Marc Maron is twice-divorced, a recovering addict, a three-time failure as a liberal radio pundit and a veteran comic who over the past 20-plus years has watched many of his peers rise to household-name status while he’s remained mired in obscurity.
He’s not complaining, though. Not as much as he used to, at least. And with good reason: His podcast, WTF (it stands for what you think it does), has been recently deemed a must-hear by both Rolling Stone and The New York Times. Ostensibly an interview show featuring Maron’s comedy-world colleagues, it often morphs into a public therapy session through the host’s uncanny ability to pry astonishing candor out of his guests. Think of it as what NPR’s Fresh Air would be like if Terry Gross had started her career cutting lines of coke for Sam Kinison.
It’s not surprising that Maron is so adept at that kind of emotional spelunking. Once described as the neurosis of Woody Allen communicated with the fury of Iggy Pop, his stand-up is marked by almost uncomfortable levels of unvarnished honesty. Thanks largely to WTF, more people are now coming out to see him live. Could it be that this most caustic of comedians is finally feeling...satisfied?
“My lamentations are still there, but they’re not the same,” says Maron, 47, from his home in Los Angeles. “At some point, you have to accept, ‘Well, this is going good. Why not be happy with this?’”
WW: What was the impetus for starting the podcast?
Marc Maron: The impetus was really desperation and unemployment. When I got fired from a job at Air America for the third time, I was there with my partner who’d been my radio producer for years, and I didn’t know what the fuck I was going to do. I was pretty close to broke, I was just getting done with a nasty divorce, and we were like, “Let’s try this podcast thing.” In the beginning, [Air America] hadn’t taken our security cards away from us, so we were kind of breaking into the studios after hours and bringing guests up in freight elevators. To not have segments, to not have to throw to a commercial break, and the fact that there was no agenda allowed me to get away from politics and embrace more existential themes and also have complete freedom of mind and language.
Why did you decide to interview other comics?
Over the years I had alienated myself from a lot of
people—in my own mind, anyway. I’d become paranoid and jaded and bitter and
made assumptions that people either didn’t know who I was or thought I was an
asshole. We started using guests, people I knew from comedy, and I just tapped
back into something I’d lost touch with. I was the kind of teenager who would
hang out and talk to homeless people for hours. I was just one of those curious
people who liked engaging with odd individuals. That opened back up again, and
I started making
apologies to people I thought I had offended, and that became the show: reintegrating myself into the community and the world in general.
Did you consciously develop your interviewing style?
A lot of times, depending on who it is, I just want conversations to happen. I don’t necessarily care what we talk about, as long as it’s a genuine conversation. I just follow my own curiosity. It’s not about plugging projects. A lot of times I won’t even know what my guests have done, and I don’t do that kind of homework.
What do you gain personally from these interviews?
The actual act of conversation is something that just doesn’t happen anymore, and it’s important. When was the last time you really sat down and talked to somebody for an hour? That’s this great human thing, and it’s a rarity, dude. What I get out of it is that great human satisfaction of just engaging. And then also, when someone is telling you heavy shit, to actually be present for that stuff—it’s a very risky feeling in an age when people would rather text than call out of fear of dealing with even minor heavy shit. When you’re sitting there face-to-face and someone is telling you they have HIV or their stepdad beat them, for you to own your seat as an engaged listener, how can you not grow from that?