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Marc Maron: Man on Fire

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 28: Comedian and podcast host Marc Maron visits the SiriusXM Studio on April 28, 2016 in New York, New York. (Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images for SiriusXM)

Marc Maron is old school. He’s been around. He was a stand-up comic for 30 years, working the circuit when it was a circuit, an unforgiving Tenth Ring of Hell, crisscrossing the country and nestling in some dire potholes where, if you weren’t funny, you were, in one form or another, target practice. He started out in the era before Comedy Central gave you an hourlong special for having played three nights somewhere and gotten a few laughs. Maron is a pro, conditioned in the toughest of crucibles, long disappeared now.

Suddenly Marc Maron is everywhere and billboard-huge. He hosts one of the most widely listened to podcasts in America, the very brilliant WTF, and has perhaps the funniest show on TV, Maron, on IFC, a network that one normally glides past in search of entertainment. Not anymore. Maron is a big hit and has entered its fourth year, the Money Year, when a series has been on long enough to enter perpetual, royalty-churning syndication.

I normally hate self-referential comedy series. I am lost as to the appeal of Seinfeld, where every scene seems to be played out in that tone and volume that says: “This is funny and smart! Pay attention! Laugh appropriately!” Which I did. Which was never. But Maron somehow magically dissolves the difference between audience and stage, and is so, sometimes painfully, real and hot-mess unfiltered and unpretentious — even when he is trying to be pretentious, as his character occasionally tries to effect. The show is frigging hysterical.

Like the best comedians, Maron is extraordinarily smart, thoughtful, and aware of the world around him. (As an aside, that is something very rarely said about most of the people running for president. Maybe someone should start the Comedians Party.)

How did the podcast come about?
I had been asked to do a video streaming show that was supposed to be a comedy by the last version of Air America. I didn’t really want to work with them again. I had gone through several different bosses and been fired twice. But I needed money to get out of this divorce, so I took this gig and they stepped up and gave me enough in advance to stop hemorrhaging money. Then they ran out of money about a year in, and stopped the show. We started just using our security cards to get into the building and started what became the podcast, at Air America after hours. The only commitment we really made was to do it twice a week no matter what, and we didn’t really know what the show would be at the beginning. There were several different people, several segments. But once I moved to L.A, it sort of evolved into what it is now, and I set up a studio in my garage and began talking to people one on one. We had a third act for a while, a comedy piece, but that kind of went away.

Did Air America know you were doing this?
They had no idea. They were trying to figure out how not to go out of business, so when we were doing shows in the off-hours of the studio, I don’t think they would’ve given a s**t, probably.

So there wasn’t really an idea for it in the beginning? You were very early in the game in 2009.
I guess so. I knew there were a few podcasters around, which gave me the idea, but I didn’t really listen to them. I knew that [Adam] Carolla was doing it, and Kevin Smith was doing it. And I told Brendan [McDonald, WTF producer], “Can you figure out how to do this?” He put it up online and contacted iTunes and they were sort of excited to have people who had some recognition and some ability at doing podcasts at that time. So they were supportive and helpful, but it was early. There were a few podcasts around.

Why did you pick comedy as a career?
You know, I’ve been doing it a long time now, and I think as a child I really looked up to comics. If I were to really think about it retroactively, they seemed to have a handle on things. They seemed to have an understanding of the world and were able to sort of disarm the more frustrating, frightening things in life. I was just a big comedy fan as a kid. I used to really like Buddy Hackett, Jackie Vernon, Cheech and Chong, Steve Martin, George Carlin. I just always had a tremendous amount of respect for what they can do. I always wanted to do it, but wasn’t quite sure how. But I figured it out.

Is comedy as brave as it was? The comics you named were very brave and they exposed the crap hiding in the shadows in their comedy. It seems to be more sanitized today.
No, I don’t get that sense at all. I think there are still a lot of comics doing some really brave stuff. I think the media landscape has become fragmented and very airy. I think there is a lot more noise out there, but I can name you a bunch of comics that do very button-pushing, powerful s**t. I don’t think it’s changed at all. There’s probably more comics doing that kind of stuff now than there ever was. Whether or not the show-business machine celebrates them in the same way, or whether or not they are as relevant as they were when there was a more intimate media landscape, that’s probably not the case, but I wouldn’t put that on the comics as much as I would put that on the content options of the current media world.

I think what I’m trying to say is that it seems now, with the combination of political correctness and social media, that a comic who says anything outrageous is immediately vilified and drowned in a sea of indignation. Doesn’t that have a chilling effect on what people say?
Yeah, it certainly has an effect on being more deliberate about what you say and more aware of it. It’s frightening to be taken out of context, misunderstood, and virally annihilated. Certainly that plays a part in creative decision making. And that’s a shame, but when that will taper off, who knows. I see it almost as a trend that will exhaust itself, but I think on another level, on the other side of that, is that you won’t be causing that reaction. Many minority groups struggling to find themselves, or gain respect in the culture, have found strengths or their own way of doing exactly what you were saying comics weren’t doing anymore. Like when the trans community gets upset and takes on someone calling them a tranny. The community outcry on behalf of the trans community against the word “tranny” being used by comics moves the culture forward in terms of respect and power in the minority groups, and a shifting of the way people’s sensitivity works in relation to those. I think some of that stuff really is a function of community outcry of marginalized communities seeking respect, and that’s not always a bad thing.

There are issues with hypersensitivity and misunderstanding, and sometimes even a lack of a sense of humor or an ability to recognize, “This is satire,” where I think social media in a very anonymous way can destroy some of the power of that, which is sort of a shame. If a marginalized minority group seeks to be respected or defined in a different way, that’s proactive. There’s a grassroots campaign for awareness about heroin that is a good example. That ad was provocative and actually very funny, but then it was berated for being insensitive to addiction. Sometimes satire is insensitive and it’s not the job of a satirist or a comedian necessarily to execute a blanket sense of sensitiveness if they want to get a point across. The only real issue as an individual comedian is that you’re gonna have to own it if you come up against flack or push-back. You’re gonna have to figure out how you want to handle that.

How do you handle it? Because you’re on the edge.
I’m on the edge sometimes, but I was schooled about the words — I’ve been called out about the word “tranny” and called out about the word “retarded,” and I think properly schooled. If transgender people find the word “tranny” prejudiced and insulting, then I have to ask myself, “Can I do without the word ‘tranny’ if it’s going to hurt people’s feelings?” And yes, I can. And the word “retarded” has become vilified, and again I believe that sensitivity to families of mentally challenged people who aren’t capable of engaging with society — it’s a very insulting word and a demeaning word, even if you call somebody retarded who isn’t mentally challenged, which is how most people use it. But taking it out of rotation out of respect for mentally challenged people is not a big deal.

Ultimately this stuff comes down to words, and when you think about Lenny Bruce and his approach to racist nicknames, that was famous in the late ’50s. But I think it’s really different with these type of specific groups and it’s not really the same culture we’re living in. So words need to be taken out of rotation out of respect for people who are in the minority, and challenged situations. That’s part of the evolution of culture.

Very good points. But Lenny Bruce once famously said, “The suppression of a word is what gives it its power.”
There’s all this talk of censorship and the truth of the matter is that you can say whatever you want. Nobody’s telling you you can’t. There’s no law that says you can’t. Censorship relative to individual respect is one thing and the idea of not being able to say things on a television station are within the rules of business. In culture you can say the N-word all day long, but just realize if you’re gonna do that, you might just be hanging out with other people who say that. And if that’s who you want your friends to be, then knock yourself out.

Your TV show is unique. One viewing it is constantly on the edge of pain for you, because it looks like you’re having such a difficult and self-conscious time getting through it. We feel for you because we identify with your foibles and anxieties. Why is the new season so different, with you kind of imploding just as things were going well for you?
We did this show because [IFC] was very supportive and gave a tremendous amount of creative freedom. We built a world around my real life. Towards the end of season 3 I kind of needed something to happen. Given the budgetary level we’re operating at and the network we are on, it started to dawn on me that there’s no reason not to take some creative risks, so why don’t we do that? There’s no rule that this thing has to follow my real life. In my mind there was no reason to get complacent.

Something I’ve talked about for years is that I have the propensity to self-sabotage and thankfully I haven’t done it yet in a way that would destroy my life or career. But I definitely have that within me. So at the end of last season we took on something very terrifying to me and very possible. When people who have longterm sobriety relapse on drugs, a lot of the time it’s because they get prescribed medication and they start to abuse it. It’s not something that’s happened to me, but it was something that I had seen happen to other people. So at the end of last season when I slip on painkillers, I was okay to end the series there because when you do television you don’t know if you’re gonna get another season. So I was like, “We gotta do something at the end of each season in case we don’t come back.” I mean, it was a dark ending and people who know me from my podcast and off of Twitter and on a day-to-day basis know that didn’t really happen, but it was a dark turn.

I wanted to challenge myself, and I had this epiphany in the car that what we should do is have him be strung out on drugs, have him using since we last saw him a year ago, and come back like that and make it just a totally different TV show with three new sections: getting clean, transitioning back through life, and then changing one’s life. So I had this vision for an episodic arc. Most of the other seasons, you can watch them in any order. This season is episodic and there is a seasonal arc, which we’ve never done before. We really sort of grounded the character well enough in the series to be able to take this risk with this season. And I think it was an incredible success.

It’s a really funny show.
My expectations are tempered by, again, the media landscape. There’s so much good television around, and there’s so much available that you just want people to find it. People tell me about shows and I’m like, “Where can you even watch that?” I’m just happy that we were able to work within the budget for this to do this very ambitious season and actually have it work.

I thought at first it was going to be depressing, but it was really funny.
The character was strong enough to sort of go through this thing. It’s a tough balance to have respect for addiction and respect for recovery and not let it become hopeless.

What does Maron the TV character want to achieve, and when will he know he achieves it?
I think, not unlike the real me, what anyone wants to achieve. I think that obviously I achieved more than I expected, by surprise, so the current events in my life and my career and just being ready to step up and do the work creatively.

My life has been pretty good, but sometimes peace of mind, happiness, those kind of things are elusive, and that’s because of how I was brought up or whatever else. I’m not exactly sure how to have a good time when I’m having one, and with everything being good I still feel anxious and aggravated. And those are struggles I have to deal with, but the character Maron in the show has to deal with having spent his whole life working toward something and trying to decide whether he even wants that.

Which is something the real Maron, me, I’m at this point where I’ve spent so much of my life struggling to get somewhere and now I seem to have gotten somewhere and part of you goes, “Now what?” Do you keep struggling at the same rate, or do you continue just working or not struggling at the same rate? You know, what is the reward to life? That’s a question anyone has to answer for themselves. For me it was never really about money. I think it was about me finding a way to be comfortable with myself and be true to myself and find my own voice and my creativity, but there are still elusive things like taking the time to engage emotionally and experience joy and happiness and be comfortable mentally.

I think the struggle for Maron in the show is a journey towards finding something that will make his life feel validated and like he’s done something with his life. And I think some of that is the real Maron and has been placated a bit. But now it’s how to continue honoring the changes that have happened in my life with my creativity and not being afraid to do that, as opposed to just going back to what I always was: struggling, aggravated, anxious, defensive, occasionally hostile. A lot of self-esteem and insecurity issues have been nullified by the type of success I’ve had, by being relevant in some circles and also earning a living. Those things make a big difference in one’s sense of self. But problems remain.

When you interviewed Obama on WTF, what was your sense of him as a human being?
The only real agenda I had was to connect with him on that level because that seems to be what I do on my podcast. Just connect with him as a human being. And I feel like I did for a good portion of it. I felt like he was a very earnest person and he was a very thoughtful and intelligent person. And I think he’s obviously very driven, but also very practical. Like, I don’t think he’s a life-of-the- party person, I think he’s a guy who’s thinking about getting things done and thinking about how things can be better. I just felt like that genuinely is who he is.

What do you think his regrets are as President?
I tried to ask him that. I think the struggle that went on for eight years being demonized by Congress and having a very difficult time having partisan support has to be pretty disappointing. When I asked him how he remained optimistic, he was very clear, saying that anything that inches it forward is progress and, in democracy, that incremental progress is really the best you can hope for in this system. So I feel that he feels very good about what he’s achieved.

Who should be running for president in 2016?
I don’t know. I think as you get older you’re smart enough to know it’s a very s**tty and difficult job. It doesn’t always mean what we think it means. It’s a very broad managerial position, so I can’t think of other options here because I don’t really know which senators or which congresspeople, or which people that are sort of designated to do politics might be better than the people we have. But it takes a rare and unique person for a variety of reasons, not all of them being their ability to be president.

The people who run for president, like Obama, or either Clinton, they start running from their teenage years. They’re that driven.
I didn’t really get that sense with him. The only research I really did for Obama was to read his first book, Dreams From My Father, because I really wanted to talk to that guy. This was a guy who had dreams of public service, that he activated, and had a real struggle with his own racial identity and what it means. It was a very sophisticated book that didn’t really read like someone who wanted to be president. It didn’t read like someone who wanted to make a difference and change very specific things. I really wonder what he’s going be like in his post-presidency. There’s a sort of corporate occupation of the government where it should really be more occupied with people. I don’t know how that changes.

What do you think of Trump’s candidacy?
I think it certainly shows you the level of frustration and anger of a lot of people at America. I find it to be kind of sadly funny and a bit embarrassing. And I think to assess where the people that resonate with his message are coming from is something we should try to understand, culturally. Because they’re Americans. They’re people with real problems, and obviously anyone who’s ever been angry in their life, or anybody who is by nature a bully, is able to find resonance with this tone. Hopefully they’re smart enough to realize, “That’s the same tone that got us in trouble in high school and doesn’t ever go anywhere good,” and they can make a different decision.

Trump eerily reminds me of Slobodan Miloševi?, the former president of Serbia, whose nationalist fervor and racist hatred precipitated the wars in the Balkans. Trump’s supporters are sometimes frothing at the mouth and literally violent against weaker people. This isn’t political discourse. This is sanctioned hooliganism.
We now know what’s happening. We know why it’s happening. It’s very interesting to me that the same people, the same type of anger you see in Trump supporters at the most desperate level, are exactly the same people that are inspired by Bernie. They just put their anger in a different place. There is a class of disenfranchised people who want justice and fairness in this country. There are people who are nihilistic and desperate and have given up on practical measures and solutions and they just want to f**k s**t up. Trump’s your guy.

But if you believe in the possibility of change and fairness and the changing or the tweaking of government, you’d gravitate towards Bernie. But the same type of anger is in those people. I don’t know how those problems get solved. I read a piece about the opium epidemic that people are dying at almost wartime casualty rates, so there’s a lot of hopelessness out there. There are junctures in history where an entire chunk of the populace has become disenfranchised and no longer has a hope of making it out of their particular socioeconomic or mental situation. This is where tough guys are put into power, because they feel like they are being spoken for — that things will be corrected with the iron fist. I think that’s bad. Either we’re gonna move forward progressively or we’re going to regress into some type of civil war-ish fragmentation.

What are three pieces of advice for today’s young people?
Well, what would I tell 20-year-old Marc? I would say, “Try not to freak out about everything because a lot of what you’re freaking out about will be almost meaningless by the time you’re 40 or 50.” Try to figure out what you’re really interested in and what your personal limitations are around the things you want to do, so you can somehow work towards what you really want to do and not just think you should be able to do anything. And don’t watch too much porn.

What do you fear, personally?
I fear natural, man-made catastrophe, and I fear somehow a meltdown of the global computer network that keeps us all connected, for better or for worse. And I fear that people will completely lose their ability to engage with other people in a humane way.

For you, who is the girl that got away?
I don’t know. I have a hard time accessing love properly and receiving it properly, but I’m not one of those people that thinks there’s just One. You grow and you move through relationships at different points in your life. I also don’t think any of the ones who got away necessarily should’ve hung around.

Does God have a sense of humor?
Which God?

The God. The creator of the universe. Is there a sense of humor there?
Well, if he didn’t when he started, he certainly has one now.

Can music still define the times? We grew up believing it did.
Like I said before, in the expanding media landscape things are more niche-oriented. My girlfriend is crazy about the new Beyoncé album and what it means and what it says. I like it too, so I think music is still very important to people’s growth and to making people feel connected and less alone and informing feelings and moods and capturing imaginations. I think for people like you and I, again it was a much more intimate landscape. Everybody was being fed the same s**t, so our reaction to that s**t felt a little more collective, and also we were younger. But it doesn’t seem to me that music is any less relevant than it used to be. It just may not be as collective in experience.

At its best, is comedy more powerful than music?
Well, it doesn’t last as long. I think that comedy packs a punch that, at times just right, can definitely make a ripple. But music is sort of like magic. You can grow with a song and a song can grow with you, and if you have a piece of music that means something to you, it can mean different things as you revisit it over the years of your life. There’s very few jokes like that. But some jokes you can tell over and over again. I don’t know, everything kind of pushes things forward or back, and both of those things can push things forward. It all becomes building blocks.

What’s the best joke you ever heard?
There was joke that a guy named Dan Vitale used to tell — and I’d be paraphrasing — that I’ve repeated at a couple times of my life. He would get onstage and say, “Hey folks, I’ve been in bad shape. I’ve hit bottom. I’ve been on the street drunk with an empty quart of vodka in one hand and a crack pipe in the other hand, with no money and no nothing. I hit bottom. And I gotta tell you folks, when you hit bottom, you’d be surprised how much give that floor has.”