The story behind comedian Marc Maron’s podcast, WTF—one of the most listened-to podcasts in the history of the medium, averaging
around 230,000 more than 700,000 downloads every week—sounds like a tale out of mythology.
Or out of a self-help book.
Three years ago, Maron was broke. Financially and personally. After 25 years struggling in the comedy industry, and despite being on the cusp of fame several times, he still hadn’t made it. The peers he came up with—household-name comics like Dave Attell, Louis C.K., and Sarah Silverman—had surpassed him. Maron, in his late forties, was struggling with a divorce. He was about to lose his house.
And then his manager called a meeting to tell him that he was un-bookable. That his options had dried up. Maron has said that, at the crisis peak, he briefly thought about suicide. Out of desperation—both professionally and emotionally—he began inviting fellow comics into his garage for some heavy conversations. And he recorded them. The interviews became the early episodes of WTF.
Today, the podcast is blessed with genius status, critically acclaimed by the New York Times. Its ferociously intelligent, deeply vulnerable interviews with stand-ups—both famous (Robin Williams) and not-so-famous (Maron’s former college roommates)—have become required listening not only for the comedy industry, but for anyone suffering from existential wounds. Conversations often veer from straight-up jokes—Maron’s coffee-induced tagline: “Pow! I just shit my pants”—to probing examinations of Moby Dick and recited passages from Ernest Becker’s 1974 philosophical tome The Denial of Death. It’s not unusual for listeners to write in saying that it’s changed their lives.
With his career revived, Maron now tours the country, performing sold-out stand-up shows and live recordings of his interview show. Next Thursday, he comes to Minneapolis for a three-night stint at Acme Comedy Club. It’s the first time in over a decade he’s played the Warehouse District venue.
We called up Maron to talk Minneapolis. In the spirit of WTF, here’s an unedited transcript of the conversation:
Various people have attempted to label you a stand-up, a philosopher, a comedy journalist, an interviewer, even an “empathic genius.” How do you describe what you do?
What was the last one? “Empathic genius?” That one, I don’t know. The rest are okay. I can live with those. “Empathic genius.” I like the way that sounds. But it sounds like I should be a psychic or something. I welcome that. But I don’t think I am that. If I were a psychic, I think I’d be much further along. I tell people I’m a stand-up and that I host a podcast.
I polled some WTF fans on what to ask you for this interview, and everyone wanted to know what the garage looks like. Can you give us a sense of your interview environment?
Well, the garage is small. It sits precariously on a foundation that was built probably in 1925, I put a floor in here. It’s cluttered with a lifetime’s worth of books, artifacts, pictures, posters, musical instruments. I keep adding more shit to the place. There’s a lot of fan art around. And then in the middle of it all is the table with the equipment on it and the chairs.
You were cancelled by Air America twice. Will we ever hear Al Franken on your podcast?
I was cancelled by Air America for different reasons. Three times, actually. Yeah, I thought Al was one of the funniest guys ever. I don’t know what kind of an interview I’d get with Al now. He’s a senator, a politician. They’re really deliberate in how they walk into their scripts. I think it could be relatively candid. But it wouldn’t be the Al that was funny-man Al.
Do you think he’ll come to any of your shows?
No. I don’t really do politics anymore. And I don’t know if I was really ever on Al’s radar, except that we worked in the same building.
We’re a big-time music and art town. But our comedy scene—home to Acme, Stand Up! Records, and a handful of comics who have become household names (Mitch Hedberg, Nick Swardson, Louie Anderson)—is surprisingly robust. What’s your take on the Twin Cities scene?
Well, you’ve neglected to mention Prairie Home Companion and the sort of strange and supportive theater and performance scene. I’m really excited to go back to Acme, because it’s been over ten years. The last time I was in town, I was in the other club at the mall [Rick Bronson’s House of Comedy at the Mall of America]. It was kind of bizarre. I mean, I had fans there. It’s a fine club. But my fans are probably more prone to come to Acme.
Anywhere where you have a fairly progressive, artistic environment, interesting things are going to happen. I think that the brutal cold gives people a lot of time to think.
I don’t know if you can make a connection necessarily between Swardson, Hedberg, and Louie Anderson. That’s relatively robust. But that’s also only four people. The music that came out of there was fucking great. The Replacements. Husker Du. I just talked to Craig Finn of The Hold Steady.
Will he be on the show?
Yeah, he’ll be coming up in a few weeks.
There’s some great stuff that’s happened in Minneapolis, and I think it’s because it’s a progressive city. Any city that supported Garrison Keillor for 25 years has got to have a pretty good heart.
There seems to be no such thing as over-sharing in the world of WTF—although the recent Matt Graham interview did get uncomfortably personal. Has an interview ever caused you to cringe? Or have you said something that you really wished you hadn’t?
Um, not cringe. You know, I try to leave all of the interviews intact, even if it makes me look bad in moments, or if it makes my guest look bad in moments. I don’t really edit much unless someone really wants something taken out. For the most part, all the conversations are as they were. And even if they get tense, I think that’s an amazing thing.
It’s the one thing that we avoid at any cost—those awkward moments in conversation—I think to a fault. I think that when you live in a culture where people would rather text or email than have a conversation, or hook up for lunch, that there’s so much self-involved censoring in trying to get by socially and creating a farce of togetherness on a personal level.
You know, awkwardness is relative. That’s what most human conversation would be if we let it happen, is moving through awkwardness. And that’s very proactive. I don’t shy away from that. A lot of times I’ll just let people go. Even if it’s brutal, or if it’s wrong. Because, you know, people are entitled to their stories. Even if someone’s not being candid, you let them talk for awhile, you get a sense of who they are.
A major theme in comedy these days seems to be the thoughtful probing of life’s bleakness. Louis C.K.’s show is a hit. And your podcast is obviously quite popular. Has it always been like that? Or do you sense in audiences a new appetite for the dark stuff?
I think that, in comedy, in stand-up, that was always represented by a broader, more clownish archetype. The underdog has always been in comedy. Christ, you listen to Rodney Dangerfield, he was just this beaten man who didn’t get any respect. You don’t get much bleaker than him.
You’re talking about the poetic nuances of accepting existential darkness. Uh, I think that comedy has become more sophisticated. I think that Louis is essentially making short films with his show. It’s not unlike independent film that has nerve and integrity and balls. His comedy, he’s sort of the guy who’s had enough, and that’s a fairly traditional comedy type. But Louis’s got some poetry to him and a creativity that transcends a kind of populist dialogue and makes it more interesting.
In terms of bleakness, underground comics, Robert Crumb, and even going before that, certain satirical writers….in the 70s, you see a lot of that….There’s a tradition to it.
But do you sense that there’s now a greater embrace of bleakness in the mainstream?
I think there’s always been an appetite. It just takes a creative mind to make it palatable. The truth of existential bleakness has been a struggle since the beginning of man’s awareness itself. I don’t know if the appetite’s any different. I just think we have artists that are doing it in a better, or bigger way.
I’m sure you get this question a lot: Is there something inherently dark and tortured about the craft of comedy? Do you think your show would work as well if you mostly interviewed, say, actors?
That’s a ridiculous hypothetical. Actors are a little trickier, because your conversation is going to be about craft and usually you’re fascinated with creating characters.
I don’t know, after interviewing over 250 comics, that I can really adhere to the idea that comics are inherently dark or tortured. I think there’s a pretty good mix. There are plenty of funny people that aren’t fucked up. But I do think that some of the best comics that ever lived have been tortured people or overly sensitive or that the world ways heavy on them. A struggle and darkness to their being. I think that holds true. But I can also say that there’s a lot of funny out there that isn’t rooted in that.
The podcast has obviously been a boon to your career. But, as you’ve mentioned on your show, it’s not a great way to make money. How do you assess the professional pros and cons of comedy on the Internet?
I don’t know. I didn’t get into this to make money. As it got popular, and as you see that people like it, you start to ask yourself, “Well, it seems like we should be making money.” In order to build an audience, the shows had to be free for a little while. So over time, my business partner and I figured out different ways to generate income with the show. I think as the medium grows, people who want to sell things are going to see that there are ears here. And there’s no middleman. I decide what to sell. I decide what I can live with.
Also, once people become loyal to your show, they want to be supportive. I don’t know if everyone can do it. For me, this was born out of desperation and a need to continue generating material and to do something challenging more than it was trying to make money.
The subject of failure provides such grist for your interviews, how it’s at once a devastating and totally necessary part of becoming a comic. Now that you’re surging, in a phoenix-from-the-ashes sort of way, how do you think about success these days? What are you striving for?
Look, I just wanted to feel like what I’ve spent my life doing wasn’t futile. You can make an argument that….well, that’s a personal decision. It’s how you frame it, it’s your perception, it’s your self-talk. What does success really mean? If you feel good about yourself, isn’t that success? I guess. But unfortunately a lot of a creative person’s sense of self is bound to his or her creativity. So if your creativity is not rewarded, if you’re an artist of some kind, or an entertainer, you want your creativity to be received. If it’s more than just a hobby that you do to make yourself feel better, then a few forces have to come into alignment. Because of my integration into this new medium and into my community, and also because of my freedom of mind and the conversations that I’m having with people, it seems to resonate with a lot of people.
Do you feel good about yourself?
My creativity has never been so unleashed. And because that’s resonating, I have a sense of wholeness that I didn’t have before. So, in terms of financial success, I’d like to have some health insurance that is somewhat covered by one of the unions I’m in. And, you know, I’d like to not die broke. That’s really what I’m striving for. But creatively, I’d like to leave something that is relatively timeless that people enjoy engaging with.
I heard you once describe your creative process as backing yourself into a corner of panic and then frantically fighting your way out. Has the podcast given you a healthier way to work?
No. I still work like that.
Do you still get nervous when you’re about to interview people? I know you often don’t prepare much.
Um…Depends who it is. And how I’m approaching them. I don’t get as nervous, no. But I’m also respectful of the size of ego and the nature of who I’m talking to. I don’t get nervous, but I do get anxious. I’m not afraid, I just don’t know what’s going to happen.
Any news on your television pilot? Your book?
Yeah, it’s still in negotiations with IFC, and it’s looking good. These things take forever, and I don’t’ really know what’s going on in terms of negotiation, but I’ve been told to be optimistic. So I’m going to leave it at that and not hang my hopes on anything. I’m also pitching around something else.
Can you talk about that?
It’s just a…It’s more of a talk show type of thing, rather than a scripted comedy thing.
Can you describe the IFC concept?
It was just a scripted pilot based on my life. Based on my relationships with my girlfriend and my father and my podcast and some other stuff. It’s just a single-camera type of thing that is slightly elevated reality…a scripted version basically of what my life looks like.
And what about your book?
The book is coming along. It’s probably not going to be out for a while. My first draft is due in in a couple of weeks, and I seem to have enough words. Some I like, some I don’t. It’s not that structured. It’s essays and memoir-style. I’m looking forward to working with my editor and shaping it into something.
Anything else you’d like to plug or talk about?
Just that I’m thrilled to be coming to Acme. I love Minneapolis. And I really don’t think my standup has ever been better than it is now.
March 8 –10
Acme, 708 N. 1st St., Mpls., acmecomedycompany.com