Marc Maron -- comedian, actor, author, podcaster -- is back with the sitcom that bears his name and likeness.
Broadly put, "Maron," whose third season begins tonight on IFC, is a story about learning to live with craziness and need, your own, your family's, your friends', that of people you meet on the street or who follow you home or whom you follow home. Among semi-fictional series about comedians, it's less whimsical than "Curb Your Enthusiasm," angrier than "Louie" and more real than "The Comedians." It is also not a story of Hollywood so much as of things that hover near it -- sometimes attracted, sometimes repulsed.
As the new season opens, Maron the Character is being courted by corporate digital radio, though what he really wants is a TV talk show. In the real world, the actual Maron is slated to host "Vice Portraits With Marc Maron," created with Spike Jonze for the forthcoming Vice Channel.
"The idea is to follow me through the process of going somewhere and meeting somebody to talk, to put people into environments that are emotionally charged, to have a conversation within that world," he told me recently, by phone from the garage where he records his podcast. Launched in 2009, "WTF With Marc Maron," has posted more than 600 episodes; it is a wide-ranging encyclopedia of the age's comic arts, with a flourishing sideline in musical subjects.
Here is the rest of that conversation.
When did you discover you had a gift for asking questions?
I'm not sure I have a gift for asking questions. In terms of having people over to the house and doing these podcasts, I think that my need to connect is really what drove the show when it started, and now. I don't know that I have a gift for asking questions as much as I have a need to connect with somebody in as real a way as possible, emotionally and otherwise -- and through conversation sometimes I can get there.
You made the podcast kind of the spine of the sitcom.
Well, as you know, when you do stand-up or you're a performer, every few years you might be given an opportunity to pitch some version of your life to a TV executive; that's a model that many comics my age and older were brought up on. So in this manifestation of me, this is my gig, I do a podcast in my garage, it's become popular for whatever reason, and that's the life I'm living. The landscape of the show is really based on the world that I'm occupying right now. So when I pitched the show, the podcast was a part of it. And it was also a fairly unique angle that hadn't really been covered in that way before, because it was a fairly new medium and a new reality.
You were ahead of the curve there.
For once in my life I lucked out with some cosmic timing. I got into it and sort of brought attention to it and succeeded in it and a lot of people seem to be trying to do that now. I was fortunate. You can't make cosmic timing happen.
Had you pitched earlier sitcoms?
In those earlier versions of you as a sitcom star, what were the angles?
I think back in the late '80s, I had a script deal with NBC, I was a chef in that one, and that deal carried over and we tried to put together a pitch where I was a strip mall lawyer. And then years later I had a deal with Fox -- jeez what was that show? Oh, that was a good one -- I was an Academy Award-winning documentary short filmmaker, and the back story is I sort of got out of control and had to go back home; and it's me starting a wedding video business, this failed Oscar-winning short film director. And then there was another deal with HBO, with [writer] Jerry Stahl, where I think the back story was I was an advertising executive who had a manic episode and kind of destroyed his life and was trying to regroup by making a list of things he could do that would help the world and acting on that list. So I've had a few.
None of those characters were as close to you as this one, obviously.
Certainly not. None of them really were -- they were just sort of trying to figure out where can we put my personality. None of them made it past script form.
Do you find that the changes in television itself, and the rise of original programming in basic cable, are what made "Maron" possible?
I do think that there's more opportunity now; there's obviously more outlets. I don't know if a show like mine could have ever existed on network, if that's what you're asking. IFC has been very supportive and amazing; we're really doing the show we want to do. I've got no complaints. If the show doesn't work or something's not right, I can't blame anybody but myself. It's an amazing opportunity, and I don't know if that would have happened in another time, and I do think that's because there are outlets that are willing to take chances -- and the stakes are a little lower as well, which is also encouraging in terms of taking chances.
How involved are you in the day-to-day creation of story arcs and scripts?
I'm there for all of it. I guess I'd say I'm the de facto head writer -- I'm on the writing staff and I'm sitting there with my guys and I'm breaking stories based on my life, or seeds that come from my life, and I'm there throughout the entire process. We break all the stories, we assign the stories to outline and we go over the outlines together and writers do scripts and we go over the scripts together. Nothing happens that doesn't go through me on the level of creating the show, on a production level, really, and on the writing level.
Has doing a show that's sort of about your life changed the way you look at your life?
Absolutely. Now that the third season is here -- this is certainly the funniest season, the stories are great, and we also take a little liberty in terms of fictionalizing the world a little more. And actually I can look at things that I didn't do in my life through the character we've created for the TV show -- some fairly scary things happen emotionally and otherwise in this season -- and they're not things that happened in my real life, but I can play them out and experience them emotionally by living the fiction. And it does give a little peace of mind in real life; it's a little therapeutic.
You use Highland Park as a kind of character. Can you talk about that setting?
It was a natural choice in that I live here, I'm comfortable here. It has a very specific tone to it. It is a neighborhood that is sort of changing we all hope for the better, but you do have that weird -- throughout the season's there's been that feeling of, not really tension, but a neighborhood that's slowly shifting through, I guess it would be gentrification -- but it's sort of becoming a hipster neighborhood. It's a unique time for the neighborhood, and I’d never seen it on TV, so I thought that it would be nice to put it on TV. It's a pretty great neighborhood. A lot of good record stores, a lot of good restaurants, a music store. It's interesting, just the difference between what's new and what's old, and for the ethnic tone of the neighborhood meeting the infusion of hipsters. It's all pretty good so far; I hope it doesn't get ugly.
You play guitar on the show sometimes, and you're clearly a music fan. Was there ever a time you thought of that as a career?
I always wanted to be a musician, I just never really had the guts or the wherewithal to get a band together or be disciplined about it. I play more now than I ever have, and occasionally I play out with people, which is exciting. I think it's probably better that I never played professionally or tried to live that dream or there'd be the possibility I'd hate it by now.
Just as a fan, were you ever part of a music scene?
There was definitely some music going on in Boston when I was in college there. That was pretty great -- like Buffalo Tom, Scruffy the Cat, the Dogmatics, the Lyres, the Neighborhoods, the Del Fuegos -- I saw a lot of bands back then; there was plenty post-punk rock & roll stuff going on. I was around for that mid-'80s Boston rock & roll scene. But once I started doing comedy my night life was really relegated to sitting in comedy clubs waiting to go on while watching my friends go on.
You knew then that that's what you wanted to do?
I always wanted to do it, but again, like music, I didn't know how to start. I'd done some open mikes in the middle of college, maybe after my junior year, and I couldn't really hack it. And then without a real clue, after I graduated college, I went home for the summer and then I just went to L.A. and I auditioned at the Comedy Store and I did open mike at the Improv. It didn't seem like anything was going to happen, but by some coincidence, I was doing PA work just trying to make some money, and I was on a shoot that Mitzi Shore from the Comedy Store was producing. I'd auditioned for her weeks or months before, and I said, "Do you remember me?" And she said, "Yeah, you can be a doorman." That was my big break. I basically lucked into the Comedy Store and then I figured it out from there.
The character you play on television seems to be less evolved than the person I hear on your podcast. You've come further than the fictionalized Marc Maron.
I think that's true. I think emotionally that character is a little ... behind in his personal growth as compared to the real Marc Maron. But I think that works. I'm a pretty broad person personality-wise; there is a level of intensity and impatience and hostility in the character that is not exactly me but it still certainly exists with me. But I try to temper that to function in the world. Yeah, there's a little distance between me and that guy; but not much.
What do you see in his future?
Well, I think in this season you'll see his future is looking bright but may not turn out that way -- without spilling too many beans. There are some personal obstacles this season that come from within that Maron has to reckon with.
How have you changed since you started talking to people every week?
I think that initially I was so sort of cynical and broken-hearted and kind of bitter, if you listen to the first 100 or so episodes it's really me having celebrities over to help me with my problems. I think that through the course of reconnecting with my community, with other comics, and basically talking to people about their own lives, finding a groove of empathy that I don't know existed or was not nourished certainly, it kind of made me realize I wasn't alone and that I had friends and they were genuine and that other people suffered the same problems I have and the same issues.
And also it was great to get feedback, and once the show started becoming relevant, I started to feel a little bit of pride and self-esteem around creating this thing that I'd never had before. It's almost like it's taken me until recently to land in my body and feel like I’ve done something with my life, and feel engaged and excited about what I'm doing with my life. And because of the podcast a lot of opportunity that I didn't think would happen ever, has happened. I'd really given up on TV; I'd almost given up on stand-up in terms of me ever being relevant as a stand-up. And the podcast was really a Hail Mary pass. It turned out a lot of things came from it, and a lot of things that I'd let go of are now happening and the one thing I can say certainly is I'm ready for them to happen; I'm enjoying them, and I think I'm doing a good job.
Do you have a sense of your audience?
I do. I'm fortunate. I'm a 51-year-old man and I seem to be building a fan base that's not really a demographic as much as it is a disposition. Most of my fans are smart, they're decent people; I know from working theaters and clubs that the staffs are always very complimentary about the people that come see to me. I think they’re generally sensitive people; they may have a little bit of a chip on their shoulder or some problems that make them feel a little alienated in their minds and they find some solace in my aggravation. But it's also nice that young people are getting into me. That's no easy trick, and I don't know why or how it happened that I became the cool professor or the wise uncle. But I’ll take it.
Robert Lloyd is on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd