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.”
For years, spurred by an explosive mix of bitterness, self-righteousness, and booze and cocaine, Maron — who grew up in Albuquerque, N.M., and began doing stand-up in college — blazed an often hostile and combative trail through the comedy landscape. ”When we met, I thought he was a brilliant comedian — one of the best I’d ever seen — and one of the biggest douche bags I’d ever met,” says Patton Oswalt, who has known Maron since 1992 and was one of his first guests on WTF. Maron’s anger and resentment have abated somewhat over the years, and he’s become a better listener. Still, he carries a lot of emotional baggage and often begins an interview by acknowledging how he was a jerk to his guest in the past. ”Whatever career I had for the first 20 years was fueled by spite: How come that guy got that? Why can’t I get that?” Maron says, citing Jon Stewart as a longtime bête noir. ”At some point it was like, ‘Okay, I’ve been humbled.’ It’s hard to have any vestige of arrogance now. I can’t hide from the fact that my life didn’t work out the way I wanted it to.”
Anxiety, rage, alienation, and existential dread were the building blocks of Maron’s comedy from the start (”I wasn’t well parented,” he says), and it was from those dark ingredients that WTF was born. In 2008, Maron’s life was in turmoil. He had lost his most recent job as a commentator on Air America radio, his second wife had left him, he was in major financial trouble, and his career was on the skids. ”My manager said, ‘We’re dead. I’ve got nothing,”’ he remembers. ”My first thought was: Should I quit comedy? My second was: Should I kill myself? And sadly, my third thought was: Should I get a new manager?” He laughs. ”That really should have been the first one.”
Grasping at straws, Maron decided to start a podcast and asked some of his friends to be guests. Soon, word began spreading among comedians that Maron’s show was more than just a venue for telling some jokes — it was a place where they could have a genuinely deep conversation and show the full range of who they are. ”It became clear that WTF was a showcase where you could just be amazing,” says Oswalt. ”Despite all his neuroses, Marc wants his guests to become better and more human. As jealous and competitive as he is, what trumps that is his innate love of great comedy.”
In April 2010, Maron interviewed Robin Williams — whom, like many of his guests, he knew only slightly — at Williams’ home in Northern California. Williams opened up with remarkable candor about his career, his recent divorce, and his alcoholism, and the result proved a breakthrough for WTF. ”That episode brought the podcast attention it hadn’t had before,” Maron says. The next month, he interviewed comedian Carlos Mencia and questioned him relentlessly about long-standing charges that he was a joke thief, cementing the perception that WTF was a force to be reckoned with.
Maron is able to draw so much out of his guests in large part because he gives so much of himself. Sober for nearly 12 years, he lays bare his deepest insecurities, his trouble maintaining healthy relationships (he currently has a girlfriend; he has never had children), and his penchant for selfishness and envy. ”Marc can’t help but be honest,” says Sarah Silverman, who has known Maron for years. ”He wears his whole heart on his sleeve, and that honesty is disarming, charming, and riveting.”
Of course, sitting in your messy garage with someone vastly more successful than you can be a little awkward. ”I offered to go to Stiller’s house, but he was like, ‘No, I’ll come to you,”’ Maron says. ”My first reaction was like, ‘Ugh, I’m ashamed of my house. Do I have to go around and clean stuff? Should I build an addition?’ Then I thought, ‘Why doesn’t he want me at his house? Am I not good enough to be at his house?”’
WTF is very much a DIY operation. Maron books his own guests and keeps the podcast, and himself, financially afloat through advertising, donations, and merchandising. As WTF continues to grow, he is drawing ever-larger crowds to his stand-up performances, and between that, a book deal he has signed, and the comedy pilot he recently shot — in which Ed Asner plays his dad and Ken Jeong plays himself — his career has been reenergized. Still, Maron is not hardwired for optimism. ”I’ve been doing this long enough that I don’t have any expectations,” he says. ”I’ve accepted I’m not going to have some sitcom that’s going to make me $250 million. I’ve had my heart broken by that s— too many times.”
At the end of her interview, having explored her chronic anxiety, her difficulty expressing emotion, and the time she drunkenly cornered Fred Armisen at a Saturday Night Live party, Aubrey Plaza leaves for a pickup basketball game. After she’s gone, Maron admits he’d been a bit worried about the interview beforehand, fearing Plaza might not have been through enough angst and drama for him to ”lock in” with her. Now he smiles. ”Everybody has a story,” he says.
Famous Guests Open Up
Here’s just a sample of the interesting things people have said on Marc Maron’s podcast.
I feel like I have my dukes up all day long looking for someone who’s going to punch me — and here’s the thing: No one ever punches me.
[On his own rocky relationship with Maron] We were best friends…. You’re being a s—ty friend by being jealous…. I could have used you…. I got divorced. I got a show canceled. I had some tough times. I could have used a friend.
It’s really hard these days to get anything made that isn’t, you know, Iron Man 3…. People see you in a very specific way in terms of what’s bankable or not…and when you put yourself out there and you write something or develop something [and it doesn’t happen], it’s hard not to take it personally.
In ’93, when I replaced David Letterman from complete obscurity…I was very aware that ”Man, this is a f—ing serious situation I’m in,” and the only way out was to survive it…. Because if I’d been taken off the air after six months, I would have just become a Trivial Pursuit question.
I don’t like anyone else’s kids. You think having kids makes you like all kids, but it doesn’t. You just like your kids.
They do some research and they find out I’m popular, and so they pay me to do a commercial…like eBay did. And then they do a little more research and they find out that…even more people hate me, and then they don’t air it. And then it’s great.
I had 20 years sober before I relapsed…. It’s trying to fill the hole. It’s fear. And you’re kinda going, ”What am I doing in my career?”… People say, ”You have an Academy Award.” The Academy Award lasted about a week and then [it’s] ”Hey, Mork!”
I actually have a little history with gambling…. Back before I had money, I tried to lose money I didn’t have…. Thank God I got a handle on it before I made money. But I went to GA [Gamblers Anonymous].