Marc Maron talks record collecting, the art of conversation and the dark matter of comedy
I’m hit with some trepidation before I pick up the phone to call Marc Maron—comedian, radio host, actor, interviewer, writer and impromptu philosopher. It isn’t his success, specifically, that has me psyched out. It isn’t the fact that he recently wrapped the 500th episode of his thriving podcast, WTF with Marc Maron, which in the past five years has been host to the likes of Mel Brooks, Chris Rock, Mike Myers and Robin Williams; it isn’t the fact that he has two books (the autobiographical The Jerusalem Syndrome and Attempting Normal) under his belt, or that his cable series, Maron, has just run through its second season on IFC. There is something else—the fact that, for a few brief moments, I’ll be speaking with a powerfully honest human being; a man who turns the scalpel-edge of comedy on himself for the benefit of the audience; someone who engages in more meaningful, soul-exploring conversations per week than most people do in years; a guy who lays everything about himself—good and bad—on the table, and now, two-plus decades into his career, is hitting his professional stride in a major way.
Less than five years ago, this would have been an unlikely proposition for Maron. In late 2009, foundering in the wake of a second divorce and let go from a radio gig with Air America, he retreated to his home in Los Angeles’ Highland Park to contemplate the dreaded and unknowable next stage in his life. At a time when internal chaos, resentment and negative experiences were mounting into a harrowing, existential “What the Fuck?!” Maron began to regroup by channeling the cry into something familiar and manageable—a semi-weekly podcast done in the modest setting of his garage. WTF soon gained popularity as a refreshing interview format capturing honest, revealing conversations between Maron and fellow comics, showcasing his ability to connect with a subject on human terms while continuing to exorcise the self.
Today’s Maron finds a good amount of joy in everyday life along with the familiar dread. You can catch a glimpse of this when watching his eponymous show, as his televised persona maneuvers the conflicts between his perpetually difficult personality and a variety of unscheduled life occurrences—bipolar relationships, family drama, resentment of colleagues and feline incontinence among them—one gets the sense that each episode ends on a note of understanding and growth. The periodic shifts between panic, acceptance and wisdom have become as much a defining quirk of Maron as the absurd distortions of the mundane that color Louie, the show of his longtime friend and colleague Louis C.K. I recommend fans of the latter take a dip over to the former. I’d also recommend going further: there are many entry points to choose from into Maron’s creative orbit, and if you have even a passing interest in comedy, you should hunt down one of his episodes, podcasts, specials or books. You’ll find yourself stumbling into a turbulent yet oddly comforting corner of the comic spirit. Maron may be still be trying hard to understand himself, but when he illuminates some truth about others in the process, it seems effortless.
Now the time has come. I look at Marc Maron’s number, and knowing full well I might screw this thing up, I go ahead and dial. After all, there’s a reason the man is who he is now, and it sure as hell isn’t from being a calm and collected individual. I recall a particular piece of Maronian advice that has become a catchphrase of sorts, and simply ride it out.
You’ve built an exciting and fertile new chapter in your career with the WTF podcast. And one thing I’ve noticed that keeps pulling me back in (and I think this does the same for all your listeners) is that your guests, regardless of how high-profile or experienced they might be, open up and give some of the most engaging, emotionally charged answers they’ve ever given in public. Do you think there’s a difference between a good interviewer and a good conversationalist?
I don’t think so… You know, I never set out to be an interviewer. I just set out to get to know people and connect with people, to be part of their experience and also for them to be part of mine… Because I work in audio, I like to be engaged, I like to be present, I like to feel what’s happening; that’s what I’m going for. In general I don’t go in with a lot of questions, just a general idea of what I need to cover and who I think they are, and I just ride it out.
Thinking back, how would you imagine things would have been different if you had hit the same success in your career when you were starting out, in your mid-twenties?
Well, I don’t know if it would have happened. If it would have, it would have. Things happen for a reason—and I’m not saying that in a mystical way. Sometimes you’re ready and sometimes you aren’t. It’s hard for me to conceive of having the same success back then as I do now, because I was out of my mind. I was full of spite and crazy and pushy and angry, and deep down I was very frightened and nervous and not very fully formed as a comedian or as a person. Now I’m not saying I’m fully formed as a person now, but I’m closer. I’m a better comic than I’ve ever been. I’m just glad I found it at a time where I can handle it. And I think if I would have gotten the type of momentum I have now then, it would have been a disaster. But also, if it had happened then, it would have been because someone was affording me an opportunity. What I never could have anticipated was that the opportunity would come out of this desperate need to continue doing something at a dark time in my life, and it came because I made it happen, not because someone gave me the opportunity. That’s very rewarding in and of itself.
I wanted to talk a bit more about that darkness in comedy. I started watching your show at first after being a fan of Louie for a while, and I admit I naively assumed that it would be something more or less along the same lines, because on the surface level you both seem to have your dark, introspective streaks. But with the Maron series, and I guess by extension most of your material now, there seems to be more of a positive aftertaste, kind of like you’re wringing out the darkness for all of us to see, and at the end it seems you become a little bit lighter of heart because of it. Is that something you’re going for?
That’s a very nice observation. I’ve not heard that before. I think that living with your struggle doesn’t mean that you’re going to stop having it. But it doesn’t have to be life or death, you know, and you deal with darkness. You deal with struggles, anxiety or depression, addiction, neurotic behavior; I mean, a lot of times it runs deeper than your brain. So learning how to live with it and move through it and take necessary action, is really sometimes the only thing you can do as a responsible owner of darkness. It eventually tempers itself; sometimes it fades. Things that were very dire become less so or just disappear entirely. You just gotta stay open and not surrender to it because it can take you down. So negotiating with darkness is part of my life, and I’m happy to hear that it comes off as something that’s manageable, and at the end you can live with it and maybe learn from it and maybe disarm it a bit. I think that’s what life is.
Does writing do anything different for your thought process versus, say, a particularly intense live special? How do you feel with having Attempting Normal under your belt?
Well, writing is weird, because given the opportunity, I’ll over-write. Most of my stuff comes from talking. Sometimes my insecurity will manifest itself in overcompensating, and that’s not a great thing to have on the written page. A lot of the material in Attempting Normal and The Jerusalem Syndrome started out as monologues. Once you get them transcribed and start working with them on the page, you can be a little more concise and a little more poetic, and you can manage the poetics of things that might not come out when you’re talking. I love talking… I’m very impatient. But I’m very proud of Attempting Normal, I think there’s some great stuff in there.
I also hear you’re a pretty big vinyl-head these days. I’ve noticed quite a few more musicians coming on to your podcast schedule, which is great. How’s that going? Found any good artists/records lately?
Yeah, I’ve always had a few hundred records that I’ve been carting around for years. Maybe I got inspired when I interviewed Jack White. He had all these tube amplifiers, and I got sort of obsessed with it. So I got a relatively good system, and I just started buying records, cleaning records and amassing records that I used to have when I was a kid, and people started sending me records. I go to a few record stores around here, and all of them seem to have an ideology around them. I got Permanent Records down there, sort of a psych/guitar-driven, garage-y, store; and Gimme Gimme, which is more classic and more nerdy. I’m just learning a lot, buying the vinyl and spending time with it.
I heard you were interviewing Ty Segall next week?
Yeah, I’m putting that up there. He hangs out in the neighborhood. I see him at Trader Joe’s and stuff, and I ran into him down at the record store and he had some of his new record, which comes out [Aug. 26, 2014], and he gave me one. It’s fucking great, so I’ve been listening to this new Ty Segall record a lot, The Manipulator… It’s like the best record he’s done, and the guy does a new record every 10 minutes.
I listened to the introduction you posted last night (Aug. 11, 2014) for the repost of the podcast you did with Robin Williams four years ago. I thought it was beautiful. I was moved in an unexpected way, and I just wanted to send some goodwill out to someone who knew him. I’m glad you reposted it—I hadn’t found that one before.
You know, it’s such a horrible thing, to succumb to depression that way—and despite what anyone may think of Robin, there was no way for him not to have impacted your life. He was a very special guy, and he was just always there, and now he’s not going be there anymore and it’s just terribly sad. I was happy I had that conversation with him and to sort of give it to everybody again and let them have that experience because a lot of people hadn’t heard it. I think that interview was very powerful—very personal. It was an honor to have done it, and I’m glad to be able to give it to everybody out of respect.
Lastly, I want to bring up your forthcoming performance at the Nevada City Film Festival in about a month up in our region. Anything you’d say to festivalgoers unfamiliar and/or curious about your work?
If they want to get a good idea, they can watch Thinky Pain on Netflix, my last special. I won’t be doing that material, but you can certainly get a good idea of what I do. It’s a film festival, but I’ll be doing standup. Sometimes we’ll show an episode of my show, or I’ll do a Q&A if they want to talk to me, but usually I’ll talk about my personal struggles—with cats, women, myself, Time Warner, MRIs, you know, I just run the gamut—just living the life.
Tickets are now on sale for Marc Maron’s live comedy appearance at the Nevada City Film Festival on Sept. 5, 2014. For more information you can visit the event website at Nevadacityfilmfestival.com/comedy/.