Up front By sharing his own frailties, Maron creates a space where people feel safe talking about things they wouldn’t typically get into during an interview. (Leigh Righton)
When I left Marc Maron on the concrete terrace of Montreal’s Hyatt Regency, he was 40 minutes into an Hoyo de Monterrey and getting miked up for his fourth interview since lighting the cigar. Maron looked casual. Heavy stubble encroached on his soulpatch and sideburns, and his thick-rimmed plastic glasses, blue plaid shirt, and brown brogue boots suggested someone stuck in his thirties. At 50, Maron is inconspicuous alongside the younger stand-up comedians with whom he regularly performs. He had come to Canada for an international comedy festival, and media trawled the hotel for Q&As with the hundreds of lanyarded performers who darted through the lobby and restaurant like fish in an aquarium. Maron had obliged all who’d asked.
In each interview, Maron fielded well-worn questions with familiar answers: His longform interview podcast, WTF, was born of losing his job as a radio host, a failed marriage, and the need to reconnect with people; he never expected that a project recorded in his garage would lead to a book deal, a television show, and the rejuvenation of a 25-year career in stand-up comedy; some of his favorite guests have been Robin Williams, Conan O’Brien, and Mel Brooks.
The most interesting part of the exchanges was what the interviewers revealed to Maron about themselves. One 15-year-old blogger, for instance, said unprompted that he wanted nothing more than to be a professional music writer; a TV interviewer said that when she smelled the cigar smoke, it reminded her of hanging out with her grandmother; and a comedy journalist regretfully attributed missing his big break into show business to his own arrogance.
After the last interview, Maron smiled and said, almost mischievously, “People just like to tell me things.”
People telling him things is what makes Maron’s podcast one of the most compelling interview shows on the internet and radio. Even though his unpolished on-air presence violates the most basic rules of journalistic interviewing, WTF is gradually becoming an oral-history archive of American comedy and pop culture. Each episode of the twice-weekly podcast is downloaded more than 200,000 times, and there are currently 22,000 paying subscribers who get access to bonus material and the entire archive of episodes. WNYC, New York’s public-radio station, began carrying truncated versions of the show in 2011, and the first 100 episodes were recently catalogued at the Library of Congress—WTF is the only podcast it has collected. The veteran comic has unintentionally become one of the best entertainment interviewers working today, getting what most arts and culture reporters rarely do: earnest stories from artists about their lives and work—whether it’s Robin Williams reflecting on the shame of being caught stealing jokes, or comedian Richard Lewis recounting his darkest experiences of substance abuse.
Stand-up comedy, a career based on being alone on a stage talking at an audience in uninterrupted bursts, wouldn’t seem the place to find someone who makes you want to share the intimate details of your life. Maron’s style in particular can be confessional, sourced from relationships, career, and family—and manic contemplation of relationships, career, and family. It’s a style he brings from the spotlight to the podcast, framing interviews with a lens that projects his worldview onto guests. In one episode, Maron confronted This American Life host Ira Glass with how he felt being in the TAL offices:
My impression of the world that you live in is a sort of a rarefied air to me. I believe that, like, you know, you have a lot of disciplined people that were relatively decently parented, that have a certain amount of discipline. You have a structure, you seem to be all fairly sophisticated and educated and read books. This is the myth that I put together.
The comparison of TAL to his own show made him “feel small” in Glass’ “mythic presence.” Maron does this regularly. Rather than ask questions, he presents a conception of his guests directly to them, often delivered in run-on sentences, and awaits a response.
Such tactics would cause the dispassionate journalist’s pen to skitter across the notebook. Neutrality in interviewing is a hallmark of journalism orthodoxy. Standard operating procedure holds that if questions are open-ended and unguided, the subject will answer comfortably, without coercion. So Maron, by dropping his emotionally fraught judgments of TAL into Glass’ lap, left him nothing to address. Or so the thinking goes.