What the Fuck? That’s the name of Marc Maron’s podcast. If you know Maron’s comedy, you know how perfectly that fits him. It captures his penchant for questioning things. For bluntness. For a hint (or more) of anger.
Maron is known for his edge, but these days, onstage and on the Web, you get a lot more than that from him. Onstage, you get a guy feeling his mortality, even when he’s talking about something as seemingly trivial as setting up his cell phone.
On WTF, as the podcast is known, you get a fascinating conversationalist, someone who brings out the best in a variety of comics – Patton Oswalt, Carlos Mencia, Robin Williams, Dane Cook, Jeffrey Ross. There are also personal stories – Maron kicking cigarettes or overcoming his fear of singing and playing guitar in public.
Friday night, he comes back to Boston, the town he credits with teaching him how to do comedy, to play The Gas at Great Scott, hosted by Anderson Comedy. It’s a small, intimate venue, a great place to see someone like Maron, and likely to sell out.
I spoke with Maron by phone last week.
How’s your nicotine withdrawal?
It feels better. The nicotine withdrawal is okay. I think I’ve gone through the physical part. But my brain still wants it, wants it badly sometimes. But it doesn’t seem to be destroying my life as much. The craving does not seem to be dictating my mood as precisely as it was near the beginning.
I heard that on the podcast…
Yeah. It’s definitely a battle. I definitely need something. I don’t know what it’s going to be. I assume it’s not going to be Jesus. It’s probably going to be ice cream.
When you include something like that in the podcast, are you also writing something about that for the stage or do you manage to keep the two separate?
No, certain things have been bleeding over. Not so much that thing, because I’ve talked about addiction a lot over the years, in one form or another. So that stuff’s sort of in place. But more of the experiential stuff, some of the stories. They seem to be making it onto the stage in a slightly different form that would play for a comedy audience as opposed to a conversation I’m having with an individual in my garage. Or an individual on a Stairmaster, in a car, on a plane. Whoever I’m talking directly to on the podcast. So yeah, it’s bleeding over because I have to generate so much stuff that I started to figure, why not? This stuff is funny. I’m starting to use it. It’s starting to cross over a bit.
When you first thought of doing the podcast – what has gotten most of the attention are some of the interviews you’ve done – did you want it to be more of an interview-based podcast, or a variety show?
It was always the way it was, from the beginning. We didn’t know what we were going to do. Brendan and I just knew we wanted to do something. After we got fired from Air America, we still had our security card, so we’d go in after hours and hijack the studio, and we always had guests and conversations and stuff. It’s sort of honored its original form, for the most part.
I like talking to people, and that’s sort of new for me. I don’t seem to be as cynical as I used to be. It’s been very rewarding to talk to my peers and to talk to comics and keep it sort of variety based, and have enough of my voice at the beginning, and maybe do some mindfuck stuff with characters. But it was always intended to be a conversation show. I imagine I will end up doing some on my own, as time goes on. Obviously we do the road versions, too, which are slightly different. But I’m not really beholden to any particular format, other than my own mind.
Is it difficult as someone who has spent most of their life as one person talking to an audience, going from that to a conversation?
No. Not for me. I’ve kind of shifted a little bit in terms of how I engage with stuff. I feel like I’m getting back to where I was when I was a kid or in high school. I like listening to funny people. I like good stories. I like having conversations with people. I’ve always liked that. It’s really just engaging it and doing it publically.
What do you attribute the lessening of the cynicism to?
Age and the realization that life is short, and what am I really angry at, and what are my real frustrations? These are just choices. Cynicism and anger are just easier than liking things or experiencing joy. It does seem a little riskier, and they don’t come as easy to me.
I’ve heard Patton Oswalt mention that as well. Going into a comedy club and seeing twelve people just sort of scream about their problems and self-righteous political material seems sort of easy, whereas it’s really hard to make something funny that you really love. And that’s where something sort of more magical happens.
I guess. I don’t know what comedy club he’s going to, to see that many people talking about politics or screaming about anything. But I understand what he’s saying.
I was paraphrasing very, very roughly, I don’t want to put words in his mouth.
You know, what I think Patton may be talking about… My frustrations about life, what becomes more interesting is how you overcome them as opposed to just presenting what you’re mad about. And self-righteousness after a certain age is very annoying. To hear self-righteousness, certainly strident self-righteousness, it just becomes a posture. It’s fraudulent.
So I think once you reach a certain age, presenting a problem or a frustration or anger, and then talking about how you’re moving through it or your experiences, is more helpful and more funny, and actually makes people feel better than just bonding in the anger itself.
I was trying to figure out, at one point, why I’m a fan of people like Patton Oswalt and like yourself, why I favor certain comedians over others. And you would look at a comedian who would do seemingly the same topic, and why one makes me want to leave the room or stab my eyes. And it seems to me it’s a matter of what the stakes are for that person.
Well, I think, how much of their humanity is being made available. That is the emotional risk of it. It’s how much of that person, how much of their heart is involved. It’s like watching Pryor. Everyone talks about Pryor, but the reason Pryor was so exceptional was you felt a real visceral sense that he was taking emotional risks. That his vulnerability was genuine. And I think that’s at the heart of great comedy.
But then you wonder if someone who has never took the same risks in their personal life can ever achieve that sort of greatness onstage, as well.
I’m sure they can. It’s just a different kind of performer. There are plenty of clowns. There are plenty of people who are spectacles. I think people love spectacle. So I think success is not judged or decided by how much people put their vulnerability or sensitivity into something. People like train wrecks. People like things blowing up. It’s just a school of thought. It’s a different way of engaging the craft. It’s just a preference, really. And I think in comedy, people who are too sensitive and too vulnerable are more likely to crash and burn than become great successes.
Do you think you’re more open to different comedians and types of comedy for doing this podcast and talking to such a wide variety of people?
I was always pretty open. I never drew lines between alternative and mainstream. And there’s the hack line, which is, it is what it is, but my anger about that type of stuff is not what it used to be. I usually resented people who did something similar to me more than I resented people that were hacks. You know what I mean? There was a jealousy involved. But as time goes on, I’ve become… I don’t know if it’s lenient. I don’t take it all as seriously.
Because a lot of times, people draw these alternative comedy lines, which are ridiculous. A lot of alternative comedy stinks. And a lot of alternative comics are not professional. And when I have someone like a John Caparulo on my show, that guy’s a real comedian. Al Madrigal is a great comedian. These are guys that don’t get a lot of attention in the alt comedy world. But they’re real deal comics, and they take more chances than most alternative acts. So I don’t draw those kinds of lines.
Like when I had Dane Cook on, he wanted to come on, and I felt like I was a little edgy with him, because I didn’t know what I was going to talk to him about. I have nothing personal against him. But I just don’t find him that interesting. I think he’s got a lot of charisma and stuff. But I’m glad we had the conversation.
So I don’t really have that much hostility towards anybody. I just don’t player hate like I used to.
That was a great conversation you had with Dane Cook, and part of the reason was because it wasn’t an in your face, why do you do this type of thing. But it also wasn’t softballing it, either. You made clear what you think, and it was great because you just addressed the issue. There was no blowing it up into something it wasn’t. It was, this is the way I see it, this is the way you see, let’s move on.
Well, I’m glad it came off like that. Some people responded to that in a different way. I was happy to talk to him. But it was really one of those times where I was like, I really don’t know what I’m going to talk to this guy about. I didn’t feel the contempt that a lot of people feel for him. I feel contempt in a way for what he represents culturally, but as a person, and in comedy…
And even with all of this stuff, I don’t keep tabs on who steals what and what’s going on. And that gets me into a little bit of trouble sometimes with people who do. Like with the Carlos stuff, I had to go back and do some homework to make that right. But most of the time, I find that all comics are interesting because we have a lot of time on our hands, we’re very sensitive people, most of us are pretty smart, we’ve taken a tremendous risk with our life, and we have a lot of time where we think about things.
And I just find that the podcast, more than anything else, is just really a way to engage in conversations about life, and I think they’re relatable to everybody, with guys that are fairly philosophical and have a lot of time to process and think about life.
I get comments from a lot of comedians who maybe don’t listen to a lot of podcasts, but your podcast keeps coming up as, “You’ve got to hear this Robin Williams interview,” “You’ve got to hear this Carlos Mencia interview.”
So you get a lot of comments that people don’t listen to many podcasts but they dig mine?
Yeah, yours is the one that comes up. People who have never mentioned a podcast to me will say, you have to listen to this interview or that interview.
I’m happy to hear that. And a lot of my listeners are not comedy people. I mean, that’s the interesting thing. I get a lot of e-mails from people who are just sort of like, my podcast somehow makes them feel less alone, and now they’re being introduced to all these comics. And the primary reason I engage… The Robin interview, I did that, very specifically, because I just couldn’t tolerate kids condescending Robin Williams and his career. To dismiss that guy as a hack and a thief is ludicrous and shallow. And something stuck in my craw about it. So whether I like him or not as a comic is not the issue.
But the bottom line is, I don’t care what kind of comedian you are, whether you’re alternative or whether you think you’re a genius or what, if you’re twenty-two years old and you’re dismissing that guy, a guy who did exactly what you want to do, who started out genuinely as a comic and at twenty-seven got a big break and managed a career for thirty some odd, forty years, and you’re gonna dismiss him that quickly? It aggravated me.
So my intention with that interview was to seek Robin out and let him be a person. Let him speak as a comic.
What did he think when you got in touch with him about it?
Well, I knew him enough. He knows my shit, he knows me. We’ve had conversations before at clubs. He was sort of into it. But it took a while to get there. I went to his house. It was eleven in the morning. There was no audience, it was just him and I, sitting in a room.
And as you heard, he was very candid. He was very human. And we spoke like two comics. And I think that people were able to get a different sense of him. He didn’t really have the energy to… He didn’t jump around much. He was very candid and very honest about all of this stuff. And I felt very happy with that. I was very grateful that we had that conversation.
I think there’s a brilliant mind back there that most people who’ve interviewed him on TV and things, don’t try to access.
He’s a very sensitive guy. And he’s very quiet. And he’s almost shy in a way.
What were your impressions of your time here? A lot of people treasured their time here, and a lot of people also left kind of bitter about it.
I don’t know. I had just started. I was out in L.A. for a year or two at the Comedy Store. I hit the wall on drugs, I went back to Boston where I had gone to college, got a job at a coffee place in Harvard Square and started doing open mics and doing Catch a Rising Star. And then I came in second in the Comedy Riot in 1988, I think. And that started my comedy career. I started working one-nighters for Barry Katz and driving all over the New England area to do comedy.
So my recollections of it are, it was a hard time in the sense that it’s where I started and that’s where I learned to do comedy. Back then you’d do two-man shows, you and the headliner, you usually drive the guy or meet him in the middle of nowhere. Go to Leominster or fucking… Melody, Rhode Island. You didn’t know where the fuck you were going to go. Taunton. I went all over the place. So in a sense, it really taught me how to be a comic.
So I had no bitterness about it. And I was one of the few of my group, that group being Dave Cross and a couple other cats when I was living over there, I worked at Nick’s, I did Mike Clarke rooms. I worked for Barry Katz. I didn’t work at the Connection, because they were douchebags to me. That’s where I learned how to do stand-up. I worked at Johnny D’s. I worked with Gavin, Rogerson, and McDonald. All those guys. Sweeney. I knew all those guys when I was starting out. Credico was around. I was like this kid… Joe Yannetty started at the same I did. We used to do Play It Again Sams in the basement. Jonathan Groff, Joe Yannetty.
I’ve got no resentment towards it. I don’t find myself going up to Boston hardly ever. But it’s not because of any bitterness. I mean, I learned to do comedy there. It’s an important part of my life. I have nothing but… I don’t know if they’d be fond memories, but that’s where I learned how to do it.
People tend to associate different comics who were here with a particular club, as well. You were a Catch guy or you were a Nick’s guy.
I don’t know. A lot of cities take ownership of me. I was back in Boston for a few years, and then after I won the contest, I moved to New York and I was coming up to Boston to do paid work. And I wasn’t getting on in New York so I moved to San Francisco where I really creatively came into myself a little more. San Francisco considers me their own. Boston kind of considers me their own. And New York. I’ve lived in a lot of places for a few years at a time. So my recollection of what those clubs were like, those clubs don’t even exist anymore. I used to do Nick’s downtown, I did Nick’s in Saugus. I did Nick’s, that one in Worcester.
I did Catch a Rising Star, but that guy was out of his fucking mind and made it very difficult for all of us. We’d go to Catch on Sundays and Mondays, and yeah, they’d let us drink for free, and then we’d do the open mics and get mistreated by that Robin guy. And eventually he’d throw you a week, but that’s no way to build your life. I remember everybody drank for free at Catch. That’s why everybody was hanging out there. And trying to get some fucking food.
So was I associated with a specific club? I don’t know. I used to work Stitches, too. I’d just go wherever I could and get onstage.
Getting back to the podcast, you have a few non-comedians on the show, as well, like Sam Lypsite and James Wolcott. Are you looking to expand the non-comedy interview portion of the show?
Absolutely. I want to do whatever I want to do. If I can find somebody interesting I want to talk to, I don’t care if they’re a plumber. I’d like to expand that. It takes a lot of work, and it’s just a matter of setting stuff up and getting to places and doing more road shows. Doing more stuff out in different environments. Adding some textures. I definitely want to expand the interview base.
Is there anyone in particular you’d love to have on?
No. Not really. I recently got an e-mail from Judd Apatow. He wants to come on. I’m looking forward to that. He used to do interviews with comics when he was a kid. And he said he’s got some of those. So I thought it might be fun if we could se what he has and maybe talk about his love of comedy when he was younger. I’m looking forward to it. I hope we can make it happen.
Is this something that you could see yourself doing continuously?
Yes, yes. Because I think it’ll evolve and remain interesting. I really like radio. I like audio. Because you have a lot of freedom with it, and it’s a very intimate medium, and the tone of it is very personal, and that’s something I like to do. I like not knowing where the conversations are going to go.