Step 4 in the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program—after admitting that one is powerless over alcohol, professing belief in a higher power, and making the decision to turn over one’s life to spiritual guidance—is to “make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” Even before he made a commitment to sobriety in 1999, Marc Maron, a standup comic who combines the in-your-head neuroses of Woody Allen and Larry David with the in-your-face attitude of Richard Pryor and Iggy Pop, had already spent years doing just that on stage, baring his soul to comedy club audiences with brutal self-awareness, vulnerability, and rage. He says his favorite type of laugh is one that sounds like it really should be a cry.
Maron, 47, started his comedy career in the mid-1980s in Boston and moved to New York City a few years later; he is considered one of the founding fathers of the alternative comedy scene that began in the city in the early 1990s. He has taped standup specials for Comedy Central and HBO, spent time on the road hitting comedy clubs across the country and performing at festivals around the world, and even scored a small role as “Angry Promoter” in the 2000 Cameron Crowe film “Almost Famous.” He has released three comedy albums; his 44 appearances on “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” is a record for a standup comic.
But after more than two decades “in the trenches of comedy,” as he calls it, Maron’s career had grown stagnant. By 2009, he was referred to as a “comedy veteran” and a “legend” but was struggling to sell tickets to his standup shows. The comedian reluctantly returned to Air America, the left-wing political talk radio station where he had hosted the early-morning program “Morning Sedition” from 2004–2005, to co-host a weekly hourlong video webcast called “Breakroom Live.”
“I had been fired from them two or three times,” Maron recalls. “I didn’t want to have anything to do with them, but I was in the middle of a divorce, and I was about to lose everything. That job really just got me out of my divorce without losing my house.”
“Breakroom Live” was canceled in the middle of the year, finally ending Maron’s contentious relationship with the now-defunct network. “They went broke again, and I was in trouble,” he says. “I was un-bookable; I couldn’t get any road work. I was washed up, my friend, and I had no real plan. I thought, ‘I built it, and they’re not coming. So what the f— do I do now?’ ” WTF, indeed.
Maron was at a turning point in his career. He just didn’t know it at the time.
Step 5: Admit our wrongs.
Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, Maron battled addictions to alcohol and drugs, including cocaine and marijuana, squandering many potential opportunities before getting sober more than a decade ago. He has tried to replace cigarettes with nicotine patches. His self-absorption, neediness, insecurity, anger, and hostility had alienated many of his peers, yet at the same time his honesty about those emotional and personal shortcomings resonated with his fans.
However, Maron says that his years as a liberal talk radio personality had become a liability to his comedy career by the end of the 2000s. “I didn’t think I was being true to what a comic’s supposed to do,” Maron says, “which is not be partisan necessarily, but to try to speak a language that anyone can understand, and get at the truth that way.” He found himself more interested in the existential questions of the human experience, moving away from the anger and politics that had informed his prior standup material.
Steps 6 and 7: Accept help.
Maron’s experience at Air America gave him the confidence to sit in front of a microphone without prepared material or an audience sipping at their two-drink minimums. “Once I learned to talk on that mic by myself,” he says, “I was born again, in a way.” AA’s sixth and seventh steps to recovery demand that addicts be ready ask for help from a higher power to remove their “defects of character,” and Maron had found something new to believe in.
Shortly after they were fired from Air America, Maron and his producer, Brendan McDonald, began to work on an experimental new project, born of desperation and Maron’s desire to create something new: “WTF With Marc Maron,” a free twice-weekly podcast in which the comedian conducts funny, probing, and often deeply personal one-on-one interviews with friends, acquaintances, and colleagues from a lifetime of standup comedy. Maron begins each episode of “WTF” with a 10- to 15-minute unscripted monologue of rants, reminiscences, and musings about his career, his feelings, his relationships, his cats, or whatever happened to him that day, before switching to the long-form interview.
At first, the podcast was produced guerilla-style in the Air America studios in New York. “We were there, you know? They didn’t take our security cards away,” Maron explains. “We literally broke into the studios of Air America with our security cards after hours and started recording it, bringing guests up the freight elevator, figuring out what the show was and how it would work.” The first episode, featuring an interview with roast comic Jeff Ross, was uploaded in September 2009.
A few months and about 20 episodes later, when Maron left his apartment in Astoria, Queens, and returned to his home in Los Angeles (which he calls the “cat ranch”), he set up a recording studio in his garage. Free of the limitations of what Howard Stern famously dubbed “terrestrial radio” and the strict format of an hourlong political talk show, he enjoyed the freedom of expression and creativity that podcasting allows. “WTF” quickly became a cult hit and a must-listen among comedy nerds and show-business insiders. Guests have since included stars such as Robin Williams, Ben Stiller, Judd Apatow, and Carlos Mencia. The podcast is consistently among the most downloaded on iTunes and has appeared on numerous lists of top comedy podcasts. As of the beginning of 2011, “WTF” averaged about 230,000 listeners per week and had been downloaded more than 17 million times. In April, Maron interviewed Conan O’Brien; the episode set a record with 127,000 downloads in a single day when it debuted in early April.
“If people become a fan of mine because of the podcast,” Maron says, “they know me in a very real and intimate way. It is the purest I’ve ever been, in any medium, and I bring that to the stage.”
The comic who had sometimes been mislabeled a misanthrope was really quite the opposite, just a man longing for human connection and real conversations about what makes comics, and the rest of humanity, do what they do.
“People didn’t take the time to try to understand me,” he says, “and now they have no choice.”
Steps 8 and 9: Make amends.
“Everyone should go through the ‘amends’ steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, whether or not they’re even an alcoholic,” Maron said during a conversation with Margaret Cho for an episode of “WTF.” “Like a store needs to take inventory on a regular basis, it’s good to look back on your own past interactions, so you can see when and to whom you were an asshole.”
For years, Maron had watched friends and fellow comics such as David Cross, Sarah Silverman, and Louis C.K. rise to stardom in film and television or sell out theaters as he continued to toil in relative anonymity at comedy clubs across the country. He grew jealous and spiteful of their success, wondering what he was doing wrong in his own career.
“WTF” suddenly gave him the opportunity to reach out to his peers and reconnect, make amends, and rebuild relationships. Many interviews begin with Maron apologizing to his guest for his past behavior, before unfolding into shockingly candid conversations about their shared experiences in comedy, show business, and life on the road—or usually the decidedly darker subjects of relationship woes, addictions, depression, and the like.
“The whole process has been about me evolving and becoming a better person, and more self-accepting, and more creative,” Maron declares. “You can see that in the arc of the show.”
It took months for Maron to persuade Louis C.K., once one of his closest friends, to join him in his garage for the podcast. Over the course of a two-episode interview, Maron is candid when he admits that his own career envy led to the deterioration of their friendship. (Maron said he believed that the title of C.K.’s acclaimed FX series, “Louie,” was actually saying, “Fuck You, Marc Maron.”) The two-part discussion is one of the podcast’s most talked-about, and it seemed that listeners had witnessed these two middle-aged men rekindle their relationship.
“I tell him I’m happy to sit down anytime for a real conversation, but he just wants me to do the podcast again,” Louis C.K. told New York magazine last month. “It’s a little weird.”
Steps 10 and 11: Continue personal inventory and pray for recovery.
“I get very moved by the struggle of people that are fighting with addiction,” Maron told actor-comedian Andy Dick during their conversation on the podcast in April this year. “What I realized is that, basically, there’s no way that I can use drugs or drink safely. I’m going to hurt myself, I’m going to hurt other people, I’m going to cause trouble, and there’s no way to stop it when it starts. So I had to figure out how not to start.”
As both a standup and a podcast host, Maron is as self-effacing as he is self-important. He admits that he can still be passive-aggressive or downright mean, but each insult or backhanded compliment is followed quickly by a contrite “I’m sorry.” He expresses surprise any time his guest in the garage claims to have had a “normal” childhood. When I question this, it prompts a characteristic riff from Maron:
“I think that’s just an example of me projecting me onto people,” he says. “I generally find in my experience that one of the reasons why [comics] are such a weird group of gypsies, is that something is a bit flawed. I am surprised when people are really healthy, but no, I don’t think it’s necessary to be flawed to be a great comic.” He pauses. “Maybe that’s not true. To be a great comic, you’re probably kind of f—ed up. But to be funny and to work in show business, you don’t have to be f—ed up. You’ve just got to be a little crazy. In acting and in standup comedy, we’re emotionally children. Your dream is childish.”
His instinct to dominate a conversation and make it all about him is tempered by the intimacy of the topics he chooses to discuss, which improbably results in interviewees matching Maron’s vulnerability and candor. It also probably helps that the interviews are recorded using the same hand-held microphones that standup comics hold on stage.
“Because of sobriety and because of the process of the podcast,” Maron says, “I was now talking to my peers about things that were important to me, and they turned out to be important to them too. Through the podcast, I was able to sort of reintegrate myself into the community, change my peers’ attitudes about me as well as my own attitudes about myself, be a little more accepting of myself and what I was really feeling, and also knowing that it was relatable. So the biggest changes in my career—creatively, professionally, personally, and emotionally—really took place in the last couple of years.”
Step 12: Spread the message to help others.
As a direct result of the podcast, Maron has seen the size of his standup audiences swell over the past two years, and frequent live “WTF” tapings can draw even larger crowds. But as Maron himself has said, it takes a decade to become an overnight success. He continues to hone his craft as a standup, which is still his primary occupation no matter how much time and effort the podcast demands. (“I write jokes for Marc Maron,” he deadpans. “That’s my job.”)
“I do comedy clubs where there’s plenty of people that don’t know who I am, and I enjoy the challenge of that,” Maron says. “I think that’s part of my job, that I should be able to entertain people who don’t know me. I did that for years, and I can. Touring and doing standup comedy for a living is what I set out to do, and there’s part of me that has to honor that.”
After he was Maron’s guest on an October 2010 episode of “WTF,” Ira Glass, the host of “This American Life” on National Public Radio, wrote in a blog entry:
“Being interviewed by Maron reminded me of an old axiom about interviewing: that an interview is a party you’re throwing and your guest will mirror your behavior. Marc is an insanely intense guy, and stares into you as you talk—it really feels like his eyes are piercing inside you—and then when he speaks he reaches inside himself and talks in the most heartfelt way possible. In a room with that, you’d have to be made of stone not to respond in the most soulful way you can summon up. He’s emotionally present and he makes you emotionally present. I don’t think that’s any kind of calculated move, it’s who he is when he’s performing. And of course it gets amazing results.”
Glass’ praise of “WTF,” which he called “the New York Times of comedy podcasts,” led to a sudden increase in downloads of the podcast, and Maron believes it was this breakthrough that first drew the attention of listeners who may never have set foot in a comedy club. The podcast is still free, and relies on sponsors, listener donations, and the sale of “premium episodes” to support Maron’s simple but growing home business. The podcast supports itself financially at this point, but Maron is not getting rich yet.
Jesse Thorn, a radio and podcast personality who hosts “The Sound of Young America” for Public Radio International, announced in late May that he and Maron had compiled some “WTF” segments into a new 10-episode “best of” series that will air on public radio in select markets and is available to stream online at PRX.org. “Our goal was to capture what makes ‘WTF’ special,” Thorn said, “and communicate it to folks who aren’t comedy nerds, or even necessarily comedy fans.”
Maron is also writing a book of autobiographical essays. His fourth album, tentatively titled “This Has to Be Funny,” will be released this summer on Comedy Central Records.
“Realize that being a working club comedian, as romantic and exciting as it sounds, may not work out,” Maron advises. “Don’t be afraid to write, work with other people, learn some other skills that you can use as a way to push your comedy out there. And don’t limit those possibilities by just saying you want to be a standup.”
Marc Maron will host two live “WTF” shows a The Bell House in Brooklyn, NY on June 1 at 7 and 9 p.m. (7 p.m.: Jonathan Katz, Judy Gold, Marina Franklin, Keith Robinson, and Will Arnett; 9 p.m.: Wyatt Cenac, Sam Lipsyte, Tom Scharpling, Horatio Sanz, and Kevin Allison.)
This profile was published online May 28, 2011 at BackStage.com.