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At BAM last week, as part of the “RadioLoveFest” series, Marc Maron, the comedian and podcast host, interviewed Terry Gross, the veteran interviewer and host of “Fresh Air,” on NPR. For decades, Gross has been the voice of car-radio and kitchen intellectualism; in the past few years, Maron has revolutionized the podcast and made his own essential listening. On it, he does what Gross might do if she had a tortured, aggressive personality, a long history with the comedy crowd, and the freedom to swear. The event was being recorded for use on both shows.
They are very different. “WTF” begins with several traditions: a stream of F-bomb endearments (“How are you, What the Fuckers, What the Fuckbuddies, What the Fuckaneers, What the Fuckaholics, What the Fuckleberry Finns?”); a clip of Maron yelling, “Lock the gates!,” from his role as Angry Promoter in “Almost Famous”; an amiable tirade full of funny, close observations about his life; and ads for his various sponsors, in which he promotes things like chocolate-covered strawberries and printing your own stamps. He’s self-aware about how funny he is—crazy and witty both. (A recent episode featured this segue: “Obviously I’m in a hotel room, and obviously I’m not eating well, and obviously I don’t know if I have allergies or cancer, and obviously there are problems. But! It is almost Mother’s Day, people. There’s still time to send the moms in your life a beautiful rose bouquet from 1-800-FLOWERS.com.”) Maron has the stance of someone who’s known failure and success, and has gotta be him, and is glad to have sponsors, even though he now has many other remunerative projects. He has the tone of someone raging his way toward enlightenment. He records in the garage at his house in Los Angeles, which he calls the Cat Ranch, because of his menagerie of beloved feral cats.
Gross begins her shows with “This is ‘Fresh Air.’ ” The smoothness of her voice and the ease of her intelligence are a key part of what defines public radio. Her interviewees experience her presence much the way we do: as a beautiful, all-knowing disembodied voice. When she interviews her subjects, from her studio at WHYY in Philadelphia, they are almost always alone in a studio at an NPR affiliate in their own city, and Gross’s voice comes through their headphones. She prepares diligently and asks probing, respectful questions. She has a sense of humor, but her interviews are animated more by curiosity than by personality. Maron’s curiosity seems to come from existential restlessness.
They have great respect for each other. At BAM, a long way from the garage at the Cat Ranch, a playful how-will-this-go feeling hovered in the air, onstage and off. Gross came onstage alone, in a shiny black jacket. She is small, with short hair, eyeglasses, and a thoughtful expression. The crowd, two thousand maniacal radioheads, cheered as if for a rock star. When she sat down, we heard Maron’s voice over the loudspeakers, like the voice of God.
“I’d like to thank everyone for coming,” the voice said. “Let me start by describing the situation to the audience.” Maron went full “Fresh Air,” gently overexplaining, clearly enjoying himself. “What’s happening right now is what it’s like for almost every guest that Terry talks to. You are sitting alone in a studio. Then you hear a voice in your headphones, and it’s Terry. So I thought she might like to know what it feels like. Hello, Terry,” Maron said.
“This is Marc Maron, and I’ll be doing the interview with you,” Maron said. “We’re recording, so if you start talking, and then think of a better way of saying something, just back up and say it again. Be sure you start at the beginning of a sentence and continue it to the end.” It was an extreme radio lovefest: this bit of teasing brought the house down. “If I get a fact wrong, Terry, just interrupt and correct me. If I stray into territory that’s too personal, just tell me and I’ll edit it out.” He encouraged her not to walk out on the interview entirely. Then he came onstage.
“I stole your pre-show shtick!” Maron said. They talked about her early life. Gross grew up in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. Gross said that her parents, a milliner and a secretary, were very private—“Why the hat shame?” Maron asked—so she found it ironic that she became an interviewer. “What I do for a living is try to help people share things about themselves that might be of value to other people,” she said. Much of the difference between their communication styles was generational: her parents were shaped by “anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, McCarthyism”; she was shaped by coming of age in the sixties.
“So, how are you with joy?” Maron asked. “I became an interviewer for reasons that had nothing to do with interviewing. Do you get something out of it emotionally? Because I find that in my life I’m capable of almost deeper intimacy with interviews.”
Gross said that she had wanted to ask him that.
“Well, I asked you first,” Maron said.
“I learn a lot about myself and people in general by asking very personal things,” Gross said. She described a domestic life full of cultural pleasures—exactly, as Maron pointed out, what her listeners might have imagined. She and her husband, the jazz writer Francis Davis, have been together since 1978, and they live in a house full of books and music. (“Does he say, ‘Terry, come in here and dig this swing?’ ”) On Saturday mornings, they eat breakfast and choose a record to listen to. During the week, they get up early, work all day, and go out to eat every night. (“Does he shop, at least? What’s he doing all day?”) They have a happy life, she said, and no children. “That’s intentional,” she said. This drew a couple of “whoo”s and a smattering of applause.
“Growing up in Brooklyn, all the women I knew were full-time mothers or they did one of the few professions that were available to women at the time: secretary, clerk, working in your husband’s office, teacher. I wanted out. I wanted out of the neighborhood, I wanted out of that life. I wanted to fall in love with work and I wanted to fall in love with a person.”
“Was your husband your first love?”
“Now that I really know what love is, I would say yes.”
Maron looked at her, intrigued. “What was the other thing?” he asked. This got huge laughs. It was a perfectly Maron moment. All night, before and after this question, Gross had her usual earnest tone, and Maron was either engaging in mild mischief or trying to restrain himself from it. You could feel him choosing whether to deploy humor; he is funny, and Gross can seem like a straight woman, a comic foil. But Maron also wanted to show respect and not be unkind. The story about the “other thing” turned the conversation “WTF”-ward: it went somewhere unexpected.
Gross explained that in 1969, she had dropped out of college and hitchhiked across the country with her then boyfriend. “My parents were upset,” she said.
“I’m upset now!” Maron said.
“It was totally against character,” Gross said. “I’m intellectually adventurous. I’m not a physically adventurous person.” But there she was, in the back of a truck with axes and migrant workers and a person who might have had tuberculosis. “We had some pretty spooky rides,” she said. They ended up in an S.R.O. in San Francisco that one might describe as a bad scene.
“I’m amazed at how vivid your memories are of this major event in your life that you were perfectly willing to toss aside a moment ago,” Maron said. “We weren’t going to be hitchhiking. That’s good. I feel like I’m getting somewhere.”
Gross said that it broke her heart to upset her parents so much, but she had to do it. “I had to cut the string,” she said. It was one of the best decisions she ever made. “I met people I never would have met; I had conversations I never would have had; I got exposed to things.” After the road-trip era, she and her boyfriend got married, and they lived communally with a group of people. She thought about being a writer; she tried teaching. Then she began volunteering at a local radio station. (There was an opening at the feminist show because one of the producers was moving to the lesbian feminist show.) After a few years of marriage, she moved out of her house (Maron imagined that this involved “what I assume got to be pretty predictable cooking and behavior” and a “good-looking guy who was sort of the leader”) and left her husband. “At some point, I realized I needed to be alone,” she said. She needed to figure out who she was and what she wanted; it was also the “renaissance of the women’s movement.”
In 1975, she moved to Philadelphia to produce and host “Fresh Air,” which started as a local show. A decade later, it went national.
“You are home to most people,” Maron said. “Your voice is more comforting than probably any voice in their lives. I don’t know why I’m tearing up! Jesus Christ.”
Gross said that she loved and admired Maron’s work. “You’re no bullshit in your comedy, and you’re no bullshit when you’re talking to people,” she said.
“I don’t think you are either, Terry Gross,” Maron said. Everybody spontaneously clapped. Later, during an audience Q. & A., Maron asked Gross whether, if she had a podcast and could speak freely, she’d swear—say “bullshit,” for example. She reminded him that she’d just said it. He was flabbergasted. “I was so busy being nervous and taking your compliment that I missed the amazing Terry Gross cussing moment,” he said.