Marc Maron's prominence is hard won. The stand-up comedian toiled on the road in semi-obscurity for more than 20 years until a podcast that he started while scraping the existential bottom led him to a sustainable audience. That audience soon grew to be a lucrative one, bringing Maron merch sales, sponsorships, advertising deals, and best of all: people eager to fill seats when the heady, introspective comic came to town.
Maron's star continues to rise. Most recently, he delivered a lecture at Princeton, and hosted President Obama in his garage. His second special, More Later, debuts December 4 on EPIX. He took some time to talk about the podcast, the new special, and the lessons learned over his 25-year-long windup to his present-day success.
You've been in some version of show business for decades, but it wasn't until starting the podcast in 2009 that it seems like things really came together professionally.
The only great thing to come out of the podcast — everything really came out of the podcast in the last five or six years — was the ability to actually have an audience. It was something that eluded me for 20-some-odd years. It's been pretty amazing.
I created the podcast out of desperation and emotional needs. I'm a stand-up comic, that's what I identify myself as. The podcast requires a whole other set of skills, but they all sorta feed each other. The opportunity to actually perform for people who want to see me on the level I'm doing it now is something I never thought would happen.
The new stand-up special, More Later, is a reference to this blogger metavoice used to comment on and critique the show in real time. Where did it come from?
I like connecting with an audience that seems a little deeper than just laughing. I like the idea of having a harsh but understanding inner critic. I think the voice was a direct response to an AV Club piece. The tone of the AV Club really started to bother me in terms of how they talk about everything, and about me in general. Part of me was like, "How can I satirize that snarky and dismissive disposition in real time, of myself?"
There are only a few jobs available in stand-up, and I got into it for bizarre reasons. I needed to find myself, and I chose stand-up to do it. I never started out thinking I'm going to be a great entertainer. I had shit to deal with and I needed to deal with it on stage. I thought comedy was the way to enlightenment and being true to myself, which turned out to be true.
Why engage with television, then?
When you're a young comedian in the 1980s, you're like, "I want to have a show based around me." That's the big payoff in a way. I had deals with NBC, HBO, and FOX Studios to do this stuff, but it never came together. The fact that it came together with IFC — you know, definitely a cable station — afforded me a lot of freedom once we got going, and a lot of creative freedom to really do it exactly the way we conceived it. That was exciting, but because of the way I work, it came to be connected to my life in a fairly literal way, a lot of it.
It becomes odd having a show based on your life. The experience of doing it was great, but the show itself never got a lot of traction. The audience is fairly small. The people who like it, like it. After three seasons of tapping my life for real stories, I was sort of like, "What the hell happens now? How long does this really need to go on for?" I wasn't beholden to a syndication structure, we weren't gunning for 100 episodes, and I make a pretty good living with stand-up and the podcast, so it wasn't really a money thing. It really became, "What am I going to do creatively?" Sure, we can keep feeding this world and making stuff up, but what's the point of that? I didn't see any point to that, so at the end of last season, I relapsed on drugs, and now we've entered this world that isn't my life — it's completely fictionalized. We started writing the script for season four, which I think will be the last.
Your choice or someone else's?
Mine. I say that every season.
In six years of doing the podcast, you've interviewed famous musicians, unknown comedians, and Barack Obama. Where do you go after the President comes to your house for an interview?
The President was a wild and surreal day, an exciting event, once in a lifetime, but after the President, I just went back to interviewing other people. It was all pretty astounding, but I still just sort of walk out into my garage and talk to people. I didn't feel in any way like, "This is it." It wasn't really even on my bucket list. It wasn't anything I thought would ever happen, so I don't register it as, "Well, I've reached the moon." Know what I mean? I just keep working, dude. That's what I do.
In my mind, the podcast just keeps going. Hopefully I can continue to be engaged and talk to people who interest me or excite me from a lot of different areas. I just keep talking to people.
Before the podcast, you put out three stand-up albums, did a one-man show about your divorce, and wrote a book based on it. How do you contextualize your earlier work now?
I just had this weird moment interviewing Neil Strauss the other day. When he was writing for the Times, he wrote one of the first articles on the alternative comedy scene in New York, back in… whatever, 1994. He interviewed me fairly extensively. He brought some of those notes with him, he had them still. This was him talking to me before I got sober, which certainly informs the first special on HBO, the half hour, and the first album. I see the arc in terms of my quest for self-awareness and self-evolution, understanding things around me and putting them in perspective. I see it all as part of the same arc. It's certainly me moving through the problems.
Your third album, Final Engagement, is remarkable.
I really thought it was possibly my last record. The darkness that was there was not manufactured. It was a cathartic record where I was very immediately dealing with a broken heart and a tremendous amount of anger at myself. I called the guy who recorded me, he was up in Minneapolis, and I said, "Something's going on and I don't know what it is. We should probably get it on tape." Then I called Giggles, a horrible comedy club in Seattle, just because I knew I could probably get them to give me a couple nights. It was a horrible place, that comedy club. It's no longer there.
I think what you see happen when I hit Final Engagement and move into the podcast, that sort of darkness and desperation and hopelessness that was there at the beginning — that type of humbling that comes from realizing you've been beat — it does give you a certain place to work from that you might not have had before. There's a survival element to it. Whatever insecurities I was feeling, whatever self-hatred I felt, however much of a failure I thought I was, I never stopped doing the work. I always worked really hard. I was a comic.
Once the podcast started to resonate with people, I was being myself in a lot of different ways on a lot of different levels, I could speak however I wanted: angrily, seriously, comedically, critically. I could do whatever I wanted. Once I saw people were getting a lot from this, a kind of self-esteem started to grow in me that I never had before, that I was really accomplishing something that meant something to me and other people. There was a relevance to it.
How did newfound relevance change you?
I think that what changed in me is that I really am no longer afraid on stage. I go out on the stage before the audience comes in and I feel that part of me lives up there and belongs up there and is excited to get up there. I think my level of connectivity and comfort in my style has really started to come together, and that style is very close to who I am as a person.
When there's a million fucking comics in the world and we're all drawing from the same reality, I no longer want to compete on that level. I choose to go inside. I make sure I'm running things through my own perception just to know that I have ownership of them. I think it was all part of the same trajectory. Don't you? Nothing seems to be that shocking, not like I'm wearing a hat or wig or something.