Pod­caster in chief

Host Marc Maron in­ter­viewed Obama in his garage stu­dio, an en­counter that was more than a year in the mak­ing

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - BY AMY KAUF­MAN

“Do you mind if I light a cigar?” Marc Maron asked. “I feel like I want one. I’ve been a lit­tle ner­vous.”

Well, yeah. Be­cause this was the day the pres­i­dent of the United States had ar­rived via mo­tor­cade at Maron’s High­land Park home, walked into his 165- square- foot garage and sat for an in­ter­view on the co­me­dian’s pod­cast, “WTF With Marc Maron.” And yes, that third let­ter stands for what you think it does.

Maron, 51, took a big puff and re­clined in his wooden desk chair. He was dressed in the same out­fit he’d worn to meet Barack Obama in his drive­way that morn­ing: a plaid shirt and blue jeans cuffed above a pair of mo­tor­cy­cle boots.

“I don’t re­ally have a suit that f its prop­erly,” he said with a shrug. “So it would have been awk­ward, and it would have been hot. He knew who I was. He didn’t wear a jacket.”

In­deed, Obama and his com­mu­ni­ca­tions staff surely knew what they were af­ter with Fri­day’s “WTF” ap­pear­ance. If you’re try­ing to make the pres­i­dent look hip, “WTF” is a nat­u­ral f it — in the same vein as Obama’s ap­pear­ances on Zach Galifianakis’ “Be­tween Two Ferns” and Jimmy Fal­lon’s latenight shows, where the leader of the free world slow- jammed the news.

Maron is also re­ally pop­u­lar. Ac­cord­ing to “WTF” pro­ducer Bren­dan McDon­ald, the show gets more than 5 mil­lion down­loads a month and av­er­ages 450,000 down­loads per episode. The pro­gram’s suc­cess has raised Maron’s prof ile as a stand- up comic and helped him land his own IFC com­edy, “Maron,” about — wait for it — a twice- di­vorced re­cov­er­ing ad­dict who records a pod­cast in his garage.

Known for his in­ti­mate, some­times mer­cu­rial in­ter­view style, Maron can make guests so com­fort-

able they some­times share in­cred­i­bly per­sonal de­tails. Last month, he got NPR’s fa­mously re­served “Fresh Air” host Terry Gross to re­veal that she’d dropped out of col­lege and hitch­hiked across the coun­try. Four years be­fore he com­mit­ted sui­cide, Robin Wil­liams told Maron about how he tried to “fill the hole” of de­pres­sion with al­co­hol. Louis C. K. started cry­ing as he and Maron talked about their bro­ken friend­ship.

What did Maron get Obama to say? At the mo­ment, the co­me­dian will give only vague an­swers on that ques­tion — the pod­cast was sched­uled to go live at 3 a. m. Mon­day. But re­flect­ing on the in­ter­view, Maron did say that he found Obama dis­arm­ing and that he thought the two had formed an emo­tional con­nec­tion.

Over­all, the pres­i­dent seemed com­fort­able in the garage, Maron said, even jok­ing about how many pic­tures of him­self the co­me­dian had as dec­o­ra­tion.

“He also no­ticed the post­card I have of two cats hav­ing sex,” Maron said, “but said, ‘ We can’t talk about that.’ ”

The White House first reached out to “WTF” a year ago but only sug­gested the pos­si­bil­ity of Obama ap- pear­ing on the show in March. Eric Schultz, Obama’s prin­ci­pal deputy press sec­re­tary, noted that it was “unique” for the pres­i­dent to be in­ter­viewed in a garage but said to a pool re­porter cov­er­ing the pres­i­dent that he hoped the in­ter­view would al­low Obama an op­por­tu­nity “to take some time away from the sort of daily back- and- forth of what’s in the news on any par­tic­u­lar day and re­ally of­fer lis­ten­ers the op­por­tu­nity to have more in­sight into how he makes de­ci­sions, what his day- to- day lifestyle is like, what he’s think­ing about in terms of his fam­ily, his past, his fu- ture — a lot of those sort of per­sonal re­flec­tions.”

In May, the in­ter­view date was locked in, and Maron be­gan his prepa­ra­tion — read­ing Obama’s au­to­bi­og­ra­phy “Dreams From My Fa­ther” and look­ing up videos of him as a young man. Fi­nal lo­gis­ti­cal prepa­ra­tions fell on McDon­ald’s shoul­ders, be­cause Maron was on va­ca­tion in Hawaii for the two weeks lead­ing to the in­ter­view.

Last week, the pro­ducer led Se­cret Ser­vice agents around Maron’s home and was told to clean out the garage a bit so Obama wouldn’t trip over any­thing.

When Maron re­turned Wed­nes­day, a tent was be­ing erected in his drive­way. Soon, se­cu­rity dogs sniffed through his home — he had to lock his beloved cats in his bed­room — and a sniper was po­si­tioned on his neigh­bor’s roof.

“But it didn’t be­come real to me un­til he got here,” Maron said. “I was so busy cram­ming my head and fig­ur­ing out a way to ap­proach it. I didn’t want to do a f luff in­ter­view, but I didn’t

want to do a po­lit­i­cal in­ter­view. I wanted to have a real con­ver­sa­tion.”

Though he’s known for his com­edy, Maron does have some­what of a back­ground in pol­i­tics: He used to host a show called “Morn­ing Sedi­tion” for left- lean­ing Air Amer­ica. “I used to be very in­volved in pol­i­tics, and for per­sonal rea­sons I de­cided I had deeper is­sues to deal with,” said Maron, his cigar reach­ing its end. “He said that the rea­son he came on my show is that he wants to en­gage peo­ple in pol­i­tics, pe­riod. When it comes right down to it, the Amer­i­can peo­ple have the power to change if they en­gage. But we all get caught up in an ag­gres­sive po­lit­i­cal di­a­logue, and we’ve be­come very cyn­i­cal. I think Obama knows that.”

Still, Maron’s neigh­bors were ex­cited to have the pres­i­dent in their hood, not far from Oc­ci­den­tal Col­lege, which Obama at­tended. Dozens filled the side­walks of the neigh­bor­hood, in­clud­ing a clown wear­ing makeup and jug­gling.

Be­fore Fri­day, many said they were un­aware that celebri­ties regularly vis­ited Maron’s garage for “WTF.”

“I’ve heard the ini­tials,” said Yolanda Lem, a poll in­spec­tor who lives nearby.

Her neigh­bor, Tr­ish Es­cobedo, said she would go straight home and try to find the pod­cast web­site.

“That’s the first thing I’m go­ing to do,” Es­cobedo said. “I re­ally want to know what he has to say in that par­tic­u­lar in­ter­view.”

Maron moved into his two- bed­room home in 2004, pay­ing $ 375,000 for it, ac­cord­ing to public records, be­fore High­land Park’s York Boule­vard be­came a haven for young artists and hip­sters. Now, he gets Stump­town cof­fee at Cafe de Leche and even got in a fight with the own­ers of Town Pizza over the qual­ity of their cheese pizza slices.

“I felt hor­ri­ble I made the pizza place mad. But they’ve per­fected their pie, fi­nally,” he said. “When I bought my house, I didn’t know noth­ing about High­land Park ei­ther. It seemed very far away from ev­ery­thing. And yeah, it’s a night­mare to get to the West­side. I don’t ever want to go. Like, I gotta pack a tent. But I have im­me­di­ate ac­cess to the Val­ley, down­town, Sil­ver Lake. I’m happy to be part of this com­mu­nity.”

Be­yond his neigh­bors dis­cov­er­ing “WTF” be­cause of the Obama ap­pear­ance, Maron doesn’t think “this is gonna be great for the pod­cast, or what­ever.” He’ll be happy if it brings at­ten­tion to the medium, since it’s free and it “of­fers an al­ter­nate space for peo­ple to ex­press them­selves on these mikes out­side of the cor­po­rate par­a­digm.”

And pod­casts are hav­ing a mo­ment. Last fall, the true- crime au­dio se­ries “Se­rial” be­came a sen­sa­tion; it was the fastest pod­cast in iTunes history to hit 5 mil­lion down­loads and streams. “WTF” pro­ducer McDon­ald says he’s no­ticed the ef­fect; down­loads of Maron’s pod­cast have ticked up at a faster pace since the first sea­son of “Se­rial” con­cluded in De­cem­ber. “When it was over, peo­ple thought, ‘ I’ve gotta find more of these,’ ” he said. “It helped di­rectly with lis­ten­ers and le­git­i­macy.”

Even so, “pod­caster” is not the first word Maron would use to de­scribe him­self. “I still have a hard time see­ing my­self as an in­ter­viewer,” he said. “I’m a stand- up comic. That’s my trade. I still see Terry [ Gross] as an in­ter­viewer and me as a con­ver­sa­tion­al­ist. An in­ter­viewer is not sup­posed to put them­selves first. I don’t want to deny any­body the work they’ve done, but I think what’s be­hind the work is more in­ter­est­ing. Some peo­ple would ar­gue, ‘ Who cares if he’s sad about his mom or the loss of that dog?’ But that might have de­fined his life. That’s what’s at the core of this stuff.”

Mean­while, Maron’s role as the day’s in­ter­viewer of the pres­i­dent did yield at least one sou­venir. Obama left his cof­fee cup em­bossed with the pres­i­den­tial seal on Maron’s desk. Hours af­ter the pres­i­dent’s de­par­ture, Maron hadn’t touched it.

Bar­bara David­son Los An­ge­les Times

“I WANTED

to have a real con­ver­sa­tion” rather than a po­lit­i­cal dis­cus­sion, pod­caster Marc Maron says in his High­land Park garage.

Bar­bara David­son Los An­ge­les Times

A SOU­VENIR of the visit: Obama’s cof­fee cup.

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