Marc Maron rebuilt his life from a garage in Los Angeles. When the comedian reached his lowest ebb in 2009, having been fired for the third time in a row and divorced for the second, it didn’t look like things could get any worse.
After two-and-a-half decades as a stand-up, Maron’s ferocious, bare-all sense of humour had alienated him from the comedy industry. Contemporaries such as Louis C.K. and Sarah Silverman had long since eclipsed him. Now he was going broke, feeling heartbroken and contemplating suicide.
After running out of options, he converted his garage into a makeshift recording studio to pursue WTF with Marc Maron, a podcast of in-depth conversations with notable personalities: from Lena Dunham to Gloria Steinem, Will Ferrell to Neil Young.
What immediately set the show apart was his unflinching interview technique – one shaped by Maron’s recovery from addictions to alcohol and cocaine. Not only had it made him more empathetic and interested in others, but drawing from his own struggles and insecurities allowed him to elicit the same level of vulnerability from guests.
Six years and over 700 episodes later, Maron’s podcast remains a twice-weekly dispatch from his garage – but its reach has extended far beyond anything he could have imagined.
Last year Barack Obama stopped by to get the WTF treatment, resulting in nearly 750,000 listens within 24 hours. As soon as the president left, Maron found himself welling up at the thought of what he’s achieved.
Yet despite the podcast’s growing audience, and added production costs, the 52-year-old has managed to keep the show’s personality intact: raw, candid, frequently hilarious and all about the power of connection.
I’ve noticed there’s no strict template or format to your interviews.
I don’t even know why people call me an interviewer. I’m a conversationalist. I kind of just let the talks unfold. There is no real template other than my own curiosity, being respectful of the guests and seeing where it goes.
With the president, I had a finite amount of time and I knew what I wanted to achieve in that interview so I prepared more. Sometimes I make more thorough notes, especially if someone has a long career – you don’t want to dismiss that. But most of the time I’m hoping for something to engage and spark conversation outside of anything they could have prepared for.
Do you find any difference in interviewing musicians than, say, actors or comedians?
It’s tricky interviewing musicians versus actors or stand-ups. There’s a difference in that, for most practical purposes, musicians don’t have to talk. It’s not what they do and it’s probably better off if they don’t… It’s sort of working around that.
When I interview someone who has a huge catalogue of music and I kind of know them – maybe I’ve listened to two or three of the 12 records they’ve made – I’ve got a tremendous amount of insecurity going in. Like, ‘I don’t know his whole catalogue.’
Which is ridiculous because what are you going to do, go album for album? You’re just going to talk to the guy about stuff. But I always enter with that insecurity and end up listening to everything the day before I interview.
But you make it seem so effortless…
I get anxious before I go in. I have to figure out a way to start it and I really don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m just hoping to connect… And I know pretty quickly if it’s going to be easy or not. By the time I’ve met them and we’ve walked through my house to the garage, they just become people to me.
Like when Elvis Costello or whoever comes over, you’re really dealing with flesh and bones – that becomes tangible for me very quickly. Maybe if I were inviting people to a studio situation it would be different but I’m inviting people into my home here, which I think makes a difference.
I think there’s a lot that goes into the tone of where they’re at and I’m at. It’s not a standard situation.
How do you handle yourself if the conversation freezes up or the guest isn’t forthcoming? Interviews can often be like awkward first dates.
Well, that’s what they are except there’s an agenda to it – just not to hopefully connect and have sex. Kim Gordon is a great example that was difficult. There was nothing easy about that interview and to be honest with you, I was very hard on myself after that.
I was a Sonic Youth fan to a degree but I didn’t know her life. I got her book and, because of my insecurity around what she has done in her life, I read most of it – which I never really do because you tend to lead the guest.
It’s like you already know the answer. That’s how most interviews are: you get acquainted with press points, you read a couple of paragraphs and you just lead them to things you already know or to things they’re prepared to talk about.
But if I hadn’t done that with her, it would have been dicey because she’s not chatty. She’s fundamentally a shy person and also a bit insecure but by the end of that interview she was fine. She was going through a hard thing with the divorce and it was easier for her to not over-explain stuff.
I loved that interview. It was Valentine’s Day and you both ended up discussing dating and romance.
Yeah, I’m happy that happened. I didn’t know we were going to get there. That happens very often in that last third when people sort of forget they’re on the mic.
Looking back through the archive, it seems you’ve never been concerned with filling your show with huge names.
Yeah, that’s the nature of the show. It’s never really hinged on celebrity. Certainly some of the people have a higher profile, but I usually see what comes at me and who I’m interested in.
As for comics, the show is built on comics, whether known or unknown, and that sort of sets the template for the show.
Was there a particular interview where something clicked and you realised how deep into a person’s life and story you can go within that longer format?
It’s really not up to me. That’s the weird thing: I have a certain rawness and a need to feel some emotional connection with people I don’t know well. Even if I meet someone for five minutes, I have a weird tendency where if I like them, I feel connected to them.
I don’t know how that happens, but obviously I’m not pushing anybody up against a wall or courting controversy. All I can do is be an empathetic enough listener. I don’t think anyone shares anything they’re not comfortable doing.
They may surprise themselves that they did it, but I’ve never got a call from someone to take something out.
Your talk with Robin Williams was the first episode where I noticed how deep these talks can be.
It caught me off-guard: how soft and vulnerable he was. I was only used to seeing him in full-energy mode. He was generally vulnerable if you caught him at the right time of day. If it’s just the two of you, that makes a big difference – same with Mel Brooks.
Robin was ready to talk and he’d been through some shit. He was the real deal: a real comic who’d become one of the biggest stars ever and hit a wall with some things. He was coming through that, so it was just good timing: him and me sitting at his house at 11 in the morning.
He had no reason to turn the juice on and he was pretty sweet. I was astounded by it. But every time I had come into contact with him previously, he was always a pretty open guy and softly spoken outside of what he did.
In your interview with The Onion writer Todd Hanson, he spoke about his suicide attempt. Were you aware that he wanted to open up and discuss this?
No. I knew him socially and I always liked him. He was around when The Onion moved to New York at the point when alt comedy was coming together and those guys were making their mark. He definitely had an edge; an intelligence and intensity. We always sort of connected, even though we never spent a lot of time together.
I was just at that hotel by coincidence because I was doing a show in Brooklyn and it was the cheapest hotel there. I’d been trying to get an interview with him and when he showed up, he said: ‘I’ve been here before… but when I checked in I wasn’t planning on checking out.’
And I’m like, ‘What?’ So then he sat there before I turned the mics on and said, ‘I’ve talked to my therapist and I needed to come back here. I tried to kill myself here.’ He told me the story and said, ‘I told my therapist that you’d be here and he thought it would be good and I’m glad you’re here.’
So we talked for an hour [on mic] and he didn’t bring it up and I didn’t bring it up, so that was that. Afterwards I said, ‘If you feel like you want to talk about that, if it would help you or help other people or serve as a positive thing in anyway, let me know what you want to do.’
So I sat on it and he called me a couple of months later to say, ‘I think I want to talk to you about it.’ The next time I was in New York, I went over to his apartment and we talked through that day and that process.
That was an incredibly moving conversation. If it was handled any other way, it would have been exploitative or gleefully voyeuristic but you played it just right.
I think I just showed up for a friend and I had no expectation except to be present for this in a genuine way, ’cause it was heavy stuff. I could not condescend.
I just had to let him do what he was going to do and after I did that, I sat on it for a while and said: ‘Think this through. I’ll send you the file of the unedited interview, you think about it and if there’s anything you’re not comfortable with or you don’t want it out in the world, tell me. And I’ll just wait ’til you make a decision on it.’ And that was that.Who else would you like to talk to?
I like talking to directors. I’ve been sort of hung up on wanting to talk to Lily Tomlin. There’s a couple of old timers who I’ve given up on who are not going to happen like Shecky Greene, who is fascinating to me, and Albert Brooks, who I can’t get. David O. Russell, I’d like to talk to him.
I don’t rank people as much anymore… Scorsese would be interesting, but he’s quite a talker. I don’t know if I could engage him as much as listen, but I don’t mind doing that. There are a lot of people who get pitched to me where I’m like, ‘Yeah, why not?’
What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned from speaking to so many people and hearing about their lives?
I’ve learned that in a very self-involved, compulsive, cluttered and entitled culture, the act of listening and being there for somebody telling their story is very humbling, very human and very necessary to really figure out who you are.
I was trying to work out what makes your show so special, what makes you get people to talk in the way they do. Is it just talking for an hour?
I don’t know if people really engage in conversations for an hour anymore. I think it’s a lost form in private life – not just on camera, because there’s sort of a premium put on having your shit together publicly and privately.
You know, narcissism and selfishness function in a couple of different ways and one of them is that you can get insulated. You feel like you can’t talk about things, like: ‘I got my own shit going on. Don’t dump your shit on me. Don’t drain me.’
There’s this idea that people who have problems are negative and are going to fuck up your trajectory. I think what essentially makes people people is the ability to shoulder for somebody else or at least steer them sometimes.
These actions are as simple as going out for a cup of coffee with somebody or just sitting down with them for a half hour and hearing somebody out.
I think a lot of that has been pushed aside and people are like, ‘Go to a meeting. Go talk to your therapist, take care of yourself. I’m sorry I cant help you. I’ve got to be at a thing in a hour.’
That’s the world we live in. It’s bizarre. I think as time goes on, the only way I can see my podcast is sort of like portraits: audio portraits of these people at a certain moment in time.