Without a backup plan, it was sink or swim for the "WTF" podcast host
Marc Maron is exactly the guy the devoted followers of his podcast “WTF” imagine.
They expect him to be funny, articulate, insightful and slightly profane. The listeners — whom Maron usually greets with “How’s it going, What the Fuckineers, What the Fucksters?” or other similar nicknames — then get an intimate monologue about Maron’s life before an hourlong-or-more interview with everyone from Iggy Pop to Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, David Sedaris, Cheech and Chong and almost every comedian — up-and-coming and otherwise — on the club circuit these days.
“I like working,” says Maron. “As I get older, people ask me, ‘What do you want to get out of life?’ Well, I’d like to not die broke and have insurance.”
He’s that guy. But taller.
“There’s nothing more intimate than audio. The relationship people have with it is very specific and individual, and very powerful,” Maron says.
The comic’s candor, his killer guest list and skill at engaging famous folks in conversation have drawn legions of devoted fans all over the world.
But this is the third, or even fourth act for this longtime standup comic, whose journey has led him to podcasting and now an IFC TV series starting production on its second season.
“I think the perseverance is just really about” — he takes a long pause here — “I didn’t really have another plan. I didn’t have a plan B. And after a certain point, even if you have one, it kind of disappears. I mean, what are you practically going to do after a certain point?”
As fans of his podcast know, Maron just turned 50, started standup in the 1980s just as the comedy club scene was dying, has written two books, loves cats, is divorced twice and is mildly obsessed with Lorne Michaels.
“I had plenty of opportunities. I was a respected comic. I had my own angle on things. In ’95 I did an HBO special,” he says. “I’ve been on Comedy Central Presents. I’ve been on Conan 50 times. And you can build it, and they may not come. You can’t manufacture what may make people gravitate toward you. I just could never sell tickets. I worked all the time but not for a lot of money.”
His authenticity — something he pursues and is drawn to with an almost zealot-like fervor — underlines the pursuit of his vocation. “Fortunately and unfortunately, I never saw it as a career,” Maron says at his cluttered home’s dining room table where a box of Nicorette lozenges sits alongside a copy of his latest book, “Attempting Normal,” a laptop and other effluvia of a performer.
“When I first started doing comedy, I just knew I wanted to be a comic. I knew I had things to say and I wasn’t sure what those things were, but I wanted to do it on that stage.”
His garage is famous. It’s pretty small, but that’s where he does his interviews, and it is crammed with books, CDs, art, tchotchkes and lots of tributes from fans, including several amazing portraits, a one-sheet from a “Gimme Shelter” re-release, a framed cartoon of Maron berating a dejected-looking Fozzie bear, and several guitars.
“By the time I started the podcast (in 2009), I had given up on a lot of things,” he says. “I didn’t think I’d be relevant as a comic. Whatever TV aspirations I had, I had to let go. It was heartbreaking. I started the podcast with no real expectations and it just sort of evolved into this thing.”
Sitting in his garage, alone, creating the introductions to the interviews allowed him the luxury of thinking out loud. “Once I got comfortable talking into the mics without anyone around it was a major breakthrough. And once I started to do longer-form interviews it was more about me needing to talk to people than it was necessarily what those people were up to.”
The podcasting has other benefits. “It certainly informs my comedy. For the first time in my life I had done something, I had achieved something that was relevant to people, that had a lot of effect on a lot of different levels on people. I got something I never had before — some genuine self-esteem.”
Audiences can see for themselves in his standup special for Netflix, “Marc Maron: Thinky Pain.”
“If you watch ‘Thinky Pain’ — it’s an hour and a half of comedy. People don’t really do those anymore,” he says. “I was very specific about how it was shot, and I wanted to honor how I do standup and I don’t think I’ve ever done better standup than I’m doing now.
Before the podcasting began, “I didn’t know what else to do… I wasn’t a mature person. I didn’t know how to live life. I’m sure I could have figured something else out but it didn’t occur to me. My pride was involved. I had suicidal ruminations because I had skidded out career-wise,” he remembers.
“But to be honest, I don’t think I had a true voice as a standup until a couple years ago, after I was doing the podcasts. A lot of people still don’t know my stand-up, which is interesting because they have been listening to me for years. They may not have any context for me as a standup. And then I put ‘Thinky Pain’ out and people were like ‘Whoa! You can do this!’ And I’m like, Yeah, I’ve been doing it half my life.”
And now his series “Maron” is in its second season of production with a 2014 run date on IFC.
To hear him tell it, pitching your life as a series to TV networks every other year is de rigueur for comedians. “I’ve had deals with NBC, Fox Studios and HBO in the past. But I got called in by Jim Serpico over at Apostle Entertainment and he told me he was a big fan — I took a lot of meetings with people who just wanted to tell me they liked the podcast — and Jim says the podcast is great, there must be something we can do with it.”
Maron replied that yeah, he had an idea for a show about a guy who has crapped out and starts doing a podcast in his garage and celebrities come over. Oh, and he’s twice divorced.
“He says, ‘Yeah that sounds like a great idea.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, let’s do that.’ ”
Serpico had a deal with Fox Studios, which gave them money for pilot. They shopped it around and IFC picked it up.
“The first episodes were directly rooted in my life. But life events aren’t necessarily stories, so there is fiction in there,” says Maron. For season two, Maron and his writers have to look at who Maron’s world: “How do you elevate it and do stories that do not come directly from my life?” he asks. “How do you start building out this world? My life is not that huge. I go out back and talk to people.”
It was a challenge, and Maron says they have some great stories and they’re excited about it.
But it’s through the podcasts that he really connects with his audience and guests.
“Jon Favreau was so obsessed with the show that he had already run the episode though in his head and had a very specific notion of it,” says Maron. “Josh Homme (the Queens of the Stone Age leader who had contracted MRSA and nearly died during surgery) had been through some shit and was ready to talk. He knew the show and was ready to talk. To me.”
Maron knows his podcast is unusual in our seconds-long-sound-bite driven world. “How often do you sit and talk with people? To really have a relatively spontaneous conversation with people for an hour?”