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Marc Maron On Robin Williams, Barack Obama And Learning To Be A Good Listener

Oct 10, 2017
Originally published on October 10, 2017 10:52 pm

Podcaster Marc Maron has brought celebrity after celebrity through his front door in Los Angeles. In 2009, the grizzled, once-washed-up comedian launched a podcast called WTF, and it became wildly popular — many people say Maron has defined what an interview podcast can be.

He tapes most of his conversations in his cramped garage, where, in a bit of a role reversal, NPR interviewed him.

"I generally don't have a page full of questions, like you have there," Maron says. "... I mean, I don't judge that, but, like, there are some interviews where I should have had that."

Maron has a new book out called Waiting for the Punch: Words to Live by from the WTF Podcast.


Interview Highlights

On interviewing President Obama

I'm having an experience here where my house is filled with Secret Service and police officers; we have five or six listening stations out on the deck for his staff. And in the house it's just me and Brendan McDonald, my producer, beforehand and I'm playing some guitar, trying to, you know, get into my body, wondering what I should wear.

That was the first indication, was like, "What should I wear? The president's coming." And, like, it's my house — what am I going to wear? Am I gonna wear a suit? In my house? Because the president's coming? So I put on a plaid shirt and it just was fortunate that he's very disarming, he's very charming, he's very grounded. So, you know, he came in here and he put me at ease. ... You know, I was calling him "man" pretty quickly. I was finishing his sentences.

On why he often asks guests what their parents do

It's a very defining thing. That's what you lived in. You know, if you lived with your dad and he did a thing, that's going to define you somehow. You can't get out from under that. ...

My dad was a surgeon and my mother was — she tried to get her master's in painting and then she did some splatter art on sweat suits to try to create a business. And she got a real estate license; she had a boutique. But my dad, for the most part, was a functioning orthopedic surgeon until, you know, his mental disposition shifted and somehow or another he, you know, he's out of the game. ... He had some depression issues and then he mismanaged his life in a lot of ways, but he's OK. He's in Albuquerque, [N.M.,] sitting around, you know, wondering what the point of life is and why he's so miserable. ...

I kind of look at them as people I grew up with, you know, not parents.

On how hanging out at his grandfather's store helped him become a good listener

I was sort of on my own in the "defining self" department, which is why I always sort of gravitated toward screwed-up people to determine, you know, how I would live my life or behave. ...

My grandfather had a hardware store in Haskell, N.J., you know, when I was a little kid. And there used to be this crew of three or four old dudes and I was just sort of fascinated with it. You're just sitting there talking to these guys. I go talk to the guy at the bookstore, go talk to the guy at the record store, go talk to the guy at the guitar store, and just spend my life wandering around hanging out at places, having conversations to avoid myself and also to get some guidance. I still do it — I don't know what records to buy. So, over time, I just became a good listener and I'd get emotionally attached to people very quickly.

On interviewing Robin Williams about suicide four years before Williams hanged himself

If you really thought about Robin Williams and really thought about that need to be that entertaining all the time — I would assume that, if you really think about it, that's not coming from a place of joy. He has to do it. He's got to do this thing to avoid something.

No, but I don't think anyone could have thought that we would lose him. And it turns out there was other circumstances around that. That wasn't just depression; that was, you know, he was suffering from a degenerative illness.

On whether good comedy often comes from a dark place

I used to think that. I used to romanticize that. But after talking to almost 900 funny people, some of them are relatively well-adjusted. They seem responsible and grounded and well-boundaried — had at least one good parent.

Justin Richmond and Jacob Conrad produced and edited this interview for broadcast, and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Marc Maron, the comedian and podcaster, has brought celebrity after celebrity through his front door in northeast LA. But often, he is more worried about his cats and whether a guest like me had let any of them out.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Is this front door closed? Want me to check?

GREENE: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Locked or just closed? Oh, no. How open was it?

GREENE: It's locked, secured.

MARC MARON: Did the cats get out?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It was just - no.

GREENE: Marc Maron is a grizzled, once-washed-up comedian, but in 2009, he launched a podcast called WTF, and it became wildly popular. Many actually say Maron has defined what an interview podcast can be. He tapes most of his conversations in his cramped garage where, in a bit of role reversal, I was interviewing him.

What makes something a Marc Maron interview?

MARON: Well, whatever it is it's - I know what it is. You know, it has to do with how I show up for the thing. You know, I've done interviews like I generally don't have a page full of questions like you have there and it's...

GREENE: I haven't looked at it yet, but you know.

MARON: That's OK. You looked at it before. You wrote it.

GREENE: You hope (laughter).

MARON: No. I mean, I don't judge that. But, like, there are some interviews where I should have had that.

GREENE: So he has a new book out. It's called "Waiting For The Punch," and as we'll hear, he has a special knack for drawing out fellow comedians. But his most famous guest - probably then-President Barack Obama who, yep, came to his garage.

MARON: I'm having an experience here where my house is filled with Secret Service and police officers. We have five or six listening stations out on the deck for his staff. And in the house, it's just me and Brendan McDonald, my producer, beforehand. I'm playing some guitar, trying to, you know, get into my body, wondering what I should wear. That was the first indication was, like, what should I wear? The president's coming. I'm like, well, it's my house. What am I going to wear?

GREENE: You can wear whatever the hell you want, right.

MARON: What - am I going to wear a suit at my house because the president's coming? So I put on a plaid shirt, and it just was fortunate that he was - he's very disarming. He's very charming. He's very grounded. So, you know, he came in here and he made - he put me at ease.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "WTF")

MARON: This is my whole life - everything.

BARACK OBAMA: But you're like - you're like a big cheese now, man. You can't pretend like you're just some...

MARON: What do you mean? Can't I go on pretending?

OBAMA: You can't pretend like you're some little guy in a garage.

MARON: Well, should I move?

He had gone to school down the street. He took in my garage. So it worked out. You know, I was calling him man pretty quickly. I was finishing his sentences. So it did work out that I was able to do what I do.

GREENE: One thing you seem to ask people is what their parents do. Why do you think that's a good place to go?

MARON: It's a very defining thing. That's what you lived in. You know, if you lived with your dad and he did a thing, that's going to define you somehow. You can't get out from under that.

GREENE: What did your parents do?

MARON: My dad was a surgeon and my mother was - she tried to get her master's in painting, and then she did some splatter art on sweatsuits to try to create a business. Then she got her real estate license. She had a boutique. But my dad, for the most part, was a functioning orthopedic surgeon until like, you know, his mental disposition shifted and somehow or another he, you know, he's out of the game.

GREENE: What do you mean out of the game? Is it...

MARON: He didn't handle his life that great. So he's not a doctor any more, but yeah, he's still around. He's all right.

GREENE: Was it depression? Or what...

MARON: Yeah, he's got like, you know, he had some depression issues and then he mismanaged his life in a lot of ways, but he's OK. He's in Albuquerque sitting around, you know, wondering what the point of life is and why he's so miserable.

GREENE: You guys close still?

MARON: Sure. I mean, I talk to him. I kind of look at them as people I grew up with, you know, not parents. You know, I was sort of on my own in the defining-self department, which is why I always sort of gravitated towards screwed up people to determine, you know, how I would live my life or behave.

GREENE: You just grew up enjoying talking to people.

MARON: You know, my grandfather had a hardware store in Haskell, N.J. You know, when I was a little kid and there used to be this crew of three or four old dudes and I was just sort of fascinated with it. You're just sitting there talking to these guys. I'd go talk to the guy at the bookstore, go talk to the guy at the record store, go talk to the guy at the guitar store and just spend my life wandering around hanging out at places having conversations to avoid myself and also to get some guidance. I still do it. I don't know what records to buy.

GREENE: (Laughter).

MARON: So over time, I was just - became a good listener, and I get emotionally attached to people very quickly.

GREENE: I noticed that because in, I mean, your 2010 conversation with Robin Williams just still stands out to me. And it - it became so personal. Here's a guy who would ultimately take his life and was talking about that...

MARON: Yeah.

GREENE: ...With you a few years before it happened. And it did feel like you weren't doing anything to make him go there. And it just felt like you were making yourself available for as far as he wanted to go.

MARON: Ultimately, that's - that's it, is like, how do you hold that space? You know, that's really what it comes down to is like I'm also - I'm not a great interviewer. I'm a pretty good conversationalist, but I do - I interrupt too much. It took me a long time to get comfortable with silence.

GREENE: Did it - was it uncomfortable when he started to talk to himself and talk about suicidal thoughts when he started almost - I don't know. I don't want to say performed it.

MARON: No, I don't think...

GREENE: He was, like, talking to himself in a way to...

MARON: Right, the conversation about living or dying because of the struggle with the bottle and the improv at the end.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "WTF")

ROBIN WILLIAMS: You know, you have a pretty good life as it is right now. Have you noticed the two houses? Yes. Have you noticed the girlfriend? Yes. Have you noticed that, you know, things are pretty good even though you may not be working right now? Yes. OK, let's put the suicide over here on discussable. Let's leave that over here in the discussion area. We'll talk about that.

GREENE: You weren't worried that we were going to lose him sometime soon, I mean, if...

MARON: No. I mean - but you know the fact that he was depressive I would imagine that, you know, if you really thought about Robin Williams and really thought about that need to be that entertaining all the time, I would assume that if you really think about it that's not coming from a place of joy. He has to do it. He's got to do this thing to avoid something. No, but I don't think we - anyone could have thought that we would lose him. And it turns out there was other, you know, circumstances around that. That wasn't just depression. That was, you know, he was suffering from a degenerative illness.

GREENE: You said something that really hit me, which was that Robin Williams' mental agility and the reason we all got so much from him was clearly linked to his personal struggles inside.

MARON: Yeah. Well, I mean, wouldn't you like to be able to create, you know, different voices and people and things at any point where you felt uncomfortable. Wouldn't you like it if you felt uncomfortable and you could just be like, ooh, here we go. I'm flying. Look, the man with the microphone. You know, like, if you could do that and find the exhilaration of that, wouldn't you do it, you know, if you can't sit with yourself that long?

GREENE: So is that often where good comedy comes from?

MARON: No. I don't know. I don't know about that idea. I used to think that. I used to romanticize that, but after talking to almost 900 funny people, like, some of them are relatively well-adjusted. They seem responsible and grounded and well-boundaried, had at least one good parent, you know.

GREENE: Well, Marc, thanks a lot for letting us in the garage.

MARON: Nice talking to you. You're good at this.

GREENE: We were chatting there with comedian and podcaster Marc Maron in his garage. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.