity, why wouldn’t I want to have that?
As WTF became popular, I was finding myself in meetings with people in the industry who seemed to just want me to take meetings with them so they could tell me how much they like the show. Which is flattering. And certainly I’m grateful for that. And that’s all well and good. But then I took a meeting with [TV producer] Jim Serpico, and he was like, “I love the show! What can we do with it? How can we make it into something?” And I said, “Well, look, what I have to offer you are the facts; this is not some fiction or some stretch of the imagination. The fact is that I am hosting a talk show in my garage, and that’s where I ended up. [Laughs.] That’s what I do. That’s how show business is for me. That is my show business. But that is a fact. The fact is, I interview Conan O’Brien or Ben Stiller or whoever in my garage. And my life is fairly unique, with a specific type of turmoil.” And that’s what I pitched. And he said, “Well, let’s see if we can make this happen.” So I’m like, “All right. Fine.” His production company set up an appointment with Fox Studios, and I said, “This is what we’re talking about. Single-camera. This is what I do. This is my life. This is the reality.” And they’re like, “Well, okay. That sounds great!”
So the way it works now, which I think is honorable in some bizarre sense, is that there was not a huge amount of money given to me. There was no money given to me, quite honestly. [Laughs.] And what I was given was the opportunity to work with these people and do this. So Jim Serpico and my management assembled a crew and a cast, and they put me together with a writer. The first writer, I didn’t gel with, so we got another writer, and it was all exciting because the stakes were so much different. We were all operating to make something happen on a shoestring budget that could be kind of fun. And my investment in it was like, I’m not gonna worry about whether this becomes a hit show or becomes anything. What I’m gonna focus on, because I’m very busy with the actual podcast and doing stand-up, is creating a world I can live within, and working with this writer to represent myself in a funny and true to my heart and life way. And then let those people put together whatever they’re gonna put together, and let’s do it. I’m gonna show up for this thing in the capacity that I can.
So that’s what it was. It’s a very different show business now. We shot this thing. Nobody really got paid. And we shot it in my house with a really great crew. It was a legitimate thing. Ed Asner plays my dad, and we got a lot of great other supporting cast: Seth Morris, Erin Daniels, Matt Jones, Sean Patton. It was all a group effort. It wasn’t me going around, “Fuck, fuck, fuck. I hope this happens.” It was me going, “Really? We could actually get these people to be in this?”
AVC: The appeal of podcasting is that you maintain total control. Has it been tough to relinquish some of that control in the TV-making process?
MM: Well, since we’re not really dealing with—there were obviously discussions, but the parameters of what can be on television have expanded; there are more niche outlets of television, certain standards, new precedents set for taking risks. And basically, our feeling was, we had a studio executive at Fox Studios who was great and was excited about the possibility of doing something new. So in terms of relinquishing control, not really, because we’re sitting there trying to create something based on my life, and there wasn’t anything like, “Well, can Marc wear a hat in this thing? Is there any way we can get an 18-year-old into this, ’cause our demos…” There was none of that. It was, “How do we really utilize the character of me and make this thing work in the life that I am living?”
So it was all very open, and there was a lot of dialogue between me and the writer… I’m a guy that after having experience in radio and stuff, if I can trust the people I’m working with, I get a real thrill with working with other people who are good at what they do. And I was surrounded by that. The only thing I’m worried about is like, “Do I have the chops to do this?” ’Cause I haven’t done a lot of acting. When I have done it, I can get into the moment and do it. And a lot of their fear was, “These comics… You never know.” But I think everybody was into it, and I felt pretty good about it. So when it comes to limitations, it is what it is.
AVC: After almost 200 episodes of the podcast, what have you learned about the process of interviewing comedians? Usually when those sorts of interviews happen, you can tell the interviewer is just trying to set the comic up to say funny things.
MM: I came upon whatever I’m doing organically. I didn’t study anything. I don’t have any real aspirations other than to connect with somebody, and to have the conversation be genuine. That’s the best that can happen. Even if it only happens for 10 minutes in an episode. But I think what people forget is that you don’t have to try to get a comedian to be funny. Comedians are innately funny. That the real challenge of talking to them is to get them talking about real things and then see where they need to be funny. And let them do that on their own volition.
AVC: You always ask comedians to talk about dark things in their past. In one of the live episodes, you were flabbergasted that Shane Mauss didn’t have any sort of mean streak or anything, so you kept asking—
MM: And he turned out to actually have one!
AVC: How do you see comedy relating to anxiety, depression, or other negative personality traits? Do you find there’s always some sort of darkness, especially in what you’d call “good” comedians?
MM: I don’t know. Good comedy is subjective. So it becomes difficult to assess that. And obviously, I’m talking about stand-up and comic persona. That’s who I talk to. All of this is an ongoing process for me. I mean, it occurred to me yesterday in an interview with Aubrey Plaza, not knowing what the hell to expect in the sense that, “How am I going to talk to her? She’s half my age.” But we ended up getting someplace. And I think that if you want to rephrase it, instead of darkness, I would put the word “sensitive.” If anything, for one reason or another, most of the comedic personalities I’ve talked to are incredibly sensitive people. And whatever calluses they put over that are the unconscious construction of funny disposition. And I know this for myself, but I’m also finding it in others, that a lot of times, there’s—and it may not be different than anybody else, in what makes someone funny vs. someone who’s just angry or sad, I don’t know. Or even anxious or neurotic in any way—what’s the difference between someone with a wit and someone who doesn’t have one? I don’t know. That’s an area I can’t explain.
But I do know that many of us are incredibly sensitive and also very perceptive and intelligent, really. So whether it’s dark or not, wherever that sensitivity comes from, whether it’s upbringing or trauma, that varies. But it’s more acute perception to say that many of us are [Laughs.] incredibly sensitive people. And whatever clown we build on top of that sensitivity to protect us from the pain of the world poking at that thing, that’s where you get the persona or whatever it is. The character of the comic personality.
AVC: When you’re talking to people, do you find it important to try to have them speak openly about that?
MM: It’s hard to speak to that, because who the hell’s doing that much thinking about it on some level?
AVC: I’d imagine you do the thinking on the podcast, when you’re chatting.
MM: Well, just by virtue of the fact that I’m gonna sit there and talk until something happens. There’s nothing stopping me from doing that. And sometimes you don’t have to address things that specifically. I’d rather not. I’m only speaking to you about this in retrospect, and from my experience of having conversations with people. But I think that underneath any conversation, I don’t have to say “Let’s talk about your wound,” as Judd Apatow calls it. But Judd Apatow thinks a lot about this stuff. And not everybody does. But in the course of a conversation, you can usually see these strange little portals or holes in someone’s ego through behavior, or how they look at something else, or something they’ve gone through, without going like, “Aha!” Which I’ve done before, too. If I get hung up on people’s relationships with their mothers or fathers, it’s because I thoroughly believe that it’s gonna come from there. And it’s interesting to explore that dynamic. Now given maybe only a handful of people I’ve talked to are relatively well-adjusted, it’s definitely a minority in terms of their self-esteem and sense of self.
AVC: What made you decide to do the live shows so differently from the shows you do in the garage? The interviews can be very serious, and the live shows have multiple guests and focus exclusively on comedy.
MM: Well, I think you just answered your question. I’m not in the business of trying to make comedians not be funny. And I think what I was addressing earlier with your question is that the interesting thing about talking to comedians, and me being one, is that you don’t need to tell a comedian to be funny. Most comedians really like to talk. But the interesting thing is, when you have a long conversation about stuff that’s emotionally loaded, there’s never been a moment on my podcast, really, where shit got too heavy to bounce back from with a joke. That’s pretty amazing. I’ve talked about pretty heavy shit with some people. So one way or another, whether it’s me or who I’m talking to, in a spontaneous moment, we’re going to deflate the pain. But for the live shows, I really just thought, “Why not just be funny?” Some of them lately have been a little more like the one-on-ones, but I know very well that if you put a comedian in front of an audience, they’re gonna be funny.
The most interesting thing about the live one is that I don’t prepare, nor do I really prepare that much for the one-on-ones. I’ve been on talk shows, and sometimes people want to know “What are we doing? What am I talking about?” But I’ll tell you, man, 99 percent of the time, like right before the show, I’ll walk around to people, “You got anything you wanna hit? You gotta any stories?” and they’re like, “Yeah, let’s just wing it.” And I’m like, “All right!” [Laughs.]
And so what you’re seeing most of the time with those things are really immediate stuff. I’m hoping that one of the e-mails I read at the beginning will provoke something. I’m so fucking frazzled on those days, because I’m like, “I should prepare! I should have interview questions!” And on so many interviews that I’ve done, I’ve ended up with this blank piece of paper with a name and “That thing you did a while ago.”
AVC: After your two-part interview with Carlos Mencia, it seemed like you were taking on the role of a comedy journalist. But you mentioned to The New York Times that you don’t consider yourself a journalist. How much responsibility do you feel to the community when you conduct interviews?
MM: Well, that was a specific situation, and it happened out of necessity. I’m generally not talking to criminals or people who are at the core of some controversy. So the need for journalism, I didn’t plan on that. The situation required it.
AVC: When I say journalism, Carlos Mencia is accused of stealing jokes, so you should ask him about that for the good of the comedy community. It doesn’t necessarily have to be hard-hitting.
MM: No, no, no. I’m not that guy. I mean, I brought him in for the first interview to try to get him to explain what it feels like to be that much of a pariah and address what, at that time, I thought were a couple specific incidents. And then I realized he bullshitted me, and all of a sudden, the reason why that happened is, I wasn’t journalistic enough. I had no idea the scope of the problem, or how insane it was. I’m not out in the clubs gossiping, and I’m not running around trying to be a comedy cop. I knew this guy was a comedian, and I knew that everybody in the fucking community hated him. And I thought, “Well, it would be interesting to talk to that guy about how it is to handle that, and to discuss that.”
So my intentions in the first interview were not to crucify him. And also to deal with my mixed feelings about how it was handled by Joe [Rogan]. But then I tweeted I was gonna talk to him, and I opened up this can of worms, and I got that first interview where I felt like I got nowhere with this guy. He just used me to try to reinvent himself. So then I had to go out and talk to some Latino guys, so I focused on that. And then I’m in this awkward situation where I have to call Carlos and I said, “Look, we can do this on the phone,” and he goes, “No, I’ll come right over.” So that’s the way that went. And then the sort of weird, specific grilling situation happened, and he came undone a bit.
AVC: People really seem to open up around you. Is that something inherent because you’re a peer of theirs, where they feel like it’s not going to be a judgmental space?
MM: Yeah, I think there’s some of that. I don’t think people, in general, are used to having the conversations I have. We’re equipped to do it, and it’s satisfying to do it, but not a lot of people get the opportunity to let their guard down and have an interesting, odd conversation about stuff. Where are you gonna do that? It’s sort of a lost pastime. A comedian, for a lot of people, especially people in radio and on TV interviews, is someone like, “We can bring this guy in. He’s gonna make our job easy for us. It’s his job, to get laughs. It’s built in. Let’s bring the comic in, because then we can fill that 10-minute slot. We can just sit back and let him do it.” And that is our job, but I’m not running that kind of show here. There’s plenty of podcasts that do that. And there’s plenty of fucking morning radio shows and afternoon radio shows that do that. Just sit around and see who can be funny. I’m not that interested in that.
I’m interested in the fact that comics are people who are oddly courageous in their desire and their commitment to sacrificing any sense of normalcy in their lives, any sense of security, and most of them are oddly unique individuals. Let’s have a broader conversation with people that have spent their last however-many-years thinking about their lives. I mean, they’re philosophers. They’re poets. They’re people who are on the outside looking in at the world through a different set of values. It’s got to be deeper than who’s gonna get the next good line in. I mean, those things happen. But on some level, you’re getting to a place with comics where they can express some other mental manifestation of this time they put into thinking and developing ideas. And how they look at the world is valid and interesting.
AVC: Was that always your intention on the podcast, or did it come about naturally?
MM: It started the way that I’ve done comedy. To marginal success. In my life, I didn’t get into comedy to be—I had no business model. All I wanted to be was a comic. Primarily because it gave me the space to have my own point of view. All I wanted to do was, basically, finish becoming myself. And you stand in front of people and be seen and heard in this format. I thought it was the most practical format for me to express whatever it was I was going through. Whatever my ideas were in my evolving philosophy about life. I was never the guy who… I just wrote 10 jokes about my cat. I now have those jokes about my cat, but they’re really about me. It was more being true to myself and my point of view. I obviously don’t sell out theaters. I’m not a household name. I’m not incredibly consistent in terms of doing the same act over and over again, and I’m definitely working out a lot of my existential issues onstage.
So that’s the way I approach stand-up. I don’t recommend it to anyone else. Or act like it’s any sort of path to success, because clearly, you know, after 25 years, I’m in my garage. Which, like some fluke of synchronicity of timing, turned out to be the best thing I ever did in my life. What I’m coming around to is that I think about a lot of things. And I just made the assumption that other comics do, as well, and they can speak to almost anything that anyone goes through as a person, and have a different point of view about it, and different struggle, and reflectively make it funny in a moment if necessary. From the beginning of the show, the tone I created was, “Look, I’m detaching from politics. I’m going into the struggle that we all have in our life and in our mind, quietly festering. And I’m putting mine out there in not necessarily a funny way.” My monologues aren’t always funny. They’re generally thoughtful. Sometimes at different levels of aggravation. And sometimes no aggravation. But the pressure on me is not to be joke-efficient when I’m talking on this mic. And that sets the tone.
AVC: Do you still strive to one day be a household name?
MM: I don’t know. I don’t really think about that shit anymore. And I don’t look at Hollywood to parent me. For years and years, show business was set up to where we’d toil and fucking put ourselves on the fuckin’ altar of shit gigs, and running in and out of auditions and flying cross country for a callback or a three-line thing. All that shit is fucking behind me, man. I had to come to terms with that. That is not gonna happen to me. I am who I am, and that’s all there is to it. You know, in terms of that type of thing, I just don’t think about it. On a day-to-day basis, I’m more worried about what I’m gonna say when I go out to the garage, how long it’s gonna take me to get there and put my merch together, how I’m gonna interview fuckin’ Sandra Bernhard in two hours. What’s gonna happen when I’m sitting with Richard Lewis in my garage? Do I have my merch together for my trip to Denver on Thursday?
So I don’t really have any expectations. All I really want, buddy, at this point in my life, is to make an honest buck doing this. And by honest, I mean, I am fortunate to be in this situation where we’re trying to build a business as it is. I enjoy what I’m doing. People seem to like it. I’d like to earn enough money not to fuckin’ freak out every goddamn day that I’m gonna lose my house. So my concerns are in that realm at this point. I don’t have any expectations out of show business. And I’m very grateful that somehow or another I have fluked into this, and I’m very excited and happy that people enjoy it, because I like doing it. I just want to make a living.
AVC: Every time a new episode goes up, I think, “So that’s gotta be everyone, right?” For whatever reason, I find it surprising the comedy world is so vast, since at times it feels so small.
MM: No one’s more surprised than me. [Laughs.] Let me tell ya, I know what you’re gonna ask. Am I gonna run out of people?
AVC: I’m wondering when you’re going to feel like you’re done. Part of the podcast is you sorting through your past. When do you think that journey is going to be complete?
MM: What’s happening in my mind is that… I just went to my optometrist, who’s this weird character. He’s down the street here in the fuckin’ barrio. He’s like this Indiana Jew who’s a trumpet player, and he’s got a jazz trombone, and I’m like, “I gotta go interview that guy.” I just went to San Antonio for the weekend, and I got in a car with the San Antonio comic I was working with, and we went to this Tejano-Conjunto Music Festival, and I got this weird kind of passion for that music, though I don’t know anything about it. I ended up talking to the festival director and learning about the music, and then went to the Alamo. So what I would like to do is evolve past, or at least in addition to, my day-to-day struggles as I find a little more comfort in my life, to things that interest me that I don’t know a lot about.
AVC: So you haven’t really thought about the endgame for WTF.
MM: No, I think more about getting out into the world. Because the whole arc for me has been, “How do I get out of my head?” I’m finding that. I have a little peace of mind around my place in the world. If anything, the saddest thing to me about the life of a comic, especially when you commit your life to it, is anonymity. One thing I’m grateful for, and also surprised and excited about, is that I have a place in the community of comics now. In a real way. And I honor that. A lot of what I do is in support of the community and bringing new talent—talking to people that people don’t know. And defining us as a community. I liked that about the old days. When you watch the roasts and stuff, you’re like, “Ah, these guys hung out with each other!” Whether they did or not is not the issue, but I like thinking they did. I like the idea that other comics listen to this, and they get to know each other better than they would have by listening to my show.
All of us have known each other for 20 years. A lot of us. But I think a lot of us are in the same situation where we talk to each other for 10 minutes or half an hour, or we get drunk with each other occasionally. But a lot of comics listen. As a young comic, the opportunity to listen to one of your heroes talk for an hour, like Jim Norton or Judd Apatow—to be a young comic and have that available to you? My head would have exploded. I’m excited about that element of it. But I don’t have a real endgame. I would like to get outside. I would like to talk to some regular people, and learn some stuff about things I would like to learn about, and do that publicly.
AVC: Has the podcast expanded your comedic interests?
MM: It’s certainly gotten me out of my old-timey, arrogant, veteran way of thinking about comedy and about the possibilities of a career in show business for other people. It certainly softened me a great deal, and opened my mind up to what I think are basically just old-guy ideas about what I think comedy is, or what I think is real or has integrity, or doesn’t. My mind sorta got blown yesterday when I was talking to Aubrey. Just in that… Look, I wanted to be on SNL at some point in my life, but these kids… She said she wanted to be on SNL from age 12. And she did all this research to find out how one does that. Then, all of a sudden, she’s in NYU film school and her and Donald Glover are doing this and that, and she gets involved in an Internet series at a time when the industry was paying a lot of attention to the possibility of saving money in developing things, and looking for people before it got glutted. Before YouTube and Funny Or Die took over everything. And there was this weird window in time when visibility was heightened, and they got representation or opportunities in old-style show business.
The fact that technologically, talented people can write a sketch at 10 in the morning, get a camera at 11, have a few friends over and shoot something and edit it by 4, and have it up for public visibility by that evening is something that I couldn’t even wrap my brain around. For us to do that back in the day, you had to know somebody with a digital camera, and then try to figure out how the fuck you would get it edited. [Laughs.] God forbid, Super 8 or Hi-8 or whatever the fuck it was. It just wasn’t possible. And maybe I wasn’t ambitious enough to become a filmmaker, or I was too anxious or panicky to follow through with stuff. But there is a whole other world to getting your creativity out there. And I can’t condescend to that.
AVC: Sometimes at the beginning of your podcast conversations, you remind the other comics how you met, and how you felt about them at the time. Then there’s a mutual apology for how you treated each other, and you move past it into the actual conversation. What do you feel is important for listeners about that little segment? Theoretically, you could start recording right after that if you wanted.
MM: It helps me, and there’s part of me that’s living that. Usually I’ve amplified it. There’s some part of me that, because I’m a comic and because a lot of us have seen each other around for so many years, I feel inappropriately connected to a lot of the people I talk to. Even if I’ve only hung out with them for 10 minutes. I don’t know if it’s because, on some level, I’m still a fan, or I hold onto these moments when we were younger or we’ve bonded, in a way. But I definitely feel emotionally attached to a lot of people in a way that’s probably a little weird. So when I see people again, all of a sudden I feel overwhelmed and it’s like, “Ah God, I was really a fucking idiot to this person.” And that’s just part of my personality. A lot of times, I’ve amplified it to a point where some people are like, “I don’t really remember that.” And I’m like, “Oh, that’s good. I just wanted to put that out there.”
But why wouldn’t I? Why wouldn’t I put that on the episode? I talked to Louis [C.K.] for two fuckin’ hours, and there was even a point where he said, “You’re probably not gonna put this on the show.” But I think it’s an important part of humanity. Of individual humanity. Contrition. It’s not something that comes easily for me. And neither does gratitude. Even when just saying “thank you,” I’m usually just so consumed with what I’m thinking about or how I frame the world that I’m impolite or I come off as an asshole. A lot of times, people think I’m arrogant or condescending, but really, I’m just thinking, “They think I’m an idiot.” And it’s just a part of me. I’m into myself, and also doing something that almost everybody should do. Probably on a daily basis. [Laughs.]