Marc Maron on patent trolls and spiritual experiences in the desert
Robyn Von Swank/ IFC
Most comedy nerds are already familiar with Marc Maron's biography. He rose to prominence in the alt-comedy scene of the '90s before floundering through a few TV and radio gigs that never felt like a perfect fit. Despite racking up over forty appearances on the various incarnations of Conan and never leaving the airwaves for long, Maron's career was at a low point when he started the WTF podcast in his garage. In addition to in-depth interviews with comedians, musicians and the occasional movie star, WTF gives plenty of mic time to Maron's chronic over-sharing as well. Though off-putting at first to some listeners, his rambling engenders a more personal connection with the legion of listeners who have flocked to his shows. Currently starring in the final few episodes of the second season his IFC sitcomMaron, he'll be headlining this weekend at the downtown Comedy Works . In advance of that run, we caught up with Maron to discuss patent trolls, Denver's drunk crowds and his attempts at a spiritual experience in the desert.
Marc Maron of WTF, in Denver this weekend.
Westword: I read on the WTF dispatch that you recently took some time off the grid in Joshua Tree. How was your trip? Any visions or spiritual revelations?
Marc Maron: Well, I've been out there before and it's pretty amazing. It's one of those places that you hear is amazing and then it absolutely lives up to that reputation. There are certain places that do that. I don't think anybody goes to see the Grand Canyon and goes, "Eh, it's okay. It's just a hole." I don't do drugs anymore and I don't drink, so I really have to have a fairly earnest spiritual experience. I may have forced it a bit, but it's not hard to have one surrounded by these dinosaur plants in the middle of the desert. I was by myself, and I don't usually travel by myself except for work. But you know, spiritual journeys when you have a schedule, you have time for one hike -- and it was sort of hijacked by my fear of not bringing enough water and dying on top of a mountain. So I had to come to terms with the possibility that I might get bitten by snakes, and I don't even know if there are snakes up there. Or that my eyes could get eaten by hawks and crows, and that no one would find me for days. None of those things ended up happening, but they were a sort of obstacle to my enlightenment.
If you're at peace with being bird-food, that's pretty enlightened.
That's as good of an enlightenment as you can get. Exactly. I guess I did it. I did it. It didn't last long, but my calm, enlightened self -- that lasted until I got back into the car to leave Joshua Tree.
Does it still take a few sets to shake off the cobwebs if you've taken a long time off?
You're talking like it was this long trip! It was a good couple of hours. I don't ever take that long off. Sometimes it'll be a while since I've done a long set, but I don't really let cobwebs form. I just try to be as alive as possible and move through things as they're happening. I don't wander the world with a perfectly orchestrated act that I could get tired of, or could get rusty. I show up for each performance fresh, you know what I mean? I'm always fueled by a certain amount of excitement and panic. Not unhealthy panic. I'm not worried about being rusty; I do worry a little about Denver in general. It's pretty drunky weekend nights. I think it has something to do with the altitude, too. Hopefully, mostly my people will come.
There's a lot of studied comedy nerds here.
I always have a great time in Denver. I've got a couple old friends there. There's a couple restaurants around there that I like. I'm looking forward to it: four shows at one of the best clubs in the country.
Most comics seem to agree. So, I watched your special Thinky Pain and I noticed that you spent a good portion of the show craned up in a fetal-like position on a stool? When did you start performing that way?
I don't know, man, it was half-conscious and half just where I ended up finding myself. I've been doing comedy a long time, and you see these guys pacing around, and I just found myself sitting down. It used to be in the old days when I was sitting down it meant that I was not doing well, that I was overcompensating. If that show wasn't going the way I wanted it to go, I would sit down and act like that didn't bother me at all.
I don't know, I felt like a special -- I watched Bill Cosby Himself recently and it sort of dawned on me that we decide what we want to do, we decide what's funny and we decide how we want to hold ourselves. So I started sitting down and felt that out, and then the positioning sort of evolved. It seems to be what I do now, and I like it. It enables a focus. There's something intimate about it immediately. I actually feel like I have more freedom of movement, there's something more expressive and condense about it. It took me 25 years to end up on the stool. I've always been sort of a stool guy, but whatever's going on on top of that stool is relatively new.
Keep reading for more from Marc Maron.
It's less showy and more conversational. You shot it in a pretty small venue, right?
Yeah, well that's how standup is great. There should be an intimacy to it. I guess there are several ways to do it, you can do great in a theater, but I like it when you can kind of become one mind and there's not that distance between you and the audience. It's more exciting that way, and if I feel comfortable to improvise and talk candidly and explore what's happening in the present, then that's a better experience for me. I hope it's a better experience for the audience.
I think it's better if they're close to each other, too. No tables, everyone's sitting side by side in the dark and there can be like a hive mind going.
Yeah, that's the classic. Historically, basement rooms are where it's at. Low ceilings and a tight seating pattern is historically the best way to do comedy. Like the original improv back on 44th Street. I shot my special in a basement.
There's a weird mob mentality that can take over.
Well, they're of one mind. I think "mob" has bad connotations. Hive mind is also bad. I'll go with one mind.
Okay: unity, but not like a Borg.
So, do you have an update on the patent trolls issue?
Well, fortunately there's been some movement in the Supreme Court around the issue, the awareness of it has risen. Precedents have been set in court that are signaling that this will be handled on a state-by-state basis with the Supreme Court weighing in on some of the predatory practices of these patent troll lawyers. The specific podcasting trolls are being fought by Adam Carolla, but he could use some money in that fight, and in a lot of ways that could balance the way decisions are made. It does seem that the tides have turned against patent trolling in general, and we hope that will continue.
Has it impacted your day to day podcasting life at all?
No, there was no cease-and-desist on me. We received some letters implying that licensing was required, but I didn't even engage them because it's really just straight up extortion. There's no system in place; they're just looking to get a chunk of change from you, so you can protect yourself from them. The fact is, they did sue Adam and a couple other podcasting entities and that litigation is under way. Like I said before, it's a lot of panic and aggravation, even though I'm not in the direct line of fire and Adam is. Hopefully, he'll win that fight and that patent will become null and void.
Hopefully. That's bullshit.
Well, yeah, if even one element of the patent is bullshit, their whole argument falls apart. What this really is, is criminal activity justified by loopholes within the patent system that are being exploited. They're just taking an idea, basically a schematic, a diagram of something that somebody tried to make at one time, but it didn't happen. Now they're trying to re-introduce the patent and retroactively apply it to podcasting and litigate based on that premise. It's extortion and it's an obstacle to creativity and growth within the business.
The thing I don't get is that it's a bipartisan issue that should get more attention because it really stifles creativity and innovation. It's also really annoying. There are huge corporations that have a lot invested in protecting the patents. It's one of those things that really affects the little guys when these shakedown artists start coming after us. Some of the same laws enable larger corporations to protect themselves, so it becomes sort of nuanced, and new parameters need to be created as far as how that patent system works.
It's not necessarily that comforting that the decision is in the hands of the Supreme Court. They've been blowing it lately.
That is true, but even with a fairly right-wing Supreme Court, you do have that element of fairly traditional, old-school Republican ideology of protecting small business. Bankrupting the little guy based on drawings that don't even imply invention would be something that would behoove them.
Between your show and Comedy Bang Bang, it seems like IFC has had the most success adapting the podcast format to television. Did you shoot your pilot before IFC picked it up, or were they on board from the beginning?
I don't know if you can say they adapted the format; I think that what happened was that people who had podcasts were given the opportunity based on the attention they were getting from their podcasts, but if you look, they're both very specifically television shows. I do think that the opportunities arising from a self-generated thing are pretty exciting. Basically, what happened is, Apostle, the production company of Dennis Leary and Jim Serpico -- who I work with primarily, I don't work with Dennis a lot , Jim was a fan of my show and he wanted to know what could be done with it. I said, "Well, when you're a comic, every few years, hopefully your life is interesting enough that you build a show around it." So I said, "Let's do a show around a broken guy who now interview celebrities in his garage." I think that ten years ago, that would have seemed like a ridiculous conceit -- but now it's actually happening. So we got a little money together and shot a pilot presentation and we took that around to the networks and IFC got behind it. There are three episodes left in the second season.
Have you heard anything about a third season renewal?
It's looking good. Hopefully it's not a long way off. We may know within the next week or two.
Is there anything you wanted to mention before we wrap up?
Well, yeah, there's some good episodes coming up. I directed an episode this season called "The Joke." It's the first time I've ever directed. It's a pretty interesting story about a topic that people get worked up about: the idea of joke-stealing. I wanted to make sure I got the joke-theft issue right, so I directed that one. So that's pretty exciting, but tricky because I'm in every scene. We're looking forward to a season three and I'm excited to come to Denver again.
Maron will be performing two shows a night, at 7:30 and 9:45 p.m., on Friday, July 18 and Saturday, July 19. Tickets are $28 and available from the Comedy Works website.
Follow Byron Graham on twitter @ByronFG for more mildly amusing sequences of words.
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