Marc Maron is known for the groundbreaking WTF With Marc Maron Podcast, one of the highest ranking podcasts in the country. His TV show Maron is on IFC and Netflix, and his book Attempting Normal is on Amazon and Audible. His stand up specials Thinky Pain and Too Real are on Netflix and Comedy Central.
Maron made a Q&A appearance at The Second City in Chicago to simply talk shop. During this time, he shared advice from his career path. It was as if the audience interviewed Marc Maron in his own podcast episode, live from the stage. Everything you ever wanted to know about his life, his career, and his struggles. Enjoy!
Maron greeted the audience with a, “How are ya?” He then complimented the audience’s applause with a, “Nice!” which was then followed by, “Uhh…so what’s the plan here? Just come down to The Second City and talk to the kids?”
[audience laughter and applause]
Maron expressed confusion saying, “Now, I don’t know if I’m supposed to do a show…there’s supposed to be a show of some kind, so uh…what is it that you people want?! [audience laughter and applause] I’ve never been here before, never set foot in this building…apparently a lot has happened here…” [audience laughter]
After a few more comically confused moments, Maron began with the basics.
Okay well first off, THIS is the proper set up for stand up: Proper mic stand—a straight mic stand, no tripods or anything with a boom on it, that’s no good for us. This stool—it’s the right size stool. This is the proper mic for a stand up—a mic with a wire. Wireless mics are bullshit, they suck! They don’t ever sound right, and they don’t have the proper clip. Umm…these are important things. [audience laughter] I’m serious…a clip for a wireless mic is always fat and you’ll know this whenever you go to a show because if there’s a wireless mic, when that poor motherfucker has to put the mic back into the stand…there’s gonna be a problem! [applause break]
So…you wanna know how I started? And the process? Is that something that’ll interest you? [audience applause]
All right…how I started: I know a lot of you are improv people, but that was NOT for me! [applause break] I resented you, I thought you were silly, and I thought you were cowards bringing your friends on stage with you. [applause break] But it seems there is a whole generation of well adjusted people infiltrating our business.
[audience laughter / applause break]
I started I think officially, in 1984…oh my God! So yeah, when I started—God listen to me? Am I really gonna do this? Am I really gonna talk like this? Okay, I’ll do it. [audience laughter]
BACKSTORY, FOR REAL
How was the comedy landscape when you first started?
At that time, there were only comedy clubs. All you could do was open mics at comedy clubs and there were only certain clubs where you could do them. There were no comedian-produced rooms. Out of college, I went to Los Angeles, and I auditioned at The Comedy Store and at The Improv. I didn’t know how anything worked, I had no understanding of show business. I think I just learned how show business works maybe, six years ago.
I got into comedy because I wanted to be a stand up. I didn’t know what that meant, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to entertain people—that was not my agenda. [audience laughs] I always loved stand up comics as a kid because they made me feel better and they seemed to have an angle on the world. They seemed to have some control over the chaos of being a human being. When I saw comics make sense of shit AND make me laugh, I’m like, “That guy’s got his shit together!” How fuckin’ stupid was I?! [applause break]
In my mind, the journey was NOT to entertain, that was a by-product which I didn’t think I wanted to do until maybe five or six years ago—seriously. I dunno who the people were that liked me all the way through, but thank you! Because, really what I was doing on stage was trying to find a point of view. I was trying to be myself—that was my journey. Most people are like, “I can’t wait till I become a caricature of me so I can entertain people!” I just wanted to be organically myself. And for some reason, I chose stand up—it’s RIDICULOUS! There’s no difference between what I’m doing right now in front of you, and what I would be doing if I was just talking to you like, at a table. I mean, there’d probably be more pauses, I’d probably space out a little bit, and I’d probably look at my phone a lot. [audience laughter] But, that was the journey for me.
How did you first get your start?
So what happened was, I did a couple of open mics in college—it was terrifying. And then I moved to Los Angeles and auditioned at those comedy clubs. Then, I got a job doing PA work. It was horrible. [dead silence] I mean, don’t be sad. I just didn’t know what show business was. I mean, I don’t even know what TOMORROW is. Like, my drive is so compulsively about being in the present, my foresight is horrible! How do people PLAN shit? They’re like, “I’m gonna do THAT in two weeks!” Like, how do you say that with confidence?! Who knows what could happen between now and then?! It’s fucking ridiculous to think like that! And then I gotta sit down, I hafta eat something… [audience laughter] And this is why I’ve never really made a living until only a few years ago. [audience laughter]
But, ultimately, I ended up doing PA work on a shoot that Mitzi Shore produced—the woman who started The Comedy Store. I had auditioned for her before, and I said, “Hey Mitzi, I’m Marc, do you remember I auditioned for you?” She’s like, “Ohh yeah…you’re funny…you can be a door man.” So I became a door man. Then I found out that being a door man at The Comedy Store was something all comics did.
Is this interesting to you? Does this help? [audience applause]
Yes! So then what?
So now I’m a door man at The Comedy Store, which is a dark castle of pain and horror. [audience laughter] It represents OLD comedy. And before that, it represented OLD Hollywood. And before THAT, I believe The Comedy Store was built over one of the few existing gates to hell. [audience laughter] Like, it sits on a gate of hell, because you can FEEL the suction of hell. When you’re in there you’re like, “What’s that weird feeling?” And you go, “It’s built over hell…”
But in my mind it was funny. This is a temple of pain, where anger and fury is amalgamated into comedy. That is what the Comedy Store represented for me. And I thought it was an honest, complete contempt for everything. So, if you’re not like that, and you wanna be in comedy, you’re not the real deal! [audience laughter]
You became part of Sam Kinison’s entourage. How?
When I got caught up with Kinison…I didn’t even like him. That guy was BAD NEWS. He got a lot of flak for being a horrible, racist, angry, mysoginist fuck, which he was…but HILARIOUS. [audience laughter]
What happened was, I always wanted to be some sort of drug warrior. I thought that was important to what I was setting out to be. I thought, “I’m not going to graduate school, I’ll become a drug addict!” [audience laughter] To me, it was graduate school for comedy. And I’m not sure you can argue with that if you look at some of the pictures on the walls here… [applause break]
Why do you think comedians choose an abnormal lifestyle?
Part of being a comic is that you DO NOT live a normal life. That is not the life that you set out to live. And it’s always bothered me a great deal when people condescend comics ‘cause I think comedians are heroes. I think it’s a NOBLE profession. And whenever some dumbfuck goes, “Ehh I’m funny!” No, you’re not funny! [audience applause] Or, “Hey people say I’m funny, I should do it!” Yeah you should do it, it’s good to have that experience. Go do it once, and then stop. [audience applause]
But there was something about the freedom of being a rogue.
You’ve gotta love this life in order to do this. ‘Cause you’ll find as you get further along in your comedy, that regular people are ehh…snoozeville. And I know that there’s regular people in here, and I apologize. [audience laughter] You’re all very compelling in your well adjusted lives…it’s just hard for us to eat dinner with you. [applause break]
Here come the hashtags…”Maron not the man I thought he was! Hashtag FRAUD!” [audience laughter]
Biggest lesson learned from hanging with Kinison?
Where am I going? Okay, so here’s how it goes: I spend lots of time with Sam (Kinison) and do a lot of uh…drawing lines for Sam…cutting coke for Sam. Uhh…lost my mind and coked myself into psychosis and realized THAT wasn’t part of entertainment. I didn’t hear THIS part of the Belushi story. I lost my mind, but there were a couple things that I learned in L.A. and it was: Don’t do too much coke and try to get your rest. [audience laughter] But also…don’t become part of someone else’s fuckin’ party. That was the biggest lesson. There are people that become famous or successful, and if you don’t know who you are or what you wanna do, and you get on board with somebody else, eventually they will hobble you. They’re not going to help you. That was my experience of that.
A NEW BEGINNING
How did you attempt to turn your life around?
I cleaned up and went back to Boston. I started doing stand up while working at a coffee shop. Angrily. Because I had been through so much with Kinison, in my mind I had been to the top of the mountain. I was steaming milk at this coffee shop, and I was bitter. Like, “I used to hang out with Kinison, fuck you!” [audience laughter]
How did you become a working comic?
So, this was my life until 1988 when I came in 2nd at a comedy competition. Which is when I started working as a stand up, because of Barry Katz. And, my first gig was working with an X-rated hypnotist. [audience laughter] But in my mind, doing stand up meant being able to entertain anybody anywhere—you had to do THE JOB. You had to deal with anything.
And you would see comics snap, all the time! That was one of the best parts about doing stand up in the ‘80s. [audience laughter] Most the gigs were shitty, so you never knew when someone was gonna lose their fuckin’ mind! It was fuckin’ beautiful. [audience laughter]
SILLY ROAD STORIES
The story of Bob Batch:
Did I tell you the story of Bob Batch? I love this fuckin’ story. Part of my job as the opener was to drive this headliner Bob Batchelder to the gig. It was a two hour drive to this oldies bar—it was horrible. Now, Batch is from the south and his big closing joke was him holding up signs with goofy “Redneck sayings” that he wrote on them. For instance, he’d hold up a sign that read, “Meer-fer-minit” and people would be like, “Huh?” And he’d say, “Meer-for-minit! Like, come here for a minute!” with his southern accent. So…yeah…that was his big closer… [audience laughter]
So, we’re on this two hour drive and in the first 30 minutes he’s complaining how he hasn’t been on the Letterman show. Like, “Why is so-and-so on Letterman, but not me?! How come Letterman won’t put me on?! This business is bullshit!” Just a weird, bitter tyrade of a guy who doesn’t know where to go with his signs. [audience laughter] When we get to the gig, there’s only nine people there. It’s horrible and sad. But, I do my time and then I bring up Bob. I go to the bathroom, and when I come back, Bob is screaming at these nine people. He’s screaming the exact same thing he was yelling to me in the car. [audience laughter]
He’s screaming at these people going, “You think I wanna be here?! I wanna be on Letterman! This ain’t workin’ out for me!” [audience laughter] And, I had never done this but I walked beside the stage and yelled to Bob, “Take it easy, Bob. Just relax!” [audience laughter] Because, he still had another 30 minutes to go! Bob goes, “Well, what the fuck am I gonna do now?!” And I said, “Do the signs, Bob.” [audience applause]
The Frankie Bastille Story:
This guy I’m opening for, Frankie Bastille, comes to Boston. He’s a borderline criminal. He didn’t want to ever be publicized in the paper because the IRS and his ex-wife were looking for him. [audience laughter] Frankie was afraid to be on a marquee! He was a character. The first time I pick him up, I meet him at the door and go, “Hi, I’m Marc.” And he says, “I’m Frank! I lost my tooth!” And sure enough, he’s missing a tooth.” [audience laughter]
He looked like Keith Richards and had this weird, junkie attitude. Every time I’d pick him up, he’d always yell, “Where’s my tooth?!” And the tooth would always be nearby. [audience laughter] He’d put his tooth in until the next time he lost it. But, this guy taught me how to do time. I had to do a half hour, and the big thing was that you always had to do your time. It’s part of the job. And he’d constantly repeat this to me, “You gotta do your time, man.” And I’m like, “Yeah, I got it.” And he’d be like, “No! Gotta do your time!”
So, we get to the gig, I go up first and I do my 30 minutes. When I’m done, I say to the crowd, “All right folks, coming to the stage, Frankie Bastille!” But, he doesn’t show. I say this a few more times, still nothing! It’s 300 people and now it’s dead silent. And then, from the back of the room I hear someone yell, “26!” [audience laughter] He goes, “You only did 26 minutes! You got four minutes left!” Yeah, so…that’s how I learned to do time. [audience laughter]
Before you started the podcast, you had a background in radio. Care to elaborate on that?
Out of desperation, I went to New York to do radio in 2004 for Air America, a political radio show. My attitude was, “Fuck Bush!” which was the depth of my political commentary. [audience laughter] I knew NOTHING. But, I learned about radio and I didn’t have to talk about politics because my partner knew about politics.
Radio was something I really liked. Doing live morning radio is INSANE! To get up at 3:30AM to crunch the news to get on the air by 6AM and then go live for three hours, those guys are warriors! There’s a lot on the line, you can really fuck up. All you gotta do is say “Fuck” twice and you’re done. It’s very exciting, because I have a hard time not saying “Fuck” every second. [audience laughter]
How was comedy during this period?
I was still doing comedy, radio did not help my ticket sales. And I’m not complaining. There’s part of me that believes if you are afraid or insecure, and you think you don’t deserve bigger things, then you will get that. You will manifest it. This part of you will keep you where you are at. If you like to complain, you will always have things to complain about, because that’s where you live.
When would the podcast come into the picture?
By the time I started the podcast, I was broke and desperate. A woman divorced me, all my money was gone, and I was about to lose my house. Stand up gigs were very sparse. I couldn’t sell tickets, and I was out of options. I liked doing radio, but I didn’t want to be a radio guy. Also, I got fired from radio. [audience laughter]
How did the podcast begin?
After all the heartbreak, I told my radio partner Brendan that we should start a podcast. That was the beginning of WTF. Some of you know me from the podcast, or my stand up, or now my TV show. But, none of that would have happened without that podcast. And that podcast was born out of desperation.
What were you desperate for?
It was born out of the fact that at 45 years old, I didn’t have a plan B. There is no plan B for this path. Which is fine, but just know that. If you’re pursuing something and you come up on age 40 going, “This isn’t workin’ out…” It’s a very awkward moment knowing you’ve dedicated your entire life to something that is NOT working. It was weird. But I guess the only lesson was that by the time I started the podcast, it was just something I wanted to do. I knew I could live on those mics.
What was the podcast like in the very beginning?
The first year I started doing it, I was talking to celebrities, about me. I needed help. Which sort of defined the tone of WTF. If Richard Lewis was in the studio, it was for me to understand why I’m having problems. [audience laughter] At that point in my life, I was so cynical and so bitter that I was unappealing both on stage and in real life. I also made some enemies. So, by talking to my peers on a podcast, I was able to integrate myself back into the community. The best thing about doing WTF early on was it provided a place for comics to check in with each other. Comics would tell me, “Hey man, haven’t heard that guy in a while, glad he’s doing all right!” Which was the greatest reward.
How had you changed as a person by this time?
By the time I started WTF, I had let go and surrendered any dreams I had. Which was the biggest heartbreak of all, to sit there at 45 years old and realize that all I wanted to be was a relevant comic, and that wasn’t gonna happen. I’m not gonna be “one of the guys”. You think about all the opportunities that didn’t go anywhere, all the failed shows, not selling tickets. I finally accepted this as a grown up, that I’m a grown ass man and I need to let go of this bullshit delusion that something’s gonna happen for me. I needed to be an adult, realize my limitations, and take the hit. And that’s horrible! But I did that. It was heartbreaking. But, from that place is where I think the podcast evolved.
The podcast put you on the map! How do you feel now?
The one thing I can say now of doing stand up, the TV show, the book…all of it came from this thing I did in my garage, that was completely of my doing. Something me and my partner have complete control over. It’s a pretty amazing feeling. Also, the one thing I know going into anything I do now, is that I’m ready. All the opportunities I had before these, I was completely driven by spite. I had no sense of entertaining, no sense of identity. I believe that I really just arrived in my body, that my journey to become myself actually finished literally three years ago.
How has the podcast helped you personally?
Whatever self esteem I was missing—whatever anger I had from however I felt I was gypped in life—I found that the only thing I wanted wasn’t money, but just to know that I was doing something relevant and that it was important to somebody. When the podcast became that, I actually got a big chunk of self esteem that was missing. I’m not saying I’m happy, lets not go crazy. [audience laughter] But, I know that I’m doing something that is honestly me, and that people are getting something rewarding out of it.
THE WTF PODCAST
What is the preparation process for your podcast interviews?
My preparation is, usually most the time I have an idea of who that person is based on their public persona—and I’m pretty locked into that. [audience laughter] It’s a slow, gradual surprise that I was completely off. Sometimes Wikipedia is wrong. [audience laughter] But, I generally like to get a sense of where they grew up, and I don’t like to forget major accomplishments because I think that’s disrespectful. I like to turn the mics on before we sit down and have it unfold organically. I try to build them out from where they come from and how they got to where they are. I’m pretty hung up on family, childhoods, what their struggle might have been in high school. I like all that stuff. I try to get a sense in my heart of who they are.
Does anyone try to get on your podcast that you’re not interested in?
Yeah! Are you kidding? [audience laughter] It’s become weird because there are people who don’t even know the show, but see it as an opportunity. Usually, I put people on if I like them, or if I think I can talk to them for an hour. And, will that hour be compelling? Will it hold up? Because the worst feeling for me is when I’m pulling teeth. You’ll know this if you’re a half hour in hearing me ask, “So what was that dog’s name again?” [audience laughter]
Do you find your interviews work better if you are more familiar with your guests?
Not necessarily. I’m either a contemporary, a fan, or I’m a guy that needs to know something. Like, my interview with Doctor Bronner’s Soap—why did I have that guy on? Because I use that soap, and I’m fascinated by it. [audience laughter] And it was a great interview! Or, the Doctor Drew interview—he’s an internist, and I was having some problems, so I figured I’d have him on to ask him about my health issues, and go from there. [audience laughter] But, when I had Maynard from Tool on, I didn’t know much about him as a person. In fact, the first 20 minutes was just him talking about how he worked in a pet store, and how he changed the way parrots get their food. Where else can a Tool-head find that information?! [audience laughter]
In your 25 years leading up to WTF, did you ever have self-doubt? Or was it overridden by your undeniable compulsion to do stand up?
Hm, how are they different? [audience laughter]
Where do you think your resilience comes from?
From someone who is insecure and full of bravado, sadly there is no better feeling than being handed your ass. When the divorce and everything happened, it was so sad and devastating, but it genuinely forced me to be myself. Whatever resilience it was, most of it was driven by a blind need to be reckoned with. So when I was humbled, it as such a relief. I don’t know if I can attribute it to resilience, I didn’t know what else to do. I’m just happy that it finally gave way.
ADVICE & WISDOM
Advice for young comics, or people who think they want to be a comedian?
Here’s what I’ll tell you for reals: DO NOT—unless you are completely narcissistic and don’t give a fuck—do not put all your eggs in the stand up basket. If you are capable at creating funny, figure out other ways to do it to perhaps earn a living. Most the dudes I started with somehow or another were grown ups. They said, “I like doing comedy, but the life is fuckin’ crazy!” And of course back then I thought, “Pff, coward!”
But, these were people like Chuck Sklar, Jonathan Groff, Lew Schneider, Mike Royce—they were good comedians and good joke writers who said, “If I can write jokes, why not write jokes professionally?” Mike Royce ran Everybody Loves Raymond, Chuck Sklar worked on The Chris Rock Show. Being just a comic really limits you, and it’s a long shot. Being a stand up prepares you to live the life of the guy who didn’t finish college—for the rest of your life. [audience laughter]
Where do you see comedy going?
It’s fundamentally the same, it’s just more open. I think there are more opportunities for those who are less capable. [audience laughter] The great thing about comedy is that if you are originally creative and you keep pushing, you can be seen, you can be reckoned with. With the way the business is now and the amount of outlets available, the possibility of finding your people that like you is good. It’s better than it’s ever been. Because before you had to deal with gatekeepers and tighter restrictions that were the structures of the business. Now, you can do whatever the fuck you want and get your own crowds together. But, when you do get the crowd, I recommend having the goods.
WRITTEN BY: DAVID GAVRI