The loud listener

Stand-up comic Marc Maron is the best celebrity interviewer working today

Up front By sharing his own frailties, Maron creates a space where people feel safe talking about things they wouldn’t typically get into during an interview. (Leigh Righton)

When I left Marc Maron on the concrete terrace of Montreal’s Hyatt Regency, he was 40 minutes into an Hoyo de Monterrey and getting miked up for his fourth interview since lighting the cigar. Maron looked casual. Heavy stubble encroached on his soulpatch and sideburns, and his thick-rimmed plastic glasses, blue plaid shirt, and brown brogue boots suggested someone stuck in his thirties. At 50, Maron is inconspicuous alongside the younger stand-up comedians with whom he regularly performs. He had come to Canada for an international comedy festival, and media trawled the hotel for Q&As with the hundreds of lanyarded performers who darted through the lobby and restaurant like fish in an aquarium. Maron had obliged all who’d asked.

In each interview, Maron fielded well-worn questions with familiar answers: His longform interview podcast, WTF, was born of losing his job as a radio host, a failed marriage, and the need to reconnect with people; he never expected that a project recorded in his garage would lead to a book deal, a television show, and the rejuvenation of a 25-year career in stand-up comedy; some of his favorite guests have been Robin Williams, Conan O’Brien, and Mel Brooks.

The most interesting part of the exchanges was what the interviewers revealed to Maron about themselves. One 15-year-old blogger, for instance, said unprompted that he wanted nothing more than to be a professional music writer; a TV interviewer said that when she smelled the cigar smoke, it reminded her of hanging out with her grandmother; and a comedy journalist regretfully attributed missing his big break into show business to his own arrogance.

After the last interview, Maron smiled and said, almost mischievously, “People just like to tell me things.”

People telling him things is what makes Maron’s podcast one of the most compelling interview shows on the internet and radio. Even though his unpolished on-air presence violates the most basic rules of journalistic interviewing, WTF is gradually becoming an oral-history archive of American comedy and pop culture. Each episode of the twice-weekly podcast is downloaded more than 200,000 times, and there are currently 22,000 paying subscribers who get access to bonus material and the entire archive of episodes. WNYC, New York’s public-radio station, began carrying truncated versions of the show in 2011, and the first 100 episodes were recently catalogued at the Library of Congress—WTF is the only podcast it has collected. The veteran comic has unintentionally become one of the best entertainment interviewers working today, getting what most arts and culture reporters rarely do: earnest stories from artists about their lives and work—whether it’s Robin Williams reflecting on the shame of being caught stealing jokes, or comedian Richard Lewis recounting his darkest experiences of substance abuse.

Stand-up comedy, a career based on being alone on a stage talking at an audience in uninterrupted bursts, wouldn’t seem the place to find someone who makes you want to share the intimate details of your life. Maron’s style in particular can be confessional, sourced from relationships, career, and family—and manic contemplation of relationships, career, and family. It’s a style he brings from the spotlight to the podcast, framing interviews with a lens that projects his worldview onto guests. In one episode, Maron confronted This American Life host Ira Glass with how he felt being in the TAL offices:

My impression of the world that you live in is a sort of a rarefied air to me. I believe that, like, you know, you have a lot of disciplined people that were relatively decently parented, that have a certain amount of discipline. You have a structure, you seem to be all fairly sophisticated and educated and read books. This is the myth that I put together.

The comparison of TAL to his own show made him “feel small” in Glass’ “mythic presence.” Maron does this regularly. Rather than ask questions, he presents a conception of his guests directly to them, often delivered in run-on sentences, and awaits a response.

Such tactics would cause the dispassionate journalist’s pen to skitter across the notebook. Neutrality in interviewing is a hallmark of journalism orthodoxy. Standard operating procedure holds that if questions are open-ended and unguided, the subject will answer comfortably, without coercion. So Maron, by dropping his emotionally fraught judgments of TAL into Glass’ lap, left him nothing to address. Or so the thinking goes.

But instead Glass empathized, telling Maron that much of what motivated him was the desire to be liked. Later in the interview, Glass volunteered that he could best explain his interest in other people through his own self-involvement. He said he had never talked about that publicly and was prompted to do so by Maron repeatedly mentioning his own self-centeredness during the interview. The exchange, like so many on WTF, lacked the swelling strings of a Barbara Walters moment. It sounded more like friends discussing how they felt about their jobs.

When I proposed to Maron the idea of the interviewer being neutral and open-ended with guests, he said, “You’re almost asking them to begin their public narrative.” For him, neutral questions let image-conscious personalities take the path of least resistance: canned responses that never deviate from carefully mapped routes. Getting something different requires pushing people to say something differently, says Maron.

With more than 400 hours of recorded conversation, Maron has become keenly aware of “public narratives.” While he resists comparisons of what he does on WTF to journalism, his ability to draw people off their talking points and practiced answers mirrors some of history’s most iconic interviewers.

Oriana Fallaci, the Italian journalist and provocateur, was never one for neutral questions, once asking Robert Kennedy, “Do you realize, Senator Kennedy, how little you are loved?” Her approach was warlike; she sought to expose her subjects’ hidden personas by disorienting them. She wrote of a famous interview with Ayatollah Khomeini that she “had simply wanted to offer the old man a rope and let him hang himself with it.”

Much of what makes Maron so successful at creating what he calls “conversational portraits”—Fallaci also described her interviews this way—is that same ability to dismantle the protective self-awareness wielded by the media-savvy crowd he deals with. Perhaps because its subject is art and entertainment rather than politics, WTF employs much less psychological violence than Fallaci, but Maron’s approach produces similar effects.

Maron traces his career in stand-up comedy back to an early love of Cheech & Chong and George Carlin records he developed as a child growing up in Albuquerque, NM. In 1986, he moved to Los Angeles to start performing—and delving deeply into alcohol and drugs. He toured and moved around the country, twice marrying and divorcing without children. In the mid-1990s he landed in New York City, where he became recognized as a founding member of the alt-comedy scene with Louis C.K., Sarah Silverman, and Janeane Garafalo, among others.

When Maron and his partner and executive producer, Brendan McDonald, started WTF in 2009, both had just been fired from the crumbling Air America Radio—the third time Maron had been axed from the station. Maron needed a creative outlet and his comedy career was slowing. McDonald recognized Maron’s on-air talent and enjoyed working with him; and both still had keys to the AAR studios. They were unsure of what the podcast would become, but early episodes featured sketches, characters, and casual interviews, mostly with Maron’s friends and colleagues from the stand-up community. Maron had been splitting his time between Los Angeles and New York. When he permanently relocated to LA, it became easier to build the shows around the interviews. A few years into the show, subscribers, donations, and sponsors became a steady source of income, and both Maron and McDonald noticed that people wanted to open up to Maron. From there it evolved into a show about biographical storytelling, one that forces artists to speak differently than they would on a press junket.

Maron still books most guests himself, occasionally through public invitations on Twitter. Sometimes, artists approach him (Monty Hall’s grandson recently asked Maron to interview the former TV host). Most interviews happen in his garage, which is situated in the Highland Park neighborhood of LA, where he lives. (Until recently he shared the house with his fiancée and several cats; he announced on his podcast in October that he and his fiancée had split.) “In terms of what I do, I don’t know if I can underestimate the power of someone getting out of their car in this new-media landscape, where they’ve been told that, ‘You’ve gotta do this thing,’ and they drive up to my two-bedroom house. And then we get out back and there’s always this moment when they don’t know why they’re in my backyard,” said Maron.

The podcasts often begin without the usual fanfare, with Maron and his guest in the middle of a conversation about neighbors or the mounds of clutter filling the garage. In a recent episode, celebrity chef Alex Guarnaschelli and Maron began discussing the images of Maron, made by various fans of his show, that decorate the garage. Guarnaschelli then shared how, as a young chef in France, she made a pilgrimage to the Paris restaurant of famed chef Joël Robuchon to deliver a wreath she wove for him with fresh herbs picked from a forbidden garden where she worked in Burgundy. Such moments, when celebrities are drawn into the mundane and led somewhere unexpected, are some of the best of the podcast.

“If I go, ‘Where’d you get that shirt?’ you tell me where you got that shirt,” Maron explained. “But if I say, ‘I had this one for awhile, but I didn’t get it at a store, I got it at a thrift store,’ then you would have to address thrift stores. If we were really to track it down, that’s probably the biggest thing I do, is force someone to go, ‘Yeah, I don’t go to thrift stores. Do you go to thrift stores?’ And then all of a sudden you’re off of their narrative or off of their plan, and it becomes a conversation.”

WTF interviews rarely run less than an hour and include all of the sounds that don’t typically make it onto radio: helicopters, neighbors’ leaf-blowers, or Maron assuring Paula Poundstone that he will edit out her cough just prior to the sound of her coughing. The result is a natural-sounding piece of audio in which you hear both the guest and the host becoming more at ease. Maron often makes his lack of preparation clear during interviews, and is open about his ignorance of subjects. Most interviews start with him asking about the guest’s parents, childhood, and early career. This serves as his primary research, which he skillfully returns to late in the interview when guests are most comfortable. His curiosity is charming and only sometimes embarrassing. In an interview with The Office actor and writer Mindy Kaling, he mentioned his fascination with Indian cuisine and dwelled on Kaling’s childhood diet. He was criticized for what some regarded as politically incorrect tactlessness, but his honesty about what he doesn’t know establishes his agenda with guests and listeners. “He’s a remarkably empathetic conversationalist. He’s not there to establish a line of inquiry,” said Chris Bannon, the vice president of content development and production at WNYC, who helped bring WTF to the station. “He can ask hard questions about peoples’ lives but not as if it were on behalf of People magazine.”

In one of the most renowned episodes, Todd Hanson, an editor and writer for The Onion, walked listeners vividly through his attempted suicide. It was a two-part interview, and the first conversation coincidentally took place in the hotel where he had tried to kill himself. Maron, who had only learned of the suicide attempt that day, ended by asking, “Do you want to talk about this hotel?” Hanson declined. The second interview, in which Hanson discussed the suicide attempt, was recorded several months later in Hanson’s Brooklyn apartment. Maron gently guided him through it, bookending the story with jokes about butt-plugs and the failure to follow internet instructions on how to kill yourself. Hanson spoke for nearly 40 minutes, with Maron only appearing occasionally to pull out a detail. The episode was a painful and unresolved examination of depression, which elicited hundreds of letters of support from listeners who had dealt with suicide.

“The reason I talked about it with him is because I wouldn’t have talked about it with anyone else,” Hanson told me. “We discussed it all beforehand and I’ve known Marc for a long time. He didn’t manipulate that out of me.”

Maron allowed Hanson to approve the final cut of the interview, a privilege he grants all of his guests. According to McDonald, this has been an issue only a handful of times (once because comedian Andy Dick wasn’t sure whether he had admitted to a felony). The control WTF relinquishes to its interviewees creates a space where people are willing to appear flawed, because they assume Maron has no interest in digging for headlines—though his shows often create them after they air.

That space is only fortified by Maron’s earnestness. WTF can seem as much about him as about the guests. Each episode begins with a 10- to 15-minute monologue about his life, history of substance abuse, arguments with family, or whatever else might be on his mind in that moment. His vulnerability bleeds into interviews and infects whomever he’s with. “I think one of the things he does as an interviewer is present himself as a very troubled, imperfect person,” said Fresh Air host Terry Gross, a fan of WTF who has twice interviewed Maron. “His approach is to say, ‘I’m really screwed up, and here are some of my problems. This is the place you should feel comfortable talking about yours.’ ”

Late in an interview with singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams, the conversation turned from writing songs about relationships to her sympathy for women in abusive relationships. Williams, known more for raw emotional lyrics than loquacity, then stumbled awkwardly into a story about being locked out of her room in the hallway of a Memphis hotel, naked, and with an intoxicated boyfriend (also nude) who had just attempted to rape her. Her shock at telling that dark anecdote into a microphone is audible.

When I asked Maron about why Williams had exposed herself in that moment—especially when what prompted it was his saying, “So you got hustled by a junkie?”—he had no thoughts of technique. “I’m pretty equipped to hear that stuff,” he said. “I’ve been in recovery for a long time. When you spend a lot of time in AA meetings, you’re going to hear some shit.”

The great interviewer and journalist Studs Terkel once said, “If they think you’re listening, they’ll talk.” Maron is a loud listener. He shows it with interruptions, his own stories, and the admission of his own faults. Maron unwittingly shuns the convention of the neutral interviewer being a conduit, and instead assumes the role of a guide. His skill lies in preventing his own story from overtaking the others’. The result is conversations that are funny and unforced. At WTF’s best, most guests seem helpless to avoid explaining their own lives to such a vulnerable character. “He’s honest about the ugly dark things in himself in a fearless way that not a lot of comedians are,” said Hanson. “When he interviews people, they agree to meet him halfway, which for Maron is all the way.”

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Simon Liem is a journalist in Montreal, Quebec. His last piece for CJR was on comedian and podcaster Marc Maron. His work has also appeared in Harper's Magazine and The Walrus.