Published May 03, 2011
In a relatively short period, WTF with Marc Maron has become one of the most highly-rated and downloaded podcasts in the world. A well-respected comedian, writer, radio host, and occasional actor for more than 20 years, Maron's profile has risen significantly since WTF launched as an interview podcast in 2009. Some of the brightest comedic minds of our time continue to join him, usually in his garage in the outskirts of Los Angeles, for candid conversations about their working lives. Exclaim! caught up with him for a wide-ranging chat.
I've been really eager to speak with you because, as someone who's been interviewing people for 15 years, your show has really messed with my head.
Yeah, I've been talking to some friends about this. I think it's because in a lot of ways, WTF really comes across as a personal journey for you ― that you're having discussions with people about their thing in an effort to gain insights about your own thing. Does that make any sense to you?
Sure, but don't tell anybody. It's really all about me and working through my problems with celebrities and other comedians. That's the whole idea of the show. It was only so I could become a better person.
Right, and that has never occurred to me, as an interviewer myself ― that maybe I could be better. I thought I was just fine. I thought, "Let's just let these people have their time in the sun." But for you, it's not quite the same thing.
Well, is anyone really "just fine"? I mean isn't "just fine" the enemy? Do you ever really wanna be "just fine"? The best you can hope for is some peace of mind and self-acceptance and then you move through the exciting things that are in your life and you experience feelings and those kinds of things. "Just fine" to me is, I dunno, it sounds like you got a lot of walls up. You wanna work through some stuff? What's going on?
Well, I dunno. I actually don't know. But I've had a little crisis. After hearing your show, I just felt like maybe everything I was doing was wrong. You have these nice, informal conversations with people who reveal so much about themselves and then you end up learning so much about yourself. I can't tell you if I've ever learned anything about myself from anyone I've interviewed. Maybe today will be the difference and I'll learn something.
Well, maybe? I think you probably have. It really depends. I think when you do interviews and you set them up and you're interviewing someone for a reason, you get caught up in the agenda of the interview, and getting to what you think they wanna talk about or what you want them to talk about. Whereas on my show, the best that can happen is, there are extended periods within any hour of genuine conversation where there's an engagement, listening on both sides, and you transcend the microphones. I don't really have an agenda other than to have that kind of conversation. Some people are different than others and have things they wanna talk about, but that moment where you both forget yourself and are just talking is what I'm looking for.
Yeah, I think that's exactly it. You bring some heavy people on WTF who, when they appear on other shows or do interviews, they do so with more of an agenda, where they're plugging something or whatever. But with you, you could be talking for 45 minutes about their parents or their neuroses, before even mentioning their new sitcom, or movie, or comedy special. Was that a conscious move in any way, to get away from being a promotional tool for someone?
No, it was just, I had done radio before and I knew we were not held to that context. It was not a daily show, a live show, and we're not moving towards breaks to sell things. So, really, I'd come to a point in my life where I was interested in what other people were going through in their life and how my peers in comedy were moving through their professional life and how they got to where they got to. It sort of evolved like that. I don't need to talk about neuroses or their parents; people can just be funny revealing what they wanna reveal. It's really just how the conversation goes. Now, some people might not have things to plug but, because of the show, they get nervous that they're not gonna have those kind of stories and they feel bad if they're not screwed up, or don't have any kind of dark past. I've now literally had to comfort people for being okay!
What's the most profound thing you've discovered about yourself doing this show?
I have found that, whatever I thought my anger was or my own feeling of being alone or outside of the world… I think a lot of comics and others feel awkward in their skin or in social situations and are constantly trying to manage their lives. There's an internal dialogue that drives us all crazy. Some times I feel we're all just aggravated children in the body of a robot trying to act like an adult. So, I think a lot of what's happened to me is that a lot of these issues are common. A lot of people have gone through a lot of stuff and they still manage their lives. Also, I've learned a lot about their work ethic and why people are successful. I've also learned to listen and have some empathy and experience other people's successes, failures, and tragedies with a certain amount of selflessness. When you're completely self-absorbed or worrying about yourself all the time, it's hard to show up for other people and I think, because of the podcast, for the first time in my life, I'm able to do that.
It does have a very therapeutic aspect to it, I think for both you and your guests. I'm actually amazed how many of your guests have embraced this informal, but also really revealing format. Like you said, it's "transcending the microphones." You hear things from these people that I can't imagine them saying on any other show. Do you actually have any history with psychological studies or therapy or anything?
No, not really. For the most part, I wear my heart on my sleeve and I've always been a too-much-information guy. I'm not really aware of etiquette around what to say or what not to say. I've been that person for most of my life, whereas if you're a person either looking for approval or trying to stand out, that can be irritating. But when you do it in the context of a conversation that's one-on-one, I think what it serves to do is, get the other person to that place. It's odd too when you have someone on an interview show and you start by talking about you, because then there's part of their brain that goes, "I thought this was about me and now this guy seems to have a problem of some kind." Then they step up in a different way. And also, I find that if you have a general conversation with anybody for an hour, eventually they're gonna break down a little bit in terms of their defensiveness or their calculation of how a conversation should go.
Yeah, yeah, and that's something you've discovered with different people. Has anyone surprised you with how much they've been willing to reveal about themselves?
Yeah, I'm always pretty surprised, one way or the other. Some people, if they come out revealing right away, that's sort of a defensive action. If somebody sits down and goes, "My dad was horrible, he hit me," right out of the gate, that to me is avoiding the emotions behind that. Not that I'm a psychoanalyst or looking for that, it just seems that the tone of my show has taken that direction. The great thing about conversation, which people forget because we don't do it as much as a culture or a species, is that it evolves. You keep talking and you hear something and you say, "What was that about?" and then all of a sudden you can be taken to another level of a person's experience. And that's very exciting and compelling. So it's really about listening and asking questions that interest you and then all of a sudden, people reveal themselves a little deeper, y'know?
Yeah, yeah absolutely. Your profile has risen with WTF, as the podcast has taken off. Do you find you still have to explain to guests about what a podcast is, as a format and what its reach is?
Some people but not usually. The younger people seem to know but some people of another generation aren't quite clear. It's not on their radar really, y'know, these people who are set in their ways. Whether or not people actively download podcasts or what… I mean I don't listen to much of anything. I'm too busy and up in my head. If I listen to anything, it's usually NPR or something in the background like the radio. You have to integrate this into your life and it's just a medium change. A lot of the older generation, they're just sorta like, "I dunno, what do I have to do? Where is it? Where can I hear it?" There's some of that but most people know what they are.
So you yourself, not being that invested in podcasts, what prompted you to enter this realm?
No, I'm obviously invested in it; it's my primary job. But, do I listen to a lot of podcasts? I just don't have the time. What attracted me was the freedom of the medium, which is incredible. I did a few years on radio and I knew how to be on a mic and obviously I've done stand-up for a long time, but just the idea that we could do whatever we wanted. We didn't have to answer to anybody about sponsorship, language, or topics. There was no political bias to it. It was only whatever I wanted to talk about and whoever I wanted to talk to, and the buck stops with me. As a person who does this type of thing, and spends their life on the mic, as a career, how is that not attractive?
But who or what introduced you to the idea of doing this on―
I knew they were out there.
I didn't mean to cut you off. Was there more that I was missing?
No, not at all but I appreciate you stepping back and making sure I was done.
Well, it would've been better had I not interrupted you. If I could just get the hang of stopping myself when I'm about to cut somebody off because I think I know what they're gonna say, as opposed to doing it and then making it awkward again by apologizing and going back to what they might've said, then we'd have a smoother interaction here.
But to answer your question, I knew that there were guys podcasting. When I started it, how ever long ago it was, I was in a difficult situation. I was broke, the company I was working for, as an internet radio personality, tanked out.
Air America Radio.
Right, and I was in the middle of a divorce and there was a certain amount of desperation involved. I knew people were doing this. I knew about Jimmy Dore and Kevin Smith, and [Adam] Carolla really was the most visible of the people that made a really public, radical transition to podcasting. So, I was working with a dude at the radio station and I said, "Look, let's just try this. Let's do what we gotta do and get at this thing and see what happens."
And now it's an unstoppable force.
Well, everything's stoppable, y'know? Except for cancer and death, but most other things are pretty stoppable.
The tone of the podcast seemed to shift slightly when you had guests like Robin Williams on, or got into the Carlos Mencia stuff about him ripping off other comics, and then again when you had Dane Cook on and basically confronted him about how he's perceived by others. Suddenly the show had a more pronounced journalistic quality to it. Do you―
Well, y'know...sorry, I did it again.
Yeah, you did it again Marc. Just lemme finish. Or maybe, these are long-winded questions and that could be the problem here.
[Silence] Ok, so now I'm just gonna leave a pause and say, "You done?! Are you done?! Can I talk now?!"
Yes, I'm done. I was asking, do you consider yourself a journalist?
No! I came around the side of that, it came out of necessity. I dunno that I'm a journalist but in the situation with Carlos, I was stuck. I'd been steamrolled with a buncha BS and I made it public that I'd done the interview and I couldn't use it because I didn't do my homework and he kind of, he just, he, y'know, he… he lied to me! So I had to go back and investigate and ask more pointed questions. I mean, did it teach me a lesson about stuff? Yeah. The stuff I did with Dane Cook and Robin, those were really community issues based on reputation that I wanted to either validate or invalidate. With Robin, it was really just a conversation with a dude who wanted to talk about his life in a candid way and I related to a lot of what he was going through, we had common problems, and we were alone in his house. So, that just became a unique interview with someone who had not spoken in that tone before. I dunno if that's journalism but a lot of the questions I asked Dane or Carlos, were really to honour the comedy community. This is my community and these are some issues I've heard about, so what's true and what isn't true? I may assume a journalistic position but usually I'm just a little aggravated for personal reasons. With Dane, I didn't really know what to talk to him about or what I'd do with him because he's a really large, charismatic personality that I felt was not very self-revealing. There's all these layers to people. This is the other thing about doing an hour; you're gonna listen to it how you're gonna listen to it. It's all there. Whether I ask a specific question that's relative to what you're interested in, if it's an emotional answer, you might just have to listen to it a couple of times and put some stuff together. You can't just go ask a guy, "Do you hate your dad? Did he make you cry? Do you feel ashamed of your success and how you got it?" because that's gonna put people on the defensive. But, through the course of an hour, I think what happens in these podcasts is that these people become human beings. With Carlos, Dane, Robin, Ben Stiller to a certain degree, even Gallagher, which went horrendously awry…
Yeah, that was infamous. He walked out on you in the middle of the interview. That was crazy.
Yeah, but to my fault. I didn't have to put that up. I coulda said, "Didn't work out, sorry, not putting it up." But I insist on things. I have a perception of people that may or may not be true. My instincts are not always right. What we think people are and what they actually are are very different things. They're relative to your perception of somebody. This is what happens to me, most recently with Joe Rogan. I had ideas about who he was and he basically said I was off and he's okay with what I was poking him with. But I kept going because I wouldn't accept it. Ultimately what happens there is, whether I'm right or wrong ― and this happened with Dane too ― because I'm intruding, these guys, who are fairly controversial figures in my business but are just big stars to somebody else, they come off to people as much more human and multilayered than what they thought they were as celebrities. So, what I'm saying is, I can look like a complete annoying fool some times, but it still serves the show because people see the person I'm talking to as a human with depth and a range of emotions, because I'm a pest. It's sort of a difficult position to have and fairly unique, because I don't set out to do that. When I started getting emails saying, "You were really rude to Dane Cook," I'm like "C'mon, it's Dane Cook!" But then I get other emails where people are like, "I didn't even like that guy and now I like him because of you. I dunno if I should even thank you."
That's just it; you humanized him in a way that I don't think people were prepared for because they have this mediated interpretation of him, whereas, in your community of comedians, which you're representing, he's looked upon with disdain. At the core of what you're talking about here is truth, and at the core of what you're doing is seeking out the truth in people―
Yeah, but y'know what ― sorry, did it again ― the problem with that is, after an hour, I still may not be satisfied with that truth. It's not really anyone's fault or problem or even my responsibility, but, if you were to ask me right now, do I think there was more there in Dane Cook that he intentionally protected? Obviously. Does that annoy me? Yes, because I couldn't get to it. Am I hung up on it? No. But it's the same with Rogan. A lot of these guys, if they know what they're getting into when they come on my show... everyone's got defences and has something to risk, and many people do not want to be public about their real emotional life. But the bigger the ego, the more insulated those feelings are. I will tell you that right now. Some egos are incredibly well-fortified. All of us in show business and everybody in life has an ego that protects them from themselves but a lot of times can make them a fool. However fortified that ego shield is, they have to volunteer a portal in. If they're not, I'm gonna keep pounding away and I have to accept that I look like a guy that was relentlessly pushing this person. That's what I do.
I'm telling you, I'm more convinced now that you're a journalist.
Yeah, but it's emotional journalism. The who-what-where-when-and-why is relevant to the singularity or the truth [in journalism], but you never know that with emotions. There's no absolute truth with that stuff. So maybe my mode or my process is journalistic but the truth I'm getting at is dodgy and vulnerable to perception.
I do feel like I've gathered more insights about journalism and how to be an interviewer from you and your conversational show than almost anything I've experienced. That's why I think the show is resonating with so many people. The format is familiar but you delve into things like few other people can.
Well, I'll tell you, I can't necessarily recommend it. I'm a guy with two ex-wives, I don't have that many close friends, and I'm alone a lot. So, whatever my process is, the only thing I know, as time goes on, is that I have a bit more humility about it and I try not to make the same mistakes over and over again. The trick to it all is active listening in any situation. It's really important to me to allow people the space to feel comfortable talking about this stuff and I didn't do that with a few interviews. I mean, the Gallagher thing blew up because all I wanted him to do was somehow admit that he was a homophobic racist.
[Laughs] Yeah, a simple objective, really.
And the fact is, people misunderstood that as me censoring material. There are people who do a type of comedy that requires a tremendous amount of courage, in the sense that it's gonna offend a lot of people. I like that type of comedy, but generally, the people who do it well, you know their heart's in the right place and they're doing it to hurt people. So, when I talked to Gallagher about some of his new material, he wouldn't take responsibility for his jokes or the fact that he was pandering to the most ignorant and aggressive racist and homophobic audiences. I would've appreciated it if he just said, "I do that to get those people to like me," but he just displaced blame onto the fact that they're just jokes. It's really about personal truth and I was aggressive and he stormed off.
And it created this memorable, infamous moment on the show.
I don't know, I didn't want that to happen…
No, I know but in him storming off, that was a reflection of his personal truth.
I felt that too. And even in the Rogan episode, where I was sorta hammering that guy, I had a realization about myself in that episode, in that… look, if you're an emotional guy who's driven by a certain amount of insecurity and you can't really control your emotions, all somebody has to do to make you look silly, is act the opposite of that. If you're flailing and like "No, but you, but you, but you…" and they're just sorta like, "Dude, relax." It's very easy to make me look like that because I'm like that! And I'm not ashamed of it, but I've learned that I need to figure out some different emotional muscles to work so, it's still evolving, my process.
Do you have any particular goal for WTF generally; is there something you wanna see it accomplish that it hasn't already?
Where it needs to go now is that I'd like to talk to people outside of comedy. I'd like to learn some things about opera, or art, or how to fix something. Once I get my demons and neuroses in check, maybe I can feel more comfortable about talking to people about specific things, as opposed to how they handle their mental condition.
That's interesting. That'd mark a significant transition for this podcast.
I mean, let's not go crazy. It's not gonna all of a sudden turn into a show where it's "Helpful advice on how to keep your pencils sharp." It'll be interspersed with other stuff I'm sure.
What do you make of Canada?
I always like Canada a lot. I never feel like something horrible is gonna happen on the street. The people are always very nice. I like Vancouver, it's a beautiful city, and Toronto and Montreal. And Winnipeg, I feel like they're a little stranded out there, but I like the people and I always feel really safe. I think that Canada is socially a lot calmer than here. I know there's gonna be drunk people, but I don't feel like I'm gonna get shot or something's going to spin horribly outta control. Even when people are drunk, there seems to be a core politeness. I can feel menace in a room, and I don't feel that up there.