Podcasting is a deeply intimate medium, perhaps the most intimate of the myriad creative outlets currently available to writers and performers. Often the podcast host is speaking right into your earbuds. Unlike live radio, where you can at least imagine that other people are listening to the BBC World Service at the same time as you are in Qatar, when you listen to a podcast you feel as if the podcast host is talking to you, as a pal, over coffee. Comedian Marc Maron, host of the WTF Podcast, has harnessed the familiarity of the medium in a groundbreaking way.
Maron’s twice-weekly podcast always begins with a rant or story, often taken from his personal life. He comes back to the same themes: his difficulties with women (he’s twice divorced and lives with his girlfriend), his complicated relationship with his parents (his dad is bipolar), his years in recovery (11 and counting). His profane homilies always have a point, and they always lead into an interview with a comedian, actor, or otherwise creative person. Recent guests have included actress Gina Gershon, writer and director Mel Brooks, and singer Aimee Mann.
“I seem to be hung up on where people come from,” Maron says of his interview style. “Where did they incubate, what did their parents do, how old are they, what were they surrounded by when they were living through it. That seems to be the most consistent thing.” That sense of personal history is also woven through Maron’s other work. He started out as a standup comic and continues to perform in comedy clubs across the country. But he’s also a memoirist—his first collection of personal essays, Attempting Normal, is out on April 30—and a sitcom writer. A fictionalized show based on his life, Maron debuts May 3 on IFC.
We spoke to Maron about how he manages to keep so many different projects going at once, which writers have inspired him, and how he handles the fallout that comes from writing and doing stand-up about people who are close to him.
I’m not a guy who’s writing fairy tales; all of this is coming through my life. So there are definitely events that are immediately discussed in the podcast, then built out in stand-up, then built out even more in the essays, and then reexamined (and fictionalized) in the TV show.
On the podcast I’m so pressed to talk about my life, I can talk about something that happened yesterday: a plane ride or a fight with my girlfriend. It’s got no form to it, and then if I turn those mics off, (I think) “maybe I should really explore this, find out where the comic beats are, build it out a little bit, with analogies.” Then I might spend three or four months making a comedy bit out of it.
Speaking impulsively, there’s a tone—the way it’s delivered there’s an urgency to it. When I’m writing an essay, I need to build the events and figure out, “What does it mean to me. How is it connected to who I am as a person?”
In a culture where the demand for content is so extraordinary, you have to be careful to not diminish yourself. You have to have some fortitude and realize your life is enough, exploring it in different ways is enough. There’s a depth to that you can’t really achieve to just satisfy the desire for (an endless stream) of content.
I seem to always be working on something, if you consider getting lost in a Twitter vortex for an hour or an hour and a half work. I get up early, at 7 or 7:30 a.m.; check everything going on. I do two podcasts a week, so I’m either preparing for that or working on putting that out in the world. I could have anywhere from one to three interviews a day, so there’s some prep for that. I’m also checking in with all the other elements of my life that are going on. I seem to be up and involved in the Marc Maron project in one form or another and I don’t really stop working until 6 or 7 at night.
Writing a book is a real chore, but a deadline is like having an incomplete in college—you’re going to have to get to it. Once I’m doing it, I like the creative process a great deal. Getting on the mic for the podcast—that’s all improvised. Also when I interview people—it’s in the moment. I do a lot of worrying; “What am I gonna do? What’s going to happen?” I do a lot of pacing, a lot of getting myself worked up about things that might not work out. But by the time I get into an actual thing, an interview or stand-up, everything becomes immediate and real, and all the juice culminates into an intensity. Writing a TV show is a very different thing. But when I’m writing long form, I’m amazed at the self-discovery possible. That’s a different muscle, a different tone.
I studied English (in college). I know I’m not a professional writer. I didn’t want to write a comic memoir, “and this happened, and that happened, and I was a class clown….” I have a certain amount of self-consciousness about it. I put a lot of time into poetry and things as an English major. I enjoyed reading great writers. I know that I’m by job a comedian; it was very important to me to have a voice that lived on the page, and I didn’t want to overexplain things or get too sort of lost in my writing. I didn’t want descriptions to be too lyrical; I wanted it to be solid and have a punch and also have a style that was uniquely mine.
Sam Lipsyte is my friend and an inspiration to me. Sam was sort of always in my mind, in terms of efficiency and a good model of humor and honesty, and he was very supportive of writing. He’s the only guy who read my book other than my editor. I’ve always liked Philip Roth. What appeals to me about Roth is the simplicity of language and the honesty of emotion.
I knew that I’d be picking open wounds and scabs (with my personal essays) and some people might be getting feelings hurt and it would be hard. But it is my experience, and I don’t think I was in any way mean or inauthentic. My honesty could still hurt other people; I think it’s part of the risk of writing this way. I deal with that stuff in stand-up as well. It’s hard in that moment. It feels very immediate, but generally speaking, everything fades, and you have to realize what the cost of hurting someone is, that it’s going to be stored within them.
The thing you forget when you write, when you’re writing about a situation, is that history is written by the winners.
Real life is different from fiction and different from memoir. There’s never any closure, and sometimes real life is a lot messier and harder to harness. (When people get hurt), you do damage control. A good part of my life is damage control. You’ve got to take responsibility for what you did. Hopefully you learn a lesson.
[Photo by Seth Olenick]