In a small, cluttered garage in Los Angeles, Aubrey Plaza, who plays the dour April Ludgate on NBC’s Parks and Recreation, is telling a story about the most harrowing experience of her life. When she was 20 years old, Plaza suffered a stroke. She was talking with her friends in Queens when she suddenly realized she couldn’t feel her right arm. Then the whole right side of her body went numb. She tried to say something, but all that came out was a strangled moan. She spent a few terrifying days in a hospital bed before regaining her ability to speak. In the years since her stroke, Plaza, who’s now 27, has told almost no one this story outside of her family and closest friends. But here she is, in a stuffy garage crowded with books and old photos and guitars and recording equipment, telling it to a man she has met only once, briefly — a 47-year-old stand-up comedian named Marc Maron.
Unless you’re a comedian or a fairly serious comedy nerd, there’s a decent chance you’ve never heard of Maron. Though revered among his peers for his raw and unflinchingly honest stand-up work, Maron has never been a household name. Despite 25 years in the business and more than 40 appearances on Late Night With Conan O’Brien, he says, ”I’ve always been sort of a marginal character.” But for almost two years now, people across the comedy world — from major figures like Ben Stiller, Garry Shandling, and Amy Poehler down to unknown young comics — have been making a pilgrimage to the garage outside his modest two-bedroom house to spend an hour being interviewed by him for his twice-weekly podcast, WTF. They talk about the ups and downs of their careers, failed relationships, substance-abuse issues, neuroses and fears, creative struggles, financial difficulties, the joys and indignities of life on the road, and all the many ways their parents screwed them up. At least one guest (Louis C.K.) has cried during a taping, and another (Gallagher) stormed out in anger. There are also a lot of laughs. ”After I did the podcast, people said to me, ‘Wow, that was great — it felt like you guys were really just talking,”’ says O’Brien, whose episode aired in April. ”I think Marc’s secret is that garage. It’s hot in there, and there’s probably cans of paint thinner and a lot of asbestos. The fumes get into your cortex, and suddenly you’re saying all this stuff you wouldn’t normally say.”
Since Maron started the show in September 2009, WTF has become one of the top-ranked comedy podcasts on iTunes and essential listening within the comedy community. Averaging well over 400,000 downloads a week, the show has attracted an army of loyal fans, who send Maron gifts (mainly baked goods, WTF-inspired art, and cat toys for the felines he lives with at what he calls ”The Cat Ranch”) and deeply personal emails about their own problems. And the podcast is poised to get even bigger. This summer, public-radio stations in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Austin as well as other cities will air a selection of the best episodes, and Maron recently made a deal to develop a television show based on his life. It’s all hard for Maron, a chronic malcontent who has harbored profound disappointment in the past over his career trajectory, to wrap his head around: ”I’m just a guy talking in his garage.”