I’m halfway through my allotted 20 minutes on the phone with Marc Maron, and we’re just getting into some interesting territory, when he pauses mid-sentence. “Wait a minute, there’s my neighbour,” he says. “Hey Barry, did you get my email? I got big cement trucks coming tomorrow. No, no, he just said if you move the white Mercedes ...”
Usually I’d find this annoying, especially from someone renowned for his interviewing skills, but as an avid listener of WTF with Marc Maron, the podcast broadcast from Maron’s Los Angeles garage studio twice a week since 2009, this is a deliciously surreal moment. Maron’s work and personal life are inextricably entwined, to the point where I already knew about his new driveway, the emotional state of his cats and a lot of other intimate stuff that I don’t even know about members of my immediate family.
“That’s the beauty of it. Your relationship with the conversation is very personal,” he says. “Whoever I have in my garage; I try to keep it one-on-one. I try to keep it intimate because I know the experience of people listening is intimate.”
As well as the sprawling monologues inspired by whatever is on his mind at that particular moment, WTF features hour-long conversations between Maron and a diverse range of comedians, actors, directors, musicians and writers. Guests have included Louis C.K. (old friends and peers, Louis and Maron rekindled their rocky relationship during a 2010 episode, which was later declared “the best podcast episode of all time” by Slate magazine, Robin Williams (who spoke openly about his depression) and, in June of this year, Barack Obama.
I ask him where the show can go after interviewing the President of the United States, and his answer is typically philosophical and irritated. “I don’t know, where does it ever go? Where does anything go? If you enjoy doing it, and it remains interesting, it just keeps going. That’s what it does.”
As well as the podcast, the 51-year-old has written two books and is also the creator and star of his own loosely autobiographical IFC TV series, Maron. His overriding passion remains stand-up comedy, which he performs regularly at local LA venues and to ever-growing crowds on tour.
“From a very young age I thought comics were amazing and somehow special,” he says. “To me it was this noble undertaking. You can get on a comedy stage and do whatever the fuck you want. I always thought of it like that: this stage is mine and I’m going to figure some shit out.”
WTF’s charm comes from its lack of pretense and a deliberate avoidance of standard or expected interview questions. Its loose, conversational format makes it possible for something memorable to occur. It’s less polished and educational than its NPR peers (This American Life et al) and Maron likes it that way.
“To my mind, information on someone who’s famous is available if you want to look for it. Getting them into a place where you’re having a free-form conversation outside of their public narrative is more interesting,” he says. “If you get them talking about goldfish, or something like that, you’re really doing something. That’s when the best things happen: when you’re not looking for them to answer something.”
Although Maron’s career was already going pretty well, President Obama’s visit to his garage has kicked it up several notches. WTF receives four million downloads per month, he’s on TIME magazine’s Most Influential People list, he’s touring all over the world with Maronation (“It’s some of the best comedy I’ve done. I talk about anger, cats, relationships, sex, Jesus, ice cream ... I try to cover all the essentials”), and he’s finally getting his driveway redone. “A lot of things have worked out that I didn’t think were going to work out,” he says. “In some ways it makes you go, ‘What is it all about?’ I’ve succeeded to some degree, so what do I want to do with my life outside of work?” It seems Maron is most comfortable being uncomfortable in his own skin – and examining that discomfort. “I play guitar, listen to a little music, but most of the time I don’t know happiness that well. I don’t know the difference between trying to get relief, and happiness. There should be a difference. Right?”
Marc Maron will perform Maronation at the Palais Theatre on October 16.