With his newest book, Attempting Normal, released on April 30, and a TV show, Maron, that premiered on IFC on May 3, comedian Marc Maron is having a busy spring. Maron considers himself primarily a stand-up comic, but he's also an actor, author and host of the popular podcast WTF with Marc Maron. The podcast has a simple premise: Maron interviews another comic. But the resulting product is complex and compelling. There's witty banter and plenty of outrageous stories from the road, but Maron digs deeper than typical talk show chat, and occasionally, it feels as if his guests have forgotten the conversation is being recorded.
Maron is raw, unedited and honest — mostly about his own history. He's been divorced twice, struggled with substance abuse (he's been sober for over a decade), and faced repeated disappointment in his comedy career. But the success of his podcast, which this week was No. 2 on the iTunes Top Podcast chart, has ushered in a new era for Maron.
Attempting Normal is exactly the memoir you would expect from Maron. It's a painfully honest and deeply introspective look at his life. But expertly sprinkled throughout his documented struggles are hilarious tales of his missteps, exploits and growth.
Maron was in New York on a press tour when we spoke by phone.
You record the podcast in your garage; what's it like in there? And how does it compare to the version of the garage from the TV show?
That's a pretty good facsimile of my garage. We couldn't shoot in my house because it was really too small, and also my girlfriend wouldn't tolerate it. So it was a choice between my relationship or the show. The show rented another house about a half-mile from my house, and they basically rebuilt my garage and my house within this other house. So that's not exactly the garage. My garage is filled with books and clutter and a lifetime worth of Marc Maron stuff, and in the middle of it sits the table with the microphones.
Can you tell us about the TV show?
We did 10 episodes of a scripted half-hour comedy, single-camera style, that is based on my life, or some version of my life. I don't think 10 years ago I could have pitched a show where I was interviewing celebrities in my garage. And now that's sort of the backdrop — it's the podcast, and my stalled career, and my failed marriages, and my relationships with my father and women and other things, recovery and cats. It's all in there.
In all your work, you're very open and honest about yourself and your relationships, and your issues with drugs and alcohol. How did you become such an unfiltered person? And how has that, if at all, changed your relationships?
I think it's important as a sober person and somebody who has been through struggles to be open about it, because it just shows that it's possible, and it provides hope for others. Sometimes my honesty gets me into trouble. I'm not sure, after the book and the TV show, what my relationship with my father is going to be like. But it's risky when you talk about yourself — you do have to be as diplomatic as possible and make some choices about the feelings of other people. When I wrote the book, there was an essay in there that my current girlfriend was not comfortable with, and she was right.
I found a lot of the book to be very relatable.
You might be in trouble then.
There's a great line in the book when you say, "That's the big challenge in life — to chisel disappointment into wisdom so people respect you and you don't annoy your friends with your whining. You don't want to be the bitter guy." How did you learn to turn disappointment into wisdom?
Bitterness was something I was familiar with. I always knew life wasn't perfect, but I don't think you really feel the pain of it until you get heartbroken by something, either by a person, or by a dream, or by a career thing going wrong. Heartbreak is very important, and when you're heartbroken, there's a crossroads. Are you going to succumb to bitterness and have that be the way you look at the world, or are you going to take the hit, and persevere, and integrate it into who you are and how you move forward in a proactive way?
Can you tell the Whole Foods story that you tell in the book?
I use stevia in my cereal and stuff. I went to Trader Joe's to get it. I need to get the really strong kind, not the kind that's cut, and they didn't have the one I wanted, and there was a lot of lines, and I just couldn't deal with it — so I went down the street to Whole Foods.
I have a problem with Whole Foods. I think they are overpriced, and I think that things that are healthy shouldn't necessarily be overpriced, and I resent the owner of Whole Foods. I just have an issue with the idea that it's some sort of progressive, wonderful place, when it's really just completely fueled by capitalism and only enables people who can afford food that is good to eat food that is good.
I understand all that, but they had the stevia I wanted. And then I went to pay for it, and there are just these lines — hundreds of people waiting to check out. And they are color-coded, so it's like a rodent maze. Everything just converged into a righteous disgust at Whole Foods, so I decided to walk out with the stevia without paying for it. But I didn't want to just put it in my pocket like some creepy shoplifter; I just wanted to hold it in front of me and walk out with it. So that's what I did — I held it up, and I walked all the way out onto the street. I stood on the street and waited to see if anybody would stop me, and they didn't; and so I walked away from it, feeling sort of justified.
You're clearly a brilliant interviewer. How much of that is conscious decision-making on your part, and how much of that is your skill as a comfortable conversationalist?
I didn't study interviewing; I'm not a journalist. I didn't sit and listen to Studs Terkel or Dick Cavett for hours before I started the show. If I'm compelled to connect with somebody, I want it to have emotional resonance. I want to feel part of their experience. And certainly when I started the podcast, I was in a bad place, and it served two purposes: I was connecting with my community, with other comics; and I needed to get out of myself and feel supported by the people that are in my field. I would bring a lot of myself to the interviews. I wanted to feel like I wasn't alone.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Molly Hart works in the office of the senior vice president for NPR News.