There’s something about the podcast as a format that feels oddly intimate. Unlike the communal broadcast of radio, a podcast is something you listen to on your own time. It’s less performative than visual mediums, and less passive than all of the above because you have to take the time to choose it, download it onto your personal device, take it with you. At a time when many of our interactions feel public, the best podcasts seem like engaging and private conversations.
Marc Maron has been having that engaging, public/private conversation with the world for almost seven years now. He began making his podcast WTF in 2009, after a long career as a stand-up and radio host that never quite brought him wide recognition. Built around long, often intensely personal conversations with comedians, musicians, actors and other public figures, WTF has built a huge following and given Maron the success he never found through other channels.
While WTF has a global reach at this point, the podcast is downloaded roughly 600,000 times monthly right here in L.A., and there’s a sense that the comedian is participating in the life of the city through the medium of conversation. As we sit in traffic and run on treadmills and do dishes, Maron talks to us directly about his life and work, and then he talks to other people about their lives and work, and we feel connected to him and his guests in ways that feel profound.
If the podcast is the way most of us know Maron (“it’s the foundation of my entire business,” he says), it’s not the only way. His show on IFC, Maron, debuts its fourth season on May 4, and he’s a regular at the Comedy Store in West Hollywood. In fact, when asked about his relationship with the life of Los Angeles, the Comedy Store is what he wants to talk about.
“I’m always surprised at who listens to [the podcast] and where they listen,” he says. “In Los Angeles, certainly a lot of people are listening in their cars. But mostly the way I see how I interact with the city is my relationship with the Comedy Store. Over the last few years, it’s really turned into this amazing place for stand-up, and the profile of the audience has completely changed. It’s really one of the most strangely authentic show rooms in Los Angeles, and I pay a lot of lip service to that place. When I see people coming there for the first time, I see my relationship to the city in that way.”
It’s interesting that a guy with a podcast big enough to have attracted guests such as Keith Richards and President Obama is most excited to talk about a stand-up club. Exploring the comedy world was the original intent of WTF, and love for that world is still what drives Maron.
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Maron also has become a kind of ambassador for Highland Park, where he records his podcasts in a garage behind his house. “I’ve been in Highland Park since before it started doing whatever it’s doing,” he says, avoiding the “g” word. “I would never assume I had anything to do with it, but I did draw a lot of attention to Highland Park early on. It was just sort of a tagline — that I was broadcasting from the Cat Ranch in Highland Park. A lot of times the way I know how I’m engaging with people in the city is that people come here and they spot me at the coffee shop and they’re like, ‘You do live here!’ And sometimes people will go look at my house and shit.”
On the new season of Maron, the show veers from its format of showing a lightly fictionalized version of Maron’s real life as a comedian/podcaster. “At some point really what drove it was: How much of my current life, which is not that huge a life, how much did we really have invested in maintaining that world?” Maron says. “The issue of redundancy was going to become a problem. And also there’s the thing of: What if? What if my darker compulsions won out?” The result is a pitch-black but darkly funny look at the humiliations of addiction and recovery.
Like much of what Maron does, the new material on the show works because it dabbles in alchemy: the redemption and success of the real-life Maron through the exploration of the fictional Maron’s worst impulses. On the podcast, we’ve been able to hear the rise of a comedian whose career was perhaps hobbled by his own narcissism break free of that baggage by pouring huge amounts of emotional energy into listening to other people. It’s incredibly compelling to be privy to that kind of transformation. It’s no wonder the city is listening.