Breaking the Script with Marc Maron
Interview By Patrick McGuire

Illustration by Steven Snider.

 

I

've had bouts of obsessive periods with talk radio shows. First there was my chronic sports radio habit as a kid, staying up past my bedtime to listen to The Fan 590 on a black Sony Walkman until late at night. I would always look forward to Sundays when I could tune into "Live Audio Wrestling" and hear two dudes pick apart the circus of the WWF and WCW (as those were the leagues to gab about at the time) followed by Chum FM's actually-good run of stand up comedy on their Sunday night funny program. But now it's all about Marc Maron for me, the remarkably neurotic host of WTF, a podcast that is recorded predominantly in Marc's garage. Marc channels his longstanding career in stand-up comedy and the half-good half-awkward connections he's made through it to discuss his personal complexities and interview the world's sharpest and funniest English-speaking talkers: Louis CK, Chris Rock, Ira Glass, Conan O'Brien... Now, Marc has a new book coming out and an original series TV deal with IFC. I spoke to Marc from his home in Los Angeles about his show, himself and the science of interviewing while I warped the membrane between talk radio listener and talk radio... talker.

I wanted to congratulate you on the IFC deal. What are you looking forward to most about getting the production going?

Thanks buddy. I've never had this opportunity before, so I'm looking forward to all of it. I've never made a television show. I've never really been on a scripted television show, ever…that I can remember. And I've never really had to work this way with people, you know, behind the camera and on then camera, and do the big asking, with a cap. I've never had any of these opportunities, so I'm looking forward to all of it.

Most of your projects have been mostly solo or solo with an editor, so this is kind of your first team project, right?

I mean, outside of morning radio and the few film things I've done. Yeah, definitely. I mean, working in a morning radio situation was pretty insane and pretty intense. It was very much a group-think, ensemble effort. Not in this way, though. To take what I do comedically and take it to a level where I have to push and see what I can do in a cast, with other people, and on camera – it's all new. And I'm very excited about it.

When you talk about morning radio, you mean your old political show?

Yeah, "Morning Sedition." That was a big show, you know. We did a lot of scripted bits. We had a lot of great writers there. That show was pretty amazing.

And what were the biggest challenges doing morning radio?

Getting up.

[Laughter] Yep.

Well….I'd never done that before either when I started doing the show. I started the show with the earnest agenda of helping to…speak out against Bush. And I ended up in a situation where we had a lot of great writers hanging around, a lot of great performers hanging around, just learning how to talk on the mic and learning how to go back and forth with my partner and learning how to be confident in that situation, and also how to be a straight man for a lot of these comedic bits we were doing. There was a lot to learn there. If I didn't have that job I wouldn't have become a podcaster, that's for sure.

It seems like a really great training ground for that. And obviously, a little more elaborate then what you're doing now, but I'm sure it prepared you very well.

Yeah, and I didn't even know it. I had no experience with radio before that, and I went in completely green. I had to learn as time went along…and it was a life-changer.

You seem to get a lot of fan-mail. And if you were going to sort it into categories, what would be the predominant themes? Do you get a lot of love letters?

No, no. "Thank you for getting me through a tough time," is the biggest one.

Why do you think that is?

"You really helped me out." And then there's... "I want to do comedy." "I'm going to try comedy." And then there's…"You should really get this guy on the show." Why do I think that is? I don't know. I think it's because of the relationship you have with people when you have an audio thing. People's relationship with me is fairly intimate. You know, they listen to me by themselves. I speak directly to them in their heads, while they're doing things. And I think that because of my own struggle, my own brain, and the things I'm honest about…it resonates with people.

Definitely. I know I've read people talking about how they'll skip your monologues, but personally I find that the most engaging part. I mean, even on the best interview shows, sometimes it's nice to turn off and kind of delve into the universe of what you're trying to deal with, rather than what I or another listener is…which maybe isn't a question, but…

I think that's good. I'm glad. I don't know what the percentage is of people that don't like the monologue. But, you know, I think there's a rawness to what I do that's not for everybody, I can understand that. What bothers me is that when people think the interviews can somehow exist without context. That's baffling to me.

Why does that baffle you?

Because the interviews don't happen without me. So you get these people that are like, 'Fuck the monologues. Fuck Marc Maron. I fucking hate him. But Norm McDonald's great!' They somehow think that the interview that I get or what happens between me and another person somehow doesn't hinge on my personality. They can dismiss me and love the interview as if it was something that I had nothing to do with, [as if it was something that I] just facilitated.

And yeah, you talk about how as an interviewer you're trying to get people away from their internal scripts - which is not a simple thing to do - and you manage to do it a lot of the time. Sometimes you make people uncomfortable, though. I mean, like I noticed in the Weird Al interview, where…I didn't think you pushed him too hard, but you could definitely feel a bit of emotional resistance in him trying to stay to his script while you were trying to get him off of it. Do you find that that becomes a problem sometimes for your style of interviewing?

Usually if people aren't going to talk, they aren't going to talk. I can recognize that. I'm not completely insensitive.

With Al, I think that Al sort of operates at this Al-frequency. And I insist in my brain that there has got to be something more than that. Because I thought he was very forthcoming and relatively candid, but he definitely has a kind of… mono-emotional tone. But as I got more into the interview and as he talks about the fairly emotional things, his tone didn't change all that much. Maybe what you were hearing was I was just annoying him.

I think it was more on his end, really. When things started to get into the third-quarter and maybe he was just talking about his parents or what have you, but I think that you nailed it on the head with him having a consistent frequency. I don't know, there was an audible emotional malfunction when he was trying to get away from that frequency.

I don't know that he had necessarily spoken so directly and specifically about his parents' death. I know that it was public information. The other thing with Weird Al is I'm not coming into that interview being a fan. I did not grow up with Weird Al. I did not know anything about him, really. I knew that I had the opportunity and I knew that he was an important person, comedically, to a lot of people. So I had to talk to my friends and I had to talk to people that loved Weird Al and get a sense of him, and then really just approach him as a person that I had not really met before. And I think that when he talked about his parents – I don't know how I got him there or whether or not I braced directly – but he was like, 'Are we going to do this? We're going do it. Okay.' I think he still had to sort of…kind of…girder up a little bit to talk about it emotionally. I don't think he's an emotional guy, publicly or maybe privately even.

I would agree with that. Given that the book is autobiographical and the show sounds largely autobiographical, are you at all concerned that you could perhaps reach a level of oversaturation with putting yourself into the world in such a transparent way?

I think that's the problem a lot of us are kind of facing at some point. I'm afraid of that. I'm talking a lot about a lot of stuff, but creativity seems to regenerate itself. Like eventually, there tends to be a few things that I say about myself but it usually makes it in to the things I say about the world, you know what I tap out of me, I'm usually talking more about the world.

You talked about this before on your show with Scharpling a bit about how you are at a level of notoriety, particularly in regards to Twitter, but not necessarily a level of extreme celebrity. You're at this place where you get a lot of interaction but you're also able to respond to it, so it's pretty interesting to watch.

Sometimes it helps me. I don't know that I would write that disciplined in that amount of space [without Twitter]. That's not how I really write jokes. And I don't know that I use a lot of the stuff that I put out on Twitter, but I think that exercising that skill, trying to create beats within that moment when I am doing the joke, is something I wouldn't do on my own. So, that exercise – and this is a rationalization on some level – but the exercise in doing that, it IS writing and you are trying to be creative, so it's got to be doing something. Sometimes I'll tweet shit and I'll go, 'Wow, man. I should go over my tweets.'

I don't keep a journal or anything, but I do the same thing. It's a good public sketchbook for ideas or jokes. It is useful in that regard. And because you're putting so much out there – just going back to the fan-mail question – I know that you're with the woman you're with now because she got attached to your public persona. Do you find that you have fans coming up to you that know a bit too much? Or other women coming on to you?

I don't know, I guess, but I've had to sort of adjust to the 'weirding me out' thing. Because they do have a relationship with me. I think things are sort of evolving here in the relationship between performer and the audience, because no matter what you do, there seems to be a little more accessibility, unless you're fairly well-protected or have certain rules around that – how accessible you're going to be – but certainly at my level, which is not super-celebrity or even celebrity at all, to some people, I'm much more accessible than I thought I would have been, so you act appropriately towards that. You figure out a way to behave appropriately in this world of less boundaries. I know that people have a relationship with me and I think it's genuine, but it's just very one-sided. So when they come at me knowing that they've spent maybe 200 hours listening to me in a one-on-one way, or just eavesdrop on me having a conversation, that's a real interesting relationship. So what they're coming at me with is familiarity that I don't have with them, but I try to be as gracious as possible when I meet people on the road, and be polite and respect their relationship with me, without getting too involved.

You've basically built a personal universe for yourself, as you've gone along doing comedy and podcasting, now with the TV show and the writing. Do you see yourself creatively continuing to build on this – I hate to say personal brand, but that's kinda what this is – or is there some other creative project, maybe with some more fictionalized bent, that you'd like to explore in the future?

I think the TV show is going to take those kind of chances. I mean, the conversations I'm having now, creatively, with the people I'm working with, is 'Look, all these people know me. 200,000 of them know me pretty well and they know these stories, some of them. What if we use the visual medium, comedy writing, and my ability to act, to do something completely unique and take things in a different direction. Really, it becomes like, do we just do a scripted version of the life I've lived publicly, or do we take some of the ideas and personality flaws that I have and explore them in a different way, in a comedic way and in a visual way, and I'm leaning towards that. I'm hoping to do that with this show, so the fans do get something different and unique.

I think that would be great. As someone who has followed the podcast for a while, I think that would be very exciting. And also going back to what I mentioned about your first book, not knowing about the first book until I heard about the second one, you're obviously going to be attracting a new audience with this, so you kind of want to lead them into that world, but to take a different creative turn in the road would be interesting.

I think it's just like what you were saying and it's also why I want to work with other people. It's like, look, I've been just building me, I'm real good at being me. But like you've said, I've been a solo performer for years. And I'm very good at doing that. And for pushing the limits of what I'm capable of, but I really want someone else's input and creativity to come into this. I like that. I like people adjusting things. I like the dialogue of it and I'm hoping that we can create some sort of alchemy between the creativity of other people that are working on the show and really get me out of me. I mean, I think that part of the podcast has really just been about me getting out of my own head. I'm very excited to do that. No one is more tired of me than me.

[Laughter] Yeah, I would imagine. And the podcast, every time, gets you out of your head and into someone else's. After so many episodes, have you found that it's had a therapeutic effect on the rest of your life?

There's no doubt. No doubt. There's no doubt. I mean, I believe I started doing comedy because I was needy. If you listen to me, I never had a career plan. I always felt like I'll become a great comic and then everything happens. I wasn't a very political person early in my career, I think I understand things better now. I think my whole journey, as a comic, was to complete my sense of self. Because of what I come from and the boundaries situation of my childhood, I think I kind of left childhood with a bit of a gap in my character. I really think that doing comedy was the only key that I had a voice in the world, and my own space, and my own thoughts, and the desire to be seen…publicly. I had parents that were very self-involved and it kind of steamrolled me, so it's always been a fight to maintain some sense of identity. And I think that if I look at my comedy career, I never wrote jokes for anybody else, I never wrote much more than my own stuff, a lot of times it wasn't in any way mainstream or necessarily really that entertaining to some people, it was always very much about me finding a voice. And…uh…why am I talking about this?

Well, we're talking about the therapeutic effects of performance.

Oh, right. By the time I started the podcast, I had crumbled. I was in trouble. I was fairly desperate and in a bad place. I think I needed help on a lot of levels. And certainly some of the psychological or therapeutic things that I've practiced, getting out of your own head if you are a person that spends an inordinate amount of bad time in your head, is really a way to learn how to be empathetic, to learn how to be a little more selfless, to learn how to be there for somebody else. It's fairly practical. And I think that without really planning that, that's definitely happened. Over the last couple of years, my ability to sort of follow through thoughts, I tapped into something I used to have when I was a kid, but I seemed to have lost in my cynicism and bitterness was that I love listening to entertaining people talk and it really makes me happy. So, all this stuff, it definitely helped out. It was definitely therapeutic, but I don't like to frame it like that because I think it's an amazing human endeavor to sort of listen and talk without real purpose, other than to do that. I think it's really what we're sort of designed to do. And it's a lost sort of thing, but now it seems like a lot more people are blathering on.

PM: [Laughter] As we are right now.

Yeah.


Originally published in Summer 2012, Issue 6.2