"When you're not so needy or desperate or freaking out about your own life, you do have a little more room in your heart."
– Marc Maron
Guy MacPherson: Hey, Marc.
Marc Maron: Yeah, man, what's up?
GM: How are you?
MM: Good, man. You?
GM: Good. Look at you. You got people working for you now.
MM: Well, you know, things get busy and you need to manage things.
GM: You've got your podcast, the TV show, books, standup. What's your day like today?
MM: Well, I'm talking to you. I'm talking to some other people. I've got a guy coming over here to fix something. I've only got a couple of days at home. I'm going to go have lunch with the head of Fox 21 TV, who is now the studio that produces my television show now that Fox Studios is gone, and see if I can get to know that guy. And then what happens? I'm probably going to play some guitar and do a little grocery shopping. I have to go get some cat food. I gotta do some laundry for when I go out on the road on Thursday. And maybe pay a couple of bills and have a conversation with my manager. That's what's going on today. Tomorrow I interview, I think, Tommy Davidson and do the intro and outro for the show on Thursday and then go to New York on Thursday. What are you doing today?
GM: Talking to you. That's about it. Picking my kid up from school. You know, I still have listened to every single one of your shows, in order, but I'm not quite caught up. I don't get the people who pick and choose. I find that even guests I've never heard of or might not even like are fascinating to me. Or at least great conversations.
MM: Yeah, I don't know what drives people. I don't really know what the listening habits are. That's one of those things where I just don't know how people really take in the show. I can't account for that. In my mind, I think most listeners would probably listen to it like radio – it's just part of their routine and they listen to it whenever they listen to it and they listen to all of them. But that doesn't always seem to be the case.
GM: Just from people I know who listen to podcasts, and listen to yours, I'll say, 'Oh, did you hear this one?' and they'll go, 'No, I don't know who that is.' Or 'I don't like them.' And I say, 'So?'
MM: I don't really understand that. I guess it's one of the weird liabilities of podcasts is that you have the choice to listen to whatever you want, whereas on radio all of a sudden it's just on and you're like, 'Hey, who is this guy?' In podcasting, you can keep your mind closed around new things just by deciding not to listen to something because of a name you don't recognize. It seems a little shallow. Why would you only want to listen to people you know. And how many people do you really know?
GM: When it comes time to pick and choose guests for you, and you get somebody who's maybe more obscure, who isn't in the public consciousness as much, what do you look for in a guest with no name recognition?
MM: I just gotta like the person or I gotta be interested in who they are. Most of the people I talk to aren't that mainstream necessarily. I mean, I've done almost 600 of these things. And I Robert Williams, the painter, on Thursday, who is a very important guy in the history of cartoons and crazy sort of outsider marginalized art. I was a fan of his for years and I got an opportunity to talk to that guy. I'm very interested in him. And with comics that I click with that are younger than me or that people haven't heard of – I had Nate Bargatze in here yesterday; I was helping him promote his special coming up – because I'm a big fan of his. So if I can hip somebody, I'm like this can be interesting. I gotta get up to speed on this person and I'll learn about them. I know a little bit about them and I'm interested and then I'll learn more about them and have a conversation with them. It's really relative to my interest in them.
GM: You must be approached all the time now, given how successful the show is, to have guests on. You must, then, decline some. What is that based on? Is it that you don't like them? Or you don't think they have enough to talk about for an hour?
MM: Yeah, sometimes it's both. Sometimes it's I don't know what I would do with them or I don't necessarily want to have an hour conversation with them. It doesn't mean I don't like them; I just might not want to talk to them. There's a lot of people where I'm like, 'That's guy's good at what he does, or that woman's good at what she does, but I don't think I need to talk to them.' Or is there a story there? I've definitely had some conversations that were not that compelling. But that's just to me. Somebody always likes something. But it's not relative to like or dislike a lot of times. It's just sort of like I don't know if I need to talk to that guy.
GM: You started out talking mostly to comics and now it's everybody: musicians, actors, authors, painters.
MM: Not too many actors. Not too many authors, either. A couple of painters. And some directors and musicians. I'm mixing it up. Actors are tricky. I'd like to branch out more directors and other people in other forms in the arts. I'll get on it.
GM: I think you are on it more than you think. Is there a preference in a type of group or professional, or is it completely individual?
MM: I don't know. There's still some people I want to interview that I know but a lot of times I don't know what's going on out in the world. And sometimes I don't have time to really think about pursuing people. Hopefully once I get done with the tour and I lock back in to my life, I'm going to be doing another show. I think it's going to be announced tomorrow for Vice. But just to sort of focus on what conversations I do want to have, because a lot of times I don't know who's out there and I receive pitches or I receive emails or somebody goes, 'Do you know this guy?', so it's just a matter of fully engaging in what my interests are. It'll happen.
GM: What's this Vice show?
MM: I'm going to be doing something. Sort of an interview show. I think it's going to be announced tomorrow. You can get all the details from that when it's announced.
GM: I'm struck by the nature of context in comedy, especially having listened to all your shows and hearing your introductions. I don't think a lot of times they're played for laughs and yet when you do standup, a lot of it is from your introductions and then it's funny on stage. Just the context of you talking in front of an audience.
MM: That's the trick, isn't it? Some of the monologues are the raw goods. Those are all done kind of spontaneously so I'm really thinking out loud. So whether it's played for humour or not, I do say things a certain way and I do make connections in my mind. I don't think I ever tell the story the same way or add all the details to it on the podcast that I do on stage. It becomes almost like my notebook. I was worried about that initially, Guy, but a lot of people don't listen to every podcast like you said. And in certain ways, twice a week, those monologues almost function as sort of an open mic. It's exactly the definition of an open mic in terms of it being a mic that I'm going stream of consciousness into. So the comfort that I have in the garage, as you say not playing it for laughs, to think out loud, really offers me the ability to make connections and find things in my mind and in my heart that can actually build out into a bit. It's one of the great gifts of doing the podcast. The experience of hearing it with a group of people or taking time to craft the bit, even like the story of going to North Carolina on Easter that really turned into a pretty good bit – and I just told it once on the podcast and definitely not crafted in the same way. In order to tell something on stage over and over again, you've got to execute a certain amount of technique over it. It's been working pretty well.
GM: Your show is like an exercise in empathy. Do you find that now bleeding over into your real life, too? Are you more empathetic?
MM: Yeah. I think a lot of it had to do with, I don't even know if I'd call it, growing up. I was always a pretty sensitive person and things affected me profoundly. I was also very selfish and very defensive. I know that I was affected by other people's lives and moved by them, but empathy is very specific. To really be able to put yourself in the place of someone else and their struggles and their life is something that doesn't necessarily come second nature to most people, I don't think. Maybe it does. To be affected by somebody's pain, I think all of us – unless you're a sociopath – can feel that. But to know where it comes from within them is something that takes a little bit more openness. But I think with the show, what's happened from the beginning of the podcast to where I am now, I didn't think I was going to have any of these opportunities. I thought I was pretty washed up by the time I started the podcast. Which I was. The fact that at that time I could not even really sell tickets as a comic and my future as a comic looked very bleak. Now, I've put a lot of work into this life and I put a lot of work into being a standup and I always have. I think what's happened with the podcast and the idea that it's become relevant and it's affecting people's lives in ways that I could never imagine, was that I feel like I did something, that all my work has not necessarily paid off but made a difference. And I think that the feeling one gets from that, in terms of like 'I did something' and I worked hard to do it, that there's a wholeness that I feel now that I don't think I felt my entire life. I feel like I sort of arrived in my own body and I'm comfortable with myself because all the work I put in, without really having a choice in my mind – I had to do what I did because I didn't see any other thing that I wanted to do – has made a difference in my life and other people's lives. So with that comfort comes a certain amount of ability to give a little more. When you're not so needy or desperate or freaking out about your own life, you do have a little more room in your heart. So I think that's what's changed.
GM: So had the podcast not taken off the way it did, you may not have grown as a person?
MM: It's hard for me to even conceive of that. I had no expectations as a podcast. There was no plan. We didn't even know what the format of the show was or what we were going to do with it; I just had to keep doing something because I was in trouble. I really didn't have any answers. Standup was fine but the future didn't look good. I don't see myself as having any real marketable skills in some ways. I'd committed my life to standup and show business. But I think all along it was always a journey of self-discovery and self-realization. I don't think my initial intention was to be an entertainer. I saw standup as something more profound than that, of somebody who made sense of the world. I always thought standup was a place where you could have your own point of view and make sense of the world and sort of honour your own creativity in a very immediate way. It was always a very lofty undertaking. I never saw it simply in any way. I can't really speculate. I don't really know. Like, I can't even think about if the podcast didn't succeed, what would have happened. It was sort of a slow burn and it picked up momentum and for once in my life I had pretty good cosmic timing. I think my success happened alongside of and helped propel the medium itself. Most people didn't know what a podcast was, and still don't. I think Serial was the one that put it on the map for a lot of people. But I don't know what would have happened if I hadn't made my breaks. Because I didn't really expect them to happen, actually feeling that surrender, of having that moment where I'm like comedy's not going to pan out. This thing I wanted to do with my life is not going to pan out. It did not pan out. And now I have to do something to stay vital and to keep working. So I'd let a lot of that stuff go. But I don't know. I think it would have been sad, Guy, if my podcast hadn't taken off. I don't know what would have happened. It would have been sad for a while, I know that.
GM: Not only taken off, but accepted in the greater show business community. You've been embraced.
MM: I guess so. I haven't made that many changes to my life. I still go out to the garage, I still drive my old car. My life is not that much different. The real difference is that I can go out and do standup for people that want to see me and that's a tremendous joy. I'm just happy that by the time that finally happened for me, and the fact that it did happen, I can really show up for it and be okay with myself and entertain these people in the way that they've grown to understand me. It's really exciting. It was a long time coming.
GM: You're a big proponent of truth in comedy. What is truth in comedy?
MM: I don't know. It's anyone's personal truth, you know? Whatever the hell you want to do. What is truth in comedy? For me, doing these larger shows, I put a lot of emotion and energy into every performance. And none of them are really the same. I go through an emotional experience with an audience and things happen on any given show that will never happen again for me or them emotionally in the relationship I've had with them that night. So for me, there's that immediate emotional truth on stage, if and when it happens, is truth. What is it for you?
GM: I look at it from the opposite end, falseness in comedy. A comic can be truthful even if they're just doing jokes, like Steven Wright or Demetri Martin. That can be truthful because they're not pandering. They're not trying to find what the crowd thinks is funny.
MM: I don't know, man. I don't know what you're getting at. I mean, there are certain comics that do jokes. And jokes are good. And they have a persona that propels those jokes and they do them well and they honour their persona and they put on a good show. They're entertainers. So that's great. Usually when people talk about truth, there's a certain type of comedian that is rare that fights the good fight, pushes back, and is a champion of revealing hypocrisy and speaking their mind to power. That usually is what people call the truth. But that's a political, reactionary, social satirist, which is great. I do a little of that. I think I used to do more of it. But I think when you really look at honesty in comedy or you look at somebody like Richard Pryor, who was strangely vulnerable and took profound emotional risks in his performance... I don't know. Truth is a weird word. There are personal truths and there are emotional truths. I don't know, you know? It depends how you want to define it and what you're talking about. Is there truth to Demetri Martin and Steven Wright? I guess. Is truth not pandering? I don't know. A lot of the truth is essentially pandering. A lot of the simpler truths are as hackneyed as anything. So I don't know.
GM: I think of not truthful comics as ones who are doing material that doesn't really resonate with themselves, whether it's a joke or from a personal point of view.
MM: Yeah, I can see that. But it doesn't make them any less professional. It's just fucking show business.
GM: When I first interviewed you years before your podcast, I said I was a big fan of yours even though I had never seen your standup act. I'd only seen you on Conan throughout the years and you never did standup. From those years until now, how has your standup evolved? How is it different?
MM: I think for years, for most of your career, a lot of energy goes into acting like you're not afraid and pretending you're comfortable. I was never that good at that. But I can honestly say that I'm pretty fearless on stage and I'm excited to be up there. And there's an immediacy to it all. I look forward to being present in my comedy. I like the stuff I'm doing now, taking the pressure off myself over the last five years to move into more personal comedy as opposed to worrying about the world per se. It's been a tremendous relief to me and very exciting. I think I'm funnier than I've ever been and I'm really happy with the comedy I'm doing. It is the best time to see me. I'm actually having a pretty good time.
GM: Every time I've seen you before a show, you're kind of crazy about how it's not going to go well. Now that you're having a better time, is there less of that?
MM: Yeah, as long as I know I've got the material. A lot of times I would make myself kind of crazy around whether my material was good enough or whether I had enough of it. It's also a big difference when people are coming to see you versus like, 'I don't know if anyone in this room really knows me.' I think that was really the deal back then. Most people didn't know me. And then you're just doing the job. Which is fine. I don't mind doing the job. But then I'm up against this idea that if these people have never seen me, they're probably not going to like me. And that's just a personal insecurity. But now a lot of these shows a lot of people are there to see me and I don't want to disappoint them. That's a different concern than I gotta go act like myself in front of a bunch of people that don't know me and they're probably going to not like me and then I'm going to feel like they don't like me. So that part of the equation is sort of gone. I do have some worries but lately they're just less. I'm tired of it. I'm tired of fucking worrying about that. I'm doing good shows. I'm excited to be on stage. There's a part of me that's lived on stage for more than half of my life, dude. So what's going to happen up there?
GM: Do you approach the theatre shows differently from club shows?
MM: Yeah, I do. I don't know if it's something you would be able to see but it's something that I feel. I know when a theatre is a little chaotic around the edges. It really becomes about how do I bring them in to the intimacy that I like to create on stage. Can I manufacture the same intimacy that I do in a club with a theatre? And I can most of the time. But sometimes it just requires a little more hands-on management. It requires some fairly nuanced performing tricks to hold it. But most of the time it's not a problem.
GM: You can go on for a long time. How long is this show?
MM: It's running longer than an hour but not a lot longer. I think if I'm feeling it, I'll go an hour-and-a-half. I think the longest I did was two hours on this tour. But I like to try to keep it around an hour-fifteen, hour-thirty.
GM: Do you have an opener?
MM: Yes, for this first part of the tour, I've been using Ashley Barnhill.
GM: Going back to your podcast, one thing I love about it is even though everyone wants to be in some identifiable group, whether it's a religion or ethnicity, what I find is that I relate to all of them. So everyone's the same. Someone will say, 'We in this group all do this,' and I think, 'I'm not in that group, and I do that.'
MM: That's interesting.
GM: It's nice to know we're all the same even though we want to set ourselves apart as different and unique.
MM: I think so. I think most of the things that make us different are the embellishments of identification that form social groups. I think you're right there.
GM: And as someone who grew up Catholic, was an alter boy, and have an aunt who's a cloistered nun, I never even heard of the concept of hell in any real way. So it was never anything that I believed in.
MM: That's good. You're fortunate there. You were spared. I don't think it's a stretch to say that a lot of Catholics might just be going through the motions at this point.
GM: Yeah, that's not a stretch at all.
MM: Are you going to be up in Vancouver?
GM: Yeah, for sure.
MM: You live there, right?
MM: That room's a pretty big room.
GM: But I don't think you'll have any problem filling it. You've played it before but with the comedy fest.
MM: Yeah, I hope so. It's a pretty big room. I could use all the help I can get.