Marc Maron is having a busy week. In addition to hosting his wildly popular WTF podcast, which brings in about 2.5 million downloads a month, he just published his first memoir, Attempting Normal. And on Friday he’ll make his debut as a bona fide TV star, with the new series Maron — 10 p.m. eastern on IFC — a show loosely based on his own life. (He plays a guy named “Marc Maron,” a divorced and neurotic comic who loves cats and hosts a podcast in his garage.)
I called Maron to talk about his bottomless chasm of self-doubt, whether he’ll ever have more cats than Hemingway, and how podcasting could lower the suicide rate among Russian oligarchs.
I should let you know that I’m doing this interview because I’m apparently the only one at Esquire.com who isn’t terrified of you.
Here’s a direct quote from my editor: “I’m way too scared to interview him. Would you want to?” Is that fear justified? Are you scary to talk to?
I don’t ever understand that, really. Especially now, where people hear me talk so much. I don’t know what that could mean.
Maybe because you’re so intense? And when you talk to people, you draw things out of them that maybe they weren’t prepared to share?
Yeah. I mean, I’m intense. I get that. But I don’t know that anybody shares anything they don’t want to share. They may not have anticipated what we’d end up talking about, but if you really don’t want to share something, you probably won’t.
You talk very openly on WTF about your life and past mistakes. Does talking about it make it better?
So you’re happier now than before you started doing the podcast?
I think sharing experience makes everything better. When people get talking about how they’ve overcome something or how they haven’t, it’s nourishing. I don’t know where we got away from that.
From confessional conversations?
Yeah. Two people just talking about stuff, letting it have its own flow. We live in a culture now where people are self-centered and careerist and everybody seems to think they have too much on their plate or they just don’t have time for other people’s pain. I have to assume that there was a time when people talked to each other for long periods of time.
I think that happened a lot before the Internet.
Yeah, that’s ruined it, along with cellphones. We live in an age where people are like, “I’d love to catch up. Maybe text me later? But don’t call because I don’t really listen to my messages. But if you text me…” We’ve displaced interaction into sound bites and untethered phrases and sentences that come up on the phone as Twitter feed.
You’re closing in on the 400th episode of WTF. That seems like a lot.
There have been just over 500 episodes of The Simpsons. And it seems like that show’s been around for-fucking-ever.
Yeah, but we’re a completely different kind of show. I made a commitment at the very beginning to do two shows a week. So generally I don’t feel the numbers. A lot of times I don’t listen to the shows. I have a guy who edits them and puts them together. I do the talk, I do my monologue, and then I move them along.
Do you see yourself burning out on doing podcasts?
I sort of get tired of myself sometimes. When you’re busy, your life becomes relatively small. But I don’t really get tired of talking to other people. It’s just sort of, where does this show go? I think we can evolve within the format. We did more adventurous stuff early on, when I used to go out of the studio. Hopefully after I get through the chaos of launching the book and the TV show, maybe I’ll have some more time to figure out exactly where I want to take the podcast next.
So the TV show, Maron.
Yeah. Have you seen it?
The first few episodes. It was great but… weird.
I’m so used to listening to you on the podcast, which is improvisational and non-scripted. And this, well, it’s obviously scripted. You’re reading lines rather than just saying whatever pops into your head.
Well, it’s a different thing. It is what it is, it’s acting. It’s scripted. Some of it isn’t that scripted. Some of the stuff with me on the mic is usually thrown together that day and some of the interactions with people playing themselves were pretty loose. I tried to make sure I wasn’t saying anything on the show that I couldn’t or wouldn’t have said in my actual life. There’s nothing there that I would feel like, “What is this coming out of my mouth?”
But it’s still TV. It’s still “You say this line and walk over and hit your mark, and then this actress is gonna walk in and say this line.” Which isn’t a value judgment.
No, no, I hear you.
It’s just jarring. It’s like seeing Richard Pryor do standup and then watching him in The Toy.
Well, Pryor was a pretty good actor, so I’m going to spin that into a compliment.
I really don’t mean it as an insult.
I understand what you’re saying. There is always that issue. I do believe that the character I play is pretty close to the bone. Obviously life doesn’t work out neatly like a scripted story, with a 22-minute arc. But I thought I do a fairly earnest and good representation of who I am. I think if we get an opportunity to do more, it will be interesting to see how we can push it. Maybe we’ll take some more chances.
It seems like cats are becoming a recurring motif for you. You talk about them in the podcast, and cats are all over the TV show, and you’re posing with a cat on the cover of Attempting Normal. Why so many cats?
I just found myself with a bunch of them and I love them. But I don’t go out of my way for all cats. I like my cats specifically. I think I’m attracted to them because they don’t give a shit about me, really. And I can do the same with them, on some level. There’s an autonomy to it all.
Boomer is the cat you lost, right?
Is he still, as far as you know, out there some place?
He’s either out there or he’s dead.
Do you hold out hope?
I’d like to believe that somebody got him. Somebody made him an indoor cat and gave him some good food. That makes me feel better. It’s certainly a better narrative than him being killed by coyotes.
Did Boomer have any next of kin?
No. No kin. The two I have left, outside of the strays, are a brother and sister.
I have this vision that your garage is going to end up like Hemingway’s home in Key West.
Do you think 40 or 50 Maron cats will roam the garage after you’re gone?
No, because these days everybody gets their cats fixed. Even the strays are fixed in my neighborhood. So it’s not going to happen with my cats, not unless there is an immaculate conception.
Or maybe you’ll adopt 50 cats?
I wonder. I don’t know what is going to happen if another one of these cats goes away or dies. I would probably get another cat, yeah. I’ve seen a couple out back, but I can’t touch them. And the two I have, they seem pretty healthy, so I don’t have to worry yet.
Word gets out on the street that your house is a safe haven for cats, you never know.
Well, don’t put that word out there.
Have you heard about Boris Berezovsky, the Russian oligarch who may have killed himself in March or may have been assassinated, depending on who you believe?
I think I read something about that.
His friends are claiming foul play, saying he wasn’t the type to commit suicide. If they found you dead in your garage tomorrow, would your friends say, “Oh, yeah, absolutely a suicide, I’m surprised he didn’t do it sooner”? Or would they think maybe you’d been murdered?
I don’t know. I once talked about wanting to kill myself, but I don’t think I was ever really planning on doing it. It was just comforting to know that I could. You know what I mean?
You had a plan B.
Right. Just knowing that you can leave early is relieving. At that point in my life, my pride had been destroyed with the divorce and my career was staled. When you commit your life to something and it doesn’t work out, it is a tough place to be. Suicide can be the spiritual reprieve of a faithless person. I knew I could always just end it, and there was solace in that.
You’ve said that doing the podcast helped.
Yeah. Maybe that was the problem with the Russian guy. What’s his name again?
How much do people really talk in Russia? What’s the podcast situation in Russia right now?
I don’t have the slightest idea.
Who knows how well his friends knew him, especially if they didn’t talk all the time? Who knows what these rich people are hiding? With money comes bigger secrets.
Maybe for him, the idea of hanging out in his garage, having podcast conversations with other oligarchs, would have had the opposite effect.
It could’ve pushed him to suicide?
Sure. One man’s salvation is another’s hell.
Or it might have saved him. Maybe that’s the problem. The world needs more podcasts, so there’ll be less suspicious suicides. Who was supposed to have murdered this guy anyway?
Oh. Well then I’m not even going to speculate. No way I want to get on Putin’s bad side.
If you could have gotten away with it, is there anybody in your life you would’ve had killed?
No. Not really. My second ex-wife, as bad as that got, I didn’t think about killing her. I haven’t had many homicidal thoughts. Occasionally I’ve had thoughts where it was like, I wouldn’t be that upset if that person got into a horrible accident. If something were to befall that individual that would render them unable to annoy me anymore, I wouldn’t have a problem with that.
When I started listening to your podcast, my first thought was, This must be a shtick. This guy couldn’t really be that much of a prick. No way he burned that many bridges with that many people. That’s gotta be his comedy persona. But it turns out, it’s kinda true.
Yeah. [Long pause.] Are you saying that’s a good thing or a bad thing?
I don’t think it’s either. Maybe we’re just accustomed to comics having invented personas.
I’ve always been jealous of people who can become a caricature of themselves. It just sounds so much easier. There’s not much difference between me and the guy on the podcast or the TV show. There isn’t a whole lot of difference between the two. I don’t know if that’s good or bad.
It’s probably good. Aren’t the best comics just doing heightened versions of themselves? Is Woody Allen really that much different from his characters?
I think he’s very different. If you watch a Woody Allen documentary, I would argue that he’s got a lot more of his shit together than the persona does. Maybe in terms of his movements and cadence, it can seem similar. The machine itself is the same, but the wiring of the machine, I don’t know. [Long pause.] It’s a really good question. As a performer, what parts of me do I accentuate? Or which parts become naturally accentuated in this particular form that I’m using? Especially when you’re a comic, you want to focus in on those foibles of your mind or those patterns that you may be fighting with in reality.
That sounds really complicated.
It’s fucking impossibly complicated. My brain goes all over the place. Every goddamn thing I do is life or death and my emotional needs have to be met. Professionalism has always been difficult for me because any show I do, I’m like, “Yeah, I’ve got a lot on the line here.” I’m doing a show at a Chinese restaurant in fucking Chicopee, Massachusetts, tonight and I’m like, “I haven’t done standup in two weeks. They aren’t going to like me. I’m too raw right now. I’ve got a lot of things on my mind. How am I going to get what I need and give them what they need?”
You probably don’t need me to remind you, but you’re overthinking it.
I absolutely am. I think most other comics are like, “I’m going to do my fuckin’ act and that’ll be that.” With me, it’s like, “What if I forget my jokes? What if I can’t pull it together? This is going to be a fucking disaster!”
But in a way, that’s why you’re so brilliant.
Being insecure and needy is brilliant?
It kinda is. Because it’s a form of anxiety we all feel. You just take it to a ridiculous level. And then you’re completely honest about how that anxiety is destroying you. Your insecurity and neediness is what makes you a big neurotic ball of comedy genius.
That’s sweet of you to say. Thank you, man. [Long pause.] I don’t believe you at all, but thank you for saying it.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on Esquire.com.)