Marc Maron Discusses His Podcast Interview With President Obama

The New York Times     Read Full Article


In the nearly six years that Marc Maron has hosted his popular podcast, “WTF With Marc Maron,” this idiosyncratic, inquisitive and self-deprecating comedian has interviewed hundreds of celebrated stand-ups and entertainers, including Louis C.K., Bob Newhart, Lena Dunham and Amy Poehler.
But on Friday, Mr. Maron interviewed an altogether different guest who, while highly coveted, is not immediately known for his snappy observations on the absurdities of everyday life: President Obama.

Mr. Obama visited Mr. Maron’s studio in his home garage for about an hour during a visit to Los Angeles, for a podcast that will be posted on Monday. (An excerpt from the interview is here.)

This interview is surely a high-water mark in the career of Mr. Maron, a former Air America broadcaster and star of the IFC series “Maron,” though it is an offbeat choicefor Mr. Obama, who has previously popped up in such unexpected places as “Between Two Ferns,” the talk-show parody hosted by the comic actor Zach Galifianakis.

Mr. Maron spoke on Friday afternoon about the interview, including how it was arranged and what was discussed with Mr. Obama. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.

Q.

You finished speaking with the president a short while ago. How are you feeling? How did it go?

A.

I feel good. We had a lot to cover. I had to honor what I do, and I had to respect what he does. He’s the president, but I had to try to connect with him personally, in the way that I do with my interviews. I think all that happened. It was a very varied conversation. And of course, with the events of Wednesday, that had to be mentioned. It was respectful and the right thing to do.

Q.

Did you plan to approach the interview in a certain way, and then, in light of the Charleston killings, think, I need to approach this differently?

A.

Yes, in a way. At one point in my life, I used to be part of the political dialogue, as a radio commentator. I made a very conscious choice to take myself out of that. I just have not really been that attentive. I focused what I do along different lines entirely. I had to combat my old self, but engage in a conversation that would be worthy of the president. I was going to do it my way, engage in a personal way, but he knows all the tricks. He’s the president. I wasn’t going to put anything over on him by acting more comfortable than I was. But it was weird: He came over, he made me very comfortable very quickly. He was very engaged. He was looking forward to having a nice chat, and I think steamrolled into the conversation very intensely and very quickly, like I do sometimes. Especially when I’m a little nervous. But yeah, we were very conscious of what happened in Charleston, and that that would be weighing on him. I wanted to respect whatever he’s going through. He lost someone he knew that day.

Q.

How did this even come together? Have you been campaigning for the president to appear on your show?

A.

I never assumed I would talk to the president. Over time, conversations started happening, with my producer [Brendan McDonald], from the White House, about general ideas. There were people on his staff who like my show, and somebody within his staff thought it would be a fun thing for him to do. But we never thought it would happen. Then over the last month or so, it became very clear that it might happen. I’m like, “But where am I going to do it? Do I go to the Oval Office? Do I go to his hotel?” No, they wanted to come to the garage. Are you kidding me? Are you telling me the president’s going to come to my house?

Q.

So the motorcade pulled up in front of your house earlier today and he came into the garage?

A.

Dude. Yes. It was no simple process. Secret Service checked the parameters. Yesterday, they put a tent up that ran the length of my driveway, all the way behind my house to the garage. Today they came and put a tent over where the car was going to pull in. There were like 40 Secret Service people here. There were snipers on my neighbor’s roof. A sniper on my garage roof. They had L.A.P.D. all around the perimeter of the house. They have a protocol that occurs. And it was occurring in my house. Now everyone in the world knows where I live, O.K. And apparently the streets were lined with people for the motorcade. I was focusing on just dealing with the situation at hand and trying to have a personal conversation with the president in the midst of this.

Q.

Were you given any guidelines or restrictions about what you could discuss with him?

A.

None. No guidelines, no restrictions, and we had final edit.

Q.

How did you prepare for the interview?

A.

Well, I freaked out like I always do. And I became very self-conscious about my knowledge and nuanced sense of what is happening in the world, politically. I had to put that aside and figure out what I wanted to talk to him about, personally. I think it would be disrespectful if I didn’t engage him about his accomplishments and his policy. So I did a little homework and I got up to speed. I read his first book [“Dreams From My Father”] to get a sense of who he was, even before he had aspirations to the presidency.  A lot of what drove me is this idea of this self-made guy. That’s really how I approach my interviews. Who is this guy? And then I had to see if that matched up with the guy in front of me.

Q.

What did you talk about with him?

A.

We talked about racism. We talked about gun violence. We talked about the Affordable Care Act. His disappointments. The obstacles of his presidency. His family, a little bit. How he goes on, day to day, with the same determination and optimism that he’s had throughout his presidency. The disappointments of the left and the right. His successes.

Q.

People’s disappointments over what he didn’t accomplish? Or his own disappointments over what he didn’t do?

A.

I didn’t get a sense that he experiences disappointment in that way. I got a sense that he’s a guy that realizes that growth and progress in a democracy are slow. He looks at the big picture. Specifically, he knows that there’s always going to be those voices. Why didn’t you do this faster? How come you didn’t do that? Why are you doing that? That’s the nature of it. He just keeps moving though because of his commitment and his vision that he made this country a better place, incrementally.

Q.

Did you feel that you could be adversarial with him? Was there anything you challenged him on?

A.

A bit. I did refer to the president, on some level, as being middle management, between corporate interests and what can be done for the people. I did make reference to that, and he reframed it. I don’t think I angered him. I tried to be as respectful as possible. There was no time to really argue policy and have a well-rounded conversation. And I don’t know if I was the guy to do that. I had to accept that.

Q.

Did you talk to him about comedy?

A.

We did, towards the end. He said his favorites were Richard Pryor and Dick Gregory. He mentioned Seinfeld and said he likes Louis [C.K.]. He thinks Louis is a good-hearted guy, despite some of the subject matter.

Q.

Did “Saturday Night Live” come up?

A.

No. Once you get in a situation like this, it would have been funny for me to honor the show, in a way where I could have brought up Lorne Michaels. I don’t know if that should have been a bigger part of the conversation. But it wasn’t. I’m in it, and I’m sitting there with random scraps of paper and notes. And I’m sitting there with the president, watching the clock tick by. I’ve got an hour, and I’m like, “Oh God.” Moving towards that hour and letting him finish his thoughts, when necessary, my thoughts were not, I gotta get this Lorne Michaels thing in. I barely got comedy in. I was able to talk about his own sense of being a performer — there’s a craft to the presidency, not unlike there’s a craft to comedy.

Q.

Does it seem strange that he did this at all?

A.

Over time, we all have to adjust to a changing media landscape. Some of it is noise and some of it is small, but there’s a lot of it out there. There’s a lot of surprising outlets by which people can communicate and people want to be part of. I’ve been doing this out of my garage for years, and I’ve had plenty of people come up here, at the end of the first year, saying, “So this is where you do it?” Many times, I’ve walked people into my garage and said, “This is the future of media.” And as years went by, fewer people were like, “I can’t believe this – where the hell am I?” They knew exactly where they were.

Q.

This is an extremely fragile moment for the country, two days after the shootings in Charleston. Is there a part of you that thinks, maybe this isn’t the time for him to be appearing on this show?

A.

Brendan and I never really believed [the interview] was going to happen until it happened. We knew at some point that, if it didn’t happen, it was going to be because there’s a problem in the country or a problem in the world. Something horrible happened. As that news broke on Wednesday night, we were like, It’s probably not going to happen. The next day, he made his statement and it became clear he was going to move on with his plans. He’s the president, and he manages a lot of stuff.

Justin Gilman

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