Marc Maron’s Brilliant Mistakes

The star podcaster’s success is rooted in his early-career failure and despair.

R. Kikuo Johnson

The American monologue, once you get an ear for it, is everywhere, beguiling and blustering and buttonholing. It raises you up, it bums you out. It has its pulpits and its sanctified places—the radio booth, the campaign trail, the AA meeting, the comedy club—but it is not confined to them. Anywhere a mouth opens, anywhere the wind blows, you can hear it. The Ancient Mariner (U.S. edition) on the park bench, his mind at sea, his skinny hand upon your sleeve; the shopper behind her cart in the aisle at Whole Foods, loudly volunteering to nobody in particular, or to everybody in unparticular, the information that she was expecting the place to be empty because it is so early; the newly met neighbor at the cocktail party, the fellow parent or dog owner, who talks into your face with such innocent and unflagging zeal that you begin to wonder whether he might be slightly insane—all artists of the American monologue, all busy singing the song of themselves, like Walt Whitman and Donald Trump.

Marc Maron’s podcast, WTF, is wonderful and precious because it is the place—the only place—where the American monologue becomes the American dialogue, where the riff and the harangue and the half-assed pitch are all accommodated and settled down and invited into a state of blessed relationship. Maron, 52, is a stand-up comic of a certain vintage (bitter decades of road work, chaotic apprenticeships, poppings-up on the late-night talk shows, neurosis, divorce, addiction, envy), and he podcasts twice a week—Mondays and Thursdays—out of his garage in Los Angeles.

Maron started doing WTF in 2009, and its format is very simple: Somebody comes over, and he talks with them. More precisely, he asks them questions about themselves, and then he listens to what they say. It’s a radical act, with radical consequences, not the least of which are the regeneration of Maron’s career (a book, a TV show on IFC) and the huge popularity and broadening cultural reach of the podcast itself. Recent guests have included Keith Richards, Ed Asner, Patricia Arquette, and the transgender punk rocker Laura Jane Grace.

In June, WTF blipped into the national news cycle when President Obama motorcaded up to Maron’s garage and cannily availed himself of its freewheeling vibe. “Racism—we are not cured of it,” Obama announced during the interview. “And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say nigger in public.” Cue trembling jowls, clenched buttocks on studio couches, scandalized coverage of the presidential use of the N-word. A discourse-expanding line, casually delivered but surely long pondered by the long-pondering Obama, that he could have served up nowhere but on WTF.

Have you ever interviewed anybody? It’s not easy—especially if, like me, you are prone to finding yourself more interesting than whomever it is you’re talking with. (Sometimes I think I see that syndrome on Charlie Rose’s face—his ego chafing against its chains as he piously debriefs some State Department snooze merchant about his new book.) The secret of WTF is that Maron is a recovering monologuist: a hectoring, aggressive comedian and one-way verbalizer who has turned himself—through humiliation and self-examination—into a rather exquisite instrument of reception.

The podcast began in the ashes of a five-year, four-different-show stint with Air America, when Maron, having lived and battled and snorted and sneered as a comedian for 25 years, was by his own account close to giving up—like, really giving up. “I was broke, I was defeated, and I was careerless,” he said in the keynote address at Montreal’s Just for Laughs Comedy Festival in 2011. “I started doing a podcast in that very garage where I was planning my own demise … I started talking about myself on the mic with no one telling me what I could do or what I couldn’t say. I started reaching out to comics … I needed personal help, professional help. I needed to talk to people.”

The podcast’s early days featured Maron in conversation more or less exclusively with fellow comedians, fellow nut cases—the only guests he could get at that point. He probed and confessed and sought common ground. The encounters could be edgy; some of them were industry reckonings. He confronted Carlos Mencia, over the course of two shows, about accusations that he was plagiarizing material; Gallagher walked out, offended, after Maron challenged his gay jokes. He had an absorbing exchange with Louis C.K. about their long and vexed friendship (“There’s a couple of things going on when I don’t answer your e‑mails …,” Louis began carefully.)

Others have found the garage a safe space: The comedian Todd Glass used the show to come out; Bob Odenkirk’s confession that he, like Maron, had an anger problem was a revelation to his host, who later referred to this moment as “the portal.” Plenty of guests find themselves unexpectedly confiding in Maron, the paradigmatic WTF moment occurring when the guest (or Maron himself) chokes up, signifying that the nerve has been struck and the truth is being spoken.

Sober since 1999, Maron enunciates with a precision that is nearly ironic, an accent to the caffeinated bite of his wit, and there’s a grinding, a gnawing, in his delivery, something slightly serrated that tells of terrible nights in toilet clubs, of jokes ceasing to be jokes and entire sets going south. One can imagine him in a purgatorial standoff with a heckler, a whole crowd of hecklers (or a bachelorette party—stand-up comics are always complaining about bachelorette parties) howling him down. But once deployed in the service of dialogue, his comedian’s bristling arsenal, that hair-trigger alertness to mood and language, becomes an interviewer’s golden skill set. He’s had a number of different looks throughout his career, but the current one is the most apt: glasses, eyebrows, and curvaceous mustache—droopily mirthful, like a disappointed Marx Brother (or like the great S. J. Perelman, who co-wrote Horse Feathers and sort of was a disappointed Marx Brother). WTF conversations are generously laced with his wheezy, geezerish chuckle, an omniscient, all-tolerating hee-hee-hee: the sound of amused experience.

Maron is a superb interviewer, a funny and clever man, and his guests are a procession of fascinating people. But none of these things accounts for the success of WTF. Sure, Maron’s a hit now, but as consumer-dreamers we are governed by archetype, and in the tarot of popular culture he represents the Happy Failure, or what Walker Percy called the Ex-Suicide: the man who, having elected to live, can sit on his front steps and laugh at the world. It’s an extraordinarily important position. Maron didn’t make a comeback; he didn’t finally break through. He hit bottom, and he stayed there. He set up shop there.

WTF shows begin in monologue, with Maron’s literate, bathetic, irritable/mystical intros. “I wake up aggravated,” he told us before one recent interview. “I wake about to snap … All I want to do is get my mop out and Murphy Oil Soap my deck. Which is empty. My sad, desolate deck, with my newly stained picnic table out there and three old beat-up chairs … I’ll go look at the table and be like, ‘I should hit this with a little more stain.’ I’ll go look at the chairs, be like, ‘Uhhh, these need a little more stain.’ Then I’ll sit in one, then I’ll sit in the other, then I’ll sit at the table, then I’ll look at all the cactus, then I’ll fucking go about my day.” Here is Maron deep in monologue, tied to the telling, Maron the Ancient Maroner. He, too, beguiles and blusters and buttonholes. He, too, repeats, repeats. (If I have to listen one more time to the story of how he almost got hired at Saturday Night Live—the “bizarre, almost dreamlike” meeting with Lorne Michaels during which he failed to land the gig—I’ll fling my headphones out the window.) But then he introduces his guest, and the albatross of Self falls from his neck and lands with a feathery thump on the garage floor, and the dialogue—which is sacred—begins.