In an effort to save time in this busy world, the phrase “What the fuck?!” has been downsized to the acronym “WTF,” three letters that are widely (over)used on the Internet to indicate feelings of shock, surprise and sometimes dismay. But for a certain percentage of the world (meaning comedy nerds), the three letters are inextricably linked to Marc Maron, a product of the alternative comedy era and whose podcast, WTF with Marc Maron has not only become one of the top podcasts of the comedy variety, but has broadened Maron’s own appeal and fan base. To spread his curmudgeonly wings even further, he created his own TV show, Maron, the second season of which premiered earlier this month on IFC. There’s also last year’s Thinky Pain stand-up special (which was recently released as an LP), as well as his active Twitter presence. It might not be an empire, exactly, but the former Air America host has come to occupy just about every corner of the comedy world.
When we start our phone conversation, Maron greets me with a warm “Hey buddy.” It catches me a bit off guard. It’s not that I was expecting a full-on WTF diatribe, but out of all interviews I have done over the phone, Maron is one of the first to be so friendly and welcoming. This would explain why everyone on his podcast is so comfortable with him, inevitably leading to the very candid and meaningful conversations that have kept people coming back to WTF since the program began in 2009.
He is very open with the ins and outs and ups and downs when it comes to his career. He talks about writing with Steve Brill (who would later direct comedies like Mr. Deeds and the forthcoming Walk of Shame) during college; he mentions entering comedy competitions in Boston during the late ‘80s; and he briefly reflects on a time in his life when he was hired as a doorman at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles and how things “got ugly with drugs and alcohol.” But in the beginning, Maron admits he had no idea how to start a comedy career.
“I remember one time I was at the Comic Strip in New York just watching a show,” says Maron. “Paul Reiser was hanging out at the bar. I asked him, ‘How did you become a comic?’ He said, ‘Well, you just go out and do it.’”
There wasn’t necessarily a defining moment that made Maron say “This is what I want to do.” He just knew he wanted to do comedy and, like every other successful person in the world, he worked hard to achieve his goal. He did open mics in Boston, shelved his career to finish college and then moved to L.A. (where the aforementioned ugly drug and alcohol period took place) to do more open mics. Eventually, he found himself back in Boston where he felt like he had to start over again. Even though he was frustrated that he wasn’t getting the same opportunities other people were, Maron still continued working as a comic trying to catch a break because that’s just how he is. It needed to be done.
“Once I got about a half-hour of material, you just keep going. It’s your whole life,” he explains. “You wake up, you carry your notebook around and you just see how you made a living for these five and ten minute sets. Once I started working, I didn’t see any other options for me in life.”
For almost three decades, Maron has been in the comedy game with nuanced, observational humor that exhibits a smart combination of self-deprecation, dark-but-not-too-dark humor, and his own brand of what-the-fuckery. This all of course is reflected in his podcast, but before WTF became WTF, people on the East Coast knew Maron from his time on the radio during the early ‘00s, which eventually paved the way to his role as a podcast trendsetter. Despite the rocky road with some “executive decisions and problems” that led to him to leave the radio world, Maron was at home behind a mic. Even though he didn’t listen to any podcasts, he knew Jimmy Pardo, Adam Carolla and Kevin Smith were doing them so he just said, “Let’s start recording some shit.”
“We weren’t sure what the show was going to be and we had no real expectation out of it,” he says. “There was no way to really monetize it and I needed to keep doing something. [The podcast] started to take off and we were enjoying it.”
When he moved back to L.A., he continued his podcast in his own garage studio, which is still the spot where all of his podcasting magic takes place today. The podcast has evolved into a talk show where Maron brings on a guest and they just talk. Although it’s simple, he created a podcasting template for several current podcasts to spring up in the wake of WTF. The only difference is his roster of guests and the material he talks about is probably one of the most impressive, and his ranking in the top 10 comedy podcasts in iTunes is testimony to that.
“I know what interests me about the person I’m about to talk to and I get a sense of who that person is and where they are from,” says Maron about his podcasting process. “I just sort of fly by the seat of my pants and hope I can have a conversation. I think that my own personal need is to emotionally engage with people.”
That’s why actors, comedians and other personalities from the world of media and entertainment flock to his show; it’s not just one type of person. Lena Dunham spent an hour chatting with Maron, and film nerds were giddy when both Ivan and Jason Reitman talked about their work on two separate episodes. Of course, a long roster of comedians and comic actors have paid a visit to his garage: Will Forte, Andy Samberg, Will Ferrell, Tom Arnold, Kevin Macdonald, Morgan Murphy, Aisha Tyler, Lewis Black, Judy Greer and boatloads of others.
Even though his podcast is classified as “comedy,” the episodes aren’t really an hour of jokes and laughs. As Maron says, they are conversations – and in-depth conversations at that. He has a way to getting personal without probing. He isn’t in the “the business of sandbagging or digging for dirt.” As all good conversations go, personal stories just come out organically. Case in point: the Todd Glass episode. When the comedian was on the show, he decided to use it as a trustworthy outlet to come out of the closet. Maron didn’t exploit it. He served as a an appropriate conduit for such news. As a result, it was a memorable episode.
The success of Maron’s podcast eventually caught the eye of Jim Serpico, co-founder of the TV and Film Production company that is responsible for series like Rescue Me and the movie Blow. He was interested in working with Maron to produce a TV show. The most obvious thing to do would have been an interview show, but Maron said that he didn’t know if he can achieve the type of conversations he has in his garage on television.
“I thought that the world of a guy who interviews celebrities in his garage and has trouble maintaining relationships and not landing on his feet is interesting,” says Maron. “[Serpico] said ‘Yes, that’s a good idea,” and I said, ‘Well, I’m living it.’”
Maron wrote the script for a presentation and Luke Matheny directed it. They took it around to HBO and Showtime, but eventually landed on IFC, which has been establishing itself as a burgeoning comedy powerhouse withs shows like Portlandia, The Spoils of Babylon and Comedy Bang! Bang!
Maron sees an exaggerated version of Maron living an exaggerated version of Maron’s life. It’s self-aware, very observational and gives us a fly-on-the-wall perspective of what his life is like. The first season was an introduction to TV Maron and immediately evoked a more cult-like version of shows like Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. It’s a mix of comedy, tragedy and glorious misadventures that make us cringe with glee.
True to meta-form, the show shows him recording his podcast in his garage with guests like Dave Foley, Aubrey Plaza, Adam Scott and Illeana Douglas. Sometimes they get involved in the plot, other times they are a welcomed cameo for comedy nerds, but it’s the situations and Maron’s reactions that make the show what it is. From small quirky moments (Maron wearing his jeans while sitting in a bathtub full of water to get the perfect fit) to ongoing story lines that may or may not parallel his real life (his relationship with Nora Zehetner’s Jen that started in the “Sex Fest” episode), the show is what we all hope his life is really like.
Now in its second season, Maron continues to inject real life comedy personas in Maron-verse. The season premiere had Maron on Chris Hardwick’s Walking Dead recap show, Talking Dead. In addition to a tense backstage exchange of insults between him and fellow Michael Ian Black (which is surprisingly similar to the friendly Twitter feud they had last year), Hardwick holds a undying grudge against Marc for treating him like shit. To add even more fuel to the fire, an angry Jen calls in during the show to talk to Marc. Needless to say, his appearance on the show isn’t the greatest, thus giving the audience a wonderful case of schadenfreude and a great kick off to Season 2.
It’s not often that a comedian can have longevity like Maron. He came up in comedy when it was changing and can be considered one of the pioneers of alternative comedy. But even though he’s kept an impressive pace with the media landscape, he doesn’t think the comedy world has changed.
“I think it’s still the same as it ever was. There just seems to be more venues for people to do their thing which is good and bad,” says Maron. “I don’t know that there are more comedians working today. I think that there are more people doing comedy because you can do comedy anywhere. When it comes down to it, I still believe that to do the job of a comic, you need to be paid to be a comic, but there’s a lot more avenues and ways to do it now than when I started. There’s a hell of a lot more people claiming they’re comedians than there used to be.”