Podcaster in chief: How Marc Maron landed the Obama interview

How did Marc Maron get President Obama to come to his Highland Park garage for a WTF podcast? @amykinla asks

“Do you mind if I light a cigar?” Marc Maron asked. “I feel like I want one. I’ve been a little nervous.”

Well, yeah. Because this was the day the president of the United States had arrived via motorcade at Maron’s Highland Park home, walked into his 165-square-foot garage and sat for an interview on the comedian’s podcast, “WTF With Marc Maron.” And yes, that third letter stands for what you think it does.

Maron, 51,  took a big puff and reclined in his wooden desk chair.  He was dressed in the same outfit he’d worn to meet Barack Obama in his driveway that morning: a plaid shirt and blue jeans cuffed above a pair of motorcycle boots. 

“I don’t really have a suit that fits properly,” he said with a shrug. “So it would have been awkward, and it would have been hot. He knew who I was. He didn’t wear a jacket.”

Indeed, Obama and his communications staff surely knew what they were after with Friday’s “WTF” appearance. If you’re trying to make the president look hip, “WTF” is a natural fit — in the same vein as Obama's appearances on Zach Galifianakis’ “Between Two Ferns” and Jimmy Fallon’s late-night shows, where the leader of the free world slow-jammed the news.

Maron's also really popular. According to “WTF” producer Brendan McDonald, the show gets more than 5 million downloads a month and averages 450,000 downloads per episode. The program’s success has raised Maron’s profile as a stand-up comic and also helped him land his own IFC comedy, “Maron,” about — wait for it — a twice-divorced recovering addict who records a podcast in his garage.

Known for his intimate, sometimes mercurial interview style, Maron can make guests so comfortable they sometimes share incredibly personal details. Last month, he got NPR's famously reserved “Fresh Air” host Terry Gross to reveal that she’d dropped out of college and hitchhiked across the country in the '80s. Four years before he committed suicide, Robin Williams told Maron about how he tried to “fill the hole” of depression with alcohol. Louis C.K. once started crying as he and Maron talked about their broken friendship.

What did Maron get Obama to say? At the moment the comedian will only give vague answers on that question — the podcast goes live Monday at 3 a.m. But reflecting on the interview, Maron did say he found Obama disarming and thought the two had formed an emotional connection.

Overall, the president seemed comfortable in the garage, Maron said, even joking about how many pictures of himself the comedian had as decoration.

“He also noticed the postcard I have of two cats having sex,” Maron said, “But said, ‘We can’t talk about that.’”

The White House first reached out to “WTF” a year ago, but only suggested the possibility of Obama appearing on the show in March. Eric Schultz, Obama’s principal deputy press secretary, noted it was “unique” for the president to be interviewed in a garage, but said to a pool reporter covering the president that he hoped the interview would allow Obama an opportunity "to take some time away from the sort of daily back-and-forth of what’s in the news on any particular day and really offer listeners the opportunity to have more insight into how he makes decisions, what his day-to-day lifestyle is like, what he’s thinking about in terms of his family, his past, his future — a lot of those sort of personal reflections.” 

In May, the interview date was locked-in, and Maron began his preparation — reading Obama’s autobiography “Dreams From My Father” and looking up videos of him as a young man. Final logistical preparations fell on McDonald’s shoulders, as Maron was on a 10-day vacation in Hawaii for the two weeks leading up to the interview.

Last Sunday, the producer led Secret Service agents around Maron’s home and was told to start cleaning out the garage a bit so the president wouldn’t trip over anything.

By the time Maron returned from Hawaii on Wednesday evening, a tent was already being erected in his driveway. Soon, security dogs sniffed through his home — he had to lock his beloved cats in his bedroom — and a sniper was positioned on his neighbor’s roof.

“But it didn’t become real to me until he got here,” Maron said. “I was so busy cramming my head and figuring out a way to approach it. I didn’t want to do a fluff interview, but I didn’t want to do a political interview. I wanted to have a real conversation.”

Though he’s known for his comedy, Maron does in fact, have somewhat of a background in politics: He used to host a show called “Morning Sedition” for the left-leaning Air America.

“I used to be very involved in politics, and for personal reasons I decided I had deeper issues to deal with,” said Maron, his cigar reaching its end. “He said that the reason he came on my show is that he wants to engage people in politics, period. When it comes right down to it, the American people have the power to change if they engage. But we all get caught up in an aggressive political dialogue and we’ve become very cynical. I think Obama knows that.”

Still, Maron’s neighbors were excited to have the president in their hood, not far from Occidental College, which Obama attended. Dozens filled the sidewalks of the small residential neighborhood, including an actual clown wearing makeup and juggling.

Before Friday, many said they were unaware that celebrities regularly visit Maron’s garage for “WTF.”

"I've heard the initials," said Yolanda Lem, a poll inspector who lives nearby.

Her neighbor, Trish Escobedo, said she would go straight home and try to find the podcast website.

"That's the first thing I'm going to do," Escobedo said. "I really want to know what he has to say in that particular interview."

Maron moved into his two-bedroom home in 2004, paying $375,000 for it according to public records, before Highland Park’s York Boulevard became a haven for young artists and hipsters. Now, he gets Stumptown coffee at Cafe de Leche and even got in a fight with the owners of Town Pizza over the quality of their cheese pizza slices.

“I felt horrible I made the pizza place mad. But they’ve perfected their pie, finally,” he said. “When I bought my house, I didn’t know nothing about Highland Park either. It seemed very far away from everything. And yeah, it’s a nightmare to get to the Westside. I don’t ever want to go. Like, I gotta pack a tent. But I have immediate access to the Valley, downtown, Silverlake. I’m happy to be part of this community.”

Beyond a few of his neighbors discovering “WTF” because of the Obama appearance, Maron doesn’t think “this is gonna be great for the podcast or whatever.” He’ll be happy if it brings attention to the medium, since it’s free, and “offers an alternate space for people to express themselves on these mics outside of the corporate paradigm.”

And podcasts are having a moment. Last fall, the true-crime audio series “Serial” became a sensation; it was the fastest podcast in iTunes history to hit 5 million downloads and streams. “WTF” producer McDonald says that he’s noticed the effect; downloads of Maron's podcast have ticked up at a faster pace since the first season of “Serial” concluded in December.

“When it was over, people thought, ‘I’ve gotta find more of these,’” McDonald said. “It helped directly with listeners and legitimacy.”

Even so, "podcaster" is not the first word Maron would use to describe himself.

“I still have a hard time seeing myself as an interviewer,” he said. “I’m a stand-up comic. That’s my trade. I still see Terry [Gross] as an interviewer and me as a conversationalist. An interviewer is not supposed to put themselves first. I don’t want to deny anybody the work they’ve done, but I think what’s behind the work is more interesting. Some people would argue, who cares if he’s sad about his mom or the loss of that dog? But that might have defined his life. That’s what at the core of this stuff.”

Meanwhile, Maron's role as the day's interviewer of the president did yield at least one souvenir. Obama left his coffee cup embossed with the presidential seal on Maron’s desk. Hours after the President's departure Maron still hadn't touched it.

Follow @AmyKinLA for Hollywood news

Times staff writer Christi Parsons contributed to this report.

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