Marc Maron on sobriety in art and not speaking to ex-wives

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.

See also: - Podcaster Taylor Gonda on bonding over pop-culture and reading the classics - Getting stoned with comedian Sam Tallent - Marc Maron's new TV series will make you want to shoot yourself in the face

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.

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Josiah M. Hesse
Contact: Josiah M. Hesse

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