How an angry comic who had a coke habit became the Barbara Walters of podcasts

Marc Maron hosts his “WTF” podcast in his garage. (Kyle Monk/For The Washington Post)

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Just before noon, hundreds of eager attendees, some paying as much as $2,000 for “4 Days of Inspiring Events,” pile into a ballroom in Boston’s convention center for the main attraction of INBOUND’s Thursday program.

The masses have come for comedian and podcaster Marc Maron, most certainly the only headliner at a motivational conference who has both snorted coke with Sam Kinison and interviewed the president of the United States in his garage. He’s also the lone speaker on the slate — which includes Chelsea Clinton and BuzzFeed boss Jonah Peretti — who has openly discussed killing himself.

Here, Maron recounts the bizarre moment this year when President Obama’s motorcade rolled up his narrow street in the Highland Park section of Los Angeles to tape Episode No. 613 of “WTF,” the shorthand for a phrase that can’t be printed here.

“I had to ask my neighbor, Dennis, if it would be okay if we put snipers (to protect the president) on his roof, and Dennis is retired, so he’s like, ‘Hell, yeah.’ ”

The president boosted Maron’s profile — and Obama made headlines by dropping the n-word during a discussion of race — but the appearance was no fluke. Since 2009, “WTF” has become a must listen, downloaded by millions and inspiring a loosely autobiographical television series on IFC, a daring memoir and a stand-up revival for Maron. His first comedy special in 20 years, “More Later,” airs on Epix on Dec. 4.

In this age of the soul-baring revelation, Marc Maron is the closest thing the Snapchat generation has to a Barbara Walters. She made her subjects cry. He makes them confess — and it never feels cheap.

“There’s something paradoxical about Maron,” says “Fresh Air” host Terry Gross, a loyal “WTF” listener and recent interviewee. “His TV and onstage persona is kind of cranky, angry. Yet he’s so intuitive and empathetic as an interviewer. He emotionally commits when he’s doing an interview, and I think that’s one of the reasons why people, like me, feel comfortable confiding in him.”

If only Maron could enjoy the ride. On the INBOUND stage, his left leg thumps as an interviewer fumbles by asking about the presidential race. (Maron hates talking politics.) Finally, freedom arrives in the form of a malfunctioning, wireless mike. Maron darts out of his chair, grabs a handheld and paces across the stage. Now we’re talking. He’s restless, funny, unsure and typically acerbic as he frames his rise alongside a critique of today’s clickbait culture.

“I don’t know why we have to accommodate people’s drifting attention spans.”

“There’s something amazing about conversation. Because people just don’t do it anymore.”

And finally, a call to arms, sort of.

“I feel like I should have been more motivational,” Maron says. “Let me try it.”

He pauses.

“You people can do anything if you concentrate and you focus your creative abilities, there is no limit to what you can achieve in this life. The only thing that can stop you is you. You know that voice inside of you that says, ‘I can’t do it.’ Don’t let that little f--- win.”

Maron, 52, has certainly spent quality time with that inner voice. It drives and disrupts him. It leads to rages and jealousies, insecure rants and fascinating insights. He has grown better at controlling his worst tendencies, tamping down his temper as well as his fears, this sense that at any time, everything could collapse.

Still, he has his moments, usually recounted on paper, stage or the opening of another “WTF.”

Yelling at his (now former) girlfriend to the point that a neighbor comes by. Screaming at a comic at a club when the other guy complains that Maron dissed him online. Cursing out a waiter at a breakfast spot when he screws up his eggs.

“Let’s see, I’ve known Marc since about 1988,” says comedian Louis C.K., “and he’s exactly the same person. He’s built some skills over that time. He’s got a little further vision than he used to. But he’s got the same neuroses that he had back then. It’s just like there’s a bunch of blankets over them.”

“Marons have a hard time experiencing joy,” adds Craig, his younger brother. “It doesn’t come very naturally.”

In his 2013 memoir, “Attempting Normal,” Maron describes his past in uncomfortably delicious detail. His father, Barry, is a gifted surgeon whose bipolar condition and narcissism can disrupt any moment. Take graduation day. Before Maron can participate in the ceremony at Boston University, his father confesses that he no longer wants to live. He then runs off. The family doesn’t know whether to call the police or search for him. (He eventually returns.) Maron’s mother, Toby, has her own issues — an eating disorder that, he says, has led to his own complicated relationship with food.

Barry Maron, reached in New Mexico, where he now lives, declined to address his son’s comments in detail. “I think he’s a great comedian,” he said. “I don’t care what he says about me because in the total picture, it’s not important.” Toby, who lives in Florida, says she doesn’t believe her son’s childhood was so terrible. “He certainly was loved,” she says.

After graduating from college in 1986, Maron headed to California. He worked the door at the Comedy Store and met stand-up screamer Kinison. The late comic turned him on to cocaine, an addiction Maron didn’t kick until 1999. With long sideburns and a jittery routine that dutifully hit most of the expected touch points — Bob Dole sucks, doing drugs — Maron resembled an entertainer on the cusp of a Denis Learyesque breakout.

If only. None of it — a gig on Comedy Central, an interview with Lorne Michaels of “Saturday Night Live,” an HBO special, and even a one man, off-Broadway show — led to stardom. In 2004, drug-free but as jealous and bitter as ever, Maron signed on for what would be a five-year run on the liberal Air America network. That arrangement found him bouncing from show to show, from radio to the Internet, and also amounted to very little.

Maron wasn’t the only one frustrated.

“When Lewis Black got the attention on “The Daily Show,” I love Lewis and was happy for him, but I thought, ‘Why can’t that be Marc Maron?” says Dave Becky, his manager for years. “Why is Lewis Black selling out theaters and he can’t get arrested?”

At Air America, Maron did meet Brendan McDonald, a young producer who instantly became a believer and would become his producing partner on “WTF.” Early on, McDonald was asked by a higher-up at Air America what he thought of the network’s talent.

“I can tell you what’s working,” McDonald remembers saying. “Marc Maron. That guy could be Howard Stern. The problem is we haven’t built the show around him.”
Learning how to step back and listen

The garage, a few steps from his house, is nothing fancy. Red painted stucco, peeling in back. Wooden panel doors secured by a padlock. And inside, a table with a coffee cup that Obama sipped during his visit, preserved under a plastic dome. This is where interviewer faces guest.

The space feels more like a clubhouse than a studio, in large part because of how much Maron has packed into the 15-by-12-foot space.

Fender guitars, hundreds of books, posters, a $5 donation check from a couple in Long Island, an old feedback note demanding that a comedy club owner “Get rid of Marc Maron. His material alienated too many people. He was vulgar and not funny at all.”

“A lot of pictures of yourself,” Obama joked when he walked in earlier this year. “It’s a little narcissistic.”

In 2009, when Maron started “WTF,” he was sinking. Nobody wanted to work with him.

“People just picked up the bad energy, and I think it hurt him,” says comedian Greg Fitzsimmons.

Becky, his manager, pushed Maron off to a junior agent and asked what this podcast idea was all about. Seething, Maron fired him. Then there was his divorce. Maron gives his second wife, writer and sometime performer Mishna Wolff, credit for helping him get sober. Still, as divorce negotiations dragged on, he began to believe she was trying to bankrupt him and force him to sell his house. (Wolff, in an e-mail, said: “I’m sorry to hear Marc saw things that way. That was not the case.”) This is when Maron, on air and in print, has said he contemplated suicide.

“I didn’t know what else to do,” he says. “There was some sort of deep self-pity. I would rather be dead than be an anonymous headliner working ‘b’ rooms the rest of my life because I didn’t have another choice.”

“WTF” became his therapy. Comedians came to his house to talk. Maron, always so desperate to get the first and last word in, began to listen. Conversation, he discovered, could be more cathartic than a monologue.

“That was the part of the thing that was so great to me,” Maron says. “I needed to get out of my own head, whether I knew it or not. I always was a center-stage guy. I never thought that I would be very good at surrendering stage. But I grew to really appreciate it. I learned how to learn the space of somebody and listen empathetically.”

Comedian David Cross, who had grown tired of listening to Maron’s endless complaining, realized during an early appearance that his friend was ideally suited for the format.

“To be able to listen to a guy who is so relentless and has that kind of balance of intellectualism and emotional response but who doesn’t have an agenda,” he says, “it makes for some really interesting, genuine conversation.”

That’s an understatement. Over 655 podcasts, two posted each week, “WTF” has piled up countless, must-listen moments.

There was Robin Williams, four years before his suicide, talking about his struggles with alcohol, depression and even accusations of joke theft. A two-parter with Louis C.K. found the estranged friends working through the breakdown in their relationship. Maron pressed Gallagher about accusations of racism in his act until the melon-smashing comic stormed out of the interview. And a 2013 podcast with actor Will Ferrell caught the ear of Shailagh Murray, a senior adviser to President Obama.

“Everyone knows Will Ferrell,” Murray says. “He’s this hilarious, blockbuster movie star. And yet his personal story is so interesting. His dad was in the Righteous Brothers band. I came away thinking I’ll never look at that guy the same way again. And I realized how effectively Marc had kind of broken this guy into these different pieces and put him back together as a totally different person from the public perception.”

Earlier this year, Maron also found himself sitting across from “Fresh Air’s” Gross, who is famously private. For this live interview, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, she chose Maron precisely because he wouldn’t let her dodge questions.

“I didn’t want it to be boring,” Gross says.

It wasn’t. During the show, Gross discussed her first husband and her past smoking pot. In 40 years on air, she had never discussed either.

“I could literally feel him feeling me out and trying to figure out what I was feeling and if he could go further,” Gross says. “There’s a powerful connection that I don’t always feel when I’m being interviewed.”

Things are good. He tells himself that all the time. He tells that to his listeners as if it’s a mantra to remind him that things, indeed, are good. Because it is a daily battle. Bad days happen. He can get snippy about the smallest point, even a quick chat with a stranger about an old rock band. He’s still so thin-skinned that he’ll get sucked into Twitter spats with nobodies, guys named Tractor Drivingchamp who have fewer than 73 followers. (Maron has 581,000 and counting.) It’s an idea so ridiculous, so embarrassing, that he spoofed it on his IFC show — two years ago.

But success has helped. Just compare the Maron on “More Later” with the bitterly angry comic on “Final Engagement,” a set recorded during the pre-“WTF” lows of 2008. “What do you think I want, big success?” he sneers, scolding the small crowd for even considering offering him sympathy.

In “More Later,” Maron sits calmly on a stool for much of his set. He mocks his obsession with pour-over coffee, his relationship with his cats and the unfortunate rise of kale. He talks of the absurdity of religion and lets an inner blogger deliver a running commentary of the gig. There’s no political talk — he doesn’t do it anymore — and plenty about the lifelong struggle to control his “river of rage.” Things do seem to be getting better.

“It’s weird to perform being pleasant,” he confesses at one point.

Illeana Douglas, left, and Marc Maron in “Maron.” The show was recently renewed for a fourth season. (Chris Ragazzo/IFC)

Sitting at the dining-room table, Maron talks of another change. He is trying to hold back, for the first time, about his personal life. His relationships have provided highly entertaining material over the years. But the openness probably hasn’t helped maintain domestic bliss. So Maron is resisting much on-air conversation about his girlfriend, Sarah Cain, an accomplished painter he says he’s crazy about.

Maron is moving slowly, with no plans to leave the modest, two-bedroom home he maintains with his cats, LaFonda and Monkey, the pricey McIntosh stereo — his one luxury — and his search for inner peace.

Is he happy, he’s asked while waiting for comic Brian Regan to arrive for a taping?

“I’m definitely content, and I feel a little proud of myself. Which I never felt before. But those problems that I have emotionally, they remain. If I’m immersed in work or busy and I’m kind of feeding my ego that way, which I don’t really acknowledge as that’s what it is but it probably is, I don’t think about it as much. But like I still have a feeling of ‘what’s the point?’ The point of the work is clear. But what’s the point of life sometimes?”

He pauses.

“Happy? I am kind of.”

Justin Gilman

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