Q&A: Marc Maron on podcasting, standup and thoughtful critics

Marc Maron's comedy style is honest, often unforgiving and occasionally enlightening. He might be best known by many for his podcast, "WTF With Marc Maron," but first and foremost he's a standup comedian. Marc Maron will appearing at Comedy Works Downtown starting tonight and running through Sunday for seven different performances. We caught up with Maron to talk about his podcast, critics, tough interviews and plenty more.

Westword: So I figured we could just start with the "idea" of the podcast and its freeform nature.

Marc Maron: Well, the podcast is about the freest medium I've ever experienced because the audience is just you. It's just one listener. It's just me in that room. I'm not standing in front of a crowd of people, I'm not worrying about when laughs are coming, I don't have to self-censor -- language wise or subject wise -- and I improvise most of it. So it's very satisfying because I find new thoughts about things I never had in me. When people get into it, it makes me grateful in the sense that this is about as honest as I can be in a creative medium and if people like it then they like me.

WW: Has it changed the way you've done standup, since people have gotten to "know" you better from the podcast?

MM: I've always been pretty candid in terms of standup, but I certainly can't pretend -- what's happening is that a lot of people who like the podcast are coming to see me do standup -- and look, I know how many people listen to the podcast and I know how many CDs I've sold in my life, so there's a big difference there. So when people come to see me and don't know me as a standup, I think they come with the attitude of "I hope he can do it, I like the podcast, but I wonder if he knows how to do this standup thing." Obviously I do, I've been doing it a long time. It's a whole different set of muscles, talking to a person and doing standup on a stage are very different. It's changed my approach. Other than that, I feel more comfortable and a lot of the stuff I talk about of the podcast evolves into standup material. So in a sense it's helping me generate material.

WW: Your show has a very conversational, insider-baseball aspect to it, but it doesn't seem to exclude the listener even if they're not into comedy. Is that something you watch out for?

MM: I don't think about. I don't think about who the audience is because I've learned there is no way to characterize who my audience is. There's no demographic, there's no gender, there's no age. There's just no way for me to even wrap my brain around tailoring anything. When I'm talking insider-baseball, if that's what it turns out to be, I'm talking to a person who does a job with me. If you're not a comedy nerd, the challenges of a job are the same as the challenges of any job in a certain way. So I think the actual conversation about the obstacles in life or in work or creativity are a human conversation. If I try to do anything, it's to make it a real conversation, so whatever it's about, it's about.

WW: You've talked about how you handle e-mails and feedback on the show before, since you're the host, the producer and the everything else, is that a necessary thing to do?

MM: Yes. I don't like putting it that way, like "Oh my god, here they come again," because I really enjoy it. I'm very grateful. It has taken me a long time to appreciate people liking me -- I'm a little nuts, so I try to be as gracious and attentive as possible. I get a little exhausted emotionally and I can't answer as many emails as I used to because more of them come and it makes me feel bad. But I try to show up for the fans because they definitely show up for me. But they've got to stop giving me so many cakes.

WW: You have received a lot of amazing gifts over the years -- do you have some favorites?

MM: Some guy made me a "What the Fuck" ceramic mug and it was so great -- I just loved it -- he knew what he was doing, used some of the art from the podcast -- it was a guy in Portland and it was filled with some homemade pickles and stuff. I liked it so much that I had him make me like twenty of them to give out to guests sometimes.

I had some pies that were brought to me in Connecticut that we just fucking amazing. I like original art -- I've recieved paintings of myself -- I got one made out of beads. I definitely respect the compulsion to do that. A woman sent me a sculpture of a little monster inspired by my heart-hands bit and that was very great.

WW: Is that normal?

MM: No, I don't know if it's normal. I know people get some things. But I think there are a couple reasons. I tend to operate in a fairly low-level cry for help and I think some people want to help me, but I don't really feel like that's the tone I'm taking. I honestly think its just an appreciation -- like you said, if I inspire creativity, then people want to be creative and share it with me. I get a lot of knitted goods -- I got a great hat that I like. A lot of this stuff is made by people with a lot of heart and I guess I inspire that in them -- it's a beautiful thing. I think it's also because a lot of people can't afford to donate to the podcast and this is a way of giving back.

I'm perfectly willing to barter like that. I swear to you man, I was in the Mall of America. This dying dinosaur of a -- what would you call it? Have you ever been to the Mall of America?

WW: Yeah, it's terrifying.

MM: So, yeah -- so after the show, I'm outside the venue, in the Mall of America doing barter for my CDs and people are giving me knitted goods. I thought, "this is beautiful, I'm bartering in the Mall of America."

WW: And the show just got picked up by PRI, right?

MM: Yeah, there's a story behind that. Myself, Jesse Thorn and Nick White edited a ten-part series to be made available for public radio. These are episodes that are edited from the original a bit, or paired up with other shows. Public radio stations can go and pick it up if they're interested.

WW: Are you trying to figure out how to make money on the show, or just sustain it?

MM: Well, you know, it's a full-time job. If you want me to be honest with you -- yes. All of us podcasters -- we're kind of tight, we kind talk to each other -- I think everybody is trying to figure it out. We want to keep it free so everybody can get it, but we still want to make a little money off of it.

WW: I think that's the nature of most Internet based businesses at this point.

MM: Yeah, we're trying to figure it out. We started doing selective advertising, we have apps, donors, we're figuring out a lot of different ways to do it. Like, today's episode was sponsored by IFC for a film they have opening next week. We're starting to find people that want to be part of the show. The IFC was great and they sent me to a sneak-peak of the movie and I actually liked it so I could do a real plug for the movie -- not a pretend one.

WW: Have you ever thought about expanding beyond comedians as far as guests are concerned then?

MM: Yeah I imagine that will happen. I definitely want to. One of the reasons why we've been able to make this work is because we don't have a real staff so it's all my own outreach and if I don't know how to get at somebody I can't do anything. It's amazing how difficult it is to get to some people because their managers or their agents or their publicists just don't see podcasts as a viable outlet. There's so many people that are just stuck in old-timey, media-outlet minds that they just don't realize that I have hundreds of thousands of people downloading it. Sometimes I don't think they even put it in front of their people, so I have to find a way to get to people that's more personal.

It's probably important to note that people who know my show know what kind of conversation they're going to get into and some people don't want to have that conversation. WW: Have your slightly confrontation conversations with Gallagher or Carlos Mencia made it difficult to get certain people onto the show?

MM: I don't know what other people thing -- but I don't think so. There are the people that don't want to have that kind of conversation publically, but we don't have to have that conversation. It's gotten somewhat of a reputation as a deep interview show -- I mean, I've been called the Barbra Walters of comedy -- which I'm not, I'm not an aging Jewish woman -- maybe a little. But I don't know how many people it actually stifled.

WW: It's kind of weird that people would go on a show and be surprised that they're being grilled with questions.

MM: I don't feel like I grill too much. I mean, I had to do it a couple times -- the Gallagher thing and Mencia that had to happen.

WW: You've talked a bit dealing with critics on your show or dealing with off-hand comments occasionally (recently including a Rolling Stone list) -- you are a critic in way -- is there a line that people cross there?

MM: Look, the reason people read certain critics -- critics used to have an education that came from something, whether its cultural critics or film critics -- there was a difference between a reviewer and a critic.

Either way, the justification of their position is determined by how many people trust their opinion. With the world of freelance journalism where you just get this dude out of nowhere going, "Yeah this guy is talking about himself too much, I fast-forward through this shit." Who the fuck is that guy? Where does he get off on some level -- I mean, who is he? In my mind, people trust your position because they're intellectually akin to you or they believe that you think like them. But it seems like out of nowhere, everybody's a fucking critic and I don't know what substantiates that other than this guy got a freelance writing gig for the Rolling Stone website. There's no difference between that guy and a troll on Twitter in some ways.

My problem with critics is, "who the fuck are they?" and if they are somebody, then I respect them. I have learned a tremendous amount about myself from intelligent critics. I think that because of the state of journalism or whatever, in most places fucking interns are writing the entertainment section. So it really comes down to that -- unsubstantiated personal opinions. At least put it in context.

WW: It seems like a lot of places have this, "voice of the publication" thing as a stand in for "consumer reviews" and that's where that comes from. It's harder to get to know critics because A) they're working for ten different places and B) they often can't express their voice.

MM: That's absolutely right. I'm not just shitting on critics -- if people "get" me and criticize me with intelligence, then I appreciate it. I think a lot of critics have just devolved into a reviewer and anyone can be a reviewer -- anyone can decide how many stars something gets. But to put something into a cultural or genre context and infuse that with informed intelligence, that's a pleasure to read. It's just he glib, shallow, schmucks who shoot from the hip and say nothing, that bothers me.

Even a bad review can be incredibly enlightening, even more so than a good one. I can't tell you how many people call me and I have to write their articles for them. Not a lot, but some people just don't even do basic research. We have the Internet, so the least you can do is relatively thorough research. It just baffles me when I see stuff written about me and it says, "he's from New Jersey," and that means all he did was go to my website or Wikipedia page and see that I was born in New Jersey and just stop reading. They literally just stop reading at the beginning of the research. I just want people to thoughtful.

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Thorin Klosowski
Contact: Thorin Klosowski