On TV and podcasts, standup comic Marc Maron finds laughs and insight
Marc Maron is one of the best interviewers you are likely to hear.
Maron launched the podcast five years ago. His 20-year career as a standup comic was in tatters and his personal life (that of a recovering alcoholic with two failed marriages) not much rosier.
"WTF" was born in his garage in a Los Angeles neighborhood no one would mistake for Bel-Air or Marina Del Rey. There he started interviewing fellow comedians, bringing empathy and insight to conversations about their common craft and particular struggles.
"WTF" caught on. Each month it is downloaded as many as 3 million times and, closing in on its 500th episode, has drawn a show-biz Who's Who to his garage for sessions that not only prove funny and illuminating but also serve as group therapy for Maron, guest and audience alike.
"I started talking to people because I really needed help," he says, "and I think my interviewing style evolved from a deep need to connect with each of them for that hour."
"WTF" raised Maron's profile and gave his standup dates a shot in the arm.
Then, a year ago, "Maron" put him on display in a TV version of his life as a hapless comic with a podcast, neuroses, issues with women and a penchant for getting himself into jams.
The show was well-received. But Maron cops to nervousness as he faced this season's 13 episodes, which he again co-wrote and co-executive produced as well as stars in.
"The first season was very personal, and I didn't know how much more I had: I don't live that big a life," he says. "Then I learned that if the fictional version is solid, you can build stories on it and make them feel true."
During the season, he buys a pricey "tube amp" sound system with perilous romantic consequences. He bombs big-time as a guest on the AMC fan show "The Talking Dead." His dizzy mother (Sally Kellerman) lands for a visit.
The cast of "Maron" also includes Andy Kindler, Josh Brener, Dave Anthony and Judd Hirsch (as Marc's father), with numerous guest stars passing through.
"Maron" may seem kin to autobiographical comedies like Louis C.K.'s "Louie" and Larry David's "Curb Your Enthusiasm," but it remains true to itself and its singular protagonist.
And Maron, with little TV experience, rises to the occasion he had stopped hoping for.
"By the time this all happened," he says, "I'd given up any expectation of a TV project, and I didn't know how to do it. But I knew I was ready."
Joining a reporter in a New York hotel's dining room recently, he sports a work shirt and jeans and a WTF signet ring.
It is nearing cocktail hour, but the 50-year-old Maron (sober since 1999) orders a diet soda with his late lunch, then coffee.
An Albuquerque native whose formative idols range from Don Rickles and Buddy Hackett to Richard Pryor and George Carlin, he recalls how early on he set his sights on being a comedian.
He saw it as a different breed from other entertainers, an occupation "as important as a professor or a philosopher someone trying to make sense of the world. I saw the stage as a way for me to process the [stuff] I have on my mind, where I could do whatever I wanted as long as I got a couple of laughs."
Maron doesn't string together jokes. He harvests ideas that take on an expository life of their own.
"I'll write down little fragments," he says as he produces a pocket notebook and shares a sample entry: "Glad it's over, 'cause I wanted to stay." Another: "Nobody is honest because everybody lies to themselves."
Any of them might spark an impromptu "WTF" monologue (whether love on the rocks or a battle with his Internet provider), which regularly precedes each interview.
Then it may find its way into a standup bit or a "Maron" plot twist.
It's just part of Maron's process, teasing order out of chaos.
"The bulk of my creativity starts in my garage," he sums up. A place for thinking and feeling out loud.