Marc Maron explains his podcasting infamy

The host of the hit Internet series "WTF" talks about comedy, cantaloupes -- and his notorious celebrity interviews

Published June 7, 2011 12:01PM (EDT)

Marc Maron: podcast pirate.     (Noah Kalina)
Marc Maron: podcast pirate. (Noah Kalina)

At first glance, Marc Maron doesn't particularly strike me as the type of comedic personality who would thrive on the Internet. He's more old-school, often called "a comedian's comedian," like those guys telling each other backstage jokes in "The Aristocrats." He's not had the same mainstream success as a lot of contemporaries, and can be confrontational (to say the least) with the guests that he hosts on his biweekly podcasts, "WTF With Marc Maron," out of his garage in Los Angeles.

Yet "WTF" has made Marc, if not a household name, exactly, one of the most influential stars of Internet talk radio. He has a dedicated fan base that numbers in the hundreds of thousands per episode and top slots on iTunes for his shows. "WTF" may be known for its more infamous episodes -- like the two-parter where Marc buried the hatchet with former frenemy Louis C.K. (who cried on air), the January show when prop-comic Gallagher left halfway through after Marc called him out on recent racist and homophobic remarks, or when Carlos Mencia essentially apologized for stealing other people's jokes -- but the people who come week after week don't necessarily do it to hear comics cry and laugh. They do it because something is intrinsically relatable in Maron's caustic underdog story, his relentlessness, his devotion to his fans and himself. And the podcasting format works in Marc's favor, bringing him the publicity and fans that almost 20 years on the comedy circuit never could. I called up Marc yesterday to try to figure out why that was.

I was just listening to your Gallagher interview for the first time last night, and I was really impressed.

Marc Maron: By what?

By how long you were able to keep the conversation going, past the place where it normally would have ended, with you getting him to talk about what motivates his racist and homophobic jokes. I think that's part of what makes your show so good ... that you can keep people talking past the point where they get angry.

That's an interesting angle on the whole Gallagher thing. I appreciate that.

I've actually only listened to "WTF" for the past month or so. Every one of my friends kept recommending it to me, saying that it's what other comedians listen to. And I'm constantly hearing how people use it to jog or go work out, which is kind of weird for talk radio. Am I missing something with all the running stuff? Is that a theme of your shows?

 You mean the "Help America Lose Weight" initiative I did on Episode 130?

Oh! Got it.

No! There's no health initiative, Drew. If there's one thing I'm capable of, it's being engaging. A lot of people listen to stuff to forget that they're running when they don't want to be. And when you're listening to music, you get it in your head, "I only have three more songs, I only have a half an hour." You're still perforating time. When you're engaged in a conversation, you can completely lose track of time. So I think it's good for running, because your brain puts itself in the conversation. And with podcasts, they're also this very personal thing, and it helps people to connect to the subject we're talking about, and disassociate from what they're doing.

It's interesting that you use the word "personal," because that's how I think about your placement in the whole Internet culture. Your show is like pirate radio, the last vestige for someone like yourself whose work in other mediums has gone less noticed than that of some of your peers. Then you got into podcasting and it's all about you ... it's the Marc Maron show, and people connect with it in a way they haven't with your other stuff. What is it about the format that finally allowed you to break through and get this fan base?

Yeah, there's definitely something you can do on there ... and that's anything you want.

And you've never done that before?

No, have you?

I mean, I don't know. You've written and starred in your own off-Broadway show, you've done stand-up comedy for years ... all those things afford you the ability to say whatever you want.

But there's a context there, isn't there? In a comedy club, the context is you have to get laughs. In theater, the context is some kind of arc, or story, or show. With a podcast, it's this medium where you don't know how many people are going to listen to it. And that's it: There are no obstacles, you do whatever you want. Towards the beginning, people would ask me, "What is this show? I don't get it." And I'd say, "It's my show." Those are the perimeters. I don't have to make people laugh. I don't have to do anything except talk into a mic. I can sit there and just emote for 10 minutes, I could cry for 10 minutes. It's just really freedom. I've been talking into a mic one way or another for half my life, and this is just the most organic for me, and that's why it resonates with people.

From when you started in 2009 and were doing the show secretly out of the studio at Air America, did you notice the fan base growing organically with you, or were there a couple of shows that made you go, "Oh shit, everyone's listening now"?

I mean, you can watch your actual numbers just grow online. That's what's so amazing about podcasting, and why it's openly killing radio, which just spins the numbers. But now I can see every week how many people are listening.

And you're one of the top podcasts on iTunes.

 Sometimes. I mean, iTunes bases that list on a weird algorithm of comments and subscriptions and downloads ... I don't really trust it. But we do really fucking well. Certain episodes changed the game for us; they brought in a lot of new people, for a lot of different reasons.

Like Louis C.K., or Bobcat Goldthwait?

No, even before that. Hold on, I'm buying cantaloupe. Do you eat cantaloupe?

I do. I can't eat mango skins, though. It's the same stuff poison ivy is made out of.

What does that have to do with cantaloupe?

I don't know. I like cantaloupe, I just like mango more. But I can't eat it. I spent a summer eating mangoes in New York and my lips got all red and swollen. So I thought, "Either I have a disease, or I'm allergic to mango skins."

Good thing you figured out which one it was. I'm trying to figure out which episode was a really big turning point here. Robin Williams was a big one for us, so was Ben Stiller, Judd Apatow, Zach Galifianakis ... that Carlos Mencia thing was big. And I think after a while people just started getting into the tone of the thing, and it didn't really matter which comedian was on there.

In that Rolling Stone list where they named you one of the top comedy podcasts to listen to, they said something about bypassing the first 10 minutes of the show because it was always just you talking about yourself, without the comedians. And you responded to that, didn't you?

I tweeted about it. I tweeted at this punk, whoever he is. I just don't understand this need of critics or half-assed journalists to shit on something just to find their own voice. You know, to shit on something they are ranking No. 5 on their own list of funniest podcasts.

The thing is, the critics can do whatever they want. But it's not my fault that they're parasites, and try to define their voice with their judgments. You know, clearly this guy didn't like me, but he felt compelled to put me on the list so he wouldn't look stupid. But then he had to go take a shot at me and tell people to skip the part without the guests? That was initially one of my fears, that people would only listen for the guests. But as it turns out, people are actually inspired ... or moved ... or relate to my own struggle. Most people are about that, and it turns out that the whole podcast is me working through my problems with my friends.

I think that's exactly how people view the show. The New York Times said "WTF" can " feel like therapy sessions , " and I think that's the sentiment most often echoed: that the show has allowed you to build this cultlike fan base of people who feel like they know you at a very personal level.

I know that what I'm doing on the podcast is as true to myself as I can be, and that people are digging it. So why this kid had to go and take a shot at me ...

Well, when you say that "WTF" is the most true to yourself, do you think it's also the most successful endeavor you've undertaken?

 Absolutely. There is no question about that.

And you've been picked up for a 10-part series with a couple of syndicates through the Public Radio Exchange. Would you want to go back into radio?

No! I would never want to do that! That's dying over there. I'm not moving my show; what I did was join forces with Jesse Thorn of and the Sound of Young America. He's a radio guy, he's a podcaster, and he was very helpful to me when I started. So he and I and Nick White produced and re-edited this 10-episode series designed for public radio. And Ira Glass got behind it, he's a big fan. And now public radio stations can pick the series up if they want; that's all that is. I have no desire to be on terrestrial radio, but this is a very interesting approach to it, to have it come from me and my podcast and now go to radio ... I don't think that happens very often.

So you want to continue your future online?

 I do. I think we're figuring out ways to make money, and people dig it, so why stop it? It's where radio is going. It's just a matter of evolving the show as I evolve. I like doing the live shows, I like the new comedians, and I think we can keep making it work.

You've gotten a little infamous for calling out people on their B.S. The Carlos Mencia ones, Gallagher, maybe even with Louis C.K. a little bit. Now that your show is in the New York Times and Rolling Stone and you are considered somewhat of an authority, do you feel a greater social or political responsibility to get the truth from the guests?

I don't know. An authority on what? I'm a fucking comedian.

Well, you had Carlos Mencia on twice. And the second time you took him to task for lying to you about stealing other people's jokes.

I like having honest conversations. All I'm looking for is to connect; I don't care what we're talking about. The Mencia thing ... that was a fluke, in a way. The first interview, I had no idea why he was so hated. I'm not a gossip so I didn't pay that much attention to what people were saying about him. I was just interested in hearing how he felt about being this pariah. So I had him come in and talked to him for an hour, and I felt like he was bullshitting me. And then afterwards I was told I needed to talk to these other Latino comedians, and so I talked to them and they told me Carlos had been stealing their stuff. I was just out of the loop on that one. It turned out the problem was really rampant; he was a really sick guy.

But my point is you brought him back and had him address it, head-on. You basically got him to admit that he had been stealing material.

Well, I had to call him back. What really happened was that I got myself into a situation, because I had tweeted that I was going to interview him, and people were like, "OK, where's the interview?" And I couldn't use any of it, because what I had recorded was bullshit.

That's what I'm speaking to: that because you tweeted about it, and it forced your hand to go back and force his hand. You had to keep your promise to your listeners first and foremost.

Absolutely. No doubt.

When you have on comedians, and you're always talking about how comedy is a way of venting anger, a lot of times you're going to have shows where a lot of ugly truths are coming out. And it's not particularly comfortable to listen to; it's not "funny." Like with Gallagher, you're addressing issues that people don't want to think about when they want to be entertained. And I think that's the most interesting part of this whole podcast medium: the idea that all your hundreds of thousands of fans listen to this thing week after week that sometimes makes them very uncomfortable. When else do you ever see people doing that?

 I don't know. Therapy?

"WTF With Marc Maron" airs every Monday and Thursday, and can be downloaded on iTunes podcasts or through the show's website. This week's guests include Brian Posehn and Ahmed Ahmed, and upcoming shows will feature Amy Poehler, Jimmy Fallon, Todd Hanson from the Onion, and Paul Reiser. The next "WTF" live show is taking place July 25 at the Bell House. You can buy your tickets here

By Drew Grant

Drew Grant is a staff writer for Salon. Follow her on Twitter at @videodrew.

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