WTF Is Going On Inside Marc Maron’s Head?
The cult comic opens up about his WTF podcast, IFC show, women, integrity and the perils of interviewing his heroes.
It’s early in the morning in Manhattan’s East Village, on the eve of the premiere of the third season of the hit IFC show Maron, starring Marc Maron, host of the long-running podcastWTF. Maron, 51, shows up in the lobby of the Bowery Hotel pre-caffeinated and healthy with a short haircut, black Stooges t-shirt, chunky Tag Heur watch (a present from his mom), and a sparkling, fan-made WTF ring. We head to the restaurant next door to chat over eggs, broccoli rabe and still more coffee (Pow! We just shit our pants). After I was a guest on his show last year, we’ve texted back and forth and met for breakfast when he’s visited New York, but this is the first time I’ve actually interviewed him. With his wildly popular podcast, IFC sitcom, upcoming interview show for Vice, and sold-out stand-up gigs, there’s plenty of Maron to go around, but yet his devoted fan base still seems to want more. I spoke to him about show business, women, integrity, and the future of WTF.
So when I was promoting my book I was excited to do WTF mainly because I was a fan. I think now you’re at a place where you’re having guests on who are not necessarily big fans of WTF, but just want to promote stuff. How do you avoid becoming like Mike Douglas or Merv Griffin?
“Mike Douglas or Merv?” What, did we just go into a time machine? You know it’s always going to be a long form show except when I did the Rolling Stones.
Right, but I’ve had people call me since then ask if I could help get their artists on your podcast somehow. If I could reach out to you. Sometimes, like in the case of Kim Gordon, I knew you were a music fan and I thought you might be interested. I read her book and thought it was really good but sometimes it’s a very random request.
Yeah. I read the book before I talked to her. Thank God I did, or else I would’ve been in really big trouble. She’s not easy.
After I did the show, two things would happen. There would be a stranger in a bar or at a party and they’ll say “You were really good on WTF” and then there’d be another person who has nakedly, without any subtext ask, “Can you get me on that show because I have a film I want to promote?” And that’s just me, a one-time guest. So I thought how awkward it must be for Maron to keep the show from becoming this sort of round robin of promotional appearances, because I’m sure that’s not what you conceived it as.
It’s never going to become that because it’s all relative to my interests, I don’ t really owe that many people favors. I’ve done a couple of interviews that I thought would be interesting and I didn’t really know the person. It’s not a junket show but I did do it with the Stones. I got pitched Mick and Keith. Ten minute interviews.
Which was strictly promotional?
I listened. They were just like zombies.
No they weren’t. They engaged. Did you really listen to it?
I did listen to it and I’ve interviewed Mick.
I don’t they were zombies, they both made jokes.
Mick is very polite.
He was listening. He was engaged.
Oh yeah. I mean, he’ll show up.
I was not quick to jump on it because it is not what my show does was to contextualize it by bringing in my friend and have us share the experience of anticipation of them calling in. Because he was a Stones superfan. As someone who has had Mick Jagger on the other end of the phone as well, you think of your parents you think of Altamont, the Tattoo You tour with the football pins, it fucks with your head. Even with someone who is a little bit jaded with fame it’s a…Rolling Stone. I knew that I was not going to get anything out of them.
But your show lately has been pulling down serious guests left and right as far as getting some sheavy duty people to talk. When you got [writer] Nick Tosches, I was like, fuck. I was impressed.
But he’s heavy duty to you and that’s interesting.
He’s heavy duty as a writer.
Absolutely. You were asking me “How do I avoid it becoming this junket show?” I’ll tell you how. By tracking down Nick Tosches and dragging him up to my hotel room and sitting with him for 45 minutes.
That’s what I assumed and that’s what I said to people who had worthy projects to promote: “I don’t think Marc operates that way, I think I could get your film reel to his assistant and if it’s something interesting he’ll look into it. But it’s not going to help you in anyway promote your film in the window that you would prefer to promote it because he’s backlogged for like months and months.”
The truth of the matter is I don’t know everybody and if people say “You should watch this or my producer or partner says I need to watch this, I’ll watch the stuff. If I can wrap my head around it then, okay.”
It’s good because it’s become a venue where you can have a novelist or writer on my level who has only sold like a couple thousand books and then you can have Lena Dunham who is like this cultural icon. There are very few shows that can do that.
That’s what it used to be the shows that you talked about that’s what they used to be back in the time where Dick Cavett would have…
High and low art. I remember being very excited when Merv had Oingo Boingo as a guest.
Yeah, and now it’s like I can’t even get on the Tonight show, I’m like, “What do I have to do?”
Well, let me ask you about the IFC show, because I just watched the first two episodes of season three of Maron, which premiered in May, and your, character your “Marc,” is having career problems. Your alternate TV you is not where the actual you is, with sold out comedy tours. Do you have to backtrack mentally to a time when the real you was still having those struggles? And will it eventually become disingenuous. Look at Bourdain. I remember liking him because he was still in touch with being an underdog. And now he’s sort of, you still like him but he’s ceased to be the underdog you root for. I know he’s been on the show as well.
You know what’s interesting about him, he was the guy you rooted for but he still seemed to be doing an odd show. I don’t think about it too much.
Do you worry about ceasing to become the guy that people root for? Like the guy who started in his garage and is one of us. Are you still one of us?
I think so.
Howard Stern is another example.
That’s different. I’m not making that kind of bread, dude and the truth is with my tour, they’re still just my people there’s no real mainstream crossover happening.
How did your memoir, Attempting Normal, do?
The book did okay. It did 23,000.
Did you know what I mean about Bourdain though? And I should say he was nothing but gracious when I wanted to get an interview quote from him for Maxim a few years ago…
I hear what you’re saying but I think if you were to really ask Anthony where are you at, he’d say, “I’m the luckiest guy in the fucking world I wasn’t even that good a chef.”
Maybe that’s just my personal hang-up.
Well you know he’s not the guy I would sort of pick to go “That’s a sellout.”
Not a sellout but someone that has such a good life that he’s gone establishment. Maybe that’s just human nature.
When I look at Bourdain, I still look at him and think “when’s he going to have a fucking heart attack? Why is he drinking?”
It’s something about using Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” as his bumper music that is both a victory because he got an Iggy Pop song on CNN and something a little gross about it.
Iggy’s been making a couple bucks.
Well Iggy he’s been helped along by a lot of people over the years.
I understand your judgment and it makes sense for you.
It all comes down to the same question of integrity, how do you keep the integrity of your show?
Just by nature, I don’t know if I can become Merv. I still have emotional needs from my guests. I still get frustrated when an interview doesn’t work out. I’m still not going to talk less than an hour to anybody. I’m not going to do an interview with someone who I know is vapid and incapable of talking for an hour.
Is the booking process the same?
Not really. I don’t have the reach, so I get people the way we used to. But we’ve been using booking agencies here and there that pitch people to me. I’m going to interview Boz Scaggs for example. Why? I don’t know. Because he’s Boz Scaggs. Is there an hour there? Of course there is. Does that make me Merv Griffin? No. I just interviewed Kurt Metzger in my hotel room. I spent an hour with David Byrne yesterday. These are not sell-out guests. These are not Merv Griffin guests. I don’t want to do those kind of interviews. I can’t. I get too frustrated and it doesn’t sound good.
But they’re going to knock on your door…they probably have already.
There’s a couple of filters.
So how do you say no to someone who is blatantly promoting?
We don’t do it. We make it understandable to the booking agencies. My producer makes it understandable to everybody.
So if you had a chance to interview Kevin Hart and he’s clearly promoting a film because he’s all over Twitter and that’s all he does, you don’t re-book him?
Here’s the thing I’ve never done a longform interview twice, ever.
You’ve never repeated guests?
I’ve repeated guests, but never for the whole hour. Like, the reason I had you on to promote your book is because I like you and you’re a friend. So if you’re a friend of mine and you’re a friend to the show and you’ve got a thing you’re selling I’ll probably have you on for ten minutes because of me. Like yesterday here’s a good example, we run ads on the show and one of the ads that was bought was for the film D Train, so I saw Jack Black at the hotel literally staying down the hall from me.
He’s been on the show.
He’s been on the show with Kyle, for Tenacious D, he’s never done it solo. There’s a little weirdness between them because Kyle is slightly bitter and there’s no way he can’t be and Jack feels ashamed. So I see Jack and I’m like I got to do a quote for your movie anyway do you want to talk to me for ten minutes and he was like alright and we did it, it went up today and it was great.
Let’s talk about the TV show a bit more.
Well I want to address the question that you asked.
It wasn’t mean to be a provocative question.
It’s not provocative. It’s a good question but with the show what I needed to do, what happened this season were real issues that I was having looking for that opportunity and oddly the opportunity to do some sort of interview show happened after we shot the show with Vice, you know I’m doing this thing for Vice I don’t know how that’s going to go.
What are you doing for Vice?
The Vice channel. No they’re starting a network so they’re going to have…
Like a CNN for young people?
Kind of right, so I’m going to do the interview show for them.
Don’t they have like a shit ton of money and it’s all from Canada?
I don’t know. Isn’t it Murdoch money? Anyway I was looking for a way to do interviews on TV and we’ll see how we can do and you know Spike Jones is involved and he sought me out and his vision for how he wanted it to work.
Is this going to be the last season of the IFC show?
No I don’t think so. Maybe, but I don’t think so.
You’re going to juggle the podcast with this Vice thing with the IFC show? And tour and probably do another book?
And have a heart attack. I’m not really gung-ho on the book. I think we’re doing a book of edited interviews, kind of the best of that’s sort of what we’re doing.
I bet it will read well in text.
Some of it, it’s a matter of editing and how it’s going to be framed.
Do you ever read the Paris Review interviews, the collected interviews? Writers At Work?
I have read some of those.
They read really well.
I needed a way to sort of depart exclusively from my life; I’ve done it a bit in both seasons where we start with my life or an event in my life and we build out from there but this season you know the possibilities, you know we all were comfortable we’re in a groove writing wise feeling more comfortable as an actor.
That’s where you’re supposed to be in the third season.
Yeah so we wanted to take it somewhere else and we followed a career trajectory that definitely went not the way I would have wanted it to go, like the worst case scenario is what we explored.
Failure is more interesting. I think also, you’re obliged to be different like the third season of Seinfeld , you saw the parking garage episode and the fourth season of Seinfeld , you saw “The Contest,” You saw them having the freedom to do whatever the fuck they want.
I don’t know if we have that.
But you’re supposed to flip the script a little bit in the third season is my point. You’ve earned it.
Well we didn’t sit down and go “Third season is where you take chances.”
You establish a formula you get characters that people like, your assistant Kyle (Josh Brener) and your dad (Judd Hirsch) and then you flip it.
The thing is the budget we’re shooting at we didn’t even know if we could get him. We had to fight.
He’s a great character.
Right, every season we start because of the budget we operate at because of other people’s commitment we’re like can we even get him. We had to get HBO to release Josh and we wrote him into five episodes and we could only get him for two, so we don’t have to money to pull this sort of like long view thing.
I’m just asking, it incumbent of you and your staff to raise the game in the third season?
I think what was incumbent of me and my staff, which happened naturally is to say “Hey, we’re comfortable with each other. Let’s take some risks lets really understand what this character Maron can and can’t do, let’s make it funnier if we can.”
Can we talk about women for a little bit?
The last time I saw you, you were with somebody.
Now she’s not your girlfriend anymore.
No, that ended abruptly.
And you guys were happy. It was winter in New York and it was snowing. Did it end badly?
Not tremendously badly.
She is super charming and super funny.
I couldn’t be what she wanted and I couldn’t handle what she is.
Well it’s hard to enter into a relationship with someone who has a family already, which she does.
A little, but it was just sort of…I didn’t see intimacy or trust as being possible in that.
I’m only asking this not in the context of prying into your personal life because even among friends like us, I feel like certain things are personal but in the context of the show there seems to be this revolving door of women. Dana Gordon from Entourage is among your those actresses this season.
Oh yeah, Constance Zimmer. She’s great, I love her.
I was surprised to see her in the episode and happily so but is it going to become a revolving door off the trials and tribulations of your romantic life?
Not this season because…
That’s a cool ring. A WTF ring. Did a fan give you that?
Yeah, years ago. They made it.
Is it silver?
Its platinum with gold and diamond I think.
How do you process all the fan portraits of you that I see on the internet now? People seem to love rendering you.
It’s exciting I’m narcissistic enough to appreciate it but I’m also stunned and amazed to know I provoked that type of creativity.
You walk that balance of narcissism and humility constantly, Marc. That’s not any easy job.
I’m a little self-involved, so it’s not that hard.
Yeah, but when someone sends you a portrait of you that they created, that’s got to be at least a little weird.
It can be but I’ve gotten used to it, I’ve gotten to the point where I can respond, “Good job I’m glad you’re creating.”
I’ve had people send me copies of my own book to autograph and then FedEx back.
Yeah, I’ve done that.
But no one has made me cupcakes or anything.
I’m just glad I bring that out in people because one time when I was kid I drew John Lennon and I spent a lot of time doing it and you have to wonder, why would you draw somebody? So it’s very flattering.
After he died or before he died?
Before, when I was in junior high.
So back to women…
So this season there’s a couple of dating shows but…we really got away from that. And we got a little bit away from family. Although there’s an episode with my niece there’s and episode with my brother there’s one episode with my father so maybe not.
Are you still drawing on your life or are you making things up?
We are definitely making things up, but the emotional reality it is what it is. Like there’s one episode with my brother: he gets a new job and he wants me to do something for the company he works for and I reluctantly say yes and I cause some problems for him. That never happened but the idea that my brother needs a job or got a new job that’s a reality. So they’re kind of seeded in experience and idea’s that are from my real life, but my real life as it turns out is not that large it’s not 36 episodes large in a way. So to sort of establish this world and establish these characters and their personal trajectories and then move them around into fictional stories is a great relief I think that as a third season that was the exciting thing it’s like I was willing to go like let’s just make some shit up.
The first two seasons are very solid, so you had that to build on.
I think that was a great evolution.
The show gets recapped but it’s not overexposed. Not too much press which can be annoying.
I remained under the radar.
You slid into a place where you are very famous but….
Well, you’re very appreciated for what you do as a comedian but you’re not like Amy Schumer who is everywhere.
No, I don’t have that mainstream exposure.
Or even Louie, I mean he sold out four nights at Madison Square Garden. Did you go see any of those?
No, I saw him a couple times on that tour.
I was shocked when I heard that.
Well, comedy is a big business now. There’s a few guys that are selling out a lot of big halls.
Why is that? Is it because of the Internet?
I’m not sure I think that it might be, who the hell knows? There have been huge acts in comedy but there seems to be…it seems that the live comedy business is very healthy right now and I think that’s because there’s a whole new wave of young comedy fans or it might just be because of the age we live in, who knows.
Can we talk about the podcast again?
Do you approach a personal hero like a Nick Tosches or a John Fogerty differently than you would a different kind of guest. Do you get nervous? Is there a difference?
I’m very nervous.
Well speaking to people in general is high tension.
Because you don’t know where it’s going to go or how it’s going to work. out. Tosches wasn’t easy dude.
He’s a drunk isn’t he?
He was okay. It was the morning he wasn’t that beat up but me I get very nervous to be honest with you. After the Kim Gordon interview I was like “Oh my God, I couldn’t get her to talk to me.”
She’s a little icy.
Emotionally, she was present.
Sorry. That’s probably subjective. I don’t mean like she’s an ice queen in a demeaning way. I mean, well put it this way, when I interviewed Sonic Youth Thurston was an ass, Lee was a Sweetheart, the drummer didn’t show up, and Kim just looked me over.
Emotionally, she was present. And it turned out I did a great interview with her but I was nuts over it. I think like a lot of people project onto her. I think she’s very sweet. I think she actually might be shy. But yeah, I get incredibly nervous dude.
How can you still be shy at 62? How can you give a fuck about anything anymore?
Oh, I don’t know, I’m 51.
Especially when you’ve been a rock star for 30 years.
Then you pretend not to give a fuck. It’s part of the job.
I’m 45 and I don’t give a fuck.
I don’t believe that’s true.
I guess I’m asking if you have varied modes of preparation for the more imperious guests of the podcast?
Imperious. Does that mean statue?
I get nervous around people I respect.
Yes. David Byrne is another good example. He was important to me…I’ve become better. I still panic just as much. I had some breakthroughs over the last week about things I could do that I didn’t know what I could do.
You also had John Doe on recently. You’ve had a really good run of heavy people.
Paul Thomas Anderson. Richard Linklater.
Are you in a good place in your personal life?
It’s okay. I’m dating a painter.
Has your dating pool widened? Or has it stayed the same?
I don’t know what dating is. I ended up dating someone for a little while they move in or they don’t and somehow it ends in drama.
Is it easier to date someone who’s not in the business?
Yeah it is but then they’re in their own business.
Creative people are creative people….they don’t need you as much. They have their studios and they don’t need you. They’re self possessed.
I’m living it. You’re right. Self-possessed is a good word.
Here’s a weird question–when you look out from your desk–with your microphone and you’re doing your pre-show monologue. Your podcast episode set up, who are you talking to? Who or what are you picturing?
I’m not talking to anybody.
Are you talking to yourself?
I’m sharing what’s in my mind. It’s real stream of consciousness shit. I’m letting my brain reveal to me things and I’m engaged in that.
Is it first take best take or do you re do them?
It’s all raw–I never redo those. So I’m actually having this relationship with my thoughts out loud. It’s just getting comfortable with that medium to do that was a big breakthrough?
Did you ever read Stephen King’s On Writing?
I think I tried once.
I ask because he talks about having an imaginary reader and I always wondered having seen the way the show goes, if you have an imaginary listener.
I don’t see another person or really worry about who the audience is…
The other thing I notices about WTF is that it’s a place to go when someone passes away like Robin Williams and what’s that guy Harris -?
Yes It’s a shame someone like me who survived that shit I get immediate pangs of horrible guilt… and so I listened to that episode as a kind of therapy. And Robin was very open about his struggles with drugs and alcohol and depression on your show and he gave up. So listening to that was also…
I don’t know what the whole back story is, but yeah.
Well whatever it is, he gave up. He’s gone. Do you feel like you’re deputized to grief counsel your audience when someone like that is lost?
For me it’s a reaction. We have this (old episode) It currently behind the pay wall. It’d like to make it available when that happens and yes, it absolutely helps me….I was stunned [by Williams death] but then you realize… I talked to him like a comic talks to a comic. Comics have problems. Everyone has problems but just like it’s weird how does that guy get removed from the world?
We recently had Letterman retire and Jon Stewart is leaving the Daily Show. It begs the question: What is the future of WTF? How long can it go on? Do you want to hit a thousand episodes?
We’re at six hundred today. I know that it’s there. It’s all mine. My partner Brendan McDonald and myself, it’s our business…and yes, let’s keep doing it. I want to try to keep it interesting. To broaden it out a little bit—engage new guests. Do some exciting things. Be creative. And keep talking to people. I like doing it and it’s mine.
How are we doing?
Is this fun? Do you feel okay?
You make me edgy.
Because you’re edgy.
I’m not edgy. It’s early!
Listen to your tone.