An Uncensored Chat with WTF’s Marc Maron (CAS’86) on Podcasting, GLOW, and Staying Woke
See the comedian and BU alum live in Boston for two stand-up shows October 12
Marc Maron is uneasy, but not because he’s off nicotine (lozenges) or coffee. It’s because the comedian, actor, writer, and podcaster (not to mention BU alum) who thrives on sardonic self-scrutiny and impatient observations of life’s micro and macro struggles, is in the midst of the most successful period in his 30-year career.
Maron’s podcast, WTF with Marc Maron has more than six million listeners worldwide, and thanks to his audacious conversational style and ability to connect with his show’s guests, it features interviews with some of the biggest names in Hollywood, comedy, and politics. (The late comedian Robin Williams, former US President Barack Obama, and rock legend Keith Richards are just a few.) Maron also stars in the hit Netflix show GLOW, which was just signed for a fourth season after receiving five major award nominations this year.
And this Maron moment isn’t slowing down. The 56-year-old New Jersey native is starring in three films this year: Joker, opposite Robert DeNiro and Joaquin Phoenix, the crime drama Wonderland with Mark Wahlberg, and Sword of Trust, which premiered at SXSW.
Bostonia spoke with Maron (CAS’86), who talked, with trademark obscenity-laced candor, about whether success has led to happiness, about his early acting failures, and how he finds humor in obstacles, mishaps, and revelations. “How is struggle not funny?” he asks.
Maron comes to Boston’s Shubert Theatre on October 12 for two shows.
With Marc Maron
Bostonia: You must be feeling pretty good about your career right now.
Maron: I’m proud of the work I’ve done, but you know, I’m sort of like, am I working hard enough? Am I really challenging myself? And does it really matter that I’m doing any of this? Am I making a difference? I mean, haven’t we been entertained enough? When are we going to start doing the work necessary to save the f*cking world?
You work with an almost entirely female cast on GLOW, which chronicles the lives of a fictionalized women’s wrestling team in the 1980s. It’s a comedy that somehow manages to tackle big questions around identity, power, motherhood, and relationships. Are you surprised by its success?
It’s hard to create a show in such a unique universe that is able to straddle so many different, I guess you would call them representations of women. You have this world, you have this time period, and then you have this conceit of this women’s wrestling team where everyone has to take on characters and participate in theatrical fighting. Then you also have the personal lives of the women, so it’s a very unique universe.
So I’m not surprised at all, in terms of the attention it’s getting or the sort of discussion it creates. I also think the executive producers were able to capture the period without being too campy. It’s fun as well as serious and a very interesting show in terms of how deep the issues can get, yet it’s still not medicine. It’s never really a downer, and a lot of it’s pretty heavy.
Your WTF podcast, now in its 10th year, could be described similarly, and it’s consistently ranked as one of the nation’s top 25 comedy podcasts on iTunes. How are you different than when you started it?
I’m a little more grounded, because I’m not terrified of being broke every f*cking day. And I seem to have a place in the world where I can do things that I’ve worked my whole life to do, with some success. So that insecurity that comes from not knowing if you’re going to make a living or a life out of what you’ve chosen to do is gone. So I’m glad that happened.
The podcast seems like it’s authentically you, especially the intro where you talk about your life, your cats, feeling bad about eating too much pizza. Is it more like performing stand-up, or is it acting, or is it just you?
I was always me, but it’s like, what do people know about anybody? I mean, for years I did a very angry kind of comedy. But that was who I was, it wasn’t some sort of weird device. People in show business are like, “Oh, he’s this guy,” or, “Oh, he’s that guy.” They try to box you in, and the process really stuck. By the time I did the podcast, I had no bosses, nobody telling me what to do…and people were able to get a sense of my entire personality.
The liability of that is people know me too well, in the sense that now I do acting roles, and people who know me from the podcast are like, “Oh, you’re just really kind of being yourself.” Whereas if they didn’t know me at all, they wouldn’t be able to say that. I mean, I don’t know that I am being myself. I don’t know. As time goes on, I don’t give a f*ck.
Has mainstream success brought you a sense of happiness or contentment?
Where’s the indication that I’m happy? I don’t understand that. I mean, I’m not saying I’m unhappy, you know, but things can weigh heavily on me. I’m still a fairly anxious person. I do experience dread. That’s not different now, this basic sort of existential dread.
But I’m trying to enjoy things and be grateful and have some peace of mind throughout my success, but just the day-to-day stuff, just struggling with my own sort of existential predicament, struggling in relationships with other people, family things. I mean life doesn’t stop happening, so it’s not like I’m turning into some sort of Zen enlightened person. People change and certainly my evolution has been exciting and I’m glad I landed on my feet, but I’m still me. You know, I try not to complain and my struggles are not life-threatening at this point. They’re not even that menacing, but they’re struggles nonetheless. I think things are scary for everybody.
There are things that weigh heavily on me, and I kind of move that into the material and try to reconcile my own success with what seems to be a kind of downturn in the world culturally, environmentally. So there’s no ending to that.
You were nominated for a Critics’ Choice Television Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series Award and a Screen Actors Guild Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Comedy for GLOW. Was acting one of your goals?
I could never build my life around it. When you start out as a stand-up, you want to get your stand-up together—that was always what I wanted to do. And then back in the ’80s, there was this idea that the big payoff was to get a show based on you. The show, “Maron,” came a long time after that [in 2013].
So I had really given up on any of those things happening. By the time I got the opportunity to do “Maron,” the podcast was really defining me culturally and defining me personally, and something I sort of came into and made my own and built myself with my business partner and producer.
The acting thing was always there. Actually, when I was in college at BU, I was in Stage Troupe and I did plays, I did short films and stuff…[but after college] I didn’t even really have representation for theatrical acting. I’d go out on auditions and they were terrible. And after some point, I just let it go. I let it go as a dream, I let it go as a possibility.
You’ve said you started podcasting in your Los Angeles garage a decade ago, interviewing fellow comedians, as a last resort after your career had “crapped out.” What changed?
I engaged at that point in my life. I didn’t give a s*it, so I wasn’t afraid. I was fully prepared, and I was ready to do it the best I could without being desperate or worried, and that makes a big difference in how you approach things.
When I started [the IFC series] “Maron” four years later, I didn’t really know what I was doing on the set. I’d seen other comics struggle in the first season or two of their shows. Sometimes they get the hang of it, sometimes they don’t, so I knew that could happen and there was nothing I could do. I couldn’t have known that if I had gotten these opportunities 20 years ago. Fortunately, I was on a network barely anybody watches and taking chances and learning the craft fairly anonymously.
You take on some significant topics on WTF, like your recent interview with author Dale Beran about “toxic trolling” online and the rise of a nihilistic youth culture. You’ve also sparked controversy with your jokes calling Marvel superhero movie fans “grown male nerd children.” Underlying your humor, it seems like you’re concerned about the direction of youth culture, specifically male youth culture.
It just seems that the juggernaut of fantasy-oriented monoculture is, in a weird way, oppressive in the way that you have to reckon with it…. It’s coercive, and these people that defend it or live within it are like, “Oh, it’s just fun.”
When I was in college, there was stuff that was engaging me in intellectual, creative, artistic, and philosophical ways—poets and writers and lifestyles that were different. I don’t really know who college students are looking up to or what they’re really engaging with, but I do know that the capacity for the human brain to protect itself from garbage getting in and changing it is much looser than I thought.
This monoculture bubble is a real problem. This idea that there’s no kind of objective truth about things, that facts can be constantly reorganized, that science is iffy. When that membrane between truth and facts becomes sort of tenuous and slippery, you’re in real trouble. People are sort of untethered. There’s nothing really grabbing them with any kind of principled methodology as a values system. So, yeah, I think that’s a problem and part of the appeal of fantasy. And part of the weird commitment that they have to defending it.
Are there any topics that are off limits for you as a comedian or in your stand-up?
There’s this idea—what about PC culture? What about it? I don’t know. What does that mean? The thing is, monsters can find monsters to entertain and hang out with. So once everything becomes fragmented and tribalized and bubbled, why not just work in that bubble, if that’s the one you want to work with? If you want to try to accommodate another bubble, then you’re going to have to be more diplomatic.
But everything is tribalized and most of those tribes fall under an umbrella or a bubble of their own. There’s a sort of quote-unquote ‘free-thinking’ bubble, whatever the f*ck that means, you know? These fights [like the Marvel controversy] are quick hit fights. How many people are really offended? I think the real struggles are on a political level, on a gender level.
You’ve described your GLOW character as a “sexist dick.” You also talk a lot on your podcast about your personal journey as a man trying to learn to be empathetic in the #MeToo era. How do you make all of this funny?
You make it funny by being honest. I’ve done enough shitty things in my life in terms of being an a**hole or objectifying women where I can understand that I’m at fault to a certain degree in my attitude. And how is struggle not funny? If I could say that I’m a 56-year-old man just trying to stay woke, that’s funny. And if I say I’m about 85 percent woke and the other 15 percent I keep to myself, that’s funny. Okay?
What career advice do you have for college students?
You want to be a producer, writer, whatever, you find a job that’s going to get you in the door. That’s the expectation—it’s always been. I just wanted to be a stand-up, you know? I don’t have the focus or discipline to write. I mean, I’m a pretty good writer, but I lack the patience. It’s a real chore for me. But look, if you want to have a career on the creative side, it’s a real challenge.
You’re selling out comedy shows doing the stand-up that you love. What do you see as your big break?
I don’t know, no one really knew who I was until I did a f*ing podcast when I was 45 years old. I’ve done Conan [O’Brien’s show] like 40 times, I’ve been on Letterman. I’ve done a half-hour special on HBO, two half-hour specials on Comedy Central…. But I never had a big break. It was a very slow evolution that didn’t look like it was ever gonna happen.
Marc Maron will perform two shows at the Boch Center Shubert Theatre, 265 Tremont St., Boston, on Saturday, October 12, at 7 pm and 10 pm. Find ticket information here.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.