Saturday, 16 February 2013

The Continuing Rise of WTF with Marc Maron

A few years ago I was getting a bit sick of inane radio talkback and was dabbling in a few audio books and podcasts to accompany me on the drive to work and weekend jogs. A friend recommended the 'WTF with Marc Maron' podcast. I don't necessarily follow up all recommendations from friends, but in this case I'm glad I did, because the podcast has been essential bi-weekly listening for the last couple of years.

As it turns out, I joined-in on the show at exactly the right time. The first episode I remember listening to was the now-infamous 'Gallagher' episode, in which Maron reluctantly interviewed ageing prop-comic Leo Gallagher. This episode marked the only occasion that an interviewee has walked out on the program, as a result of Maron calling Gallagher into question over homophobic and racist content in his stage act. It was a striking introduction to the program and instantly added a new addition to my lexicon of obscure pop-culture catch phrases - 'Aw c'mon, Gallagher!'

When Maron started the podcast, he was, by his own admission, at his wits' end. Recently fired from a presenting job at Air America, twice divorced, a recovering alcoholic, a stand-up career hitting the skids and rapidly approaching middle-age; WTF was born out of desperation and presented a more humbled individual presenting what was basically an interview-show broadcast on the World Wide Web out of his garage in the suburbs of LA.

What Maron lacked in technical expertise and a promotional budget, he made up for with a few decades of insider-knowledge of the film and comedy world and a rolodex full of contacts of people he had met over the years. The unique perspective Maron had on most of these interviews was a combination of his pent-up resentment for the success of most of his guests, combined with a genuine desire to follow step eight of the Alcoholics' Anonymous manifesto, which requires participants to make amends to people they have wronged. An episode that typifies this early interview style was with Louis C.K., who was one of Maron's estranged friends and is currently a comedy golden-boy.  It was, at times, a tense interview, but it all seemed to work out okay in the end and spawned another memorable catch-phrase - 'Are We Good?'

Louis C.K.
I'm an Australian and admittedly am not familiar with a lot of the comics that Maron interviews; in fact I would go so far as to say I veer more towards the Monty Python style of surrealist sketch comedy that often seems to vex Maron, than the heart-on-your-sleeve confessional style that Maron seems to favour. But you know what? - it doesn't matter. The professional status of the interviewee often seems to be irrelevant, because the majority of WTFs are basically intimate conversations between two human beings.

Perhaps it's the fact that Maron has been through the emotional wringer in recent years that people seem to be able to be open up to him about surprisingly intimate details of their lives. Maron himself also seems to have a sixth sense about guiding subjects towards incidents and emotions that most people would have a hard time talking about. The most striking example of this was a two-part episode featuring The Onion writer Todd Hanson. Maron felt Hanson was avoiding an issue after their initial interview and convinced Hanson to sit down for a second interview. Hanson then admitted that in 2009 he tried to commit suicide - in the very hotel where the interview was taking place! It's engaging stuff that easily could have slipped through the cracks from a less skilled interviewer.

Todd Hanson
I was initially a little wary when Maron decided to expand his interview base of comedians to also include actors and musicians, but these interviews turned out to be just as intriguing. I think it helps that I am in my early forties and Maron and I have similar tastes in music. Some musicians he has interviewed are among my all time favourites, such as Nick Lowe and Lucinda Williams. Even musicians I'm not familiar with such as Jakob Dylan have been interesting, because Maron has used his magic on them to bring out some trademark candour.

If I had to choose my least favourite aspect of the podcast, it would probably be the live shows. These usually consist of a panel of comedians in front of a live audience. They are perfectly entertaining, but lack the intimate one-on-one of the 'garage' interviews. I am, however, not averse to Maron's stand-up and actually went to see him about two years ago at The Melbourne Comedy Festival. He seemed a little disappointed that the room wasn't full, but continued on good-naturedly. I especially liked the aspect of his act where he would take out his note book and try and remember what hastily scribbled ideas for jokes actually meant in hindsight.

I saw Maron after the show and had a brief chat to him. I wanted to tell him that even though the show wasn't full, there were a lot of Australian comedians in attendance, including, Peter Hellier, Tony Martin and Gatesy from Tripod. I didn't, though - I thought it might seem a bit condescending. Maron gave me a 'WTF' sticker which I have proudly displayed on my car ever since. Recently, someone rear-ended my car and I remember worrying that I would lose my sticker when the hatchback door was replaced. This seemed more important at the time than the cost of the damage, or the fact that my daughter was in the back seat. Luckily the pane of glass with the sticker wasn't replaced. Oh - my daughter was okay as well!

Maron's pet-peeve recently seems to be that people tend to fast-forward through the introduction and outros of the podcast and only listen to the actual interviews. This is a shame. I love hearing what Maron has been up to - updates on his relationship with girlfriend Jessica, news on his bipolar father and mother with an eating disorder and, sadly, the disappearance of beloved cat and show mascot 'Boomer'. He even has helpful tips on how to 'season' cast-iron frying pans if you would care to listen.

Mel Brooks
Recently the calibre of interviewees has really laid testament to the success of the show. The one-two punch of having comedy legends Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner interviewed in the same week was especially triumphant. Brooks was clearly impressed with Maron's historical perspective on comedy and even suggested Maron would be a great late-night TV talkshow host. Maron's phoenix-like rise from the ashes has not only been noted by Brooks, but also other television producers and book publishers. Maron will star in a new comedy series later this year based loosely on his life and the podcasts and will release a book of comedy essays. His last comedy album 'This Has to be Funny' was something of a cult hit and he has recently started appearing in movies such as 'Sleepwalk with Me' and on old-pal Louis C.K.'s show 'Louie.'

Maron has confessed on more than one occasion that he doesn't deal well with success and has often counteracted this success by 'daring people to like him.' Looking back on WTF, it is this adversity that made the show appealing and a dark part of my soul almost wishes something bad would happen so we don't lose the wounded and cornered Marc Maron we have come to know and love. Mostly, though, I have faith that the newer, happier Marc Maron is mature enough now to enjoy his success. We like you Marc Maron - deal with it!


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