WTF? Marc Maron, the podcaster with presidential approval

When angry US standup Marc Maron’s talkshow was cancelled, he started doing interviews from his garage. Then one day, Barack Obama came round for a chat…

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t was the evening of Thursday 18 June and Marc Maron was worried. Specifically, he was worried that someone might have tampered with his fusebox. It hadn’t been an ordinary day up to that point. That morning, 50 secret service guys were being briefed in his living room and a sniffer dog was sweeping his house for bombs. A large tent was in the process of being erected over his driveway. His two bamboozled cats, Monkey and LaFonda, were hiding under the bed. Maron was equally freaked out.

He had good reason: the following day, if all went according to plan, he would be interviewing the president of the United States of America for an hour-long podcast recorded in his garage in Highland Park, Los Angeles. Being in his house on his own when all his neighbours knew Barack Obama was coming to visit was giving him the creeps.

“I mean, it’s an event,” Maron says. “It’s not just a guy coming over.”

He was worried, too, that his usual interview style – an intimate, conversational shooting of the breeze which relies on an upfront emotional connection – would not work on a media-trained public figure practised at politely dodging uncomfortable questions. “I knew that he [Obama] would have a narrative on almost everything,” says Maron. “Getting around that would be challenging.”

How did Maron, a 51-year-old, twice-divorced, childless standup comedian with late-90s indie hipster facial hair and a penchant for lumberjack shirts, come to be interviewing the leader of the free world in his garage? To understand that, you have to go back to 2009, the year he started the WTF podcast: a twice-weekly encounter with fellow comedians, actors and directors. At the time, he had just been fired from his job on a liberal talk-radio station and was going through a costly divorce after the failure of his second marriage. Despite a fairly healthy standup career (Maron held the record for most guest spots on the talkshow Late Night With Conan O’Brien), he had witnessed contemporaries such as Sarah Silverman and Louis CK become more successful than him. He was, by his own admission, bitter, sad and resentful.

“I got into the podcast because I didn’t know what to do with myself and I was going broke,” Maron says. He turned his garage into a studio and started approaching friends for interviews. Maron proved to be a free-ranging, easy-mannered conversationalist, unafraid to speak about his own vulnerabilities in order to get more from his guests. He found that he enjoyed the new medium: “I was proud of myself for the first time in my life. I was doing something I wanted to do and it filled a big hole in me of fear and insecurity.”

He never prepared a list of questions – still doesn’t – preferring instead to embrace the tangential detours of a more natural one-to-one.

“I try to get a sense of people through different means: where they come from, where they grew up… I like to start with a question like ‘What street did you take to get here?’ just to get them going.”

    I think it took the president coming to my house to hammer it into my dad’s head that I have achieved something

People responded positively and WTF With Marc Maron hit the No 1 spot on the iTunes comedy chart a number of times. A two-hour 2010 interview with Louis CK, in which the duo openly discussed their tricky 25-year friendship (Maron had been jealous of his peer’s success; Louis CK had thought Maron unnecessarily aggressive and needy) was voted by the Slate website as the No 1 podcast episode of all time. The comedian Todd Glass came out as gay on a 2012 episode. Other interviewees have included Judd Apatow, Amy Poehler and Ian McKellen.

But the president of the United States of America? That was a whole different ball game. Astonishingly, Maron and his producer, Brendan McDonald, hadn’t even put out the initial interview request. White House communications staff had approached them via their website a year earlier, as part of a broader strategy to get the president to connect with potential voters beyond the normal outlets for political discourse. After months of to-ing and fro-ing, a date had finally been agreed.
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Maron was understandably apprehensive. He has the kind of brain, he says, that fixates on minor anxieties in order to avoid focusing obsessively on the bigger ones: “It’s a coping mechanism.” Pause. “Not a great one.”

He needn’t have worried. In the resulting interview, the president talked frankly about race, poverty and gun control. “The grieving that the country feels is real,” Obama said of the recent Charleston church massacre. “But I think part of the point that I wanted to make was that it’s not enough just to feel bad.” The podcast was listened to almost 750,000 times within the first 24 hours of going live – nearly quadrupling Maron’s record for the most downloaded episode in a single day. Within a week, it had amassed 1.7m downloads and Obama’s use of the N-word garnered international headlines.

Maron liked Obama, finding him both sincere and impressive. After the president left, Maron started to cry.

“It was this almost immediate, postpartum relief and emotion. I don’t know if it was pride, or because it went OK, or we did it. It was the relief and intensity of it.” He stops, embarrassed. “I mean, I didn’t break down or anything. I just kind of had a little overwhelmingly teary moment.”

Maron got into comedy as a way of dealing with his father. Barry Maron was an orthopaedic surgeon who was “absent and volatile, a depressive of sorts”. It was rare that he would make it home in time for dinner. Marc, the elder of two sons (he has a brother, Craig, who works in food franchising) at first experimented with hypochondria as a means of getting his father’s attention, but “then I got exhausted by it and moved on to other fears”.

He was born in New Jersey, but the family moved first to Alaska and then to Albuquerque, New Mexico with his father’s job. Maron’s mother, Toby, was a real estate agent. He grew up watching comedians like Bill Hicks and Sam Kinison on television. He was drawn to comics because “they seemed to have a handle on things. What was compelling to me was they seemed to have the answers to everything. They were in control of the situation. They had a point of view on stuff.”
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Maron discovered that the ability to make his father laugh was “a way of protecting myself from his moods and depression and also a way of connecting with him naturally”. Humour, he says astutely, was a shortcut to entertaining people, but it also enabled the person making the jokes “to stay well defended”.

After graduating from Boston University with a degree in English literature, Maron started his career at the Los Angeles Comedy Store before moving to New York and becoming a fixture on the alternative comedy scene. But he wasn’t particularly happy. He did drugs throughout the 1980s and 90s and was locked in a constant battle with his “dependency-oriented personality”.

“My nostalgic recall is normally around pot,” he says. “Being stoned every day, everything takes on a poetic intensity I enjoyed. I think the reason I did coke is that it made me so fucking confident…

“I drank a lot but I didn’t love it. It was a balance of booze and coke: that was the perfect thing. If you could balance the booze and coke for a couple of hours there, you feel like everything is just right. I guess the reason I did drugs was to try and feel just right.”

He went to Alcoholics Anonymous at the age of 26, started on the road to sobriety and began therapy. After that, there were bit parts in television, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role as an angry music promoter in the 2000 film Almost Famous and a few one-man shows. He was a regular presenter on Air America, the liberal talk-radio station, but had frequent run-ins with executives who did not appreciate his satirical brand of angry humour and who cancelled his contract in 2009.

“I felt like I was an angry person and was using politics as a template to express that anger,” he admits. “I decided to pull myself out of that dialogue… It’s not the life I want to live.”

Along the way Maron got married and divorced twice – once to Kimberly Reiss, once to fellow comedian Mishna Wolff – and the break-ups became part of his introspective, confessional on-stage shtick. For a long time, he was furious – with himself, with the world, with being misunderstood.

“I don’t know if I ever got into comedy to be an entertainer… I thought you go out there, push the envelope, do morally dubious, aggressive comedy that was some sort of angry truth.”

Looking back, he sees it as a form of posturing. These days, he is calmer. He has been sober for 16 years (his vices are now limited to caffeine and nicotine sweets). He has returned to therapy several times, most recently to try and salvage a relationship a year and a half ago. The relationship didn’t last, but he stuck with the therapist.
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Has therapy taught him anything about being a better interviewer? “I think I learned to listen,” he replies. “I had to learn to open my heart.”

What issues does he go to therapy for? “Some of the most… ” He stops, then starts on a different tack. “The weird thing about it is my relationship with intimacy and trust. The strange thing is the most intimate and trusting I get are those interviews in the garage. With primary relationships, I have an issue with trust and intimacy. But with a stranger in a garage for an hour? I’m fine.”

Why does he think that is? “I think it’s a weird combination of wanting to connect, to identify and wanting to be liked by this person and the fact they’re going to leave. Maybe you can go all-in, and then – it’s gone! Having a relationship and being in a relationship, that’s a very challenging bit of business. It just is.”

Because you need to commit for longer than an hour? “Yeah.”

He insists he has never had a truly difficult interviewee, although some have been less forthcoming than others. Nick Cave was tricky:

Maron: “It seems like you’ve made a record a year for the last 20 years.”

Cave: “Well it’s not really like that, but we’ve made a lot, yeah.”

So was Harry Dean Stanton – at one point Maron was reduced to asking if the actor could do accents:

Maron: “Can you do Irish?”

Stanton: “Oh yeah.” Pause. “‘Faith and begorra.’”

But mostly, Maron is adept at getting people to talk. He thinks this might be because he invites them into his own environment – the garage in Highland Park is covered with personal photographs, books, music posters and a propped-up black-and-white sign stating: “What people need is a good listening to.” It is an informal space that lends itself to opening up.

The success of WTF has led to other opportunities – there was a semi-autobiographical 10-part TV series that aired in 2013 and Maron is about to embark on a UK tour – but it also “filled up a big gap in my sense of self and self-esteem”.

Are his parents proud?

“I think it took the president coming to my house to hammer it into my dad’s head that I have achieved something,” he replies.

Towards the end of our interview, Maron mentions that he grew up with dogs. His father had a liking for old English sheepdogs and the family had four of them, through the years.
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As an adult, Maron has become a cat person (regular listeners to his podcast will know the frequency with which his pet felines are mentioned: he still refers to his favourite cat, Boomer, who went missing two years ago) and it’s almost painfully obvious how many of his choices up to this point have been made in opposition to his father. Instead of dogs, Maron has cats. Instead of emotional distance, he has made a career out of intensely forged human connection.

“I like animals that don’t seem to really need me and you have to earn their affection,” he says. I wonder if it’s this that makes him a master of the hour-long interview: he wants to win someone around, to cajole, to charm, to chip beneath the surface and then he wants them to go home. He doesn’t feel comfortable with it being too easy. Like he said, he still has intimacy issues.

Marc Maron performs his new show at the Southbank Centre, London SE1 on Thursday 3 and Friday 4 September

Justin Gilman

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