Q&A: Marc Maron on WTF he thinks about interviewing

A great interview is one of the journalist’s most powerful tools. For the next five weeks, the Columbia Journalism Review and MaximumFun.org will broadcast conversations with some of the world’s greatest interviewers. Hosted by NPR’s Jesse Thorn, the podcast, called The Turnaround, will examine the science and art of journalism.

This episode features Marc Maron, comedian and host of the podcast, WTF with Marc Maron. An edited transcript is below.

 

PRESSING RECORD WITHOUT TELLING PEOPLE

Marc Maron: I don’t see any reason not to do it that way. It became a habit for me because the people that I interview have to walk through my house, so I have to try not to talk too much about anything other than, ‘Do you want a coffee?’, ‘Do you need’ And that is good. Like I’ll make people tea sometimes. If I have to make them tea or coffee, then I have to be careful about talking too much. You know, let them use the bathroom, help them down the stairs, let them see my house. And then we get out there and I try to get the thing on. Sometimes I’ll go out and turn it on before we get into the garage. So I’ll turn on the thing just so everything happens organically, that they walk in, they have a reaction to this space. They sit down and they get comfortable, and I like that moment. There’s a moment there where they don’t shift into being interviewed mode.

Jesse: Right.

Marc: The surprise. It’s just is a testament to how many people don’t necessarily listen to the show before they come over.

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Jesse: Right.

Marc: But that moment where they’re like, ‘Wait, are we doing it now?’. ‘Yeah, we’ve been doing it’. So then it makes it, you know, I’m backloading this because I don’t have that much foresight or plan that much, but there is a difference between a public personality’s personality on and off mic.

Jesse: Right.

Marc: So if it’s them getting adjusted or acclimating or, you know, having a reaction to what’s happening, you’re kinda getting a more authentic immediate thing there.

Jesse: I think that’s a reason why you hear that moment so often on Radiolab, the most opposite of your show in terms of the amount of production.

Marc: Yeah.

Jesse: Like Radiolab is the most intensely-produced thing that exists.

Marc: Mm hmm.

Jesse: But often they will include that moment of, ‘Hold on. Let me turn on the microphone,’ whatever. ‘Oh I dropped something.’

Marc: To remind you that he’s human.

 

ON RECORDING IN THE HOME

Jesse: Do you ever wonder what it would be like to do your show if it wasn’t in your house

Marc: Kind of, but

Jesse: Because you’ve done, I mean you did radio for years. You know what it’s like.

Marc: I do, and I can focus on you. But there is something about, you know, what it does for me personally. You know, in having people over, making them comfortable, making them a coffee, showing them the the deaf black cat on the back deck if it’s there. You know, having them react to the environment and then coming inlike, it actually serves as a ‘Come over and hang out’ thing.

So I acknowledge that it’s a job because I do a lot of them, and when I go out there and sit by myself and talk on the mic, I know I have to do it. And we do have to have a show up tomorrow, whatever. But there’s something about the element of having someone over and having a conversation that that still keeps it sort of casual in my brain and sort of special and not work like.

 

GETTING STARTED

Jesse: Did you know what your show was going to be when you started your show?

Marc: No. I didn’t have any idea. It was all, you know, a flurry of panic and desperation. We had been taken off the air in New York, and we wanted to do a podcast because we knew that the medium was an option, and we did segments. You know, WTF actually was supposed to be a thematic thing. It was lighthearted in a lot of ways. We experimented with having a crew in the room, one or two people. We did short interviews. We tried to do bits that were refillable. We did phone interviews. It was sort of a mishmosh of radio ideas in a lot of ways, but we knew we had freedom. When I moved out here and when you came over, and when I bought the wrong mic initially, and you told me how to operate garage band, and I still do it exactly the same way. The two things you showed me how to do. Like, ‘How do I make it bigger?’ ‘Well, you click on the little one.’ ‘Oh. Good.’

Photo by Jesse Thorn

Photo by Jesse Thorn

INTERVIEW OR CONVERSATION?

Jesse: So when did you decide ‘Oh, ok. I guess what this show is is an interview show? Not that it’s exclusively an interview show, but that is what the show is about.

Marc: Yeah I don’t know that I ever framed it quite like that. I still feel like they are conversations. I’m wary to call myself an interviewer. I can do that sometimes, and I do do that. But I think that what was starting to happen is I was just having people over. And usually it was, initially, like catching up, you know, ‘What do I know about you? Are you who I think you are?’ Like a lot of times I’m working against my assumptions. We all make these assumptions about people, and some of these people I knew for decades, and I’d never had a conversation with. So as those things became resonant with me personally, and started to function for me as a real kind of like spiritually nourishing thing to have conversations with people, and also to make amends with people, and also to reconnect with the comedy community. I felt like I was kind of off the grid, and I was very depressed at the beginning. But it became sort of a conversation show, and it became really the conversations were relative to my respect or disrespect for that person, and also primarily to, like, ‘Are you who I think you are, and convince me otherwise.’

Jesse: Well, I think yeah I mean I think that is like one of your top moves, so to speak.

Marc: Yeah.

Jesse: And I don’t mean, you know, it’s not a transactional thing, obviously. It’s a very sincere and open-hearted thing. But like one of your moves is essentially like a kind of challenge.

Marc: Yeah.

Jesse: To the guest.

Marc: It used to be more.

Jesse: Like, ‘All right, well, I think you’re this. What do you say?’

Marc: It’s kind of like that. It’s weird because what I’ve learned over time is those perceptions are always limited. And if there are people that you know from their work that you’re manufacturing almost all of it other than some sort of innate sense of who they are beyond their work, which is is very small. It’s just a kernel of a humanity thing, that you’re making assumptions based on their music or the roles they play or the comedy they do, or what they’ve written or whatever. And you build a person in your head. I mean, that’s what we all do. That’s how we believe things. That’s how we develop relationships with celebrities or public people is that you build this person that has given you this information. And the information is not an hour’s worth of information. It’s this weird assumption. I think that you can see the person in there, so I think that’s sort of what I’m trying to do. A lot of times my instincts are wrong. They’re mostly wrong, but they’re not wrong in the sense that I misread somebody. They’re just extremely limited to my idea of who they are.

 

DEALING WITH PUBLIC PERSONAS

Jesse: I think a lot of times, especially when someone is particularly good at being a famous person, or a public personalityone of the things that they’re good at, often, is presenting an idea of who they are that’s simple enough that a lot of people can understand it without having to use too much brain space.

Marc: I don’t think that’s true. I think they’re protecting themselves.

Jesse: Well but, like Anthony Bourdain or a Guy Fieri. These are the people that I think of a lot. Both of those guys are roughly speaking celebrity chefs slash food guys.

Marc: Yeah.

Jesse: Guy Fieri, less of a chef than Anthony Bourdain, but both in in the same sphere in very different ways. Right?

Marc: Yeah.

Jesse: Both of those guys, like, you could look at a caricature of one of those guys on the wall of a deli, and you have an idea of what their deal is almost immediately. Now you don’t have a deep idea of what their deal is. They have a public persona that is literally like written on their faces, you know? Like, literally the frosted tips of Guy Fieri and the party shirt tell you that he wants to eat nachos.

Marc: I guess. Yeah, I know what you mean. But ultimately what I do is going to be, hopefully some sort of candid conversation with the person. So and both of those guys, in particular, operate at a different frequency, but they have an intensity that is pretty broad. I think Anthony broader than Guy in terms of what he’s chosen to take on with his pursuit of understanding the world through food, and providing some crossover for Americans to see you know the world and its conflicts through food and shrimp and booze. But here’s the interesting thing because I want to connect with people. At the core of what I do is I need to connect with people. Yeah, I can understand the limitations of connecting. Like I know when I’ve hit the limit of someone’s boundaries, but if there’s no connection, it’s going to be trouble for me. And whether or not they feel the connection or not, I don’t know. That’s not really my concern. Sometimes I can feel it, I think.

 

BUILDING CONNECTION

Jesse: On your show, I think part of what makes it interesting is that you are always fighting against an instinct to be a performer and have a comfortable distance, because part of your show is, and part of your life goal is: Make a connection.

Marc: Right. I’ve gotten better at that. And sometimes I’ll try to entertain people. Like sometimes I’ll try to charm people or be flirty or try to get laughs if I think it’ll get get things going, but I’ve gotten much better at listening. I still finish people’s sentences sometimes, or cut people off sometimes, but I do it on purpose. It’s like, it evolved into something. It was part of my tools for connecting. But now I’ll cut people off because I want to go somewhere else. A lot of times, I’ll interrupt people because I’ve become somewhat instinctively savvy of public narrative. So how do you get around a public narrative? It becomes very tricky. And all I’m looking for in the podcast is not only connection, but to get the tone of the conversation into something organic and authentic. Sometimes it won’t happen until a half hour in. I’m not saying that first half hour is bad, but I feel when it gives way, and that is the experience I want people listening to have. That’s when I get emailsIf I get emails that are like, ‘Why didn’t you ask ’em about this or that. I can’t believe you didn’t talk about that.’ It’s not really that important to me. You know, maybe that’s important to you, but sometimes I’ll be like, well maybe I should of. But other times I’m like, I don’t [care] if you know that information, or that information is accessible, I don’t mind people telling it to me in the way they’re going to tell it to me. But what’s better is, and one of the things that this medium is powerful at, is conveying tone, emotional tone. And something shifts when something gets candid, or there’s a little bit of emotional risk. You feel it in your whole body with audio. So why not spend time in that place, to where it’s sort of, like, loose and people are like, ‘I can’t believe they’re talking about this, and I’m just hanging it out.’

Jesse: Right. That intimacy is something that people are thrilled by.

Marc: And even if they don’t know exactly what it is. Like if I get a person that’s done a million things. and they don’t talk about any of them, but it’s a great conversation, to me that’s a big win.

 

BREAKING THROUGH THE SOUNDBITES

Marc: But the other point that I wanted to speak to that you brought up about, you know, them making sound bites on purpose, or their public narrative. A lot of them are guided by, you know, publicity or repetition. But I think most of the time it’s insulating, and depending on who the person is or what they want out in the world, a lot of these people struggle to protect what little privacy is afforded almost anybody now. And a lot of times it’s not that they’re hiding something, but they want to keep something for themselves, and they don’t want that to be available for this kind of feeding frenzy of media. Right? But the ways around that is that some public narratives that individuals have are very, they’re deep and theylike I have onewhere that I know my story, and some of them run pretty deep, and there’s a lot of people who do a lot of press, there’s very few things they haven’t talked about that they’ve chosen to talk about, and they’ll do it over and over again, and mix it up a little bit. But sometimes you can hear that tone again, that emotion around something that’s not so loaded, not some big information, like yes, my father hit me. You know, that’s a, that’s a piece of information. But if somebody is talking about their love of a sandwich, sometimes that can be the most revealing thing in an interview.

 

ON TERRY GROSS

Jesse: You’ve interviewed Terry Gross and I’ll interview her for this show. And she’s someone who, professionally, reveals very little about herself.

Marc: That was hard. I’ll tell you how I did that. I canBecause that’s a great example of what we’re doing on this show.

Jesse: But like I feel like when she talks about movie hosts on TV in New Jersey, she lights up. And, you know, somebody will mention something, and she lights up, and you think like, wow, that is something that is completely incidental to the world, but of a genuine emotional key for her.

Marc: Those are important things in conversation. Those are exciting. But like having the opportunity to interview her, at her request, in front of an audience of 2,000 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Opera House, was sort of a big deal for me. It was some sort of festival, and they wanted her to be interviewed, but she wouldn’t do it unless I did it. And it was a bignot responsibility, but it was a kind of a big event, big moment for me, that the interviewer, the most respected interviewer, arguably anywhere, wants me to interview her.

I really am proud of that thing, because like you said, there’s very little information out there about her. So what I had to do, which I don’t love doing, is a type of research. I think I do this kind of research anyways, but with her it was very specific because she’s such a mysterious person, and all of us have had the experience of talking to her alone by ourselves, you know over a mic, and she’s somewhere else. You know people have been interviewed by her. But you look at the public narrative that’s available and it’s very little.

I’m just telling you that to address what we’re talking about is that what I did specifically, was I looked at what was available, and it’s limited, cause she keeps her private life private. But the chronology of her life had some very big holes in it, and I knew going in, like, that’s where she became her. There were these gaps. She started here, she did this, she did that. But it’s like, what happened there? Well you know that was a weird time in the country. You know, was she kind of like a hippie? Was she out in the world? What was she doing at that age?

Jesse: Disco dancing and doing blow.

Marc: Right. Well, it was a little before that. She’s a little older than me. So, but the more beautiful thing about it is that the night that we have to go out there, that’s a big audience. It’s a big room. And I’m a comedian. And this is more about me than it is about her, is that, you know, she was sitting over there, and I’m sitting here, and there are people who love her. You know, and I’m here. Like, it was one of those nights where I really realized like, I’m here to service Terri, and to make this go well for her. And to pretendto make sure she is OK during all this, because she’s not a live performer.

Jesse: You did a wonderful job. But because your normal context is a show that it is in significant part about you.

Marc: Right. And in my garage.

Jesse: Yeah. And you’re recognizing, oh I’m on Terry Gross’s stage, not in my house.

Marc: Yeah. But the weird thing was that I wanted to keep it lively, but I didn’t want to upstage her. I wanted the interview to be what I do, and to reveal things to me, and to the audience, that people didn’t know about her. And I wanted her to feel good about it. Because there were moments onstagebecause I’m in awe of her, and there’s a lot of respect there, and I’m doing these questions. And it’s happening. The areas that I thought were interesting turned out to be interesting, and people really learned things about her that they didn’t know. And I think there were a couple of points where she’s like, I’m not going to, I’m not going to go there. And she was in control to a degree, but she was still letting out things that the public didn’t know. And there were moments where I could have made a joke, like I really made choices to not upstage, or or cut her off, or take advantage of the audience that in a way that I could innately do, and is my instinct. And I thinkI was just very proud of it, and I think she had a great time, and I felt good that she had a great time because I know she doesn’t like doing that. And you know we communicate occasionally, and I have a picture of her and I on stage in my house. And apparently she has one in her office as well.

 

MAKE IT ABOUT YOU

Jesse: But like that thing that we were talking about, that idea of challenging someone with your idea of who they are? That is a way of using your ideas and your experience to open up the box of another person by kind of laying it out there and saying what do you do with that.

Marc: Well that, but that’s that’s my whole thing, really. It’s very hard for me. I’ve grown self-conscious about making it about me when I am. But the thing about making it about me, is that, granted, they’re in my house. But like if I sit down, and I’m like I don’t know what the hell I’m going to do with this; my car did a thing, you know that? And that’s another thing about turning the mics on, is that, if I come into the garage, and I put it out there, then whatever they thought was going to happen is not happening. They’re like, well this guy’s got a problem with his car, and either they’re going to be like, oh man, well sorry to hear that, or like, aw, I had the same thing happen to my car. And then it’s like now we’re already in the area that we need to be in, tonally. You know, you’re engaging with me. So that’s what making it about you does. And I think, as I said before, I think that the first hundred episodes or so of my show were inviting famous people over to help me with my problems. And I don’t regret that because that’s what how the thing evolved.

Jesse: I think it’s really interesting that you are really aware of the idea of people’s public narrative. I mean it’s hard to sit in this chair that I’m sitting in, the interviewer’s chair, and not be aware of that because you hear it every day. You hear people trying to feed it to you every day, whether for good reasons or ill.

Marc: But they can’t hold it for an hour, man. An hour and change, it’s going to break down, usually at about 20, 25 minutes.

 

BUYING TIME

Jesse: What do you ask people about when you are at a loss?

Marc: It’s a horrible feeling because usually what that means is that they’ve stopped talking, and the conversation is not rolling, and I’ve got to scramble. So sometimes I’ll do something to buy my time based on what we were just talking about. Like, but when you did that, didn’t you like? Or I’ll press something. But it’s really just trying to buy time. You know.

Jesse: When you’re in radio what you do in that moment oftenand it’s something that I’ll basically never do live in the interview anymore, even though people always ask me to do it liveis you do a reset.

Marc: Oh yeah. I’m talking with

Jesse: You have a piece of“I’m talking with so and so, blah blah blah blah.”

Marc: No resets.

Jesse: Like now I do those afterwards because I think it’s weird to do it in the middle.

Marc: Usually I’ll just like, OK, so when you did this… Or I’ll change subjects. What about… Like you know I do have a head full of stuff I want to ask them about. But if there’s, if they’re rough, like, you don’t know when it’s going to give, man. Like, you know, thank God they had a clown painting in my house when John C. Reilly came over, because he came over he’s like, “I don’t like talking about myself.” I’m like, great. And then he brought, you know, he said, “What’s that clown painting about?” And it turns out he loves clowns and knows a lot about them. He’s fascinated with them. So I talked to him about clowns for 20 minutes.

 

PREPPING FOR INTERVIEWS

Jesse: Do you have things in your head? Do you have bullet points in your head or on a piece of paper?

Marc: Sometimes. Sometimes I’ll write them as I’m going, of things to come back to, and sometimes I’ll write bullet points if people have a long career that I want to make sure that I cover. Sometimes I’ll just have their discography or their filmography in front of me, so I can spark things in the moment. And sometimes, I don’t know howit that might sound a little ridiculous, but there are moments where I’m like, “Oh that part where you did, like, that seemed like it would have been difficult.” Like I’m sort of acting in the moment.

You know like a lot of times people, like, they want answers that are already out there. Their conception of an interview is information. It’s information only. And I kind of push against that.

Jesse:  It’s like an essay they’re writing through research.

 

SHOULD YOU WORRY?

Jesse: You’re a worried guy sometimes. Do you feel like you are at the point, having done this hundreds of times, that you don’t worry about it ahead of time that much?

Marc: No, I’m always worried because, and it’s never really changed, it’s sort of like, what am I going to do with this person? And then on the other side of that, I’m like, oh, I think I’m tired of talking to people.

But it’s never been different. You know? Like sometimes I wonder why I’m talking to the people I’m talking to because we have bookers now, and I say, like, “OK yeah, sure, let’s try that. Yeah, I think I’d be interested in that.” And then I’m like, what am I doing? But then that makes it human. Then it’s sort of like every one of my interviews is like a first date.

 

The Turnaround is available on MaximumFun.org. You can also subscribe on Apple Podcasts to get new episodes as they become available.

Photo by Jesse Thorn

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.