I’m a sucker for a redemptive arc. It’s impossible, for me at least, to separate the interviews on the WTF Podcast from the story of the podcast itself, and that of its creator/host – Marc Maron.
I remember Marc Maron’s standup from the mid-90’s on Comedy Central’s many many, seemingly continuous, 5-10 minute standup marathons. And I believe he was the host of a clip show. I remember his weird outfits and his Richard Lewis-esque hairdo, that he was a type – the angry, neurotic, kind of “out there” guy, that crafted intelligent jokes – and that he looked and sounded like he probably smoked a lot of pot.
Then he just kind of left my consciousness. The next time I came across him was within the murmurs of the internet, hearing that the WTF Podcast was really good, and that’s when I remembered him, and pictured more or less exactly that picture above. ^
The podcast isn’t really good. It’s amazing.
It turns out that Marc Maron did in fact continue to exist beyond 1998, and that he was a host on NPR/Air America radio – which I was oblivious to. And apparently he was gradually burning himself out of the entertainment industry, losing steam on the standup circuit, and ultimately was fired from his NPR gig. He started the podcast on a whim, first recording it with the help of a former NPR coworker, surreptitiously using the station’s equipment. Pretty ballsy. At this point he records the show in his garage, somewhere outside Los Angeles.
Based on his own words (synthesized through my brain), the podcast idea was born of bottoming out, of just not giving a shit – deciding to make an honest artistic expression that didn’t compromise – talking to people he had known in the industry in an open and straightforward manner. The straight dope. And along the way, he was working on repairing the relationships he had ruined with these people – because it turns out that he’d been an awful friend and a complete ass to many many people.
That’s why it’s hard to ignore the story of the host when you listen to the show – because if you start from the beginning, you experience his redemption and transformation alongside him, which is just as fascinating as the revelatory approach he applies to interviewing his guests. These aren’t interviews, these are intimate conversations with funny, intelligent people; they’re a voyeuristic and hilarious confessional, a roast and a wake all at once, but one where the dead jump up from their caskets and walk away whole.
Example – Louis C.K. is a publicly guarded person, but outwardly a genius force of comedic and narrative nature. But in the 2-part interview that Maron conducted, you learn about the man beneath the persona, hearing him break down when discussing the simple and overwhelming sensation of being a father. It’s heartbreaking. And all the while, you’re listening to two people that used to be friends remembering why they cared about each other in the first place, culminating in Louis telling him (para-phrasing), “Look, edit this part out, but, you know what your problem is? You know why we don’t talk anymore?”
But he doesn’t edit that out. You hear LCK drop that truth on him, hear them get past it, and you leave the episode believing that they’ve both climbed a wall to be there for each other.
Where else can you listen to that kind of conversation?
But there are many more examples – the one with Dane Cook being a complete tool, justifying more or less any negative opinion you could have of him, and Maron pinning him to the conversation, dredging that truth out of him; the one where Carlos Mencia admits to the world that he’s a joke thief; the one where Gallagher walks out on Maron because Maron attacks him for doing racist material, for catering to the lowest common denominator; the one where Todd Glass comes out of the closet; the one where Matt Graham talks about his failed suicide attempt; the one where Carl La Bove – one of Sam Kinison’s best friends – talks about how he came to learn that the daughter he had raised was actually Kinison’s child, how he’s been left penniless by child support for another man’s kid.
I could go on, because every episode has this at its core. Maron isn’t an interviewer or a host – he’s the leader of a cult of painful, cathartic honesty, and any who enter his garage will yield their pain to him. He is the sin-eater and the sinner.
On the recent 300th episode, which was a bit of a victory lap, you hear Maron accepting the praise he’s received. This seems like a profound success for his being – just listening to the chronically jaded, bitter cynic that he’s fought to emerge from within fall apart; you hear him feel like he’s okay, and it seems completely earned.
But there is the tangible success too. His standup is thriving, his podcast is critically regarded, he’s producing a TV show, he did a guest spot on Louis, he’s got a book deal, and he’s been written up in the New York Times. From something to nothing to everything.
You look at that kind of success and you can’t help but think that his fearless, honest search for truth at all costs must be right, and not just for him.
In honor of Maron’s Boston roots, a Pixies Lyric:
There is this old man who has spent so much of his life sleeping that he is able to keep awake for the rest of his years. He resides, on a beach, in a town where I am going to live. And I often ask him “Are you looking for the mother lode?”
No, no my child, this is not my desire and then he said,
I’m digging for fire.