Whether talking at length about clowns with John C. Reilly, discussing suicide with Robin Williams or addiction with Margaret Cho, the podcast host has spent the last ten years inside his garage forging connections and searching for truth. His book, Waiting for the Punch, offers a glimpse of what he found.
Nobody talks about drugs, death or failure in red-carpet interviews. Today’s late-night talk shows keep it pretty cheerful, too, preferring scripted, potentially viral moments to anything relatable.
But inside Marc Maron’s Los Angeles garage, that’s not the reigning philosophy. At this point, Maron has released nearly 1,000 episodes of his popular podcast, WTF, featuring guests that run the gamut from Iggy Pop to Barack Obama to almost every comedian you can think of, alive or (recently) deceased.
Maron considers himself more of a conversationalist than a journalist, which means he doesn’t particularly care about whatever his guests are promoting or the “safe” topics they prefer to discuss in mainstream interviews. An avid fan of Please Kill Me — he has called it “one of the greatest books ever” and an inspiration for starting WTF — Maron not only gives copies to his guests, he echoes its punk ethos by asking whatever he wants to whomever he pleases.
As he writes in his book Waiting for the Punch, “When guests come into the garage with their narrative, I have to find a way around it.”
Co-written with WTF executive producer Brendan McDonald, Waiting for the Punch, which arrives in paperback this week, has chapters devoted to past guests’ thoughts on sex, addiction, death, damaged childhoods and other topics. It’s a heavy but very human read.
“He was a sex addict, and she was emotionally crazy. Now I’m both of them,” Margaret Cho says of her parents. “My urine was neon blue,” Rob Delaney tells Maron, describing the aftermath of a drunken car accident. “It’s just a massacre,” Lake Bell says of childbirth. “I choked to death,” singer Josh Homme tells him, recalling the day he flatlined in a hospital room. “Me and my buddies smoke(d) crystal meth for three days,” Dax Shepard admits. And on and on, and down and out.
What is it about Marc Maron that prompts people to open up like this? It’s in large part due to Maron’s own forthrightness about his own life, whether it’s his past drug and alcohol abuse, his fractured family or relationship history.
In fact, he begins each chapter of this book with a confessional, of sorts: “Ultimately, the common problem with all of my relationships was me. I was pathologically selfish.” “Talking to other addicts is part of the way I stay sober.” “I’m not perfect or healthy in terms of intimacy or sex.” “I didn’t really grow up until I was in my late forties.” On the first page, he admits he started the podcast “out of complete desperation,” and if you go back and listen to the first 100 episodes, “they can be heard as me having celebrities over to my house to help me with my problems.”
While many journalists (including myself) walk into an interview over-prepared and determined to get as many questions answered as possible in the time allotted, Maron’s openness and “let’s see what happens” attitude usually work in his favor. Sometimes the outcome is weird (i.e. his super-long chat with actor John C. Reilly about clowns) and sometimes it’s heavy (writer Todd Hanson spoke in detail about depression and his suicide attempt). It’s rarely boring.
There’s no doubt WTF’s setting — two people, a garage, no video cameras — plays a part in its success, too. Maron doesn’t just invite guests to share his company; he welcomes them into his personal space full of art, guitars and other ephemera we often hear them mention as they get settled at the mic. While interviewers like NPR’s Terry Gross and filmmaker Errol Morris are famous for questioning their subjects remotely, Maron chats with Oscar winners just steps away from where he sleeps. (Several excerpts from Maron’s candid conversation with Gross appear in the book, by the way. At one point, she tells him, “I think about death a fair amount.”)
And WTF has its funny moments, too: In one of my favorite episodes, comedian Natasha Leggero tells Maron about the time she moved to Australia to be with a man who turned out to be a compulsive liar. In another, actress Molly Shannon shares an incredible story of sneaking onto an airplane when she was 12 and flying to New York. (Both of these stories reappear in Waiting for the Punch.) But even most of the amusing stuff on his show has a layer of sadness or darkness that, again, would never get the go-ahead on network TV. Thankfully, WTF is one of the few places a comedian can go without feeling pressure to be funny.
Next year WTF will celebrate its 10th anniversary, and Maron doesn’t appear to be slowing down. Earlier this year he moved into a new house, where he now speaks to guests in a bigger garage. “WTF will continue to be a garage-based show,” he assured fans before the transition. And, hey, this garage even has a bathroom.
Many view Maron like a 21st-century Dick Cavett, giving performers an open, intelligent forum where they’re heard and taken seriously. But as the show has grown, so has an unexpected part its legacy: serving as some guests’ last major interview before their oft-untimely deaths. Garry Shandling, Robin Williams, Harry Dean Stanton, Barry Crimmins, Jonathan Winters, Harris Wittels, Patrice O’Neal and Chris Cornell are just a few guests whose interviews with Maron have become significant records of their lives. When Anthony Bourdain died earlier this year, Maron did what’s now expected of him: He re-posted his original interview, inviting fans to remember Bourdain in a deeper, more intimate way than through prewritten obits, 140-character tweets and news-friendly clips.
Some WTF conversations take on different meanings with time. After Williams’ suicide, many writers reexamined his WTF appearance, in which he spoke about his struggles with alcohol and suicidal thoughts. Back in 2014 Slate named Maron’s 2010 conversation with comedian Louis C.K. the best podcast episode of all time. Revisiting parts of this conversation today is unsettling, to say the least; several excerpts are in Waiting for the Punch, including C.K.’s story about masturbating in a Times Square peep show. “Jacking off is a great way to get rid of anxiety,” he told Maron. (Note: The hardcover edition of Waiting for the Punch was published before the New York Times ran its November 2017 story about C.K.’s sexual misconduct.)
Ultimately, Waiting for the Punch serves as a WTF greatest-hits collection, throwing Maron’s most quotable conversations with his biggest guests into one darkly comic, introspective salad. Curiously missing are many of his musical interviews, leading one to believe Keith Richards, David Byrne, Kim Gordon and Lemmy are being earmarked for another volume.
Some may prefer reading these conversations — I have friends who still don’t fully understand how podcasting works — but longtime WTF fans are more likely to consume and re-consume them through earbuds or speakers blasted loudly enough to block out the rest of the world. Either way, the message gets through, and, hopefully, Maron’s mission to enlighten and entertain is accomplished.