“I think it was less light hearted than he might have been anticipating”: Marc Maron talks to Salon about his interview with President Obama

The WTF host talked to POTUS about everything from the terrorism in Charleston to Richard Pryor. Here's the scoop

Published June 20, 2015 3:50PM (EDT)

Marc Maron, Barack Obama            (AP/Dan Steinberg/Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)
Marc Maron, Barack Obama (AP/Dan Steinberg/Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

Marc Maron announced Thursday that President Obama would be coming to the garage to do an episode of his podcast, "WTF with Marc Maron." Less than 24 hours later, his block was tented, snipers were positioned on his neighbor's roof and more than a dozen Secret Service agents were standing guard around the perimeter of his home.

The podcast is far from niche -- Maron has interviewed everyone from Robin Williams to Keith Richards -- but an interview with the president was still an unexpected development, he told Salon: "They said to my producer that he wanted to do it in the garage and I was like, 'No, that’s crazy!'"

The circumstances may have been crazy, but Maron said that he still wanted it to be a "classic" WTF interview, which usually means a freeform conversation about life, relationships, success, failure and the weirdness of being a person in the world. Ultimately, it was and wasn't a typical episode. "It was a varied conversation, topic-wise and emotion-wise," Maron explained. "But it was very different because I was talking with the president."

Maron talked to Salon after he sat down with the president. During an hour of conversation, they covered the mass shooting by a white gunman at a historic black church in Charleston, the president's thoughts about his critics on the left and the right, and his relationship to comedians like Richard Pryor and Dick Gregory. Our conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

How did this come together?

Several months ago the White House reached out to my producer Brendan McDonald saying there might be interest in the president doing the show. From what I understand, there was a fan on his staff who thought it would be a good thing to do. And I was like yeah, of course, I’d be honored to have an audience with the president. I think I said, “Woah, come on!” That was how it started.

Then they’d check in every few weeks. Then a month or so ago they said it was gonna happen. And I was like, well, where do I go? Am I going to Washington, what am I doing? Then they said to my producer that he wanted to do it in the garage and I was like, “No, that’s crazy!”

Did they say why they wanted you to interview the president?

He said. [Obama] told me.

What did he say?

He said: Look, the reason I’m doing this is to try to encourage people to get involved in politics and put aside angry party affiliations. To make individual choices to get involved and the impact it has when people come together to change the country they live in. And he believes that. That was his only agenda, he stopped the conversation to tell me that.

Was there anything that was off limits going into the interview?

No, there wasn’t any restrictions. People have asked me about that, but he can handle himself. He’s the president.

Of course, but there are a lot of people whose job it is to handle him and help project a controlled image. So there were no restrictions on what you could talk about. How did you prepare?

I prepared by panicking. While I was on vacation I read “Dreams from My Father” to get a sense of who he was as a man, as a young man, struggling with his own sense of self. And once I got back stateside I sat down with Brendan. I hadn’t been in the political world or talked about it or, quite honestly, I guess shamefully, been really that engaged with it in a long time. I tried to get up to speed on his achievements and his struggles and the scope of his presidency.

On Wednesday night, when I got home, the shooting in Charleston happened and we were pretty sure that would mean there wouldn’t be an interview. We understood that. Someone contacted us to that degree. But the plan apparently to travel to L.A. was still on, and it turned out he was going to do it.

But the tone had to change. We had to address what happened, I felt. I wanted to make sure people knew the framework of what was happening. And out of respect, because he lost someone he knew in that shooting, I felt I had to say something. And that kind of brought us to some other places pretty much out of the gate, around race and guns. I think it was less light hearted than he might have been anticipating, but I think it was the right thing to do.

I wanted to ask about the shooting at Emanuel AME. What did the president say about everything that's happened these last couple of days?

He’s very aware of why that happened, how it happened. It directly went to a short discussion about guns and gun control, and then later in the conversation we spoke a little more in depth about racism. But we didn’t linger on Charleston for too long.

Politics aren’t a major focus in your interviews, but you do talk with your guests about their work, the ins and outs of their careers. And the president is the president. He’s a political guy. Did you find yourself asking him about any of the things going on in his world right now -- TPP, the 2016 elections, Hillary Clinton?

No talk about Hillary. No talk about 2016. But we talked about him as the president, the struggle he’s up against as the president. How he maintains optimism in the face of the obstacles presented to him. We talked about people’s engagement in politics, people who judge him, who are disappointed in him, how he handles that. We talked about his father, his wife, his kids.

We talked about comedy a little bit, about how he lived in my neighborhood briefly while he was in college.

Does Obama have a favorite comedian?

He was quick to name [Richard] Pryor and Dick Gregory as sort of childhood favorites. He talked a little about [Jerry] Seinfeld and Louis [CK].

Your interviews tend to be freeform and conversational. Did you feel your style changed at all or that you pulled back on anything out of a sense of, “Holy shit, the president is in my garage.”

The thing about politicians and the thing about the president is that there’s very little they haven’t spoken to. If he doesn’t want to answer your question directly, he’s very capable of doing that. Whatever games I thought I could play or whatever I could push without making it weird, I knew what I was up against and that really wasn’t the interview I was trying to do.

You had said you wanted it to be a classic WTF. Was it?

Not in the sense that I was forcing my own life into the conversation as much as I generally do, and not in the sense that I had much common ground with the man I was talking with. But it was a varied conversation, topic-wise and emotion-wise. But it was very different because I was talking with the president.

So what’s your take on Obama after having a kind of window into the guy who is the president?

I think he’s a genuine person doing the best job that he can. I think he knows the score and his shortcomings. I don’t know his heart, but I think he knows where he’s compromise and why he’s comprised. I think he believes he’s doing it in the best interest of helping people.

Did you leave the interview feeling differently about anything?

Yeah. I believe he’s a guy who means what he says, in terms of what he said to me about the process of navigating the presidency and feeling proud of incremental change in a direction he feels is better for the country. To talk to a guy like that and know what he’s been up against and how he’s been demonized -- in some ways by both sides -- and for him to tell me that he is encouraged and hopeful and doesn’t live in anger and disappointment...

He feels he has effected incremental but profound change for the country. And that’s how he lives with himself.

The president is a pretty big interview. Do you feel like maybe now you can get anyone you want to come on the show?

I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing. I’ll keep talking to people. Someday maybe I’ll talk to Lorne Michaels.

I didn’t think of it as anything other than wanting to do a really good job with the president, but maybe it’ll make it easier to book some people. [Laughs]

Maybe Obama can put in a call to Lorne.


What was the security situation like? Was it weird to witness that firsthand?

There was no parking anywhere in my neighborhood. They tented the driveway and tented the section of the street where the car was pulling into. There were a couple of snipers on my neighbor’s roof.

There was LAPD on my other neighbor’s deck, all along the perimeter of my house. At least 15 to 20 Secret Service people. A police sergeant. There was a secret service guy behind me during the interview and one right outside the garage door. They did their jobs and they do it graciously and respectfully. Everyone was highly aware of what they were doing and who they were doing it for. It was a very interesting situation.

You got to interview Keith Richards recently. Were you more excited when you found out about that or when the interview with Obama came together?

Keith Richards is a childhood hero, and it was really exciting for me to talk to a guy who inspired me to play guitar, smoke cigarettes, drink liquor. I always thought he was the coolest guy in the world.

But interviewing the president, I was like: well, I better have a real conversation with real things with this guy. I feel that way about everybody, but with the president there was a responsibility on my part that I didn’t feel with Keith.

Did Obama meet your cats?

No, I put them in the backroom and let them have their own space. Obama actually didn’t come into my house, he came up the driveway, into the garage and went out the same way.

By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at kmcdonough@salon.com.

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