Marc Maron on putting his life on camera (IFC’s Maron) and in memoir (“Attempting Normal”)
"Are you good?"
Marc Maron asks the question sincerely after I enter his hotel room in Midtown Manhattan, catching the comedian amid a day full of back-to-back phone interviews with the media. Not "Are we good?" nor the colloquial "We good?" that has become a commonplace catch-all catchphrase of sorts for the comedian's intensely personal and immensely popular podcast of three-plus years, WTF with Marc Maron. No. It's a sign of his own personal growth as well as that of our own relationship as comedian and journalist over the past 12 years that it's accepted as fact that we are, indeed, good.
So, too, are so many comedians that Maron freely incorporates them into his first starring vehicle in a TV sitcom, Maron, which debuts tonight on IFC.
"I wanted to bring in people I had an organic relationship with, whether it was tense or not, or weird or whatever," he tells me. "Some of them were good. That Pete Holmes choice was good. As much as he annoys me, it was a good scene, right?"
I think, though, for the comedy nerds who watch you guys on on Twitter, they'll say: "Oh, they're friends. This is all just for show. It's an extra show!"
"Yeah, they can think that. We're alright. Obviously, we have, when there's that much juice in something, you've got some love for the guy, right?"
I always take it that way, if I can make this interview about me for the first couple of minutes.
"Sure. Well, we've had our problems."
But I've always taken it that way when I've seen you out at various venues, and you would engage me. I would just take it as, this is just what it is.
"I get you. And you get me. And we've had some rocky moments, but we're alright."
After some moments of mutual identification, the interview right-sizes itself back to Maron's TV series -- which began as an independent pilot by him and Apostle (Denis Leary's production company) that premiered at the New York Television Festival. IFC bought the concept, which has been retooled and recast but retains the essence of Marc Maron's life and career as a veteran stand-up comedian who, despite many TV credits, albums and years on the road, wasn't filling seats or catching a big break until he started podcasting in 2009. First famously under the radar in the NYC offices of Air America after his regular radio program had been cancelled; then, honed and perfected in his garage in the hills of northeast Los Angeles.
Maron is one of an ongoing new trend of more comedian-based sitcoms that are even more autobiographical than those of the 1980s and 1990s. Louis CK's Louie helped start the wave on FX with Louie, followed by Jim Jefferies as himself on FX's Legit -- new pilots vying for fall time slots on network TV include semi-autobiographical sitcoms for Jim Gaffigan and John Mulaney.
"I don't think that is a new thing. I guess it started with Seinfeld, but comedians being some version of themselves in order to service their particular voice has always been part of television."
RIght. But those were always shows like, here is Tim Allen's POV with Home Improvement. This is more real. It's not your house. But it looks like your house.
"It's definitely based on my life, and there's no question about that. But I don't know. I would still be wary to call it in any way reality. Because no matter what you're doing, reality is not interesting in the same way as a scripted show is. When we were breaking stories for this, I brought in all of these stories from my life. Really, a story isn't a story until you make it one. It's just things that have happened. So I've got a series of things that happened, and then, alright, how do we fill that out? So. A lot of this just happened in my house. Well, I think we need to get you out of the house. You know what I mean? So it becomes that. It's really its own separate thing, loaded up with the emotions of what really happened, but I would be wary to call it reality. It is based on your life. But life isn't that tight."
Even in the first episode, there's that scene of you running into your second ex-wife.
"That hasn't happened!"
I would imagine it hasn't, but I remember that from even "Scorching the Earth" or "Final Engagement," that joke of "you're having this baby at me."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah. That's a bit. That stuff is old stuff, but no one, it's not out there, it was never been done in that format. And I've never had the experience of actually running into her. Because it's dead."
So how much of this series then is being able to play out your life in alternate realities?
"There's a lot of that."
This is how I envision it, versus this is how I'd like it to happen.
"Like I imagine, I've run into my first wife before. I assume I'll run into Mishna at some point. But it hasn't happened yet, so to play that out, was a little over the top, but I imagine I'd probably just cry. Which is what happened when I ran into my first wife. Those feelings are a little dampened now. So it's not as immediate. But yeah, the whole troll episode (in episode one), that was based on a real event that where I track down a guy who's saying bad shit about me online, and I engaged him for months! But it never left the house. So you get this sort of moment where it's well, how would this play out if you did go track this guy down? So that, it becomes the seeds of it."
At least you've grown out of that.
"No, I still. You know." Laughs. "I try. It all depends upon the day. I don't do it as much as I used to. But I have to do it even less now, because you know, it's probably come at me more (with the TV series). What are you going to do? Yeah, but a lot of them are speculative in that. There's a couple of episodes that are completely fictional, but very true to what my life looks like."
How did you approach playing yourself?
"I just approached it as myself. I'm not a trained actor, but I know I've got a knack for being OK at it. And, you know. It was just, if I show up and I engage emotionally and I listen, and these lines are written by me, or finessed by me, so you know, I knew if one of them was too much to get out, or if it was stupid, I could change that."
But did you think of a fictional version of you?
"No, not at all. And i think that's kind of given me the excitement, hopefully if we get to do more, is this is the first time I've done any of this. Written for television. Acted on television. It's all new to me. I just wanted to do the best I could. But I think, now that we know what I can do as an actor, and sort of what the character, how that character shines the most -- if we can look at these 10 (episodes), which we shot pretty quickly. And just go, well, if we got another season, what are the strengths of this guy? What could we, what can I do to push that guy out in the world more? That'd be a very exciting thing to do. To figure out how to make that guy even more defined. I just chose to show up primarily as myself and err on the side of earnestness over bad jokes and just feel the emotions of each scene. But so there wasn't a lot of thought at all, except just be yourself and act."
So like, "What would I do in this situation?"
"Well, all of the situations, I knew what I was going to do, but I was working with great actors, it really makes it great, so when I watch it back, I'm like, 'I did alright.' You know, I think I did good. Working with better actors makes you better. Because it's really about listening and it's really about relaxing and being present for whatever is happening in that scene."
Now this started out as an independent pilot. When you got the series order from IFC, how much discussion went into this first episode in terms of making a statement into who Marc is?
"I think generally, that's what you want to think about, in terms of just creating the beginning of a series. You know, the pilot -- the presentation was, this was the tone of the show. We could have stuck with that story, but we ultimately, I decided, this should be the end of it. We should build to this. We should set me up, get me established, and then bring the girl that might come in for the rest of it later. Or however that's going to play out. It seems like we should work toward this. So that was the thinking there. Then it became, well, where are you at this point in your life? My career is stalled. I decide to do this podcast. I'm twice-divorced. I have all of that baggage. I'm dating. By moving that story later into the series enables me to get mixed up with girls, and women, which was real, which happened. So it's really just starting a little before. And also taking the risk in the first episode of to not necessarily be the most likable character in the world. A guy who's struggling. Who's got some anger issues. And let that go. Just be honest about that."
There's not even really that much of the podcast in it.
"No, we didn't get into the podcast. We didn't get to it yet. The device of the podcast, becomes a beautiful thing, the way it's shot and, a lot of the people playing themselves. A lot of that is organic. We talk. We have a script but we didn't really honor it. So a lot of those feel a lot like the podcast, which I think was really good."
I would imagine plus having all of the other stand-ups weaving in and out of plots allows you to riff a little bit.
"Yeah. I chose guys that -- it wasn't a shitload of riffing, in the scripted parts of the show. There was riffing on the mic when I was doing my podcast alone and when I was talking to other people. But the other stuff was pretty set. We were looking for beats. And we had a plan. But by choosing (Andy) Kindler, and Dave Anthony, and people like Pete -- I have organic relationships with these guys, and it was good. It was helpful. Even in the few beats at the comedy festival with (Anthony) Jeselnik and stuff. I know exactly what he does. I, we wrote that for him. If he wanted to come up with something better, let him have it. Dave Anthony. These guys have defined voices. Even Dana Gould does a beat in Maron. He showed up because Rob Cohen was directing, and they're best friends. He showed up and did a little thing. Interacting with Adam Scott, Leary, it was good. Adam Scott. Ken Jeong. These guys were great because they love the podcast and most of them had done it, outside of Leary."
And Ken was in the independent pilot presentation, too.
"Ken loves playing himself. Because he never gets to do it. So he was thrilled to do it."
Do you feel like you have enough distance to appreciate going through the fictional version of your life again?
"Yeah. It's a little disconcerting, because with the book ("Attempting Normal") as well. Some of this stuff I actually have some closure. The fear of picking at scabs either on myself or others, is a concern. But you know, it is my life, and this is where it gets drawn from. I think that the show is tempered enough to where -- and the father character (played by Judd Hirsch) is not insanely like my father, but the emotional dynamic is." I've heard you talk about your father on the podcast, selling the health pills. "Yeah, the vitamins and stuff. And he's not as down and out as the character on the show, but similar. A lot of the exchanges, were very real. A lot of the stuff I talk about in those exchanges were real things from my life. I was watching this and I thought, 'Oh my God! Why doesn't this guy just grow up?' But if I'm having that experience, it must have some -- I felt really vulnerable in that, I sound like a fucking child. And that was what we wrote. That was supposed to be it. But it was a little embarrassing for me."
So you live it, then you act it, and then you watch it on screen.
"I haven't watched them all recently."
Were you involved in the editing?
"Yeah. Definitely. So I'm aware of it all. This was a long, drawn-out process of editing and mixing and tweaking. Some of it is sort of distant. I watched the episodes you got recently. It was nice to have a little distance, to see how that stuff works. Because when you're in it, you go, 'Oh my God. How are we going to? This doesn't seem like. How is this going to?' But then when everything comes together and everybody does their job, you go, 'Holy shit! It looks good.'"
You and I both hold onto old cell phone numbers.
"There's something about that 917, baby!"
Mine I've held onto is 617.
How much of it is psychological or emotional, and how much of it is just laziness?
"It's not laziness with me. Everything is sort of like overwhelming to me, and then, 'Oh, I have to tell everyone my new number?' When I changed to Gmail, it was like, 'Oh my God! How am I going to let everyone know?' Then you start to really realize, how many people really call you, dude? There's this idea of every time you think about changing something, it's like I have to inform the world. But then you realize just how fucking small your world is. Like, how many people? It's not that many people. I just never changed it."
Then when I upgraded phones this last time, I didn't automatically copy the contact list over so I had to think about whom I really needed in my phone.'
"I need to get rid of people in mine. I don't know. There's some names, I don't even know who they are. First names. That was when I was like, 'Oh, give me your number, man.' I didn't know who that person was."
There's no lingering affection or attention held back for New York City, then?
"No. I wish there was. Even when I come back here, I don't seem to be here long enough to reconnect. The past couple of times I've come back, I haven't had enough time to spend a chunk of time. I imagine toward the end of this run, I'll be here for a week. It'll be enough time to regroup. No. I was ready to go. I know how to live here. I know how to show up and do what I have to do. I know how to work this city. But I don't ever say, I don't long for it."
It's got to be nicer to have this set-up (in the luxury hotel) than in Astoria (where he lived for years).
"Oh definitely. I did my time here. If I was living here in a different economic strata, it'd be different. But. I love New York. I've got nothing against it. I grew up driving in New Mexico. I grew up in bigger spaces. So the adjustment was not like: 'L.A.!' I like sitting and listening to records and driving my car to different places. It's fine. No reason to compare those two. It's just a different type of life."
For the book, what kind of message were you trying to get across differently in the book from the TV series?
"My concern with the book, I'm not a writer, essentially. I have friends who are great writers, and I didn't want to assume anything."
You've written a book before! (The Jerusalem Syndrome, based on his one-man show)
"I have and I was happy with that book. But I also hated every second of writing it. I do like the self-discovery that comes through the word, and I think I do have a voice on the page. It was just, I was very busy. A lot of this stuff, are themes I had talked about before. Autobiographical themes. There is something you get about working it out on paper that is different from anything else. You have time to think about it and structure things. You go a little deeper, be a little more poetic. I'm proud of it. There's some good stuff in here. But, it was really, my concern was…doing shorter pieces was helpful to me. Because I can't compartmentalize that well, so the idea of writing a whole book as one thru-line was just daunting. Doing essays, you could be more poetic. There was a little more poetry to it. A little more closure. You can see the end. I'm happy with it. People seem to like it. If people who really know me well will be familiar with this guy, people who don't know me well will be like, 'what the fuck is wrong with this guy?' Which is good."
That leads me to wonder: Will there be a separate book tour for this? Or did the publisher figure you'll be on the road already with stand-up dates and live WTF podcasts anyhow to build it into that?
"Yeah. The live WTFs, that's a dying breed there. I'm just going to primarily do those at festivals now. But, yeah, we're going to do a little book tour. What a book tour, what is it going to be anyhow? Four or five cities. It's just showing up for an event and signing books. It's an event. The timing of it -- I got the book deal before the podcast even took off! That was part of that whole movement. 'Yeah, I'm going to do a podcast.' I was going to try to put together a proposal, because I've got to figure out something to do to generate some income. But it just timed out. For the first time in my life there was some timing, some cosmic timing that synced up for me. In that, when we were going out to try to sell the book, The New York Times article came out right then at that same time. So that helped us. And it helped out the podcast. But it was all, they were very different trajectories. So I sort of rallied IFC to release the show a month or two before they were planning and then the publishing house was like, well, let's try to sync it up, so they pushed their date up as well. So that was their doing."
Did the book change immensely for you from when you were proposing it?
"I wanted to do essays. I knew I wanted to focus on certain stories that I thought I had, that I'd talked about I'd been onstage that I thought were worth exploring: My marriages, my parents, some of that stuff. And then, over the years of doing a podcast, I have a fairly obsessive and inspired fan who transcribes every monologue I do on there. So I literally had thousands of pages of me talking about every facet of my life, and I used that as a guide. Take that my immediately impulsive feelings of talking about my life on the mic and recounting things, and saying here, let's go deeper into that."
It's like having a surprise intern.
"Yeah. She has been great. She gets a big shout-out. So that helped my process immensely."
The only time I've been to your house was toward the very beginning of your podcast.
"Before I had booms. The mics were just sitting on the table. That's a big change, by the way. I now have a separate computer just for the podcast. And I've got booms. Outside of that, the garage is roughly the same. Maybe more shit in there."
Here is my footage of Maron interviewing Nick Kroll (playing one of his characters, El Chupacabra) in his garage in November 2009.
Despite what you see on IFC.
"But they did a pretty good job of capturing the clutter."
Just to think about how much your life and career has changed since then, though.
"Yeah. I don't think about it that much. I should just be dropping to my knees with gratitude every day."
Happy, joyous and free?
"Yeah. A little bit! And frightened. So that contradicts all of those three things."
What is there to be frightened about?
"You know! Just reaction. I'm proud of what I did. But you never know what's going to come back out of it."
Wasn't the fear before all of this?
"When your life is small, and you're full of fear, it's all very speculative. And usually, it's you protecting yourself from any type of success whatsoever. Insulating yourself. But once the stakes are higher, and you have real things to, not necessarily be afraid of, but to sort of prepare for, it's a different type of, it's at a different level of putting a lot of myself out there. Things are moving nicely. There's a little bit of how or when is the other shoe going drop? But there's also a little bit of how do I not say things that I don't need to say? How do I not honor that part of me that's insecure publicly? How do I not go, 'This is, yeah, this is OK!' I love what I do. It took me a while. It's very hard of me to feel proud of myself, to not be too critical of myself. But I don't need to do that in every interview. So, the book, yeah, I kind of…instead of immediately talk about the things I'm not comfortable with, why not talk about the things I am comfortable with which are good. Why not try that? It's tricky."
That's why I think the first episode of Maron makes a statement about who you are, and even though you've had this success, it shows that even though you see that success is coming in the first season of your current life, you're still that guy who has that need for attention, and to know why some guy might not like you, no matter who that guy is.
"That's true. Also, I've remained sort of detached from it. I don't Google search myself. I'm not feeling powerful or better than anyone else. I've seen enough people go, 'I'm here!' to know you're never really there. And I also know that because of my particular personality, arrogance is the biggest enemy of me. If I get cocky, it's unbearable. Because people already think I'm cocky. I'm just overcompensating. But if I genuinely, if I genuinely get cocky, then, that's going to be the end of me. So I try to keep it humble. I try to keep a nice thumb on myself. You know what I mean?"
I think hardcore listeners probably understand that about you.
"Fortunately we live in a culture where you can find your niche and I'm happy to have found it after 25 fucking years. I had given up on all of this. I didn't think I was ever going to have a TV show, that I'd be a comic that anybody would want to see. I'd really let that shit go. By the time I'd started the podcast, I was like, 'Well, didn't work out.' At some point, you've got to be honest with yourself. Figure out what the fuck you're going to do. Be a god-damned grown-up. I had to, in my heart, let that shit go. Quit pretending I was something I wasn't. I don't know what it was, but being handed your ass by a woman doesn't hurt, either. Sometimes you need your ass back. So all of this stuff, to me, is the moon. I had given up on it."
"The only thing I feel I have that I didn't have was some genuine self-esteem. And that, with the podcast. I can't say it's completely stable. When you do comedy, when you commit your life to this kind of undertaking, you want to be relevant. You want to be recognized for what you do. That didn't happen for me for most of my life. And then it did. It's very gratifying, and I feel like the work that I put in went somewhere. That's a good feeling."
"So, are we good?"
Yeah. We're good.
Maron debuts tonight on IFC. Watch a full episode online already here via YouTube, as in episode two, Maron hires an assistant and tries to rid his home of a dead possum.
Maron's memoir, "Attempting Normal," is available now: