Marc Maron, whose WTF podcast has become a cultural juggernaut in the US and beyond, on Louis CK (‘I think he will come back’), men’s behaviour and the ghost in his garage
Marc Maron on how to strike up a good conversation
It’s the end of an era. The day after we speak, Marc Maron is moving out of the Los Angeles garage where nine years ago, as a reaction to losing his job with radio network Air America, he began interviewing his comic friends and posting the conversations on the internet. Since then the garage has become world-famous, and seen luminaries such as Barack Obama, Robin Williams and Jennifer Lawrence through its door for WTF with Marc Maron, one of the highest-rated podcasts going.
“A lot of people are wondering whether the podcast is going to be the same when it’s done from the new garage. I think some of what makes the podcast has to do with me – it can’t be all the structure,” he says, speaking from his new digs, 10 minutes away. “I’m trying to get out of the idea that I’m leaving this magical ritual space.
“That said, there seems to be a ghost that’s living with us. It knocks things over. If it was moving stuff I’d be concerned, but a few things fell over. I’m okay with ghosts as long as they’ll meet me halfway. If they want me out, it’s going to be a problem.”
Maron (54), who is twice divorced and now in a relationship with artist Sarah Cain, is moving with his much-loved cats, which seems to fit with the persona built through his podcasts, self-titled sitcom and stand-up comedy: that of a cantankerous but emotionally vulnerable cynic. Even his recent role as Sam Sylvia in GLOW, Netflix’s women’s wrestling comedy-drama, was a self-serving director with a soft centre. Pierce Brosnan explained it best when he said that the predicament of dark comedy is “you have to bring the audience in and push them away at the same time”, and that’s ostensibly Maron’s gift. In each of his podcast episodes, he begins by talking about his own life – anything that’s on his mind, from the difficulty of putting podcasts together to the human condition. Then the time is given over to his guests, although he defiantly remains as open as a book, so for better or worse, the interview becomes a two-way process. The magic is that this dynamic quickly gives a measure of the guest.
“Because of my style, I have a problem if people don’t know to come in and converse,” Marc admits. “When people wait to be asked questions, that’s a chore for me. That’s when it becomes a job. That’s rare, but it happens. Most of the time, it eventually opens up into a conversation, but you want that to happen in the first half, not the last half. But you get what you can.”
Some episodes break the usual format, like the one he recorded in Kilkenny while performing at the Cat Laughs festival. It’s a favourite of his, though his upcoming return to Ireland is solely to Dublin as part of a larger European tour.
“I don’t know much about Ireland; I think it’s a beautiful place but that’s a purely mythological obsession,” he says. “I’ve never spent much time in Ireland except Kilkenny, so I have no sense of Dublin or anywhere else. So I’m excited to come back. I’m planning on spending a few days extra out there, and maybe take a train somewhere exciting, if we can figure it out.”
While on tour, the podcast will, of course, go on. He has continued it twice weekly since it began, which he puts down to “being a naturally compulsive person”. Those familiar with his background know that he hit troubles with cocaine and alcohol on the stand-up circuit before reaching sobriety in 1999, thanks to his second wife, Mishna Wolff.
It may be too reductive to say his career turned around afterwards. But the following year he had a small part in Almost Famous (his line, “Lock the gates!” is a motif in WTF) and made his one-man show debut with Jerusalem Syndrome. Three years after that, while continuing on the comedy circuit, he landed his Air America morning show, which continued until it didn’t. Thank the gods of podcasting for that, as it led to WTF, which now regularly garners 16,000 listens in the first few days of an episode and eventually gets more than a million streams via iTunes, Spotify, YouTube and other platforms. It has critical acclaim, too – it’s become the podcast that Hollywood’s celebrities want to do, and American digital magazine Slate named the Louis CK two-part episode, where the peers laid their grievances bare, the greatest podcast of all time.
As a man, a comedian and a friend, Maron watched with vested interest in November as Louis CK was accused of and admitted sexual misconduct, leading to the cancellation of his film I Love You, Daddy and networks such as Netflix, FX and TBS cutting ties. Since then, former podcast guest Aziz Ansari was also embroiled, and from the outside at least, the culture of comedy appears to have shifted. Has he felt any tangible results of that?
“Louis’s not around any more – that’s the tangible change,” he says. “It’s certainly raised awareness and everyone’s conscious of where women were at, what they were feeling and what was going on. And certainly, men needed a lesson on how to behave. Stand-up is a free-for-all, so there’s no HR person and no infrastructure. It’s made most people aware of their own behaviour and afraid for their past behaviour, and also made them aware of behaving better, I believe.”
Does he think Louis’s absence is temporary?
I’m hoping that our country still exists and has enough freedoms that enables me to continue doing the podcast. And I hope that the world is still in a condition where I can still function
“If anyone’s going to be able to process it publicly, it will be him. It will be sad if he didn’t,” he says. “Timing is a weird thing. Certainly, he did get caught up in the swirl of accusations. It was at a cultural moment where people had to be made examples of. And people had to publicly pay for their transgressions to facilitate change, and that’s the way it goes. I can’t speak for him and we’re not really in touch much, but I think he will eventually come back.
“It’s tricky because part of comedy is dealing with the darker aspects of human nature, and about expressing truths that are uncomfortable,” he continues. “If the conversation doesn’t continue and people are just afraid and angry, then at some point everything will get stuck in a mire of self-censorship. And when a male addresses anything of this sort at this time, you are under scrutiny, by being a male with a mouth that is moving. Having these conversations publicly is going to be interesting and provocative.”
In the coming months, in addition to Maron’s tour, we’ll see him alongside Alison Brie and Betty Gilpin in the second season of GLOW (Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling), a part that earned him a Screen Actors Guild nomination for best male actor in a comedy series. It’s just one of the varied projects earned since the podcast kept his profile high: he’s also written books, had bit-parts in Girls and Louis CK’s series Louie, and Maron, the series based on a fictionalised version of himself, ran for four series as a cult favourite.
“The core of everything I do is stand-up comedy,” he says, explaining his breadth. “And as a comic who chose not to write for other comics or take a job in television early on – I’m not claiming integrity – it’s easy to hold on to it when no one’s offering to buy it out, and I did have a certain something that people didn’t want – it’s about where the opportunities come in.
“Acting in GLOW, without having to wear the writer or producer’s hat and not having to play me, was something I wanted to try. I was fortunate to have that opportunity, and I was certainly ready by the time the opportunity came. Maybe I’d like to do something good in movies next, so we’ll see if that happens.” As a writer or an actor? “As an actor. I don’t have the patience to write. I come from the Homeric, oral tradition of telling stories until they stick in your brain. I’ve written some books, which was okay, and writing scripts is okay. I’m halfway in creating a story for a movie. Maybe I’ll do some writing but it’s a pain in the ass.”
More in his comfort zone, the 1,000th episode of the podcast will take place next year, which also marks a decade of production. Is he planning something special?
“I’m hoping that our country still exists and has enough freedoms that enables me to continue doing the podcast,” he says, a not-so-veiled reference at the sitting president. “And I hope that the world is still in a condition where I can still function. If we can manage all of that, we’ll have some sort of celebration. But we’re not planning too far ahead, with the times we’re living in.”
For now, his focus is purely on getting that garage clean, and moving to the next stage of his career and, indeed, his life.
Marc Maron’s podcast garage has become world-famous, and seen luminaries such as Barack Obama through its door.