Marc Maron on sobriety in art and not speaking to ex-wives
Marc Maron will perform four shows at Comedy Works this weekend.
If you believe that podcasting saved comedy, then Marc Maron is a messiah of humor. After enduring divorces, a flaccid comedy career and losing his job on Air America, in 2009 Maron launched the WTF podcast, recorded in the same garage he often contemplated killing himself in. Today WTF is one of the highest rated shows on iTunes, taking the medium of pop-culture interviews to a highly personal, yet culturally relevant, level of hipster confessionalism.
Now a kind of David Foster Wallace meets Morrissey voice of the "indie comedy" generation, Maron is enjoying a previously unimaginable level of success in the funny business. His recent memoir, Attempting Normal, was released as a double-feature pairing with the debut of his IFC television series, Maron, earlier this year. And the man who has appeared on Conan 46 times will be returning to Denver this weekend, delivering a four-show run at Comedy Works. We caught up with Maron while he waited in line at a barbershop in L.A., to discuss why failure is a good thing, how sobriety affects art, and why we don't have to worry about him becoming happy.
Westword: Many comedy podcasts today feel more like broadcast journalism than standup comedy -- do you ever feel like with WTF that you're more of a Charlie Rose type interviewer than a comedian?
Marc Maron: I don't know. Some people say that about certain episodes that I've done. I've never really thought of myself as a journalist; I'm not really organized in that way. Though when a conversation gets candid enough, things happen that may not happen in other formats.
So, I guess, yeah. I'll take it. Though I think a journalist would prepare more for interviews than I do. My inquisitiveness is based more on impulse, and whatever's happening in the moment.
I know that whenever I interview someone who I've had more of a mythical relationship with through pop-culture, there's something unsettling about meeting the human version of them. Considering you're such a big comedy nerd, and have interviewed almost everyone in the business, do you ever experience anything like this?
I don't know if it's unsettling so much as settling. If an interview gets to a point where they reveal themselves, you start to see that they are just people. Whatever we build in our head about them, based on the information we have, that's on us. I don't find it unsettling. Some people are more difficult than others, but I'm always relieved when I find out that they're real people, because it makes what they do all the more impressive.
Do you ever find yourself really enjoying a person's company, while at the same time despising the comedy or music they make?
I don't experience too much hate about people's comedy or music. If I'm going to have resentment, it's going to be for personal reasons. I don't know whether it's getting older or realizing how difficult it is to put anything out into the world, or what. I can hear someone's music and know that it's not really my thing, but it is a thing and people dig it, and I'll find something interesting about them to talk about. I do have a hard time with people that I don't respect, but it's not because of what they're making.
Does the reverse ever happen, where you do like what someone puts out, but find that you can't stand them personally?
Yeah. But I'm a difficult person myself, so I'm a little more forgiving. If people are assholes, I find that if I talk to them for an hour, no matter how much I dislike them, there's going to be a minute or two there where I'm like, "Oh, this guy's just doing his thing and he feels he has to behave this way." I try to be diplomatic in that way.
From my perspective, that's ultimately the crux of WTF: you take on all the baggage that comes with fame and iconography, and root around in it for a while until you find the humanity.
Sometimes that's the case. It depends on how much bullshit I have to wade through, and how present we are in the interview.
Even though your persona is of a grumpy miser taking it out on the world, you often mention that you're much more happy and settled in your life now than you were in your twenties and thirties. Which is somewhat antithetical to the world of celebrity that you inhabit. Other than getting sober, why has middle-age been kinder to you than youth
Well, things just aren't as pressing or important now. When you're young, a lot of stuff preoccupies you and as time goes by, you realize how unimportant a lot of that stuff was. There are still things I find aggravating, but you have to learn to accept your limitations, and realize what is a real problem and what isn't. You have to decide how crazy you're willing to drive yourself. I think as I got older and processed things, I got to know myself better.
Do you think that perspective has given you some traction in your career? If you're always the guy that's freaking out, I imagine people are less likely to work with you.
Yeah, that's definitely a good observation. That's probably true. I was definitely freaking out over everything. And that would manifest itself in different ways: either anger, or self-sabotage, or causing trouble, making other people uncomfortable. It's that old adage that you have to get out of your own way as much as you can.
I think that the reason things are able to happen to me now is that I'm able to deal with it. I've been doing whatever the hell it is I do for a long time; there are certain skills I've developed, like being comfortable with my talent, being able to deal with it.
When I started doing the TV show [Maron], I wasn't how I used to be thinking, like, "What am I going to do, I'm not ready for this!" It didn't even cross my mind; I mean, I should be ready -- I'm almost fifty. If I'm not ready now, I'm never going to be. But a lot of thoughts come because you're used to it, the brain repeats itself. There's a comfort to those negative thoughts.
You've really taken your audience on that journey with you, being so open on your podcast about your insecurities and self-defeating thoughts. How important is vulnerability in comedy?
I don't know how important it is in a general sense. Recently somebody tweeted something about me, some Internet troll, and when I reacted to it he said, "God, you comedians are so sensitive." But we are! That's why we're fucking comedians. Being a comedian is a way to preemptively control that sensitivity; it's a way to frame things so they don't hurt you. Sensitivity is important if you're going to be a good comic.
But you can't really take that off the stage, can you? Comedians create a synthetic vulnerability on the stage, but in real life you don't always have the control to frame it in a safe, humorous way.
I don't think it's a synthetic vulnerability. I think vulnerability is something you either grow comfortable with or you don't. You have to determine how much you're going to let in. I'm not great with boundaries, and my desire to have a real emotional experience when I perform comedy or interview someone in my garage is an emotional need -- and that, in itself, is a vulnerability. It's a risk. And it's a matter of how far you're willing to go with that.
You have to be able to function. I'm pretty open when I come off stage -- but I also have this river of rage deep within me. So I have to think twice before I cut loose.
In addition to being open about yourself with your comedy, you're also very public about the relationships you have with other people. How have your parents and former wives reacted to you relating intimate details about them to strangers?
My mother's okay with it. My father and I aren't speaking. My ex-wives...I don't know what the hell they think. Since I don't have children, there's no reason for me to have contact with either of them.
Over the years there's been trouble there. I've had discussions with them about what I can and can't say in terms of other people's privacy. I don't think my father or second ex-wife are happy about the book. I've been careful, and I certainly didn't plan for any trouble. But when you're making creative decisions and they're based on your life, you have to decide what you can handle as a reaction. What are you willing to give up if the worst happens?
I suppose you have to decide how good a story or a bit is, and weigh that against the trouble it's going to cause.
And I'm not sure I've fully learned that. The stuff that's going on with my old man...I'm not sure how to resolve that. I may have betrayed some of his trust, but it was my childhood and he had an affect on me. I still think I went easy on him.
In terms of my second wife...look, I have a platform, and I think that my honesty helps other people. And I think that's worth it.
In the past you've commented on how your lack of success as a comic has affected your self-esteem. Now that you've had overwhelming success with your TV show, podcast and standup, how has this affected your self-perception?
Well, I've never been creatively calculating. I've never really known how I was going to do standup -- I've known how I wasn't going to do it. I've always just put myself out there, and after a certain point if it's not taking hold, if it's not resonating with anybody, eventually you get a little beaten up. When the podcast took hold, I was wondering if it had anything to do with me, or if it was just because of the people I was talking to. It takes a very delusional person to make it in this business.
So to finally breakthrough publicly had a profound affect on me. It made me believe that maybe I didn't waste my fucking life. So how does that affect your self-esteem? I think it affected it very positively.
So you're saying you never had a clear definition of success throughout your career?
I just wasn't that calculating. I was naive. Comics aren't the most mature thinkers, we're not the most socialized people. I just wanted to be a comic -- and the times that I wasn't a comic, I was taking jobs that were not what I should've been doing. And it was horrible. After my first divorce I was broke and took a job hosting a weird game show on VH1. But I had to make a living. Fortunately, none of them ever took hold.
I knew I was doing okay as a comic. I was on television, doing talk shows, putting out CD's. I just wasn't generating an audience; I couldn't sell tickets. So ultimately it made me wonder what success meant.
It's interesting how sometimes failure can work to your benefit. Bill Maher often mentions how getting fired from ABC with Politically Incorrect was the best thing that happened to him, because he ended up with Real Time on HBO. I suppose it was a similar dynamic with you getting fired from Air America and ending up with WTF, which was a better fit for you.
Yeah, but the podcast was really just born out of desperation. It turned out to be pretty great. It was down to the end of the line for me, it was a scary time. I didn't have any expectations for it. I'm happy now. The idea that I could be an independent businessman, the guy who can say whatever he wants and have a reasonable amount of people listen to him, I never thought that would happen to me a couple years ago.
Was that because you felt you didn't deserve it?
I just didn't think I would have the opportunity. That was the hardest thing, was that I'd already had so many opportunities and none of them worked out. I'd done specials on Comedy Central, HBO, I'd done pilots, and they would never take off. I could never get to the second step. And you think, "maybe it's all bullshit" or "maybe I'm not good enough." I'd dedicated half my life to comedy, so by the time I'd started the podcast I was just crazy. It was just something to keep engaged. And it worked out.
What's fascinating about that is how the Internet has provided so many opportunities for comics and has caused a revival for the comedy industry, while at the same time it was a holocaust for the music industry.
I think that's true. I think the medium of podcasting itself is still new, it hasn't become mainstream yet. But that's a good thing.
You can't just put it on podcasts, though. I think there have been a lot of new television outlets in the last ten years that have been very specific, delivering odd and unique comedy in a non-traditional way. Comedy Central is still very vital, and Adult Swim has been very important.
You also have to remember that if you go back ten or fifteen years, comedy was not very cool. Today you have a whole generation of comedy nerds, which never existed before. In the past there were a couple of cool comics here and there, but the big guys were always the big guys. It was always mainstream. I don't know. Was Sam Kinison cool? Was Andrew "Dice" Clay cool? It was very male-oriented, and it was big business.
Now there is this very young, non-alpha male, nerdy, thoughtful audience. There's this whole new trend on how people see comedy that has never happened before. So what the Internet has provided comedy -- outside of just a democratic platform for showing your stuff -- is to allow comedians to maintain a connection with their audience in a very immediate way, and give some control and direction over their own career. It's allowed you to find your people, and have a relationship with them.
Whether it's true or not, there's an unwavering theory in pop-culture that once a musician becomes sober and happy, they make shitty music. And there are plenty of examples of that. But in comedy, there are so many examples of intoxicated performers who never had a career until they became sober and got their life together. Do you think there's something about the medium of comedy that lends itself to sobriety?
I don't know. A lot of that stuff is relative. It's like what we were talking about earlier, that when you get to know a musician and see their humanity, does that affect how you view their music? I talk to a lot of older musicians who only had one or two hits and then became culturally irrelevant for years; they think they're making the best work of their lives today. So a lot of what you're talking about, especially in terms of music, is relative to the audience. The audience grows up and changes culturally.
Well, ultimately sobriety leaves a performer feeling vulnerable and real, and rock music is a medium that only thrives within an audience-manufactured mythology. Whereas comedy -- or at least modern, "indie" comedy -- requires sincere humanity and thumbs its nose at anything that doesn't come directly from the performer.
I don't know if you can generalize like that. The sad thing is -- or maybe it's not sad -- is that some people only have one great record in them. Some people only have one great book. The rest of it is okay. Some people have five great things in them, and that's amazing. But who knows why some people can make ten, while some can only do one. I don't fucking know. But you gotta pay the bills, so you have to keep working.
But for me, sobriety was about not hiding from myself. Am I going to keep chasing success at any cost, or am I just going to take the hit and be humbled by life and evolve as a person?
How do you think getting sober changed your comedy?
I don't know if it did for the first ten years of my sobriety. But in the last few years I've been humbled enough by life to accept my limitations, and arriving in my body in a way that I was comfortable with. It's all about acceptance, ultimately. I think I've never been more comfortable on stage. I need to engage and connect with an audience in a visceral way. Though I'm still very hard on myself. There's still part of my brain that's like, "Why can't you write better jokes, why don't you have more structure?"
So the fear that some of your fans have expressed -- that you've become happy and successful and may start doing shit-comedy -- is pretty unfounded. You're still plenty miserable.
Yeah, I don't know what all this "happy" business is all about. I don't know what that means. Life is difficult at every turn. One thing they don't have to worry about is that I'm going to go up there and complain about luxury problems. I'm not going to talk about having trouble with my Porsche or my pool guy. That's not the world I'm living in.
Marc Maron will perform four shows August 23 and August 24 at Comedy Works, 1226 15th Street. Tickets are $27; for more information, visit www.comedyworks.com.
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