Marc Maron doesn’t fit the mold of what most people associate with a “journalist.” He has never worked in a newsroom. He won’t go out on assignment. He most likely doesn’t know, or care, whether it’s spelled “lead” or “lede.” Even so, his contributions to the journalism landscape are undeniable. His outrageously popular “WTF” podcast is a must-listen for anyone with even passing interest in long-form interview shows with entertainers, artists and celebrities. He still conducts most of the interviews in his garage-turned-studio, including a notable June 2015 interview with President Obama.
It’s a distinct turn from his previous life arc, which included a mid-‘90s audition for “Saturday Night Live.” Though Maron is still a working stand-up comedian, his podcast and semi-autobiographical TV show “Maron” are part of a path that possibly wouldn’t have happened had he landed that SNL spot 20 years ago. Regular “WTF” listeners are familiar with Maron’s self-confessed obsession with that audition and his last interaction with SNL boss Lorne Michaels. That is, until early November, when Michaels was the featured guest on “WTF” – and Maron at last had the chance to interview his “white whale.”
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
I know you don’t expressly call yourself a journalist, much like Jon Stewart didn’t like that notion. But you certainly do journalistic things in how you prepare for and present interviews. And I wonder if your time doing “WTF” – especially interviewing the president – changed the way you look at the role of journalists in society and what they do.
I’m even wary to call myself an interviewer. I’m an engaged conversationalist. My instincts are fueled by my own curiosity. So if you really look at my interviews, the president notwithstanding, it’s really about just talking. And just having a real conversation.
I never have a list of questions. Sometimes I want to start with their drive over. I educate myself on the subject. I try to, if they’re a creative person, at least know a little bit about it and be familiar with it. I’m going in with my preconceived idea of who that person is. There’s a constant sort of surprise to what comes out of the conversation. It really is conversation based.
As to the interview with President Obama:
The tone of the conversation I had in that hour with him was unique. There were moments of real candid engagement.
There’s all this talk about now being a “golden age of podcasting,” like how blogging in 2004 or so really took off. As an elder statesman of sorts, do you feel a little threatened by the amount of podcasts out there – particularly by comedians? Really, aren’t you competing for the same limited audience?
There’s a lot of it everywhere. I mean, I do something fairly specific. It’s become less and less where we’re not all sharing the same guests. It’s sort of like, a lot of people are going to get traction, it’s an easy thing to (get into). I don’t feel too threatened.
I’ve heard other comedians talk about research relating to how stand-up comedy and depression seem to go together. And I wonder if there’s some crossover with journalism, too. Like are the factors that may lead comedians to exhibit depressive tendencies similar for journalists?
That’s sort of broad. Does the job cause depression? Maybe. It’s a different thing, I can’t really speak to that.
You grew up in New Mexico, which makes me think you had exposure as a young person to cultures that weren’t just the dominant WASPs. And if that’s the case, did that help inform your outlook on comedy and just dealing with people, that maybe you wouldn’t have had if you grew up in, say, a rural Iowa farming town?
Yeah, maybe. My parents were sort of New Jersey Jewish people. But I grew up in Albuquerque, which was maybe 60 or 70 percent Latino. I had more of a Jewish identity. But I always had respect for any ethnic community. I always felt that I never quite had that (Jewish community) in New Mexico.
I guess I lived in a mostly bi-ethnic landscape (white and Hispanic), but I never felt distant from it. It was just the way it was. It was so engrained, I never thought twice about it. I don’t know if it ever informed anything. It’s just where I lived. I never really thought of it.
You said the Lorne Michaels interview was “cathartic” for you – at least at the time. Now a few weeks on having had time to reflect, is that still the case?
I sort of found some peace with it. Outside of it, I don’t know how much new information (was shared). My sense of him as a person is that I like the guy. My engagement with him for a half hour was I talked about me and my relationship with him.
In all honesty, if Lorne Michaels had offered you another audition or a spot on the show when you interviewed him, what would have been your response? Is it “too late” to pursue something like SNL now?
I don’t know if I would audition (but if he offered me something to do on the show, I would).
If comedy and podcasting weren’t your gig, what would you be doing with your life?
I could probably teach something. I don’t really know. I would be good at teaching a course on Marc Maron.
When you interviewed Daniel Radcliffe, I found myself agreeing with what you said about not reading the Harry Potter books because you felt they were for children. But I was a younger teenager when the books were big, and on principle I still have never seen any of the movies nor read the books, more so because people used to say I resembled Harry Potter and I didn’t want to be seen reading something I thought was “for kids.” But I wonder if after interviewing Radcliffe you’ll read the books.
It seems like a pretty big time investment. I’m willing to think there are good books for all ages. (I wouldn’t read them) unless they change the covers. They just look silly. I generally gravitate toward non-fiction. I don’t see me reading those books.
I don’t know if you’re much of a sports fan, but since you’re in Los Angeles area, I have to ask: Dodgers or Angels?
I can’t even answer that with any thoughts. I’m barely even involved with political races. It’s not part of my life. Some comics may be talking about sports, and I’m sort of loner-ish anyway, so I always felt a little uncomfortable by agitated sports fans.
Your interview with Robin Williams is the only podcast I save, and I go back to listen every so often since his death. Do you ever do the same?
Yeah, I do. There’s a difference between Robin as a talent, as a performer, and Robin as a person with a range of concerns and problems. And it’s a chasm. (Our conversation) wasn’t going to happen unless he wanted to do it. I think that sort of exploring the humanity of someone so popular and so well known, it’s powerful. Everybody moves through their lives taking things for granted. And then you just sort of realize there’s this whole other world that people are walking through, and it’s sort of a mind-blowing thing. You’re really just talking about people. Just people. That’s what it comes down to. People are complicated, yet also sort of simple at the same time.