By now you've probably heard of Marc Maron's podcast, WTF. It's an hour long show about a curmudgeonly comic who interviews other comedians. By sheer force of conversation, Maron's guests typically open up, revealing the startling, desperate, and sometimes inspiring existence of the modern clown. On the show Bob Odenkirk vented primordial frustration, Louis CK cried about the birth of his kids, and Robin Williams actually behaved like a human man for about 15 minutes. For a show involving so many funny people, it's alarmingly unfunny--but nevertheless excellent radio. We sat down with Maron to talk about comics, the art of the interview, and how bad Jim "hot pockets" Gaffigan wants to say the f-word.
Vice: I found out about WTF while putzing around aimlessly on the Internet. I wonder how many people discover it that way. I think the phrase has a sort of resonance for a lot of people.
Marc Maron: Yeah and certainly, I mean thematically, that was more prominent in the earlier shows. It sort of evolved into me kind of improvising and moving through my own existential life crisis and being as open as possible. I think that sort of grabbed people. You can see the numbers on the first episode, and a lot of people listened to it. You can also see the difference between people trying it and moving on and people listening to it and staying. I think a lot of people were engaged on that level. They were like, “What the fuck is this?” and either they stayed or they didn’t.
Why do you think your show garners so many anxious, neurotic listeners?
That’s sort of how I’m wired. My father was manic-depressive and certainly a lot of my later childhood revolved around trying to entertain him out of that. I think that on that level I’m wired to resonate with a fairly sensitive, slightly dark but raw disposition. The comedy on my show seems to resonate like that. What I find as time goes on, whether they come out to see my stand up or not, people who listen to What The Fuck are taken aback by or engaged with the openness of what I go through. What I’ve come to realize is that most people put most of their energy into getting by and functioning in the situations they’re in, whether it’s at their job, in their relationship, or just trying to keep their shit together. Their inner dialogue is not really serviced in any way. I’m finding that a lot of the emails I get are really like, “I thought I was alone, I thought I was crazy, you helped me out, I was going through a dark time.” It’s that kind of stuff. There is a community of isolated people, and the podcast really talks to individuals more than it talks to a group. It’s not a stand-up show; it’s not made that way. People who feel alone or marginalized or alienated or anxious or in trouble or whatever it is, they’re being comforted by it. My stand-up crowds are now growing a little bit because of it, but the intimacy available on the podcast is much different than a stand-up experience. It’s not the same context. It’s not necessarily, “Let’s go out and have a few beers and see some comedy.” People sort of want to have this shared experience of whatever it is that I put out there. They are unique in that. But the podcast also brings in people who love the conversations and the authenticity of people they may know in another way or may not know at all. All I’m going for is genuine conversation. I don’t prep for it much, I very rarely know where it’s going to go, but I can feel when it’s getting real and I try to keep it there. I think that’s who wants to see me—people who like that feeling of realness, whether it’s funny or not. Is it everyone’s idea of a night out? I don’t know. I don’t think so.
Yeah, probably not. Too heavy.
I don’t like to see it as heavy. I just don’t know how to do it any other way.
Well, what a lot of people expect from comedy is a funny way to look at a dark situation.
Yeah, but I don’t want to dismiss anyone. There are a lot of people who I envy for their ability to create a persona or build a clown that functions up there that doesn’t require them to invest all of their emotions in it in the way that I seem to have to do. The one thing I’ve realized over the years is that I don’t really have a stage persona. I have a way of behaving onstage, but I require a sort of emotional engagement with my audience. There’s a liability to that in the sense that I have a certain amount of heart invested in it—it’s not just about whether a joke works or not. I will sacrifice a show, sometimes, if I don’t feel like the connection is there. Jokes are great, and I have them, you just have to understand the way I do them.
Do you think comedian's temperaments are different from other performers?
I think some people bask in the love of the world and they will do anything to get it. There are people who, when they exist on stage, they give the audience a tremendous gift. Somehow they have taken those expectations and turned them around, so they are no longer selfish in that. They’re like, “I want as many people to love me as possible and I want to give this to them, and I have the talent to do that.” Now, what I have found in my experience with comedians is that they’re not functioning from that same place. They want to put something out there, and then if people don’t like it, say, “Well, fuck you.” And then they go from there. They defy people to love them and if they can build something out of that then they’ve got a truly dark and beautiful gift to give to the people who are willing to get it. Celine Dion never says, “Fuck them, fuck my audience.” I don’t think that U2 does, either. Singing is different, but there are some people who just bask in the love of as many people as possible, and I envy those types of performers to some degree because they are entertainers who realize their talent and seek to do that and are successful in it. I’ve never had that relationship with an audience. I think the more people who like you, the more questions you have to ask yourself, like, "How can this many people like me? This seems ridiculous."
Do you think that you could have that mentality and actually have a true creative vision?
I think you see it more in music.
But then it’s pandering, right?
Well, I don’t even know if it’s pandering in music. You know, there are popular songs by popular bands that I love. It’s not really pandering in that area, you just happen to be around millions of other people who love that too. Does it mean you’re all assholes? No. Does it make you feel less unique? Maybe, and that’s your own insecurity. Like, “I’m not gonna like that because so many people like it,” even thought secretly I like it. A good example is Jim Gaffigan. He’s a hugely popular comic and he’s a great comic. He’s got a unique vision and he’s got a very efficient writing style. He’s never dirty, and he plays to a large audience of people who wouldn’t know what to do with me. If I did a show for his audience, they would send angry emails to the theater, but he maintains that audience. He gives them something that makes them very happy. Does he struggle with that? Yes.
Sure. You don’t think Gaffigan wants to say “Fuck” occasionally, or that he wants to talk about something other than food every once in a while?
I just assumed he was being very true to himself.
He is, but he’s made the decision that you’re talking about, which is, “I’m not going to cuss and I’m not going to challenge them too much.” Does that mean he’s pandering? Or does he just understand the limitations of his talent and want to maintain his audience? I don’t know. I don’t know how to do it like that. Getting back to insecurity, that type of need for validation is broad and weird. I do a joke on stage where I say, literally, “I like to bring you in and then push you back a little bit and then bring you in and push you back out. It’s a little dynamic I call ‘Dad.’” But I do it involuntarily. My insecurity leads me to test audiences and puts me in a position in relationships where I don’t believe when people like me. I don’t believe when people love me. I challenge it. I’ve destroyed marriages like that, I’ve destroyed shows like that.
Yeah, I think you’re right. It’s a decision. I don’t think it’s manufactured. I don’t think that anyone consciously lives a fucked up life to maintain their creativity. I don’t believe that.
No, if someone could choose to not to be fucked up and do what's necessary to un-fuck themselves, that’s a big choice. I think a lot of times you see creative people who are self-destructive, but I’ve known very few in my life who chose to be self-destructive. People who are self-destructive generally can’t help themselves—it takes a lot of courage, fortitude, and willingness to do that.
From following the podcast it seems like you’re on a personal trajectory right now, improving your mental well-being and health. Is that accurate?
It seems like that’s happening. I was talking about that yesterday, I’ve been getting some emails saying, “You sound happier.” You know, I hate to say it, but during the podcasts people talk about personal things, and people just don't talk like that anymore. People don’t have conversations. The risk of having an intimate conversation at this juncture in history is extraordinary. You want people to see you a certain way. People have become so self-involved and so career driven and so wary of being revealed, in one form or another, that what used to be relatively commonplace just doesn’t exist anymore. And it's a shame, because connecting with people is a fundamental human need. I think by virtue of the fact that a lot of my bitterness has subsided, I’m actually proud and happy and enjoying what I do.
I was always a very curious little boy, I liked to talk to street people. I was always that kid, but somewhere along the way, as I got involved with drugs and comedy, I was hurt and hardened in different ways. I became a resentful, jealous, competitive caricature. I took on a persona that was well-guarded and pre-emptive, but I don’t think that was my true nature. I think that if anything is happening, I’m coming back to myself.
What is your true nature?
Well, I like people. I like to talk to people. I used to love to laugh, that’s why I got into comedy, but somewhere I went down a weird path. I was a very sensitive, very shy, completely self-conscious kid, and at some point in college, after my first heartbreak, I became angry. I started to build a life around people I thought were taking a risk with their lives. People who were hardened and were living a rock and roll sort of existence. I always had enough of a conscience in place to draw a line where I thought my life was really in danger, though even that's hazy. I got involved with Sam Kinison when was 21 years old, and when I was 22 I decided I wanted to get involved with comedy. My drive was to create an aggressive, angry, in your face comedy. Over the years that started to diminish, and it was frustrating. I realized it was emotionally malignant. I started to explore my own bitterness. I tried to sell bitterness as a viable option for a couple of years. I believed that if people just dug a little deeper, they were all just like me—fucked, gypped... life doesn’t end up well. But that was all pre-emptive. A lot of those things I didn’t realize were choices and things I had to take responsibility for. I think my true nature is a lot more open and sensitive. Instead of being so sensitive that very passive attacks can hurt me deeply, to the point where I lash out in anger, I have to be a fucking grown up. I’m not seven. I have to say "OK that hurt, but I don’t have to go crazy. It was just a conversation, I don’t have to try to annihilate everything this person represents because of it." I just think acceptance, sensitivity, and trust are more my nature.
It seems like what you really need is people with candor, and it’s easy to get that with comedians and authors. I’m wondering whom else you can find that in?
Look, I can interview regular people. I did an episode where I interviewed a guy I was in seventh grade with and it was great. I definitely want to do that. One of the things about podcasting is that I’m running this thing so it’s all relative to who I can contact and who I can call. I don’t have anyone working for me, really. My partner is on the production side of it, and I do my bit, so really I have to rely on friends of friends and people I know. I was talking to my manager about this today. I do have to broaden it and I want to broaden it. It’s just a matter of time.
I want to make sure everyone knows that comedy is good. Comedy should make people see things in a different way than they would have before. I just believe that real comedy’s responsibility is to blow people’s minds and make reassess how they look at things.