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Comedy podcast ‘WTF’ saves serious Marc Maron’s soul

Marc Maron performs Sunday at the Arvest Bank Theatre at the Midland, 1228 Main St. Showtime is 7:30 p.m. Tickets to the all-ages show are $30 and $35.
Marc Maron performs Sunday at the Arvest Bank Theatre at the Midland, 1228 Main St. Showtime is 7:30 p.m. Tickets to the all-ages show are $30 and $35. IFC

The Internet salvaged Marc Maron’s career.

In September 2009, following a five-year run of canceled syndicated radio shows, Maron launched a twice-weekly podcast, “WTF With Marc Maron.” It initiated a turning point, personally and professionally.

“I’d hit a wall pretty hard by the time I started it,” Maron recently told The Star. “I was pretty broke and a little disenfranchised and depressed and I felt like an outsider.”

The podcast’s format was simple and informal: Maron interviewing fellow comedians, friends and other entertainers. Comedian Jeff Ross was his first guest. Initially, the show provided comfort to its host.

“The first 100 shows were really me having famous people over to help me with my problems,” he said. “They didn’t know that. There was an element of me putting myself into the conversations. I needed me as a point of reference. I needed to talk for myself. It was important to me to relate. It still is, I’m just less aggressive about it.”

Six-and-a-half years later, Maron posted his 695th episode of “WTF,” with interviews of actor Sam Rockwell and film director Richard Linklater. The podcast has won several awards, including best comedy podcast at the 2012 Comedy Central Comedy Awards, and has regularly reached No. 1 on iTunes’ comedy charts. The podcast is also central to the TV show “Maron,” launched in May 2013 on the IFC network. Its fourth season is in the works.

The success of “WTF” and “Maron” revived Maron’s career and rejuvenated his standup comedy as well.

“I’d spent half a lifetime trying to get through or catch onto something,” he said. “As the podcast became popular, it gave me some self-esteem that had been missing, and I was able to relax more on stage and enjoy it.”

He was 46 when “WTF” launched and had been working the comedy career for nearly a quarter of a century. Comedy became a dream profession early in life.

“I remember as a kid seeing comedians your grandmother and grandfather liked on TV: Buddy Hackett, Don Rickles, Jackie Vernon,” he said. “And every Sunday I’d read in the Parade magazine this feature where comedians tell their 10 favorite jokes. I’d read them every time. Comedy was a great fantasy of mine as far back as I can remember.”

During high school he memorized comedy albums by George Carlin, Cheech & Chong and Richard Pryor. He re-enacted for his friends skits he’d seen on “Saturday Night Live.” A midnight viewing of “Richard Pryor: Live in Concert” was “sort of life-changing.”

Maron didn’t give standup a shot until he was in college, after a brief encounter in New York with standup comic Paul Reiser.

“I always wanted to be a comedian but I didn’t know how one went about it or understand how it happened,” Maron said. “When I was in college I went to the Comic Strip, as an audience member, and I saw Paul Reiser sitting in a booth. I said, ‘I really want to do comedy. How do you do it?’ He said, ‘You just gotta do it.’ It wasn’t much help but it was the truth.”

He did some talent shows and open-mics, first as part of a duo and then solo. He came in second in a standup contest in Boston in 1988, his first big break. It led to regular “one-nighters and road gigs.” It took Maron a while to develop his voice, his persona.

“It would have been better off if I’d figured that out sooner,” he said. “In the late 1980s, there were lots of weird outlets for comedians in the basic-cable world: ‘Evening at the Improv,’ ‘MTV Half Hour Comedy Hour.’ You can see them on my website. Early on, I was provocative, very thoughtful with kind of clever jokes. I can see myself in it, but it was not really my own thing.”

The time he spent in Los Angeles with the late comedian Sam Kinison affected him and his persona.

“Being under his wing cut both ways,” he said. “Lots of (cocaine) and listening to him talk and push the envelope. There was lots of darkness and drugs and Hollywood weirdness. It got me pretty gnarly in my head. Fortunately, he never fully trusted me or took me into his inner circle.”

But amid the madness, Maron learned something.

“From Sam I learned there are no parameters to what you can or can’t do, if you can pull it off. Sam went way out there. When I first saw him, I thought it was a gimmick — the screaming. But watching him take odd risks and challenging the sensibilities was fairly impressive. It definitely impacted my philosophy my first decade of standup.”

His approach shifted and incorporated some of that philosophy, although he eventually evolved away from it.

“At some point I got angrier and wanted to push buttons,” he said. “It’s a lot of that persona you see in ’95 in my ‘HBO Comedy Half-Hour’ at the Fillmore. That’s who I was then: slightly defensive, more aggressive than confident.

“I think who I am now onstage is the best I’ve ever been. I don’t know when but some of that anger and that self-righteousness and … that posturing is gone. That all went away when I became more comfortable with myself. But it took till I was 45, 46, even 47 for that to fade away.”

He and the podcast have evolved, too, he said. It requires some improvisation or adjusting to whom he is interviewing and how the interview proceeds.

“If I’m interviewing someone with a long and very prolific career, I make sure to give them the respect they deserve for having that amount of work and influence,” he said. “Those are more than just me talking to a comic I know. They require different styles.”

Asked to pull some favorites, he mentions recent interviews: director/screenwriter William Friedkin — “That was fairly monumental and people really seemed to love it ” — Ethan Hawke, Michael Rapaport, Bonnie McFarlane, Sacha Baron Cohen, Pete Correale, Todd Haynes, Garrett Morris.

Musicians often visit the garage of his home, where the podcasts are conducted: Todd Rundgren, Herb Alpert, Dweezil Zappa, Elvis Costello.

“Music is a different world from comedy,” he said. “Musicians don’t really need to talk, at all. And they don’t deal with things creatively the way comedians do.

One of his most memorable interviews was with James Taylor: “He talked very candidly and openly and deeply” about his almost lifelong battle with heroin addiction. “I didn’t see that coming.”

With three formats to fill and replenish and only one life to draw from, Maron has to sort his material to decide where it is best suited.

“It’s all very different,” he said. “Some experiences are built into bigger standup bits, which require chipping away and adding and removing bits. The podcast is sometimes impulsive, almost stream-of-consciousness. Some are built in to the TV show scenario. Although this season of the show, season four, is completely untethered from real life, for the most part.”

But it all boils down to something he learned years ago and has applied to all formats with success, thanks in no small part to his renewed faith in himself.

“Comedy has one rule, and even that’s a little flexible, depending on how you do it,” he said. “It’s about what you are up there, your personality. It’s about owning that stage for yourself and making that space or stage your own.”

Timothy Finn: 816-234-4781, @phinnagain


Marc Maron performs Sunday at the Arvest Bank Theatre at the Midland, 1228 Main St. Showtime is 7:30 p.m. Tickets to the all-ages show are $30 and $35.