LAist Interview: Marc Maron - WTF Live Show on June 28
It's hard to believe that stand-up comedian Marc Maron only started his podcast, "WTF with Marc Maron," less than 2 years ago, in September, 2009. According to a January New York Times article on Maron, the show gets downloaded about a quarter of a million times per week, on average, and with 184 episodes and growing, this number will only get bigger. The Times article does a good job in retracing some of the steps that brought Maron from comedy, to TV host, to broadcasting on Air America, to creating the podcast but what it doesn't capture is the the urgency, Maron's need to have a creative outlet beyond stand-up. As Maron says in our interview below, "I never had any plan with WTF, it was really an act of desperation."
"WTF with Marc Maron" aka WTFpod has an impressive list of guests, most of whom are connected with the comedy side of show business, from Robin Williams to Conan O'Brien, most of whom who are recorded in the converted garage of Maron's home in Highland Park. A self-described "conversationalist," Maron gets into spectacularly revealing, sometimes intimate, sometimes confrontational, yet always interesting discussions with his guests but the Times is wrong when it says that the guest segment of a WTFpod episode is when "the show really takes off." True fans of the show are there for the opening segment, where Maron riffs on what is going in the world and what is going on with himself. Maron is a true practitioner of the "examined life" and his self-examination reveals his interests, his fears, his anxieties, and his enthusiasm for life and what he's doing. Maron is not a man who ignores or buries the big questions and if you have any level of self-awareness, you will appreciate his constant re-excavation of these themes as it is a reminder to ask them of oneself. Who are you? What are you doing with your life? Why did you behave a certain way? How can you be better?
It is the review of these ideas that makes Maron's interviews more intense as you listen attentively to what Maron asks and how his subjects respond. You want to jamb your earbuds into your brain to absorb as much meaning as you can from the conversation. Most of the interviews are very funny, however, as we're primarily dealing with comedians being interviewed by a fellow comedian, but it's because some serious questions are asked that the laughs are usually bigger and better.
We talked to Maron at the Foxwoods Casino and Resort in Connecticut, a place of excess and pointless consumption antithetical to a lot of what gets discussed in WTFpod as well as Maron's live show, but that's where the comedy club, Comix, is located, where Maron was booked for a string of shows in early June. In contrast to his often referred-to over-consumption of fan-supplied cookies and sweets, Maron is a wiry and very fit-looking guy, attentive and polite, and willing to give me a quick lesson on how to work the brand-new MP3 recorder I had brought along since he owns the same model himself.
As a person who has done hundreds of interviews from the interviewer perspective, Maron gave me the courtesy, as my subject, of being 100% devoted to our discussion, with well-thought and honest answers. What he seemed most excited about was the launch of a public-radio-tweaked package of 10 episode of WTFpod to the Public Radio Exchange for public and independent radio stations to broadcast. A longtime listener of NPR, Maron can't believe that his show will be broadcast by several NPR affiliates including KCRW. This is probably the first podcast that has migrated from iTunes to NPR and it probably won't be the last. Also mentioned in our interview is a mini-pilot for a TV show that Maron is developing with Fox Studios based on what he does, a guy in his garage doing a podcast. The pilot was shot just last week with Maron (as himself), Ken Jeong, Ed Asner, and a few other castmates.
We will keep you informed about the developments regarding this pilot as well when other local radio stations pick up WTFpod. In the meantime we suggest you follow Marc Maron via his website, where you can easily subscribe to WTFpod, as well as follow what he does on Twitter at @marcmaron and @WTFpod.
You also have a huge opportunity before you, to see a live WTFpod show on Tuesday, June 28, at the Steve Allen Theater, with Marc Maron hosting along with Rob Huebel, Neil Hamburger, Seth Morris, Joe Lo Truglio, Eddie Pepitone, and Jim Earl.
Thomas Attila Lewis: I've been wanting to ask you, since I heard your interview with Ed Helms where you jammed with him a bit [Maron on guitar, Helms on banjo] and I've heard you in the past, discuss your love of music as well as playing. What's a favorite guitar of yours?
Marc Maron: I'm sort of a Fender guy. I don't have a lot of guitars. I have a Telecaster at home and I have a Stratocaster at home and I have this odd Gibson acoustic that I like to play. I have another Telecaster somewhere, some guy has it, I don't know where he is. I generally play a Stratocaster, it's an '86 that I bought in Boston. I remember the dude that sold it to me, they had some 2 for 1 deal going on with Fenders in 1986 so I bought a Tele and a Strat, they're American made and solid as fuck. I didn't like the Tele, it had a weird neck, it was a pretty color, but I got rid of it. So usually [I play] a Strat or an American Telecaster.
TAL: When you play, do you have things in mind? Or are you working on chords or something?
Marc Maron: I usually just get a groove going and I blow off steam that way. I usually play blues music. I sometimes play with people. I find myself playing with some of the old Fabulous Thunderbirds a lot, or Hubert Sumlin and Albert King. I play [along] with those guys, sometimes I play with the Stones. But I did an episode where I played in public, I did that "Bring the Rock" episode, we did that Grateful Dead song. I actually learned the song and played with the band, that was really great. I'd like to make more time to do that but I don't have any aspirations. I'll sit and watch TV and I'll play scales just to keep my fingers limber because I like the release of it. It's like meditation for me so I'll do that sometimes. Just blow it out in the garage, hit a groove, run it for a while.
TAL: What do you play through?
Marc Maron: A Fender Blues Jr. John Mayer told me to get it. I ran into him at the Comedy Cellar and I wanted to ask him what to get. These old Fender boxes with tubes are the way to go.
TAL: That's somebody to get some good advice from, for an amp.
Marc Maron: Yeah! No kidding! I didn't know what else to ask him but I was living in New York and I didn't have an amp and I needed something to play in the apartment I was living in at the time.
TAL: I wanted to ask you about what's going on with television - I heard you might have something going on with TV but you have a lot of guests who are involved with TV, a lot of them who have got there through comedy, obviously. But I wondered what you thought about that medium after your involvement with it...
Marc Maron: I don't know that I've really ever got an opportunity to be involved with TV - I would not say that I have. I had experience hosting early on but that's really all. I've had TV deals that didn't even go to pilot or get shot or anything. So my experience with TV is very limited. I've done stand-up on TV, I've done panel on talk shows, and I've hosted a show on television. But outside of that I don't have any real TV experience. I don't know what it's like to go through that process, I don't know what it's like to be cast as a bit player on a sitcom. It's a little outside of my wheelhouse. So I don't know that I can speak to that - that didn't happen for me.
I like talking to certain people in television that have interesting stories, like [Dan] Harmon is an interesting guy, he's quite a brilliant TV producer, and [Phil] Rosenthal made that interesting documentary [Exporting Raymond]. Some of the other people I've talked to in television have made, I think, shows that do something different. Certainly Louis [C.K.], certainly [Bob] Odenkirk are guys who have done something with the medium. I liked "Everybody Loves Raymond," it was funny, it was a classic sitcom with a great ensemble.
I'm working on something right now, with a production company doing something for Fox Studios, a pilot, a mini-pilot, which would act as a presentation of a single camera type of show built around my life, built around the fact that I host a podcast where celebrities come to my garage. It's got a character who is my girlfriend and someone is my producer and someone is my father, and a couple others. There's part of me that just.... I don't give as much of a shit as I used to. Anything is good, any opportunity is pretty good for the most part, but I'm probably more than halfway done with life and me hanging my hopes on being deemed worthy by fucking television executives... I can't do it anymore.
The podcast is very special to me, it's a full time job with the [stand-up] comedy and, you know, it's all me, and I get to do what I want. People seem to like it and it's very true to my voice, more than anything else I've ever done. It's not making a fortune but we're trying to figure that stuff out. But in terms of other stuff [like TV], I just feel more grounded. I'm working, I can get stand-up work now for the first time in my career, really. People seem to dig what I'm doing so I'm not freaking out about television. I'd love for it to happen but there's only so much I'm willing to do.
TAL: With TV there's always an element of going through the wringer and the big word you hear is "compromise."
Marc Maron: Yeah, I've seen scripts sort of destroyed. But unless you're a real sharp guy with a defined vision, who's to say it's not going to make it better? These fights are unique, each one's unique. If somebody comes in with a full-on vision, like where you have a "Louie" situation, where he said "Look, just don't pay me a lot of money, just let me do it myself." He has a vision, a point of view, both cinematically and comedically, and he's doing something that's never been done before and that's a rare opportunity. But some people have visions that might need some help, who the hell knows? But then who are you trusting with that? It all becomes a sort of community effort but a lot of the times the voices are insecure and they don't know what they're doing and then they are panicky on the executive level and it just fucks things up. But I imagine there are some examples where it's worked out.
TAL: And there's also the different outlets with their different attitudes, whether its a premium channel, or cable, or broadcast.
Marc Maron: Yeah, it's a whole world of possibilities out there. I don't take much in though, I don't watch a lot of TV and if I do it's usually on DVDs. I Tivo stuff. I got very involved with "Breaking Bad," I liked Louis' show, I liked "Mad Men" a lot, and I loved "Men of a Certain Age." I watch "Community" occasionally and I watch "30 Rock" when it's on and I enjoy both of those shows but I don't find myself every week.... I don't take in media that way. I don't listen to podcasts, I mean, I'm really just... busy! When I sit down I'm more than likely to flip through shit to find something to land on and watch an old movie, more than anything else. I listen to NPR most of the time and that's something that keeps my brain clear around that stuff.
TAL: You say that you don't watch a lot of TV but what I've heard from some comedians I've interviewed lately is that TV is influencing a big build up in comedy - similar to the bubble that collapsed about 12 years ago. Do you get that feeling as you travel across the country, that comedy is everywhere, that there are so many comedians and so many places to perform at?
Marc Maron: There's definitely a lot of comedians and there definitely seems to be a lot of ways to promote yourself and draw people in. I don't know about television comedy - I guess there was a dry spell around sitcoms. There seems to be a lot of comedy around and that people are coming out for it. But it seems to be in pretty good shape. I don't know, from my point of view, there's certain cities I do OK in, where people come to see me.
But it does seem there is a new community of comedy fans, the whole "comedy nerd" community is relatively new. These are younger fans, there's a lot more, almost wonkish focus on comedy by young people that I don't remember ever existing. I think it happened because of the internet and certain types of comics. Tom Scharpling, his show on WMFU, with the Comedians of Comedy Tour, and there seems to have been established now, a sort of "comedy nerd" paradigm that is very real. These are very active fans - there's lot of that. In terms of the mainstream, it's the same as it ever was.
Look at the marquee here, that's what mainstream looks like: Jim Gaffigan is going to be here, Tracy Morgan is going to be here, Sinbad is still kicking around, and John Oliver is going to be here. At any time in given history there was big acts - it seems pretty healthy though. I think the biggest change is this comedy nerd community, they're powerful, they're smart, they dig shit. I don't know where they are but they're definitely online and they're definitely into certain things. I sort of operate in all worlds, I'm a conversationalist around comedy - I don't have my hand on the pulse as to where or what is important but I get emails from all over the world and I think that raising awareness of, not only older comics, but comics I meet abroad, and some of the younger comics I meet here, I think I'm doing my part to elevate the community a bit and that makes me happy.
TAL: You've spent time in a lot of different places in the country, Boston, San Francisco, New York, and now LA. It's your home, you talk about your neighborhood, what it's like, but how do you feel about LA?
Marc Maron: I love LA. I've got no problem with LA, I've got no beef with it. I was done with New York, New York becomes very "small neighborhood" after a while, just like everywhere else, and there was a limit as to what I could do there. I was living in Astoria and I'd had that apartment for 15 years. It was fine, I know how to live there, I loved New York, but I was tired of it and I hit a wall there eventually. I bought a house in LA in 2004 and I was kind of between the two places but once my marriage broke up I went back [to LA] and I was happy to be able to keep my house.
I like my house, I live driving around, I like sitting outside, I like my garage, so I'm good with it. I can do comedy there as much as I want and I've got a few friends there. There's good food, I can cook at my house, my cats are there, it's a quality of life thing. I lived in Boston for years but it was when I was younger, when I was chasing around the comedy dream, and finding a place where I could exist on stage without my heart breaking completely or being run out of the business by forces either real or not real.
TAL: Can you tell us a bit about your process of how you decide who you'd like to try to get on the show? I've seen you ask followers on Twitter.
Marc Maron: I try not to do that but they just keep coming at me. But it's really just... I either know them, or I've met them, or I know somebody that knows them, is really the primary process. "Who can help me get this person?" It's a friend of a friend thing, is how it works. I've had some people approach me but that happens less often.
TAL: Tell us about the version of the WTFpod that you are doing for PRX [the Public Radio Exchange].
Marc Maron: I joined forces with Jesse Thorn and Nick White who produce "The Sound of Young America" and "Jordan, Jesse, Go!" at the MaximumFun.com operation that Jesse runs. We'd been talking about this for year, wondering if it was possible to put this together for broadcast. What we did is we started working on editing shows to make them available to either PRX or independent stations. I interviewed Ira Glass who turned out to be an amazing fan of my show and of me and he spoke highly of me publicly and he helped us out. He said, "Look, I'll get behind this," and so we created a 10 episode WTF series for PRX and people are picking it up: WNYC picked it up, WBEZ in Chicago and KCRW is going to run it this summer.
These are basically the interviews that I've already done, edited some together. These are hour-long shows that sometimes have 2 people on them together, some don't. They're interviews I've done at my house, or in my car, or out in the world, that we've edited and put together in a slightly different way for PRX and for public radio broadcasters so it's very exciting.
I listen to NPR and I never thought I'd be on NPR in this context, doing exactly what I want to do. For me, it was like, "Would they really ever put me on?" I never had any plan with WTF, it was really an act of desperation and we just got consistent and it evolved and I evolved and everything came together like that. But the opportunity to come from my garage, up into NPR, that this might be the right time for that, I'm very curious to see how it's received and I'm grateful that it happened, it's very exciting for me.
TAL: I have to tell you that the Dan Harmon episode, where you read that excerpt from Keith Richards' book [Life], about the "character" that Keith Richards plays [for his fans]. I don't know how aware you are about the character that you are putting out there, about how you are inspiring other people to pick up the microphone the way that kids picked up guitars to be like Keith Richards. I don't know how aware you are of your ability to communicate that.
Marc Maron: I should probably get more aware of it. Maybe it would be helpful for me to create a slight level of detachment from my own needs to understand how people are taking me in.
TAL: I've talked to a bunch of people about you. I podcast too but I talk to kids who are in college who have listened to every episode of yours, who can recite back what you're talking about, who will argue about what happened in episode 139 [of the WTFpod] vs some other episode. These kids are podcasting in their dorm rooms, and many others out there who have been turned onto so many different things because of [who you talk to] and what you're doing.
Marc Maron: That's so exciting, thanks for telling me that, that's sort of heartwarming and it overwhelms me.