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“All my career was driven by spite,” Marc Maron confessed, not for the first time, a couple of weeks ago on WTF, his wildly popular (and mesmerizingly intimate) podcast talk show. “Why the fuck was that guy [successful]? How come I’m not?”
Among the many signs that Maron is, improbably, at age 48, finally as likely to be the object of such spite as its incubator is the decidedly non-shitty hotel room I’m meeting him in on the second night of a weekend headlining gig at New Jersey’s Stress Factory Comedy Club. It’s not good, the hotel room, just non-shitty. This is comedy, after all.
“I haven’t done solo [gigs] in a long time. I have ghosts. I was nervous last night,” he says of his two shows the night before we met. “I haven’t been to this club in ten years. I was like, ‘These people aren’t going to like me.’ ”
As we talk, his eyes keep drifting toward the hotel window, which offers a lovely sixth-floor view of New Brunswick—just high enough to see other rooftops and bits of Rutgers University and pretty much nothing else. Ants feast on the crumbs of homemade corn muffins a fan gave him after Friday night’s shows. This is what it looks like to “make it” in comedy. His distraction, he says, is because he just learned that this is the same hotel his friend Greg Giraldo had been staying in when he overdosed on prescription drugs and died two Septembers ago, after headlining the same club where Maron is performing this weekend.
“It’s heavy. It’s horrible, man,” says Maron. “Drug addiction is a horrible fucking thing. He was a bright guy, sweet guy. Smart guy. But if you’ve got that bug in your brain, none of that shit matters. Most people don’t get out, whether it kills them or not.”
That he sounds like a therapist, even in casual conversation, is no surprise—after two decades of self-laceration, onstage and off, Maron has reinvented himself on WTF as the comedy world’s been-there-done-that guidance counselor. And he’s been there, having developed a “little coke habit” while majoring in English at Boston University that grew into an addiction when he moved to L.A. and fell in with the hard-rolling Sam Kinison. “It wasn’t just coke,” he says. “You drink, you do coke, you smoke weed. You’re a comic. Eventually, I coked myself into psychosis and got highly paranoid and mystically minded. It took about a year and a half to get my brain back.”
In a WTF interview with Robin Williams—one of the show’s most candid and frequently downloaded—Maron said he realized he had a problem when his dealer cut him off, while Williams admitted to taking a break from sobriety on a lonely movie shoot in Alaska seven years ago. As with most of Maron’s guests, they weren’t exactly friends before the interview and still aren’t, but ever since their chat, Williams will call him randomly and leave voice-mails. “Months go by, and there’ll just be a message like, ‘Marc, it’s Robin. I really like that show that you did.’ ” Maron never calls him back, “because I don’t know what my place is in their lives.”
The podcast itself was an act of desperate self-help—after getting fired twice from Air America, where he’d been doing political comedy, and going through a costly divorce (his second), he says, “I had nothing. My manager had hung me out to dry. I was barely solvent. It was sort of like, How do I not die broke?”
He called a few friends in the biz, like Jeffrey Ross, WTF’s first guest, and interviewed them in the office that Air America had not yet kicked him out of. The podcast’s download count is now 53 million—400,000 downloads a week. It’s consistently in iTunes’ Top Ten, owing to Maron’s uncanny ability to persuade A-list guests like Sarah Silverman, Amy Poehler, and Chris Rock to delve deep into their hearts of darkness—helping paint a collective portrait of comedy as an obstacle course so plotted with failure and misery that not even fame can provide escape.
Maron himself has extensively aired his own baggage on four comedy albums and just released a boxed set compiling the first 100 episodes of WTF. And like Louis C.K. (with whom he had an on-air heart-to-heart about why they stopped being best friends) he’s working on a TV show based on his life. IFC just ordered ten episodes for 2013. It’ll be about a down-and-out comic whose life turns around when he starts taping a podcast in his garage. But what happens to a man who’s made a second career out of his own failure when he finally becomes a success?
Maybe success isn’t quite what you’d call it. At Stress Factory, Maron worked the merch table himself, a wad of cash in one hand and his dinner, fan-baked pecan pralines, in the other. When not on the road, he lives a “hoarderish” existence in L.A.’s Highland Park, in a cabinlike two-bedroom with three official cats, Monkey, Boomer, and LaFonda, and enough strays that he’s nicknamed his place the Cat Ranch. His girlfriend, Jessica Sanchez, just moved in, too. He got together with the 28-year-old, a behavioral specialist who works with autistic children, when she e-mailed him and “said she thought I was hot and wanted to sleep with me,” says Maron. “So I said, ‘Okay. When and where?’ And I met her in Portland, and we had sex for three days.” He recalls with affection how, when he walked into her hotel room, “she had been there literally since that morning, and it looked like she had been living there a month. The clutter was amazing. It was like, My God, if this is what’s on the outside, what’s inside has got to be pretty exciting.”
The attraction is obvious for a guy clearly drawn to high-stakes personal drama. “The bottom line is, people don’t talk about real things because they don’t think that other people have the capacity to carry their burden,” he says. “But all that stuff is essentially what makes us fucking human. We’re built to deal with death, disease, failure, struggle, sickness, problems. But we are too proud to reveal ourselves to each other anymore.”
Tonight, Maron’s dressing room is decidedly shitty (some parts of comedy never change), but his set killed (the crowd included at least one whooping bachelorette party). “Look,” he says before going onstage, “I just want to get out of here unscathed. I just want to leave here still thinking that I did the right thing with my life. That’s my only goal, to have a check that doesn’t bounce and still believe I’m on the right path.”