He’s gone from comedy circuit has-been to cult hero, and all because of a podcast that he hosts from his garage. Now, after years of struggle and depression, Marc Maron has a new book out and his own TV show on IFC. Will this cheer him up?
Author Chris Wright Illustration Borja
AT THE BEGINNING OF OUR INTERVIEW, Marc Maron promised not to use any bad words. And for the most part he didn’t. This is no small feat for a man who, famously, is not in possession of a particularly effective social filter.
Maron’s 25 years in comedy have been marked by a tendency to shoot from the hip. His act has largely consisted of seamless, seemingly unscripted accounts of failures and frustrations, along with diatribes against those who, in his mind, have kept him down. And the New Jersey native hasn’t confined his disaffected alter ego to the stage: He is renowned for his ability to alienate his peers and, worse, those who sign the checks.
Maron’s standup career faltered just as comics he’d once roughed it with in Boston and New York were hitting the big time—people like Sarah Silverman and Louis C.K. At his lowest, he was nearly unemployed and resigned to professional failure.
In 2009, not knowing what else to do with himself, he launched a twice-weekly podcast, WTF With Marc Maron, which he ended up hosting from his garage. In chatting with his guests, mostly comedians, Maron’s brutally candid style served him well: After almost 400 episodes, WTF has become a huge hit—with anywhere from 250,000 to 400,000 downloads a week—and its host has become a cult hero.
Now Maron’s standup is in demand, he’s just published the autobiographical essay collection Attempting Normal, and last month he saw the debut of an IFC comedy series, “Maron,” based on his podcasting career. He should be happy—right?
Hemispheres: It feels weird to interview someone because he’s an interviewer. I hope you’re not going to judge me on my technique.
Maron: I don’t really see myself as an interviewer, because there are certainly people who do more-thorough interviews than I do. I’m more conversational—you might be a little more effective than me.
Hemispheres: Well, let’s give it a go. My first question is: How was that for a first question?
Maron: It was good. I’ve got a lot going on, so this is a nice distraction. I don’t know if it’s you or just the fact that I’m engaged in conversation with another person.
Hemispheres: Your podcast is the perfect job for you. You get paid to talk to people, and you’re a talker.
Maron: Yeah, at the beginning of the podcast it was essential for me—on an emotional and psychological level—to engage with people. I think that’s a normal thing, the need to talk to people.
Hemispheres: You started doing WTF in 2009, during a low point in your life.
Maron: Absolutely. I was broke, I wasn’t getting much comedy work, I was in the middle of a divorce, and it was just this weird last gasp. Like, let’s try this thing because—who knows? I really needed to keep doing something and hope to God I make a living.
Hemispheres: But things are going well now—along with the podcast, you have a book out and the new IFC series. Are you enjoying yourself?
Maron: I’d like to be enjoying myself, but what comes with finishing something is the knowledge that it’s finished and there’s no fixing it—the anticipation of how things are going to be received.
Hemispheres: Do you think the show’s going to be well received?
Maron: Is it going to be well received? Do you know the answer to that?
Hemispheres: I’ve never seen it.
Maron: Well, nobody has.
Hemispheres: You have.
Maron: Look, I really didn’t think I was going to get this opportunity. But the one thing I know about where I’m at is that I’m ready for these things to happen. I think that the show doesn’t look like any other show. I think we did a good job putting the episodes together—they’re funny, they’re touching, some of them are a little awkward. But I almost immediately start to think, “I want to make this better.”
Hemispheres: Your CDs have titles like Not Sold Out and Tickets Still Available. It’s funny, but it also points to a central aspect of your character, or your act. A lot of your material deals with frustrated ambition. Has it crossed your mind that, now that your career is taking off, you’re going to lose that material?
Maron: You asked me just now whether I’m excited about what’s going on. Well, yeah, I’m excited, but I’m under a tremendous amount of stress. There are some fundamental elements of the way my brain works, and I don’t know if they’re going to change.
Hemispheres: With a comedian, it can be hard to distinguish between what’s shtick and what’s real. Are you as wound up and disaffected in real life as you are in your routines?
Maron: All of my routines evolved out of a need to talk about that stuff. I get onstage with something that I’m struggling with or that I need to make sense of, and I just start putting it out there. But on a purely day-to-day basis, am I consumed with the type of intensity that I have onstage? No. You can’t run around like that. It’s very draining for other people. It’s hard to maintain a relationship when you’re just spinning in your own sad place all the time.
Hemispheres: But it is part of your act, this bitter, neurotic thing. I wonder if Richard Lewis is pulling his hair out because you’ve cornered the market on that now.
Maron: Richard and I are friends. He actually emailed me yesterday, basically asking me what you just asked me: “How are you handling success?” Richard is an entertainer, and he locks into what he does and he’s great at it. But I’m not completely convinced that I’m an entertainer. I got into comedy because it would enable me to have a space where I could say what I wanted. That was really my impetus. It was not like, I want to be a song-and-dance man.
Hemispheres: Talking about why you got into comedy, I was hoping for a story like: You were 6 years old and your mom was upset and you told her a joke and she laughed and that lit up your life. Do you have a story like that, and if not can you make one up?
Maron: Absolutely I have a story like that. My father is bipolar, and is still, in a deeper-than-necessary way, my best audience. It’s very difficult to grow up with somebody who’s in and out of terrorizing depression, and there was that kind of compulsion when I was a kid to try to make him feel better. I was—and still am to some degree—the only person who could genuinely make him laugh, and also help him see his predicament as being a bit ridiculous. So that was part of my life.
Hemispheres: One of the hazards of being associated with someone like you is that all this stuff gets discussed in public. You’re not shy about talking about yourself or those close to you.
Maron: It’s tricky, man. It’s a tricky thing, being a brutally candid first-person comic. It’s like, this is my life, you know, you’re in it. How am I going to talk about my life without talking about you?
Hemispheres: But there are times when it seems you don’t have an internal editor, like when you complained about your ex-wife trying to get her claws into your house. It’s shocking that you would talk about someone in those terms.
Maron: It is shocking. You have to be careful. You have to figure out the greater message. Are you serving your spite, or your pain, or is there a theme, something that rises above personal needs? I try to look at it that way.
Hemispheres: I think this is why your podcasts are so successful: Because you are so raw, your guests follow suit. It becomes that kind of conversation, doesn’t it?
Maron: It does. I also think it makes people feel less alone, less isolated in these feelings. I don’t really have a demographic; I have a disposition. There’s a certain type that really gravitates toward what I’m doing. You know, the slightly alienated, hypersensitive people who are, more often than not, victims of themselves. I get a lot of people thanking me for helping them through dark times.
Hemispheres: People often describe your shows as being like therapy sessions.
Maron: I’m not trying to connect dots for a patient; I just feel these conversations have been pushed aside, you know, culturally. We’re in a weird world right now, where human feeling and the possibility of genuine human interaction are seen as sort of a liability.
Hemispheres: Your approach must catch people off-guard. When someone’s on your podcast to promote something, they’re expecting a certain kind of question. Have you had anyone say, “Oh, this is weird”?
Maron: Yeah, that happens a lot. And I’ve become very sensitive to that. Some interviews can be quite difficult because of a person’s expectations, or unwillingness. But because we’re in a garage and we’re surrounded by my garbage, and I have persistence, eventually you’re going to get a few minutes of genuine interaction.
Hemispheres: Like with Robin Williams. Whenever you see him in interviews, he’s performing. But in talking with you, he was different.
Maron: I was at his home, it was 11 in the morning, nobody else was there. He was ready to talk about his heart attack, about drugs and alcohol, about divorce, about stealing material. He was just ready to talk.
Hemispheres: It seems as though you’ve been on Conan O’Brien’s show more than Conan O’Brien has. Would you like his job?
Maron: Doing what I do in a TV studio or on television would be tricky, and it certainly wouldn’t be what Conan does. The bells and whistles and amplified atmosphere is not my thing.
Hemispheres: You’re 49, an age when a lot of people have given up on grand ambitions. Do you ever feel like you’ve left it a little late?
Maron: The thing is, all this happened after I’d long given up on it. I had accepted that the dreams I had were not going to come to pass. So anything that happens now … But then you have that weird, dark night of the soul when you see who you are and what your life is. The worst thing about being human is that heartbreak is always around the corner. You’re always going to have to shoulder another damn heartbreak. It’s just part of being alive. The only way to protect yourself is to think, “I didn’t expect this to happen and I’m showing up for work and I’m OK with myself and I’m OK with this and I am enjoying myself and I’m doing the best I can.”
Hemispheres executive editor CHRIS WRIGHT admits to deleting a bad word or two from the transcript of this interview.