President Obama spent an hour Friday in a garage in Highland Park with comedian Marc Maron, taping an episode of Maron's "WTF" podcast. (The episode went live Monday on Maron's website and other platforms.) Just two men talking, with Secret Service in the driveway and, according to the host, a sharpshooter on a neighbor's roof, not far from where the president attended Occidental College from 1979 to 1981, between high school in Hawaii and transferring to New York City's Columbia University.
"These are my old haunts, man," the president would say. (He would say "man" a number of times.)
"I'm excited, I'm nervous, I'm trying not to freak out, I feel a little hazy in the mind," said Maron, who is 51 to Obama's 53 and was involved for a time with the left-wing radio network, at the top of the show. "I want to connect, but I don't want to do a policy discussion. I want to connect with him as a person.... It's just going to be me and President Barack Obama in my garage.... It's cozy. I've cleaned up a little bit. I've moved the piles into the house."
It might seem a surprising move at first. As an interviewer, Maron can be what a handler might consider inconveniently curious. But Team Obama has always looked for unusual avenues to get its message out — the president went on "Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis," of all things, to encourage its young demographic to sign up for health care (and handled the ironic tone like a comedy pro). More conventionally, he does the late-night talk shows, which are now just part of the circuit.
And Maron, though he is not the season's most celebrated comedian, has an IFC sitcom that bears his name and takes elements from his life; he is doing well, as is his podcast: As Amy Kaufman reported here recently, an episode of "WTF" averages almost half a million downloads. One would expect this latest one to better that number.
"You're like a big cheese now, man," the president himself said encouragingly at the beginning of the episode, having declared himself "a big fan." "You can't pretend like you're some little guy in a garage. You're now big time."
"I don't know how you deal from day to day. I was panicking all morning. I don't imagine you were flying in here on the chopper thinking, like, 'I am nervous about Marc.' "
"No, I wasn't," Obama said, laughing. "That would be a problem. If the president was feeling stressed about coming to your garage. For a podcast."
At the same time, he's just another person to be plumbed, the latest guest in a long line of them; this was episode 617, after interviews with Judd Apatow, comic Godfrey, Minutemen/Stooges/etc. bassist Mike Watt and actress Constance Zimmer. Maron too has a reputation to uphold, and part of that reputation is for following his interests and going deep.
It's unusual that a TV or radio interview runs anywhere near the full hour Obama allowed for "WTF" — not just with a president but anyone; that extra time means that talk can seek its own level, flow past the bullet points and boilerplate into unpredictable sidestreams. The interviewer can take his eye off the clock.
Notwithstanding that the president was there for a reason — the White House initiated contact — and found time "incidentally" (quotes mine) to trumpet his accomplishments, defend his policies and make a pitch for fact-based governance, and since he knows how to turn a potentially tough question to his own advantage, there was also room to get a little personal, to wander off the beaten path. I would call it wide-ranging within limits.
Maron can be intense, at times uncomfortably so, but as a host he knows how to accommodate a guest; every episode of "WTF" has its own distinct tone. Many visitors to the podcast garage are friends, and things can get raucous and even disputatious; others, as when he spoke by phone on consecutive days to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, can bring out the fanboy in him, the little kid who can't quite believe where his life has led him.
This too brought out the wonder — though, not surprisingly, given the present guest's status, the host was less voluble (and profane) than usual; you don't want to have the president over to your place and just talk over him. Much of the time, Maron was content to provide a kind of stabbing, spare accompaniment, chiming in with an "OK," "Right," "Sure" or "Yeah!"
As is his wont, the president tended toward a tone of reasonable moderation — he noted "a certain element of chill" in his temperament he attributed to being from Hawaii. Even when he spoke "the N word" — creating a flurry of media interest and some passing fake outrage among pro-am commentators — to make a point about racial progress, it was delivered in such a way as to make no ripple in the conversation.
Still, one could sense exasperation in the way he'd land on certain words, as when he said, "It would be a lot better, it'd be a lot more helpful if we had some cooperation from Congress, if we didn't have the chairman of the energy and the environment committee in the Senate holding up a snowball as if that was proof that climate change wasn't happening."
Whatever the president's agenda, the most interesting moments, for someone interested in either man, were after all the ones where Maron made himself most felt and moved the conversation from the national to the personal. Early on, Obama spoke of his years at Occidental, "seen and viewed and understood as a black man in America, what does that mean? I'm absorbing all kinds of stereotypes and ideas from society."
"Like Richard Pryor," Maron offered. "Got the box set right there."
"Like Richard Pryor. Or Shaft. I'm trying on a whole buncha outfits."
"Here's how I should act, here's what it means to be cool, here's what it means to be manly."
"Is that when you started smoking?"
"Yeah, exactly. Right?"
"Me too. Yeah."
"You start smoking, you start drinking coffee, you get a leather jacket."
"And then you fight that for the rest of your life. The worst!"
There were limits, of course. An unguarded politician is a contradiction in terms, where oversharing is a comic's stock in trade: You take your darkest garbage and spread it around on the table for a laugh.
And yet the curious mix of introspection and extroversion that creates a comic is surely not foreign to many politicians — though one senses from this president that, like some performers and politicians, he does not need to look for approval outside himself. (Obama: "Stuff that was buggin' ya, by the time you're 53, either you've worked it out or you've just forgiven yourself and you've said, 'Look, this is who I am.' " Maron: "Oh, I've got to write that down — I can just forgive myself?")
Politicians live in the future; they plan, they predict, they promise. What the president says in light of a tragedy like the Charleston shootings, which the two discussed, has to consider both the awfulness of the moment and the better, saner place we might get to; declaring himself an optimist, Obama described Americans as "overwhelmingly good, decent generous people" who are divided by politics and "a media that is so splintered now that we're not in a common conversation." Comedy can also take you to a better, saner place, by making you think and by making you laugh, but it is not in the business of delivering hope. It has a different slant on the human condition.
But the commonality between their work was on Maron's mind. He asked the president if he liked comedy, who replied that he loved it and how it impressed him when comics talked about their craft and the thought that went into it and how "the longer you do it, the better your instincts are."
"Same with president," said Maron.
"Same with president," Obama agreed. "And I guess, also, the last thing is you lose fear."
"It's sort of like an athlete; you might slow down a little bit, you might not jump as high as you used to. But I know what I'm doing, and I'm fearless."
"For real, you're not pretending to be fearless."
"You're not pretending to be fearless."
"That's exactly right."
"And when you get to that point —"