“They just swept my house with a dog, I had to hide my cats in the bedroom; they had to sweep that separately, there was a lot of panic,” said Marc Maron, host of the critically-acclaimed WTF with Marc Maron podcast, to his viewers in the opening monologue of his June 22nd episode. Known for his uniquely personal, open, and relatable interviewing style, Maron has hosted a plethora of celebrities—mostly comedians, including Louis C.K., Chris Rock, and Robin Williams, for starters—since debuting the twice-weekly podcast in 2009. However, the interview was a bit more on the constitutional side. “I’m told there will be a sniper on the roof,” he continued. “There’s something in here that looks like an armed yoga mat; I didn’t ask too many questions about it.”
Of course, it was revealed that Maron hosted President Barack Obama for the episode, propelling the podcast from a somewhat cult status to a definitive household name. The conversation played out organically, with Maron and Obama touching on everything from college experiences and gun violence to race relationships—a thoughtful and often-funny dialogue that was more reminiscent to Obama’s appearance on Zach Galifianakis’ Between Two Ferns than his press briefings in the White House. “I certainly didn’t think when I started my podcast out of pure desperation in my garage that I would be sitting down with the President,” Maron says. “It’s hard to know where to go from there.”
As any comedy enthusiast could tell you, Maron’s career is not constrained to the podcast and radio world (although he previously co-hosted the politically centric Morning Sedition and Breakroom Live, on the now-defunct Air America Media network). A talented stand-up, Maron began performing in the late ’80s out of the Comedy Store in Los Angeles. He eventually moved to New York, becoming a key figure in the alternative comedy scene and a fixture on the Late Show with David Letterman and Late Night with Conan O’Brien, where he frequently incorporated his struggles with alcohol and drug abuse into his acts. Currently, though, he’s back on the West Coast and the star of Maron, a television series airing on IFC. Now in its third season, Maron stars the comedian as a fictionalized version of himself as he goes about his daily life. His trademark self-deprecating and satirical qualities are all still intact.
We recently spoke to Maron over the phone about his many projects, the current state of comedy, and the joys of cat ownership.
DEVON IVIE: Who were some of your early career influences?
MARC MARON: When I was very young, I was very into comedy. From early on I really liked the stand-ups: Buddy Hackett, Don Rickles, Jackie Vernon. My grandmother was into that. As I got older I liked the first season of Saturday Night Live, and Richard Pryor became very important to me, George Carlin too. Those are the comedic heroes of mine. In terms of other influences, I don’t know. As I became very conscious and more aware of things I got very into the beatniks and that kind of stuff. They were very important to me for a few years.
IVIE: When did you come up with the idea to translate your life into a television show format?
MARON: When I started doing comedy that was sort of the agenda, in a way. I just wanted to be a good comic and had no sense of show business, but at some point you want the opportunity to write a show about your life. So it was always in the background of my head—is there a way to present it on television, and what would that look like if I got the opportunity? With the years you get little shots here and there, such as writing a script or pitching an idea about your life at the time. But I had kind of given up on those events; I didn’t think I would ever do television. Once the podcast became popular, though, Jim Serpico [executive producer of Maron] invited me to have a meeting with him and told me, “I love the podcast, maybe you could do television.” I said, “Well, I have a show idea about a guy who does a podcast in his garage and has no other choices in life, and that was the last option, trying to put his life together.” It was a combination of events and things happening in my life that made this particular version of my life compelling and unique for television.
IVIE: Why do you think television shows that feature fictionalized versions of people are, generally, so successful with viewers and critics?
MARON: Since a long time ago on television, the comedian has been used as a central character, since they get laughs. Whether it’s Sgt. Bilko [on The Phil Silvers Show] or The Milton Berle Show, all the way up to sitcoms of the’80s, it was very popular to take the comedian and build a life around them because they already got the point of view. In terms of evolving into these types of sitcoms, single camera or what not, I don’t know where that comes back to, but I think the great one was The Larry Sanders Show, or even shows like Seinfeld. The comic-centered sitcom has always been popular, and I think one single-camera, or more specifically cable, allows a little more freedom. You get these certain comic personalities who take it to a different place. Louis [C.K.] is basically a filmmaker. But I think it’s all out of the common mind of these individual performers. To me, these shows have been around since the beginning of television.
IVIE: I enjoyed the episode of Maron where your niece visits you for a few days and to bond with her you arrange a meeting with a well-known YouTube star, only for you two to end up fighting and saying that only “goddamn morons” watch that kind of content. Do you think these web personalities contribute anything positive to the current state of comedy, or is it all complete crap?
MARON: I think there’s a long answer and a short answer. Whatever the generational difference is between me and kids who enjoy that stuff is that they feel there’s something authentic about those YouTube personalities. There’s a lack of professionalism that’s in the sense of…it seems for me, for them to be popular, they just need to seem “real” as opposed to necessarily having talent, and that seems to be compelling to kids. I don’t know if it’s “garbage,” but it’s definitely an indicator that the tone of what’s judged as good and bad in comedic terms is certainly shifting once you get to a certain demographic.
IVIE: Do you approach writing for Maron in the same way you approach writing for WTF or your stand-up?
MARON: No, not at all. Most of my comedy writing happens through improvisation on stage; doing it in the moment. Going up with an idea and fleshing it out over time on stage and in front of people until it becomes a full bit. And the podcast, as well—the opening monologue for the podcast is always improvised and me thinking out loud. A lot of those monologues can lead towards becoming part of the stand-up act. Writing for the show we have a staff, and I sit around and tell stories from my life or bits and pieces from my life, and we discuss it and try to build out these events, whether small or large. It’s a real group situation. I show up with a lot of personal stories and we try to integrate them into other stories. The fact that my niece actually did come out to visit was definitely an odd disconnect between the generations. She’s a little bit of a difficult girl according to her dad, so a lot of that was based on truth; certain elements of the character were based on truth. But the YouTuber, that was completely fiction, so we were able to take a part of my personal life and use it as a back-stock for this broader story and social satire.
IVIE: Is there room for improv on the show?
MARON: There is. It’s not fundamentally a show built on that, though. There are shows that pride themselves or function like that, like Larry’s [David’s] show [Curb Your Enthusiasm], where you’re just given a context and improvise through it. It’s a scripted show, but there are obviously moments where it happens. A lot of the podcast stuff on the show, like interviewing somebody, is improvised. The stories are pretty scripted, though.
IVIE: How difficult is it for you to keep your television persona, radio persona, stand-up persona, and actual persona separate from each other?
MARON: The television persona has evolved over time, and I kind of knew that would happen. You hope to see an arc of growth in your ability to become a character on television. But for my personas, they’re all variations of who I am. When I’m on-stage, I’m on-stage Marc, and when I’m off-stage, or talking to you, in a sense the hold the get attention or laughs is alleviated. I think with the television thing I knew there was going to be a learning curve. I knew going in that I didn’t have experience writing for television or producing television or directing television or acting on television, but I was open and excited to collaborate. And by the third season you’re seeing a pretty well-oiled machine. I know my writers; we knew what worked and what didn’t work by the third season, and what I could and couldn’t do comically in terms of what the character has become. And you’re capped at 22 minutes with a script. So that was an evolving process. I think that with the other two versions of me, the comedian and the podcaster, you have a lot more freedom of mind and a lot more emotional range, and have more time to talk and communicate.
IVIE: Do you feel that one particular outlet allows you to express yourself the most?
MARON: I think the podcast monologues are really the most freeing, because I’m literally talking alone in the garage and have a complete freedom on mind. Stand-up, though, I think sometimes I get more emotional because there is more range, because I have a direct relationship with the alive entity that is the audience. I have whatever that emotional connection is going to be and whatever risks I’m going to take in front of them. I find I’m really the most emotionally connected and comfortable on the stand-up stage these days. And for the television show, again, the environment is much different. You have multiple takes; it’s a little more controlled than the other two, in a way. You also have a lot more freedom to move things around in editing. And there’s a lot more at stake in the sense that the stand-up and the podcast is all on me, but with the television show you’re engaging with other actors, you have a story to honor, and then the editing process brings you more choices to make. It’s different; it’s a lot more controlled, whereas the other two are impulsive.
IVIE: How do you think your sense of humor has changed as you’ve gotten older?
MARON: I’ve become less angry and a little more humble by age and by experience and by going through the ups and downs of life. I have a little more self-acceptance, so I think my sense of humor is a lot more grounded than it used to be. I think I’m a lot more aware of who I am in my body and on the stage. I think that ultimately it’s about really knowing who I am and working from there. There’s honesty to it that wasn’t necessary there before, because I was perhaps guarded and frightened, and a lot of that fear left.
IVIE: Between the show, the podcast, and the stand-up shows, it seems you’re constantly busy. Do you enjoy working at this pace?
MARON: I don’t know that I’ve ever worked at this pace before. I’m incredibly busy in a lot of different areas, between interviewing people and doing the podcast and doing stand-up and doing the show, and now I’m involved in another thing with Vice [hosting the upcoming show VICE Portraits With Marc Maron]. Yeah, it’s great to be busy, and I know from experience that my peers go through it too. If you’re fortunate you get this window where you can get some work done and earn some money—it doesn’t necessarily stay open that long for everybody, and I’m sure they’re highly aware of that. I know that the podcast is typically something I can do forever, because it’s mine; it’s just me and my producer and business partner, so it’s our business, so that’s a little different. But in terms of stand-up, that’s kind of the main-stay in my life. Dealing with networks and that kind of stuff, I don’t know how long that will last or what’s going to happen, so I just try to show up for the opportunities and if I don’t want to don’t do something, I won’t do something. In my mind, you’re not going to be busy forever. Yeah, it’s a little exhausting and it’s a little much, but so far I’ve been able to do it and I hope that continues.
IVIE: What would you say is the purpose of comedy?
MARON: I find that the purpose of comedy, for me, is when I was a kid comedians seemed to have a handle on things. The thing that was compelling to me about comedians was that they had an angle on just about anything they were thinking about or experiencing in life, and because it was funny, they seemed to have a handle on it. There was strength and poetry to making things understandable and not frightening or disarming. So I think in a lot of ways, comedy is about having a collective understanding of something or looking at something in a new way and ultimately feeling less alone because of it. There’s a relief element to it, too. I’ve always felt that comedy has a tremendous amount of power to get and really deal with things that are existentially terrifying and unresolvable, so I think that’s always what it provided to me. And also, laughing feels good. That recognition or connection, when somebody laughs or when you laugh at something, it’s involuntary and it’s an immediate sort of mind-blowing understanding or relief. So I like the way that feels for me and I like to do it for other people. I think I’ve gotten funnier and I’ve grown to appreciate that a little more.
IVIE: I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up your affinity for cats. What’s your argument for being Team Cat vs. Team Dog?
MARON: It’s funny because I grew up with a lot of dogs. I had three or four Old English Sheepdogs growing up, and there were always a lot of animals around. At some point a woman I was dating many years ago, in 2001, gave me a kitten. I got pretty connected to it; there’s a practicality to it. There’s a neediness to a dog on a lot of levels that I can’t really show up for, either emotionally or otherwise. There’s something about cats’ self-sufficiency and their seemingly individualistic ways that I find compelling. My cats, the ones that I have now, were feral when I found them so the relationship that I have with them 10 years in is very mutual, earned, and evolved over time. It was never an easy thing. I like that they have a certain distance and have their own sense of selves. Dogs are too much to handle. I don’t need anything in my house that’s needier than me.
IVIE: Who’s the next big person you’d like to interview if given the chance?
MARON: There are a lot of people I want to talk to. I’d like to talk to more directors. I’m trying to get Albert Brooks on here, or Lorne Michaels. There’s never a shortage of artists you’d like to talk to. The President was a surprise, really. He reached out to me. When the President reaches out, as an American it’s very overwhelming and exciting. I honored his request. [laughs]