Dr. Joker and Mr. 'WTF'
Marc Maron on his double life as a comic and a podcast star
Marc Maron spent two decades of working relentlessly as a stand-up comic, as well as dabbling in radio at Air America, and in TV hosting on Comedy Central's Short Attention Span Theater. But of all his extracurricular activities, only his WTF podcast, in which he interviews entertainers – mostly comics but also the occasional actor, filmmaker, show-runner, or musician – helped him achieve the sort of broader success that he'd sought his whole career. He was just in Austin for South by Southwest but is already back for the Moontower Comedy & Oddity Festival, and the Chronicle caught up with him to learn how he balances his success as an interviewer with his ego as a performer.
Austin Chronicle: You've been working for 25 years as a stand-up, and you did radio at Air America, but it seems like it took you having the opportunity to work on your own terms with the podcast for you to finally break out. What made that work for you?
Marc Maron: I don't know, man. There was no plan. I've been doing comedy for fuckin' half my life. But I never had a career goal, other than to be a comic – and a great one – and to speak my mind. I didn't have a plan. I just thought things would sort of naturally happen if I just became a great comic. But for whatever reason, before the podcast, I had fans – people knew who I was – but I never clicked with any cultural relevance. And the podcast was born out of desperation. It was not some sort of career plan. I was broke, I couldn't get work as a comic, I had just gone through a second divorce, I was about to lose my house. I got fired from a job at Air America, and I didn't want to be working there again to begin with – then they ran out of money. They were about to kick us out of the building, so me and my producer started breaking into the studio and doing this shit. We didn't really know what it was going to be, but I learned how to be engaged in the medium of audio and radio a lot. We just sort of started doing shows like that, and it built from there. And now the people who know me from the podcast aren't necessarily comedy people. I get people who come to my shows who've never seen me do a stand-up show. They're not sure if I can do it. They're just there because they like me. People who listen to the podcast know me in a fairly deep way, and they have a relationship with me, so they're bringing that to the show.
AC: Does the fact that you're getting a lot of attention for talking to other comics ever get in the way of your own stand-up? Do you have a reaction like, "I'm a performer, too. I want people to know me as the star"? Where does your ego fit into being an interviewer?
MM: I've had to adjust to that. I find that over time a lot of people resonate with what I am, and who I am, and my voice and disposition. The way I engage people is fairly specific, and people like that. Initially, there was a little bit of pride, but I knew what I was getting into. As time goes on, I'm doing a lot of stand-up, and I'm killing. So whatever people are taking from it, people are coming to see me, and the shows are good. I can be proud of both things, and I have to live with that. I do wonder sometimes when people say, "I love the podcast." There's a part of me that's like, "Well, what about my stand-up?" But you have to let people have their own experience. The podcast doesn't exist without me. And these entertainers are on other shows, too, but people dig what I'm doing and the way that I engage with people. That's still me.
AC: Your stand-up is really personal and about you, and it always has been. But now your audience has a relationship with you via the podcast. How does that affect what you do as a performer?
MM: It makes it easier to be onstage as myself, and that's an amazing thing to have finally arrived at. I still do what's necessary to protect myself, but I'm very open when I'm up there now. And I think that's what I've always been trying to achieve with my stand-up. Obviously, it's more fun to perform for people who know you, but part of the job of the stand-up is to entertain strangers. And I've done plenty of that. I think the answer to your question is obvious: It's more fun to perform for people who are very familiar with you. But when they aren't, it's even more gratifying in a different way. When people come up to me afterwards and say, "I've never heard of you before – where do I get your podcast? That was a great show." That's amazing, isn't it?
AC: What's it like for you, at this point in your life – 25 years into your career – to finally have reached a point where you've got the lightning-in-a-jar of cultural relevance?
MM: It's very gratifying, and humbling in a certain way. Before, I was still evolving as a person. I don't think my journey as a comic was ever to be Billy Crystal. My evolution as a comic was to have a voice and to be a whole person. That's a psychological issue, too, but this was the medium I chose to grow up in. A lot of those years, I wasn't the full Marc. I wasn't the whole thing yet. Now I'm a little closer to the whole thing. I have a little more control over my talent. A little more focus. And a little more context in terms of who I am and what I'm doing; and I have a lot less fear in general. And that makes a big difference.
Marc Maron appears Thursday, April 26, 9pm, at the Mohawk, 912 Red River; Friday, April 27, 10pm, at the Parish, 214 E. Sixth; and Saturday, April 28, 10:30pm, at Scottish Rite Theatre, 207 W. 18th. For more information, visit www.moontowercomedyfestival.com.