Talk Back in Anger: A Conversation with Marc Maron
For years, comedian Marc Maron watched his contemporaries—Louis C.K., Dave Attell, Sarah Silverman—pass him by. He never got a big movie role, never got a series, blew his meeting with Lorne Michaels about Saturday Night Live. He had problems with anger. He was addicted to drugs.
Things turned around for him in a big way four years ago, when he started WTF with Marc Maron, a twice-weekly podcast he hosts from his garage in Los Angeles. The show typically features an improvisational introductory monologue followed by a refreshingly candid and talking-point-free long-form interview with a guest. WTF renewed his career, and now Maron has a new scripted half-hour comedy series on IFC (title: Maron) and a new collection of essays, Attemping Normal, which he's promoting with an appearance at Sixth and I Historic Synagogue tonight. I reached the 49-year-old comedian by phone in Arizona on Friday morning to talk about his suddenly very well-documented life.
This transcript has been slightly compressed and edited for clarity.
Washington City Paper: Your new IFC series includes scenes of you interviewing people for your podcast, WTF, as way of showing us how you react to the events of each episode. Those scenes almost feel a little bit like a parody of your podcast.
Marc Maron: I don’t know if “parody” is the right word. Maybe. It’s a little more focused than WTF. I think they come off fairly organic. That’s the one part of the show where we did a little bit of improvising. Most of those segments were pulled together that day. The stuff with the guests—it’s a little heightened. I think that’s probably preferable to “parody.” But it looks good. It’s encouraged me to believe that something along those lines, the interview format, could work on television.
WCP: Well, I think the reason people open up to you so much on WTF is that you create an environment where they feel comfortable. On the IFC show, in the interview scenes, it’s usually the guest who’ll come up with some piercing insight into what’s going on in your life in the rest of the episode. So they end up looking smart.
MM: I think that’s right, now that I think about. It’s a parody in the sense that it kind of leans on what I used to do a little, which is make the interview about me. So I think you’re probably right; I think that’s the comedy of it. I took it personally initially, but I’m over it now.
WCP: So now you have this TV show that is at least somewhat autobiographical. You have a twice-weekly podcast that often has a lot of autobiographical content in addition to the interview. You have new standup special and a new collection of autobiographical essays. I know you’ve had a long career as a comic prior to the explosion of the last few years, and lots of experience to draw from, but that still seems like a lot. Are conscious of sorting your experiences, like, this is a prose story, this I’ll talk about on the podcast, this might be a script for the TV show? How do you manage the flood of material?
MM: It’s tricky. Some of the stories are very good, and some of them actually exist in all three places. The podcast is where twice a week I riff on my life. Over the last 400 episodes, almost, there’re very few things I haven’t covered. So that right now is kind of the encyclopedia of who I am. In the other media, in prose and on the TV show, you flesh these things out differently. I’m fairly impulsive and improvisational on the podcast. Some of the stories get better as I flesh them out, and certainly on the TV show, you’re fictionalizing as well.
But I think using my real life as the basis for all these things—I think I’ve done OK with it in all the media. My primary concern now is getting back to a life where I can start living it again, so I can talk about something other than promoting my book, or writing my book and touring. I just taped a special for Netflix, too, so there’s an hour-and-a-half comedy special coming out. I feel a little bit tapped. Hopefully life will get interesting again.
WCP: There are three other writers credited along with you on the IFC show. What’s your working relationship with them like? Do you give them outlines or beat sheets or something?
MM: Well, they way TV writing works, or the way it works on my show—which I think is the general way—is that I came in with about nine or 10 stories. We went over them all. You break stories for a few weeks until you have a synopsis of each story—you sit as a group and do this—and then everyone breaks away to write their assigned scripts. You go outline, and then you come back into the room with the outline and the four of us kind of pick away at that. You go back and do a draft, and when you get notes you put those up on a screen and then the four of us pick away at that. So it’s a collective effort. The outline and the first draft is something the writer will do on their own. But once you get into the second draft and the notes, it’s really a group effort to make those scripts work.
WCP: People are always writing about how comics open up to you on WTF because they relate to you as a colleague. But some of my favorite episodes of the show have been when you’ve interviewed musicians who don’t talk about their creative process much. Just in the last few months, the Lucinda Williams and John Fogerty episodes have been amazing. Even Huey Lewis, who I hadn’t even thought about in probably 25 years and who isn’t held in the kind of critical esteem those other singer-songwriters are, turned out to be a lively, interesting guest. Why do you musicians are so willing to confide in you?
MM: I think that if you approach someone with a sense of respect for their life... I mean, I’m not a huge Huey Lewis fan, but when I had the opportunity to speak to him, I said, “Of course I’ll talk to that guy; he’s a real guy.” I’ve become sort of fascinated with people who’re either underappreciated or forgotten. I feel like I owe it to their legacy somehow to tell their story. The way culture works now is, “Oh, yeah, what happened to that guy?” Well, usually they’re doing pretty well, those guys.
I like people who’ve lived a long life and contributed at least something fairly amazing to the world. No matter what you think about Huey Lewis, that Sports album was bigger than anything for a year or so. With someone like Fogerty, you realize that this guy wrote 10 or 15 songs that all of us know. They really defy time. It’s very rare that someone creates something that’s as magical now as it was 40 or 50 years ago. The reason [the interview] happened is I started getting into vinyl. I’m playing these old Creedence songs, and you just can’t put a time on them. That’s kind of amazing. And Lucinda Williams is one of the most pure-of-heart artists that I know.
I always wanted to play music. I really do appreciate it; I have a lot of reverence for it. But I’ve also gotten interested in the journey of it. I think it’s sad that people are only relevant for a time and then forgotten.
WCP: It’s also an interesting contrast to hear someone on your show—like Huey Lewis, again—who paid his dues and has stories about that but who also hails from an era when there was a sort of star-making record-label apparatus. Whereas you plugged away for a long time but didn’t break through until you started a podcast out of your garage, without any gatekeepers whatsoever.
MM: Yeah. Musicians aren’t easy. They don’t really have to talk. Sometimes they’re promoting, but Lucinda wasn’t really promoting. I had to track her down.
WCP: She always struck me as shy, just from seeing her in concert a bunch of times. She’s a great live performer, but she never looked comfortable up there. She doesn’t banter.
MM: They way she approaches music, the honesty of it, is just beyond anything. You listen and it cuts right through to your heart. Fiona Apple is like that, too. Her last record was almost hard to listen to. And that interview was crazy.
I just interviewed Thom Yorke.
WCP: Wow. You haven’t posted that one yet, have you?
MM: No. They’re all a little different. Some are more aware than others. I’ve got a Nick Cave coming up.
WCP: I had an interview scheduled with him once but he cancelled and I never got to do it.
MM: He’s not easy. He’s difficult.
WCP: Has there ever been an interview you declined to post because you weren’t satisfied with it? Or has a subject come back to you after the recording asked you to remove something they said from it?
MM: Both of those things have occurred. In terms of people wanting stuff out, I don’t have any problem with that. I’m not in the business of controversy or trying to sandbag anybody. I want them to be happy with the conversation. There’ve been times where people have said, “I don’t want that in,” and if I believe they’re overreacting or maybe just don’t remember how it came off, I’ll send them the unreleased interview and tell them to listen to it again. That happened with a couple of people, and they were all OK after hearing it.
Usually it’s not about them. Most of the time if someone wants something taken out, it’s because they’ve said something about someone else. In Andy Dick’s case, it was because he admitted to a felony and he wasn’t sure if he could still be prosecuted. [Laughs.]
There’ve been some interviews where... Like, if my needs aren’t met as a person, I can’t use that as a criteria to judge the interview, because a lot of people I talk to have tremendous fanbases. And no matter what I think of the interview, they’ve never heard them talk for an hour.
WCP: Having the luxury of an hour with the guest seems to allow you to ask some more basic questions about their life and career. I’m not suggesting you don’t prepare; it’s evident that you do. But I feel like approaching your subjects without an encyclopedic knowledge of their work results in a more conversational, natural talk, in a way. I always feel like the expectation is that I’ll know everything, or everything public, about their work before we start talking.
MM: You just can’t do that with musicians and remain honest. Sometimes I’ll have the discography up in front of me, but even that seems to backfire. At some point you have to realize you’re either a fan or you aren’t. If you’re going to do the interview and you’re not a genuine fan, I think you have to be honest about that.
When I had John Cale on, that was fuckin’ impossible, dude! The guy’s been around for 40 years or longer. I’m not that familiar with his solo stuff. I don’t have Paris 1919. I took the interview because I could, and because I wanted to talk about the fuckin’ Velvet Underground and producing The Stooges.
So I’m listening to all this stuff, trying to cram it in. I talked to him for like an hour and 15 minutes, and was very forthcoming about The Velvet Underground, about production, about noise music. Then he asks, “Are we going to talk about the new album?” And I’m like, “No, I didn’t get it, dude. They didn’t sent it to me. I haven’t heard it.” I just had to be honest. And he looked at me like, You’ve got to be fucking kidding me. I didn’t know what to do. So I seized that moment and asked him, “Well, what did you do differently this record?” It was the right question to ask. It was better because I was honest. He had to explain something to me about his process. So it worked out. With comics it's easy, because you're just talking.
Music audiences, rock 'n' roll audiences—they just want to hear their guy talk. It's rare for some of these guys to talk for an hour.
WCP: The worst interview I ever did was with Lou Reed. I love that guy, but he did not want to be there. But I will take the opening you just gave me to admit that I have not read your new book, Attempting Normal.
WCP: So, ah, what did you do differently with memoir? Because you published a prior memoir, right?
MM: Well, Jerusalem Syndrome was more a themed memoir based on a one-man show that I did. This book—I think I do well with the writing. I don't consider myself a writer. I have friends who are geniuses who are writers, so I'm wary of calling myself a writer. I know I can do it if I set my mind to it. I decided to go with essays. In terms of the writing process, and how busy I was, I knew that if I did essays I could have an end in sight every few pages, instead of after 250 pages.
I delivered a lot of material to my editor, who I didn't really talk to that much. I sent him one essay and it came back with all these notes. I was like, "Oh my God, I think I just got a 'C.'" I knew I couldn't deal with going essay-by-essay like that. My confidence just wasn't going to be able to handle it. So I basically just disconnected him for a year, and just checked in occasionally. Come the deadline, I delivered significantly more words than they required and told him to put together what he thought would work as a book. He was very crucial in the building of that book once we got it all written.
Writing books is hard. Especially when it's about your life. It feels like having an 'Incomplete' in college. Every day you wake up and you're like, "Oh man, fuck. I gotta get that book done!" But I'm very proud of it. And I do think I have a voice that lives on the page. People seem to be getting a lot out of [the book], so that's gratifying.
WCP: Well, thanks for doing this.
MM: You're welcome, man. Thanks for talking. Hey, have you interviewed Iggy Pop?
MM: I'm supposed to do that on Sunday.
WCP: I'm sure that'll be great.
MM: I think! I mean, he's like Lou Reed. I love Lou Reed, too, but I know he's just—he's kind of a...
WCP: I've heard Henry Rollins talk about interviewing with Iggy Pop. Rollins made him sound pretty game.
MM: Oh, boy. I'm nervous. But I'm excited about it.
Marc Maron's Attempting Normal book tour is at Sixth and I Historic Synagogue tonight at 7 p.m. Tickets here.
Photo by Max S. Gerber/courtesy IFC