Marc Maron is sitting in his kitchen with his brother, sharing a quart of ice cream as they argue about which one is fatter, and then wondering how their parents fucked them up so spectacularly. “I love Mom,” the brother eventually concludes. Maron pauses for a moment, considering this option, and then says “I’m on the fence.”
This exchange is fictional; it’s from an upcoming episode in the second season of Maron, the eponymous TV show created, mostly written, and starring Marc Maron—which premieres May 8th at 10pm ET on IFC. But it just as easily could have come from Maron’s actual life. The line between reality and fiction can be a little blurry. In the series, Maron, a twice-divorced 50 year-old comic who lives with two cats and does a popular podcast out of his garage, plays a character named Marc Maron, a twice-divorced 50 year-old comic who lives with two cats and does a popular podcast out of his garage.
They also share many of the same anxieties and insecurities. In the same episode with Marc’s “brother,” he also interviews pro wrestler CM Punk, and comes up with his own wrestling alter-ego. “I’m the Self Hater,” Maron decides. “I’m wrestling with myself. I’ll hit myself with a chair. Throw myself on the ropes.” It’s a joke, obviously, but it’s also a pretty good summation of Maron’s comedy career. From his stand-up to his podcast—WTF (short for “What the Fuck?”), in which he’s interviewed almost every comedian on the planet—from his books like Attempting Normal to his stand-up albums like Thinky Pain—nobody is more critical of Marc Maron than Marc Maron. In everything he does, he ruthlessly dissects his own neuroses, addictions, relationships failures, and personal weaknesses. And he’s gotten so good at it, he’s turned it into an art form. In Marc Maron’s hands, self-loathing can be a beautiful ballet.
I called Maron at his home in Highland Park, the same place where he regularly records his podcast, though not the same home where the semi-fictional “Marc Maron” (from TV’s Maron) lives. “I live in a two-bedroom house and there’s not that much room to move around,” he explains. So somewhere in LA there exists a perfect duplicate of Maron’s home, which in almost every way is identical to his real home, except it’s more accessible for cameras and boom mics, and it won’t lead to relationship strife. “I have a woman living with me,” Maron says, “and I don’t know how much of that shit she would take.”
Most of your comedy is at least semi-autobiographical. Does this make it difficult not to look at everything that happens in your life as possible comedic fodder?
I don’t generally think like that. My life ends up in my act more organically. I’m not actively looking for jokes in my day-to-day life. It’s more like I’m working through things on stage. Sometimes other people suggest things. I’m dating someone who says, “You should write that down.” But that usually isn’t my first instinct.
Is your girlfriend okay that your private lives might end up in a podcast or your act or the show?
She is, yes. But I’ve had some problems in the past.
You’ve been divorced twice, right?
Have any of your ex-wives or former girlfriends complained?
They all eventually say, “I’d rather you didn’t talk about this or that.” One of them came right out and said, “Don’t talk about me at all.” But that didn’t last.
What didn’t? The relationship, or you not talking?
The relationship. But yeah, neither did me not talking about it on-stage. Which may have been part of the problem.
Is that kind of par for the course? If somebody wants to be in a relationship with you, do they need to be comfortable with at least a little loss of privacy?
I don’t know. I’ve gotten more mindful of it. Other people’s lives are their lives. I try not to throw anyone under the bus. I’m trying to be aware of how I’m characterizing somebody versus how they view themselves or how they might really be. There are so many different perspectives. Why should I necessarily get the last say?
If you make a joke about somebody, or a character in Maron is based on them, do you get their permission?
So you just hope they never see it?
Sometimes if they see me onstage, I’ll give them a little warning. “Here it comes.” And then we’ll have a discussion about it afterwards. Sometimes, and I’ve actually done this, I’ll only do the jokes in other towns and I’ll ask the audience not to tell anybody.
That’s kind of amazing. So you ask the audience, “My girlfriend doesn’t know I’m telling you this, please don’t mention it to her?”
Yeah, I’ve said that.
Why is that surprising?
Well c’mon, we live in an age of over-sharing. Everything’s on Twitter and Facebook and whatever. Asking an entire theater filled with strangers to keep a secret seems like an exercise in futility. Can you be sure they’ll respect your wishes?
No, no, of course not. It’s a roll of the dice. Knowing that anything I say will probably get out there anyway, when I make a joke about a person I know, I really try to consider whether it’s an attack on them on a personal level, or if it’s coming from a place of spite. My entire third album, Final Engagement, really went to a dark place, but I shouldered a lot of the blame.
David Sedaris has said that his friends and family sometimes avoid him because they’re tired of ending up in his stories. Has that happened to you?
Oh yeah. My father has become kind of estranged from me because of the way he was depicted on the television show, but I think he’s being a little overly sensitive. The character is far removed from who my father really is. But he makes a big deal of it. But then in my book, Attempting Normal, I did sort of go into the dynamics of our relationship, and I did tell stories that maybe he didn’t want told. I guess I learned a lesson about that. But it’s tricky when you do this kind of writing.
Yeah. I guess it’s all a form of memoir. The podcast, the standup, the show, all of it. I think it’s maybe a new phenomenon, this compulsion to create material based thoroughly in real life, around specifically psychological dynamics. I know memoirs have been around for awhile, but I don’t think memoirs in the past have been quite so specifically about “this is how my father fucked me up.”
Why is that?
It may be a reaction to the detachment of technology and this craving for some sort of cultural intimacy. I do think it presents new problems around interpersonal relationships for those involved. I’ve talked to other writers about that as well. You really just have to decide, “Can I live with this? Am I doing it for the right reasons, or did it come from a place of spite?”
Once you write about your family and expose their secrets, there’s no taking it back.
That’s right. You can’t put that genie back in the bottle. But is it worth it? Did it serve the creative purpose you wanted? Do you need that kind of closure in a public fashion? Do you need that to be witnessed? I don’t know, these are difficult questions. But I do know that it strained an already strained relationship with my father. So yeah, there have been repercussions.
You could’ve made Maron more like Seinfeld, just vaguely based on you but taken to a wildly fictional place.
It’s not really the way I work. I don’t know if that’s immaturity or lack of experience, but I always seem to come from the real place first, which may be the reason why I’m not more of a mainstream success. In this season of Maron, there are definitely fragments and pieces of my real life in there, but we didn’t take them over the top like a Seinfeld episode.
There’s an episode in the second season about your cat Boomer going missing. That’s the actual name of your actual cat who went missing, right?
That’s right. That’s a perfect example. We used kernels of things that really happened when Boomer disappeared. Like I remember handing out flyers and wandering around the neighborhood looking for the cat. And then I got a phone call from a neighbor, complaining about the flyer I put on his mailbox. He said I was breaking a law by putting unsolicited stuff in his mailbox and he could call the cops on me.
That really happened?
It really happened. So we put that in there. That guy’s in there. But those are just the small details. It’s really about grief. It’s about wandering the neighborhood and sort of dealing with loss. That’s more interesting to me than making sure every fact of the story is factual.
You said something once to the New York Times, about why you ended up leaving your political radio show on Air America and starting your own podcast. You said, “I really began to believe that the struggles of most people are existential, not political.” Explain what that means.
Well, I think everybody is looking for something to hang their hope on. Politics gives you that illusion of being connected to something, of being something you can have real passion for. Around the time I was doing shows for Air America, I was kind of a reactive person. I was the classic knee-jerk liberal that was relatively uninformed, but I enjoyed getting angry at what I thought was the bad guy. And that’s a belief system.
It’s a comforting belief system.
At some point you have to question, where’s that coming from? Why am I getting that sense of satisfaction because of my beliefs? It wasn’t because I had this deep sense of obligation to fight against the injustices being done to people by greed and everything else, though that does exist. I had a lot of unresolved issues of my own. And then I started thinking, how many people never question this? How many people take it for granted that their life mission is just what it is. It’s their lot in life, or what they think they should be doing. But where does that really come from?And then I started reading (Ernest Becker’s) The Denial of Death and a couple of other things, about how people need to feel part of something bigger than themselves, to avoid the terror of mortality. That really resonated with me.
That’s heavy, man.
[Laughs.] I know, I know. But that’s where the podcast came from. That’s when I thought, let’s look for something deeper.
You interview mostly comedians on your podcast, but it’s not really about the comedy profession. It’s about exploring insecurity.
The opposing force to that is “buck up, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, quit whining.” But for me at least, the whining is where it becomes interesting. Just sucking it up and being an asshole, that’s no way to get through life. There’s a lot of negotiating and rationalizing, and trying to adjust your perception involved in the day-to-day shit, unless you’re shut down from reality. A lot of people who are shut down may claim they’re comfortable and they’re doing what they have to do, and that might be all well and good for them, but you only get one crack at this thing.
Yeah. I may not be doing it right necessarily. But I’m not doing it shut down. I’m pretty awake. You know? For better or worse, I’m doing it eyes wide open.
You’ve also interviewed writers and musicians and directors. Would you ever invite somebody on the show who isn’t involved in a creative field? Like a doctor or lawyer or something like that?
There’s definitely a lot of places to go. I’m trying to branch out a bit more. Some of the episodes that have really resonated with people were way off the standard. Like the grandson of (castile soap maker) Dr. Bronner, and (therapist) Phil Stutz. We’re certainly looking into more of that.
What about a hedge fund trader or banker?
I don’t know. I am susceptible to bullshit. I don’t want to be caught in an exchange that is somebody trying to justify behavior that is fundamentally wrong or evil. I don’t want to be steamrolled by that. So no, I don’t know that I’m interested. I barely understand my own investment situation. I try to keep the things as personal as possible. I don’t want to just serve somebody’s agenda. I need to be able to connect with them personally.
The reason I ask is there seems to be a lot of banker suicides lately. They’ve been jumping off buildings and bridges. There’s been some major depression in the banking industry this year.
Yeah. Maybe it’s a crisis of conscious, I don’t know.
That doesn’t intrigue you? As someone who’s grappled with suicide and knows a few things about depression, you’re not curious why a banker would want to jump off a building?
I think I’d be more interested in the people who’ve turned it around. There was a guy who used to be a global financier who’s now feeding the world. Those morality tales are interesting. But why a corrupt banker would jump off a building, I don’t know. Maybe, if somebody was willing to talk honestly about it. The door isn’t closed. I’d definitely consider it. If they wanted to talk about it without defending what they do, then okay.
When you’re delving into people’s heads, getting them to admit all of their deepest, darkest neuroses, do you ever feel, “Uh-oh, I took this too far, I don’t want to be here?”
Sometimes. It becomes tricky if somebody has a problem that they haven’t found a way out of yet. I don’t mind being in people’s heads for whatever, but when you get to the end of it, if they don’t quite have a handle on it, that can be disconcerting. There needs to be a little bit of closure. You don’t want to turn the mics off and go, “I don’t know what’s going to happen next.”
Can you give us an example?
Is Andy Dick ever going to be okay? I don’t know. My friend (comic) Matt Graham is a fascinating and incredibly talented guy, but I don’t know if he’s going to be okay. I talked to (The Onion writer and editor) Todd Hanson about his suicide attempt, and things seem to have leveled off for him, but people who have that kind of depression, you don’t know. You just hope for the best.
Will Gallagher ever come back on your show? [In 2011, the watermelon-smashing comic walked out on Maron during the middle of an interview.]
No. We’ve talked about trying to get him back. But I believe the exact same thing would happen again.
You’d piss him off somehow?
Even if I didn’t get political on him. Even if I didn’t try to sandbag him, he’d be like [with a high-pitched Gallagher voice] “You don’t listen! Listen to me! I know!” I don’t have time for that shit.
Between the show and the podcast, are you making money now? I know for awhile the podcast was barely breaking even. But are you financially comfortable?
Yeah, I’m okay for now, barring any tragedies. I’m happy with the output, I’m proud of the show, I’m proud of the book, and the podcast seems to be going well. Sometimes it’s great, but it’s never bad. It’s nice to have a little space to not have that fear. You know what I mean?
The fear of not being able to pay your bills?
No, the fear of being irrelevant. Throughout my life, I was looking to have some impact, to have some sort of cultural relevance, and for awhile I didn’t think that was ever going to happen. But I seem to have found a little piece for myself, and people who dig what I’m doing. I think there’s some genuine validation and self-esteem that’s happened because of that. It hasn’t made my whole life feel like a waste. That’s a good feeling.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the April/May 2014 issue of Malibu Magazine.)