“I don’t have a huge social life, really, [but] I like talking to people, and I think it’s important to have those conversations,” said comedian/author Marc Maron on the purpose he sees in his podcast WTF with Marc Maron. The now popular show was born out of desperation rather than a calculated career move when, in 2009, he was fired from his radio-hosting shows for Air America, The Marc Maron Show, and Breakroom Live. Maron, along with producer Brendan McDonald, scrambled to keep working. The result was an off-the-cuff podcast that featured a variety of guests from the comedy and entertainment world.
Since its inception, Maron has had some of the most famous folks in the world across the mike from him — including President Obama — engaged in chatter about all manner of things. Often revelatory and always interesting, WTF, which gets millions of downloads each month, has been touted as a podcast game changer. In anticipation of his Santa Barbara show, I spoke with Maron over the phone about his podcast and comedy work.
How do you get your guests to reveal so much? I don’t know; you just listen and talk to them. It’s not really an agenda driven show. I think that I connect with people, but I don’t know what they’re going to reveal and what they’re not going to reveal. I’m not really gunning for anything. I’m sort of looking for that moment when you feel a sort of opening. When you’re in conversation, [talking] to people who have public lives … there’s a sort of patter that happens, a detachment. So once you get around that, and you’re just talking to somebody, candidly as a person, you don’t know what they’re going to reveal … and sometimes it’s pretty mundane. Neil Young saying he went to Pilates is pretty important stuff only because it’s Neil Young. These things become more loaded for people [who] think that there’s some great mystery to it, because nobody hears these people talk as people.
People seem to let their guard down when you interview them. I think it’s a relief, you know. If someone’s guarded, by nature, they’re not really going do the show unless they’re real pros. Like there are certain celebrities who will dictate what the interview is. So, they don’t have any second thoughts about that. You know, or they come in guarded. Or there’s somebody like Kristin Wiig, who really doesn’t talk and it was sort of amazing, even though it wasn’t like a huge revelation other than the fact she was talking….We had episodes, where I’ve called the [guest] and said, “You know, really think about this, and make sure you’re comfortable with us airing it….But we’re not out to sandbag anybody. I think that [most people] just think they had a human revelation. I don’t think they leave going, “What the fuck did I do?” If they do, it’s usually not that damning, you know what I mean?
I think WTF is great because so much press about celebrities is superficial, and you get the same canned answers. It’s nice to be reminded that they’re just people. That’s true. Sometimes they’re relieved to do it. I’m very engaged with these [interviewees]. I don’t have a huge social life, really, [but] I like talking to people, and I think it’s important to have those conversations. I don’t think that any of us have those conversations, once you get older certainly. I don’t even know if kids do it anymore.
Did you ever think your show was going to become such a big hit? No, I didn’t, I didn’t have any expectations. I was in a pretty desperate place. I really didn’t see any sort of future or business in it. We were doing it to try something and to keep working. But I didn’t know anything. I needed to keep moving because I was having trouble financially and in other ways. But no, we had no expectations. But we’re hard workers, my producer and myself … comedians who become popular and get a certain amount of momentum, they sort of have this window where they’re relevant and popular, and you should just work as much as possible in that window —especially if you’re a one-trick pony. [This has] become sort of the bedrock of my life, and because it’s stayed steady, we’ve done a new show every Monday and Thursday since 2009. So that’s sort of what we do, and that somehow grew alongside and helped define the actual business of podcasting, and you know, we do all right with that.
Is stand-up comedy your favorite thing to do? I don’t know if it’s my favorite; it’s who I am. To me, it’s the identity that is sort of at the base of it all, that’s what I got into show business as. I didn’t even see it as show business. I just wanted to be a great comic, and that’s what I did, that was the work and still is the work. But now I have a bit of an audience, and a lot of them know me very well, I’m not an arena act yet, but I think I’m doing probably the best comedy in terms of who I am and my ability to be funny, that I’ve ever done.
Will you elaborate on what you mean by stand-up comedian being “who you are”? I graduated college and that’s what I set out to do. I did a little in college and then I came out to L.A. and got in trouble with drugs, and I left L.A. and got cleaned up and went back to Boston and started over. [By then] the first comedy boom was already over… [But for me] there was just no other choice, for some reason, at a very young age [I wanted to do comedy]. I think that why I consider it my identity. The focus and the lifestyle and the sort of social alienation of figuring out how to be a working comic, that was the route I chose, or that chose me. Now whether it was a psychological problem in terms of not knowing how to branch out to anything else, there was a sort of gladiator pride in just being a pure comic; it was never about show business for me. When I was in college I’d done a lot of stuff: I’d written plays, I’d written poetry, I was into literature, I studied art history and English. I was always looking for a delivery system … and stand-up was it.
To me, it seems one of the toughest professions. I don’t know … Having read and seen all the other modes of expression, writing and that, there was always something immediate, something honest about [stand-up comedy]. I really thought that it was a way to express yourself in a way that you couldn’t do it anywhere else. Because of the immediacy, because of the freedom you had. You know, once you figured out, once you got up onstage, you could do whatever you fucking wanted as long as you got laughs … I mean, I think I was pretty angry for a while, but it just seemed to be the place [to express that]. And the community around it, the lifestyle around it — for a very long time I’ve lived outside of “regular people” world.
You hear the tales of the angry, alienated comics, but there must be some who are well-adjusted. Hundreds of them. There’s definitely a new generation of comics. There was a shifting ethos once stand-up comics evolved out of the mud of entertainers; you had this kind of point-of-view comedy that was original and not joke driven and evocative. It became the job of the stand-up comic to reflect on the world. So there are still plenty of entertainers around, who don’t take it as seriously, in terms of what their particular responsibility is. There are people that just want to get laughs, there are people that want to say something, but there are only always a few of those. But I think that because of sketch comedy and more community building and community based comedy venues and schools [etc.], you do get more well-adjusted funny people. I do find that the percentages of people who are just stand-ups, they carry a certain amount of baggage. I don’t know that they’re always angry, but there’s something going on.
It seemed like there was a wave of people like Jerry Seinfeld who did observational comedy as opposed to societal or personal. Do you think that’s past now? I don’t know. Has it? The weird thing about Jim Gaffigan, there’s clearly more going on in Jim than meets the eye. And his choice to talk about food and kids has a lot to do with his life, but it’s also a business decision. Jim’s a complex guy and I enjoy him. But on the other hand, I’ve never been able to really understand [his humor], or say that I’ve ever watched an entire Jerry Seinfeld episode in my life. I don’t know why. I don’t have any disrespect, although maybe that is fundamentally disrespectful. But observational comedy? Clearly Jerry’s got something going on there but I don’t know what the hell that is.
Listen, I think observational comedy has always been around…I think there’s plenty of observational comedy around now it’s just different style, you know? You can talk about yourself; you can talk about other shit. But talking about other shit can be talking about the rinse cycle on your washing machine, you know, or something much more provocative. But that definitely was emblematic of the comedy club boom of the eighties, when everybody was doing their own take on, “Where’d the sock go?” etc.
One of reasons I went inward almost entirely is because that’s the only real estate you have that is uniquely yours. When you got thousands of comics working, you really start to realize that everyone’s sort of taking in some version of similar life. That’s why it’s really interesting when somebody has an utterly new take on just being alive in this world, because of their condition, or where they come from mentally. What humans go through on a day-to-day basis, it can be very similar. So if everyone’s reacting to the same shit, there’s going to be a lot of crossover. And that’s what sort of kills the comedy movement — everybody’s doing the same version of some joke. Then you have people who have very new ways of looking at things that we all sort of experience. You get somebody like [Mitch] Hedberg, and you get somebody who was really a great example of sort of elevated observations of the mundane, that somehow reach a point of poetry, you see things you’ve never seen before, and ultimately that becomes the trick of the observational comedy, is to do that in a new way…. [As a comic] our job is to look at the world and look at ourselves, and to share that, so that it does something in somebody else’s mind. You’re kind of in it to blow minds, or at least surprise people a little bit.
There are so many ways to get your material out — just post something on YouTube. Do you think that’s affected the business at all? There are a lot more people who aren’t making any money calling themselves “professionals.” There’s no such thing as an amateur anymore, there’s just “undiscovereds.”
Do you have any comedians now that are up and comers, or established, that you admire the most or want to chat with? Sure. I like a lot of people. … I was very excited about Ali Wong lately; I had her on [WTF] and I think she’s great. I think she’s doing something comically that’s not been done. I think that’s a great example of a woman living a life through pregnancy and now having a young infant. There’s obviously not a lot of women comics comparatively speaking in general, but what she’s doing about thinking and experiencing those elements of life, you know, crass and beautiful…I like watching Nate Bargatze, who’s going to open for me at Carnegie Hall. I like him a lot. He’s a Southern guy, clean, but I just love his delivery. I like watching my buddy Al Madrigal.
So you’re still pretty plugged in to the stand-up comics? No. I’m not, really. I go to work. I go to the Comedy Store. I don’t know a lot of the younger acts, I’m sort of missing them, because unless they work at the Comedy Store or unless I go to a festival or something and see them, I don’t see them on a day-to day basis… The [Comedy Story], that’s the clubhouse in a way, and that’s where I go and it’s where I take stuff in. I have a lot of old favorites there. Lately, I’ve been kind of interested to see some of the guys who have a huge arc of a career and made a lot of money and became public personalities, then sort of drifted in and came back and do stand-up. David Spade, he’s coming back around. I’m seeing him doing the work again, that’s very interesting. He’s funny.
There was a big comedy show here recently: David Spade, Rob Schneider, Adam Sandler, on a group tour. These guys, they all started out as comics and then went on to do these huge things. … [To do stand-up] comedy, to actually do the work, you gotta do the work. There’s no way around it. You’ve got to go out and try your shit. So it seems like there’s more of them around doing it now. Like Judd Apatow — he stopped doing comedy in his 20s to become one of the biggest producers in Hollywood, and now he’s picking up where he left off. He’s very aware of it, that he loves comedy, and it’s been kind of interesting to see him evolve as a comic, at 40 whatever he is. Here’s a guy, made a billion dollars in show business, and now he’s going to come take up spots at the Comedy [Store], you know? There’s an initial, “Really?” But then, Ali [Wong] was like, Well, he’s writing great jokes and he’s actually doing great stuff and he’s a very humble guy…so it’s exciting. So he’s obviously a good comedy writer, so it’s a treat to watch him.
Do you take your tours to the comedy clubs and work out your material? In the last few years, I go to the Steve Allen Theater, which is a space in the Hollywood/Los Feliz border, and I can do a residency there, a weekly residency; Tuesdays for a few months, you know, a cheap ticket, eight bucks. It benefits the theater; I let them have all the money. I just get up there and improvise through an hour and a half, two hours, and start to get a feel for what the new hour’s going to be.
So what can the audience expect at your S.B. show? Basically a bunch of new material but there is kind of a through-line, and I’m sort of working stuff out and when I get there it should be pretty fun and funny.
Marc Maron will take the stage Friday, October 21, 8 p.m., at UCSB’s Campbell Hall. Call 893-3535 or see artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.