Marc Maron is a busy guy these days. Aside from restlessly running his twice-weekly, award-winning podcast WTF With Marc Maron, his hit semi-autobiographical IFC show, Maron, premiered its third season last month. He’s also currently in the middle of his national Maronation Tour… and yet he still finds the time to communicate with fans with weekly 500-word “dispatches from the head” and to take interviews with unknown freelance writers.
We chatted on the phone with Maron to talk a little bit about the creative process (and blurred lines between real-life and fiction) of Maron, how WTF and his standup have influenced each other, how he records his WTF introductions, and what he has coming up for the future (spoiler: he’s going to be even busier).
Talking about season 3, I know I probably can’t say too much, but it looked like you’re going in a really interesting arc that’s quite different from the first two seasons.
I definitely think that the direction of this season… it’s me on the precipice of really having success, and pursuing success, and then what happens midway through when that pursuit gets a little gnarly and my weaknesses get the best of me and we really take the character for a ride. And, hopefully… hopefully I’ve worked that stuff fictionally, so I don’t have to go through it in real life.
It’s definitely a departure in the sense that we’re able now, being as comfortable as we are as a crew, with the actors and the writers and the production crew, that this is really the best season we’ve done so far. We’ve just sort pushed the envelope a little bit with what we could do with the character and with what I was willing to do. So, this season becomes, uh, I can’t remember the adage that I’m looking for… sort of a cautionary tale, that’s what it is! A cautionary tale by me, and for me, you know?
How much would you say the show, so far, has been autobiographical, and how much has come from scenarios that you’ve run through your head that haven’t actually happened?
In all the stories, there are moments and bits and pieces of reality in there that sort of ground the thing emotionally. But I would think most of the full arc of each story is fictional. And I think it’s a testament to our writing, and also the nature of what we’ve created, that people think it’s so real. I mean, a lot of it is based on some real events, and the characters are based on real people, but most of the stories are pretty fictionalized.
“I’m part of the process on all levels, and that’s good and bad.”
In this season, I actually do an episode where my ex-wife writes a book, and I get her on the podcast, and that never happened in real life. There’s a lot of unresolved stuff with me and my real ex-wife in my mind, and, yeah, it’s kind of a vehicle to work it through with fiction, and I was able to sort of process some of that stuff, and that was kinda cool, I think. It’s great for me; I don’t know how it’s gonna be for her…
Have you ever found that you’ve worked something through on the show, in a fictional sense, that’s actually led to somebody seeing the episode, and then something getting resolved in real life?
Well, it’s come the other other way. I mean, I’ve had a couple of experiences with it causing some trouble, with old friends and with my dad, but I still believe they’re the only ones that know certain things, and I think they overreacted as well. So… I don’t know if I’ve had an experience where it worked in my favor.
“I think it’s a testament to our writing, and also the nature of what we’ve created, that people think it’s so real.”
So nothing where somebody saw an episode and was like, “Oh, I gotta give Maron a call; I didn’t realize we had this thing to work through”?
People have done that, but not because they were fictionalized on the show. My mother’s pretty happy that Sally Kellerman played her; she’s the only one that’s proud and excited. And my brother’s OK with the guy, with his character, but not thrilled. My father’s definitely not happy, but I believe Judd Hirsch is a better father than him.
Judd Hirsch was absolutely amazing on the show. That must have been a blast to work with him, too.
Yeah, no, he’s a real pro. He did one episode this season.
I caught your show a couple weeks ago in Dallas, and it got me to wondering if you ever record episodes of WTF while you’re on the road, or do you usually take breaks, go back and record, and kind of build some up in the library to release while you’re touring?
No, no, I record some on the road. I was just in New York, and I recorded one with Keenan Thompson and Kurt Metzger, and sometimes I record intros on the road, and I bring my equipment; I’ve done that a lot.
Do you bring pretty much the exact same equipment that’s in the garage setup?
No, no I can’t. Those mics don’t really travel. I leave those mics in the garage, but I use good equipment.
Do you ever find that, whenever you do go on tour and record episodes, does that open up a whole new universe of people that you can interview, who might not otherwise come to L.A. and be available?
Yeah, sometimes I interview on location. Like, I’ve been to Austin and I’ve interviewed Hunt Sales and Curt Kirkwood, and I interview people in New York. … I can do that, but I haven’t done too much of it.
Your 15-minute intros that you do at the beginning of every podcast… Is there a bit of a writing process in coming up with those intros? Or do you just do them as a one-off?
They’re all improvised; I don’t write any of that shit. Sometimes I’ll put some buttons down if I have something I’m thinking about, but generally I just riff those, because it’s actually more pressure than writing them. So I just… I pace around, and I Google around in the garage, I dicker off at the house, so I figure out a place to start that thing, and then I just riff ’em out.
I remember seeing a special that you were on, it was a while ago, but your act was a lot more… it was still very similar, but it was more structured. Do you think the riffing with the intros and the guests has helped to shape your current act a little bit, where you’re a little more free-flowing, and you have the library of stuff in your head to think about?
I’ve always been a little free-flow-y, but I think the reason you saw structure is because I was on television, and generally it’s a little better to plan when you can be on television.
And I guess you have to clear things through people, and it’s edited as well to make it look more structured.
Yeah… it was probably the John Oliver thing, so… was it the bit about being on the airplane and almost dying?
I believe it was, actually.
That was a big bit… I gotta get that back on the stage, really. I’m not sure why I don’t do that bit, because I can get this idea, like… A lot of times, if people are trying to decide whether they want to come see me, they’re going to go online and look for stuff, and that’s out there, so part of me’s like “Well, I don’t want them to see what they just saw at home…” But that was such a good bit! It took me like half a year, getting that bit working.
I still work pretty hard on bits, and the idea that I’m loose is kind of an illusion; I just leave a lot of room for things to happen, and I don’t necessarily lock myself into an order, so if things can happen and new parts of the conversation can erupt, I just want to have room for that. I don’t want to get too locked in, but I would say that, most of the time, a lot of the bits that you’re seeing when I do it now, in an hour and a half show, a lot of them are pretty refined.
I noticed that, just listening to several recent standup routines and stuff, and then seeing the one in Dallas, I think there were maybe three actual bits and punchlines that I recognized from the recent past—like the Captain Billy one was one of them, because I just listened to the Mike Judge podcast where you guys talked about Captain Billy. So I guess I can see how that’s kind of an illusion.
Yeah, I try to stay as present as possible. And also, like, the one way the podcast helps me is that, when I improvise at the beginning of the show, a lot of times things come up, and I’m like, “Well, wow, that would be a good bit,” you know what I mean?
I was going to ask you if any of that stuff ever made it into the show, any of those intros.
Yeah, I mean, you just heard the Captain Billy thing… That was something I actually did on stage in Albuquerque, but that’s in the act now. And it takes a bit of work to get them working on stage, as opposed to in conversation, so I think it’s a different experience, but in that way it’s helped me write. It’s almost like, when I’m improvising and talking at the mic at the beginning, I’m sort of writing and creating out loud in the moment, and some of that stuff from the podcast becomes comedy bits.
How much control did you have over the direction of the show from the start, and—if it wasn’t complete—how much has that changed with the success of the show?
I’ve always had complete control of the show; it all goes through me. I mean, I’m there, and I’m a staff writer and I’m a producer and I’m the main actor, and it’s my life, and nothing’s going to happen without me OKing it. I’m part of the process on all levels, and that’s good and bad… I guess it’s only bad if something goes horribly wrong, because we’re doing exactly the show we want to do.
We make compromises over along the way only around budgetary elements, and whether something is appropriate or not appropriate, in terms of what the network wants… It’s all very diplomatic, but ultimately no one has gotten in the way of the creative process, and everything you see is something we wanted, and if there were any battles we lost there were very few and they were over very minor things.
How many seasons of Maron would you like to see? Is there a top-off?
It’s really one at a time. I do know I need another one, because we left him in pretty bad shape at the end of this one. So… I certainly don’t think I see it going 20 [seasons], but I could use one more.
Do you have any other ideas floating around for any other show you’d like to pursue?
Vice is starting a television network, and I’m under contract with them to do a thing called Vice Portraits. It’s gonna be a longform interview show, out in the world, talking to people and sort of documenting the process of talking to people, and, you know, trying to do what I do in the garage out in the world. And that’s gonna be in the fall.
That’s a bit like in episode 2 of season 3, when you’re offered the talk show. Was that actually inspired by the Vice thing at all?
No, that came after.
I guess that’s just a case of, uh, creating something fictional and then real life just kind of getting onto it.
Right! It was only a matter of time.
The ol’ “Ask the Universe” philosophy.
Illustration by Tiffany Pai