Marc Maron on Interviewing Obama, Dead Trolls and the Maronation Tour

Most comedy nerds are already familiar with Marc Maron's biography, since he's perhaps the world's most renowned podcaster. Maron 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 mike time to Maron's chronic over-sharing. Though off-putting at first to some listeners, his rambling engenders a more personal connection with the legion of "What the Fuck-aneers" who flock to his shows — and then follow him to Maron, the semi-autobiographical IFC sitcom he created that's now in its third season.

Maron's career hit a high point recently, when President Barack Obama dropped by the garage for a historic interview with the grouchy comic, who's coming to Colorado for two special engagements: at the Boulder Theater on July 24 and at the Paramount on July 25. In advance of those shows, Westword caught up with the prolific comedian to discuss his presidential interview, the challenges of mounting his first theater tour, and the podcasters' unsung victory over the patent trolls who threatened their livelihood. 

Westword: You recently completed an interview with a historically important guest, President Barack Obama. What has the response been like?

Marc Maron: I was surprised that I didn’t really get any flak from either side. You know, whoever might be disenchanted or disenfranchised or even angry with the president, I just think hearing him talk in that candid way, just with some dude in a garage in an audio format, brought a certain focus to who he really is and allows listeners to get a certain feeling about who he is from the tone of the conversation. Most people, whether they like him or not, thought it was a good conversation.

Do you ever get the impulse to get back into political commentary, or are you happy to have left that behind?

No, dude. I have no desire to be involved with the political dialogue. One interviewer asked me if I would be interviewing the candidates, and I couldn’t think of a worse thing to be doing.

I can’t imagine that anyone would be less forthcoming in an interview than a political candidate.

I have no desire to do that at all. People think that it was a political conversation — which, obviously, we covered a bit — but there are people who do that better than me. They’ve always done it better than me. Even when I was doing political talk radio, I wasn‘t very good at it. You know, the truth is that I got an opportunity to talk to the president. It wasn’t necessarily political to me. As an American, honoring that invitation rose above cynicism or partisan politics. It was an opportunity to talk to the President of the United States.

It’s certainly historic. I’d guess that part of the reason it was such a good conversation is because he’s not running for anything.

It is what it is, you know? Politicians are politicians. They do what they’ve got to do; that’s just the nature of it. I don’t need to service that. If I engage my own personal politics and sort of restart that dialogue, it becomes too specific and alienating. I’ll talk about things as they relate to me, but I just don’t want to be part of that machine. It’s so easy to be co-opted and used. I just don’t need it.

After having interviewed so many comedians (and now musicians, actors and politicians, too), have you developed a psychological profile of what makes a person submit to the humbling ritual of standup?

I don’t know. It’s hard for me to pathologize based on my experience. My idea of a standup comic’s pain and darkness being where comedy comes from was very limited when I started. I’ve found that there are all different types of funny people. There are people who are possessed by a demon that needs to compulsively make people laugh, but there are also people who are fairly practical about pursuing comedy as a career. There are some people who work well with others and some people that don’t. I’ve not really tracked the need to be on stage, really, but I think there are ways to simplify that, in terms of needing love or wanting attention. But I don’t necessarily think that there’s a general psychology, you know what I mean? I think some people just like it.

So, that perspective has changed over the years of doing the podcast?

Well, yeah, that’s what I just said. I started out with a certain point of view, and then over time I realized that not all funny people are depressed or miserable, or having problems with people and deep-seated issues. A lot of them are just hardworking people who harness their talent in a responsible way; there’s just a lot of different types. There’s no general psychology other than a certain self-centeredness.

Well, it’s sort of a selfish pursuit. You’re getting stage lights and a microphone.

Yeah, you’re under the lights, but hopefully whatever your expression is or whatever your creativity is adds something to people’s lives. So, in that sense it’s relatively selfish, but it requires engagement from a lot of people.

On the Maronation Tour, are you working out a new hour from the last special you released?

Yeah. I have a special coming out early next year. I just shot a special in Chicago at the Vic Theatre a couple months ago for EPIX, and we’re editing that together now. It's called More Later. You'll see, if you come to the show, that the title is referring to a callback I do. 

So some of that hour will be on the shows you’re doing in Denver?

Yeah. No one’s really seen that special yet, so it’s new material; it’s a new hour and a half that I’m doing on this tour. I haven’t exactly thought about starting the next hour after this one yet.

How do you approach those first steps toward building a new headlining set?

I don’t know how it happens, man. I start talking about things, and one thing leads to another. Usually what I do once I’ve got a head full of ideas and a lot of random notes, I try to find a through-line in what I’m doing. Then I’ll usually take up residency at a small theater in Los Angeles, the Trepany House at the Steve Allen Theater. It’s a small theater; it seats maybe 120 people when it’s packed out. I do a very cheap ticket, and I just run through for a couple months. Once a week, like on a Tuesday, my fans come, and I just plow through ideas. I tell them to lower their expectations because I’m working on stuff, and I just start riffing until something comes together. That’s usually how I create material.

Do your die-hard fans appreciate getting to sort of take a peek at the first draft of your jokes?

The discovery process is exciting, you know? As things become refined, or at least as refined as I let them become, it loses some excitement for me. Those shows are more conversational and more revelatory because things are happening for the first time, connections are being made for the first time. Some things don’t make the cut. Some things don’t make the cut when maybe they should have. I lose a lot of stuff because I don’t study as much as I should. I record everything, but then I don’t ever listen to them. There are a lot of things that will never happen again. Seeing those shows is a completely different experience. To be honest with you, every show that I do has stuff in it that's going to be surprising to me and to the audience. I'm not the kind of guy who can auto-pilot his way through an act, but if the audience is good, I will make something happen. 

So it's less of a routine than an organic interaction?

Well, you hope it appears that way, ultimately. 

I watched a couple episodes of the current season of Maron, and I noticed you had an episode about your issues with patent trolls. Has there been any resolution to that, or are you still in a kind of limbo there?

The troll is dead, dude. It’s a beautiful story that no one seems to tell. It’s a great story; it’s a crime that no one really wrote about it. Podcasters rallied, and Adam Carolla fought them in court. With our support and funding help, the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) took it upon themselves to file a re-exam with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, who found their claim to be faulty, so the patent died. So that troll is dead. If they found anything in the patent that isn’t kosher, then the whole thing dies. So it was a pretty monumental thing that went uncelebrated, much to my chagrin. I mean, I talked about it, but it’s beyond me why no tech writers were covering that story. There were so many elements, so many things happened. It was some real grassroots shit, man. And ultimately it’s decided, it’s done, they’re gone. At least that one, anyway. It doesn’t mean that the war against patent trolls is over for anybody, but I don’t think anybody is going to fuck with podcasters for a while. Those guys got more than they bargained for when they came after us.

It seems like trying to get money from podcasters is really just trying draw blood from a stone.

I don’t think they saw it that way. Ultimately, it wasn’t the same style of trolling that they were able to pull off with bigger companies, which were really just software patents without a voice. But to really seek a licensing fee from everybody who turns on a mic in their garage — if they had wanted to manage it — that really could have been lucrative for the rest of time. But it would have taken some infrastructure to facilitate that, which they didn’t have. Ultimately, they were doing what most patent trolls do, which is going for a big payoff. They had sort of assumed that there was more money in it than there actually is. I think that’s how they framed their decision to retreat when they let Adam off the hook. But I think they were getting significant flak from all sides, and they were trying to cash in before the re-exam went through. I wish somebody would do some investigative journalism around this, because they went after some big companies. I don’t think they spoke much to the press. So defeating them was a beautiful thing, and I think that the way it ended didn’t get as much attention as it should have, but whatever.

It’s a real underdog victory.

It’s a good story! And it wasn’t such a clean victory. I mean, I was in touch with the EFF a lot, and the reason the EFF took it on is because it fit into their framework of action, it was an action they could take. We got our listeners to donate the money to fund it, and that was what ultimately killed their patent. In order for any of us individually file a re-exam, it cost at least $25,000 just to do the legal work on it. It’s a process, but it’s what the EFF does, it’s part of their agenda. Adam fought them in court, and they eventually let him off the hook, but he lost like half a million dollars in that fight. So this was the best way it could have gone down. We knew the patent stunk, but you never know how long a re-exam is going to take and we didn’t have the legal infrastructure to do it ourselves as podcasters, but the EFF sought us out. That was the best way it could have gone down, to have it invalidated so it can’t do any more damage. It’s killing off a virus, you know? It’s a great story. The a sad thing about journalism is that a great story like that is out there, and nobody really thought to pursue that and put it together, because that’s not how journalism works anymore in the big picture.

I’m not really a journalist; I’m mostly just a standup who writes about comedy.

Well, there you go — you’ve got your angle. I’m not asking you to do it. I’m just saying that in general, someone should.

Were you around for the nascent days of Comedy Works?

That club's always been really good to me, but I didn't work there for most of my career. By the time I even started working there, I was well into my life. You know, it seemed like everyone in the world had worked that club but me. I had already started the podcast by the time I first worked there. It was later in life; I didn't have any sort of early history with that club. It's one of the better clubs; I always talk about it in a positive way. I don't know what you Denver guys know, though — you guys gotta live with it.

Unless they're specifically bitter about something, every comic in Denver loves Comedy Works.

Yeah, working that club is like cheating.

It keeps the dream alive for a lot of comics.

It's a hot room; there are only a few of those around. I don't know if it's structural or what, but it's overwhelming. I can't explain it. There are only a couple places like it that I can think of. The Icehouse in Pasadena is another very hot room. Basements are classic. There's a history of great basements.

I also noticed that the "Patent Troll" episode went into your strained relationship with Sam Seder. You've processed difficult relationships both on the podcast and on your show, even on Louie. What's it like to reframe your personal history into narrative entertainment? 

Well, Sam and I definitely have a dynamic, and we've had our problems, but I love Sam and I think he's hilarious. The dynamic is real, but as we've gotten older, it's softened a bit. There was never any real malice there. But I take a lot of shit from Sam. I have a lot of friendships where I'm on the receiving end of a never-ending ball-busting. Ultimately, they're sweet guys. But there have been reparations, and there's been an evolution of me as a podcaster. I think the most powerful show that I did — outside of the stuff I did around the relationship I was actually in during season one and a little bit of season two — was the episode about having my ex-wife on the podcast. That was a powerful bit of business because those events were taken from my life, or at least tonally they were. I think the fact that I have some lack of closure around some of the elements in that relationship — not that I have any active anger necessarily, but there was some stuff in that episode that was emotionally cathartic for me — that did provide a kind of closure that felt very real. It's a very intense episode. I wrote and directed that one. It's called "Ex-Pod." it's pretty heavy.

Marc Maron is at the Boulder Theater at 8 p.m. Friday, July 24; find more information on the Boulder Theater show here. He'll be at the Paramount Theater at 8 p.m. Saturday, July 25; see the Paramount website for more info. 

Follow Byron Graham on twitter @ByronFG for more mildly amusing sequences of words.

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Byron Graham is a writer, comedian and gentleman thief from Denver. Co-host of Designated Drunkard: A Comedy Drinking Game, the deathless Lion's Lair open mic and the Mutiny Book Club podcast, Byron also writes about comedy for Westword. He cannot abide cowardice, and he's never been defeated in an open duel.
Contact: Byron Graham