President Obama recently sat for an interview with Marc Maron for the comedian's WTF podcast, which he hosts out of his garage. Observing that WTF stands for "What the Fuck," people who would like Obama taken down a peg no doubt listened hungrily for the president to say something at least borderline offensive.
There weren't any such gaffes. Obama will likely not even have to comment on Fox News's pearl-clutching segment about the part of the interview where he used the n-word.
But it was a big moment for the medium of podcasting, signaling the further ascendancy of podcasters as important contributors to the discourse. That'll be interesting to watch, because podcasters, Maron included, tend to conduct weird, rudderless interviews. And even without a major gaffe, this one was weird and rudderless.
For instance, when President Obama got going about his early college days in LA, Maron risked sounding a little overeager when it came to bringing up a black comedian...
Obama: I am an African American, but not grounded in a place with a lot of African American culture, so I'm trying to figure out—all right I'm seen and viewed, and understood as a black man in America. What does that mean? I'm absorbing all kinds of stereotypes and ideas from society...
Maron: Like Richard Pryor! Got a boxed set right there!
Obama: Like Richard Pryor, or Shaft.
In his memoir, Dreams from My Father, Obama wrote "I sure could curse like Richard Pryor." That little nugget of information is pretty important to understanding why Maron chose to compare Obama to Pryor.
Immediately afterward, Obama bantered like a champ as Maron jumped in with his thoughts on reinventing yourself as a young rebel.
Obama: So I'm trying on a whole bunch of outfits—
Obama: Here's how I should act. Here's what it means to be cool...
Obama: Here's what it means to be manly...
Maron: Is that when you started smoking?
Obama: Yeah. Exactly.
Maron: Me too! Yeah...
Maron: You know...
Obama: That looks good, sure!
Maron: You start smoking. You start drinking coffee. You got a leather jacket.
Obama: And then you fight that for the rest of your life. The worst.
Sure, Obama's brief brush with leather jackets and coffee doesn't quite measure up to Maron's serious battle with addiction. But they both struggle with nicotine to this day. They're practically cousins!
Here, Obama seemingly turned the tables, trying to relate with Maron on how this moment fits in with how he expected his life to turn out:
Obama: I'm a big fan, and I love conversations like this because if I thought to myself when I was in college that I'd be in a garage a couple miles away from where I was living, doing an interview with—
Maron: As president!
Obama: As president—with a comedian? I think that's a pretty hard scenario to—
Maron: You couldn't imagine it!
Obama: It's not possible to imagine. Nobody could imagine it.
Nobody could imagine it? Granted, the part about being president is hard to imagine when you're in college, but talking to a comedian in a nearby garage? That seems pretty easy for any college student to imagine.
The substance of the interview consisted of Maron trying to give listeners a rare glimpse of a seated president's humanity, while Obama—fully knowing this was meant to be fun—struggled to dial his stump-speech module from 100 percent down to 95.
For instance, Maron ventured out on a limb with a provocative premise, and Obama couldn't completely go along with it, so he just said "right" five times while Maron spoke:
Maron: There's an element—And I don't know if this will be insulting to you, but there is an element to the presidency that is sorta middle management.
Maron: And, and that—it seems to me that you knew going in what you were up against.
Maron: 'Cause I read your early work, and you knew how it laid out.
Maron: You knew how capitalism worked.
Maron: You knew how—you knew that there was no—you can't go in going, like, y'know, We can't live in a white man's world! Those color lines had to be, y'know, scrapped.
Maron: But also, you knew the realities of business.
Maron: So it seems to me that in thinking about that middle management frame, that your... that you knew the game you had to play, but you knew that you had to... I think left to its own devices, sadly, the government is only going to cede so much to poor people.
After watching Maron drift a little, maybe the candor-inducing magic of his garage kicked in, because Obama drifted from that question about race and poor people, to the touchy topic of drones, before bringing things back around to the "middle management premise":
Obama: We've gotta be mindful that whatever abstract views you have about drones, or that you have about intelligence gathering, that if you were sitting there in the information room, that you've got some responsibilities and some choices to make, and that it's not all...
Maron: Clear cut...
Obama: Clear cut the way oftentimes it gets presented, so I guess, to go to the point you were making earlier that's where, yeah, it's like middle management.
Toward the end, Maron very tentatively asked the president about fun:
Maron: What do you do to...to...to... to have fun? I mean like, I, I'm... I can't imagine what it's like to raise a family in the situation that you're in, as president, it must feel sort of insulated.
Obama: You know, the biggest fun that I've had is watching my girls grow up, and...
Maron's "yeah?" sounded a bit dejected, as if he were saying, "Oh, you don't do anything fun, not that you'll mention anyway." If the president raced slot cars or something, we probably would have heard that by now.
Obama kept talking about his kids. Maron didn't sound thrilled.
Obama: When Michelle and I came into office, the biggest worry we had was, is this gonna be some weird thing for them, and are they gonna grow up with an attitude, or are they gonna think that everybody eats off of China?
Maron: Right, right. Are they?
After "Are they?" Maron laughed, and muttered something like "All right, come on," like Obama might say "OK, yes. They're awful." It's a comedy podcast, and this question had the greatest potential for levity. Maron sounded disappointed.
But interviewing a president isn't a recipe for laughs. Still, Obama admitted that he does more in his free time than just watch his kids grow up:
I've been trying to work out pretty hard just to stay in shape. That's useful. But it's not—you know, I used to play basketball more but these days I'm—I've gotten to the point where it's not as much fun because I'm not as good as I used to be, and I get frustrated.
There wasn't much more time after this bit to dig into Obama's frustration about aging. They had to close off the interview by talking about which comedians Obama likes. Answer: Louis CK, which he pronounced "Louis," not "Louie." What a gaffe!
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