It's still dark out when I drop my daughter off at school, and I replace the "Phineas & Ferb" CD with an episode of the "WTF" podcast on disc. As I drive around the Perimeter, heading back home for breakfast, I hear Louis C.K., the most acclaimed stand-up comedian of the moment, tell "WTF" host Marc Maron about how the birth of his daughter changed his life. There's a long pause as C.K. gets choked up, takes a drink, and quips, "Water washes away your love for your children."
A little later, as I drive to the office at Atlantic Station, Maron marvels at C.K.'s work ethic, as his old friend can craft nearly an hour of new material a year, then retire the jokes once he records a new album or special. When my workday comes to an end and I head north on I-85, Maron admits that his envy can sabotage his relationship with friends like C.K. Maron even jokes about it in his own stand-up act: "I don't know when my friends' success will feel like anything but an attack on me. I don't know why Louis C.K. had to name his show 'Fuck You, Marc Maron,' but that's what comes up on my television."
When I pull into my neighborhood, C.K. calls Maron on his petty behavior. "You're being a shitty friend by being jealous," he says. "Think about the other person, and what they might need. I could've used ya. I got a divorce. I got a show cancelled. Those times that were making you jealous, I was struggling." They apologize to each other and promise to be friends again as I pull into my driveway.
Over the course of a day, I've listened to a full, funny, emotionally fraught hour of "WTF" — and I don't even have a particularly arduous commute by Atlanta standards. It's a testament to "WTF" — and the flexibility of the podcast form itself — that the dead time behind the wheel can be not just amusing, but emotionally moving.
Since their emergence in the mid-2000s, podcasts and other Internet broadcasts have evolved as increasingly powerful voices that draw on the strengths of talk radio, stand-up comedy, and other formats. Comedy shows currently make up about 20 percent of iTunes' top podcasts, attracting innovative performers and listeners hungry for more from their favorite funny people.
Twice a week Maron's "WTF" offers new in-depth interviews, primarily with stand-up comedians, along with Maron's occasional musings on his life and current events. It's not iTunes' most popular podcast — "The Adam Carolla Show," a daily show comparable to Howard Stern's free-ranging, off-color discourse draws the most downloads. But "WTF" has become the gold standard of what interview-based podcasts can accomplish. Pop culture review site the A.V. Club picked "WTF" as the best podcast of 2011, and declared "professional neurotic Marc Maron became the furry, bespectacled, and unlikely face of podcasting in 2011."
Since its debut in 2009, "WTF" has enriched popular understanding of the comedic craft, demonstrated the power of podcasts, and — what the fuck? — rescued Maron's showbiz career along the way.
Maron, who's performing Jan. 19-22 at Atlanta's Laughing Skull Lounge, makes a surprising standard-bearer for the comedy community. Over the course of his 25-year career, Maron has injected confrontational anger to an openly neurotic comedic tradition. Where Woody Allen stammers in mock-apology and Richard Lewis fires one-liners from a defensive crouch, Maron defiantly presents his personality flaws. Scruffy and restless on stage, he used to open his sets by demanding, "What do you fuckin' want?"
Born in New Jersey and a graduate of Boston University, Maron pursued stand-up comedy all of his life. He replaced Jon Stewart as the host of Comedy Central's "Short Attention Span Theatre" in the early 1990s and has made more appearances on "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" than any other stand-up. He belongs to the raw, personal alt-comedy movement of the 1990s, but never broke through on the level of his peers like Janeane Garofalo, Louis C.K., Sarah Silverman, Patton Oswalt, and Dave Chappelle.
Maron insists that he's not a political comic, even though he railed at the Bush administration for years as the host of Air America's "Morning Sedition." More often he turns his angry gaze on himself, speaking candidly about his two failed marriages and battles with substance abuse. (He's now 12 years sober.) He admits that his relentless candor makes his fans a little too familiar with his personal life. "People know me pretty well, but I don't know them at all, so I'm walking into a pre-existing relationship. That can be dicey, but I try to be gracious."
In 2009, Maron found his career at an impasse after he lost his latest Air America job and learned from his manager that he could no longer book decent stand-up gigs in New York. Out of desperation, Maron started a podcast without any real plan beyond a love of radio. "I knew other guys were doing it, but I hadn't listened to their shows," Maron says. "I knew Adam Carolla had one, and Jimmy Pardo had one, and Kevin Smith, but I didn't know the format. I just put something together and started doing it. It's great. It's the Wild West out there. You can do whatever you want."
Maron recorded "WTF's" first episodes by sneaking into Air America's New York studios late at night. It took him a while to hit on a format. He explains that when his New York work dried up, he moved to Los Angeles and converted his garage into a studio. At his home, aka "The Cat Ranch" for the feral cats he rescues, he records most of the "WTF" shows in the garage when he's not on the road.
Ironically, Maron's years of feeling marginalized from his peers would feed "WTF's" most compelling quality. "He has a history of being a resentful prick to other comedians," says Kyle Ryan, A.V. Club managing editor. "He has a history of having success elude him while his friends went on to bigger things. It's interesting to hear him talk about that so openly with others. With anyone else this would be a kiss of death, but his baggage is part of the draw. He ends his podcasts with 'Are we good?' as if he always has to bury a hatchet."
Chatting up his fellow stand-ups could easily turn into a toothless lovefest like James Lipton's "Inside the Actors Studio." Instead, Maron sheds light on awkward moments from his history with comedians, and often uses his own past with depression and drugs as a jumping-off point for confessional discussions. The camaraderie he shares with other comedians withstands any hard feelings over past bad behavior. "WTF" offers a flip side to Kathy Griffin's gossipy, insider accounts of famous people, as celebrities open up and engage with striking candor.
Partly this can lead to raunchy road stories, and once, at Amy Schumer's urging, Maron described his most awkward sexual encounter on the road. (It involves a groupie who suggests a "fuck-fest.") As his guests lower their defenses, outside the gaze of cameras and live audiences, Maron seems to apply his stand-up philosophy of relentless honesty to his interviews. During a "WTF" discussion of what constitutes "edgy" comedy, Maron asserted, "The power of hearing someone say 'I need help' is more threatening than hearing someone say 'Jesus lives in my ass.'"
Maron finds that his guests don't have to be old friends or frenemies for the podcast to strike emotional sparks. (It doesn't hurt, though. Earlier this week, comedian and friend Todd Glass chose to come out as gay on Maron's show.) "They all get emotional," he says. "I think people listen to the show and need to tell some revealing experience. When you talk for an hour or more in my garage, amid the clutter of my life, your conceits tend to fall away. ... Recently I talked to Norm Macdonald, who I didn't know very well, and I had no idea of [his] inner life."
In fact, where Macdonald, a former host of "Saturday Night Live's" "Weekend Update," presents a pointed but commonsensical Joe Sixpack persona, he proved far more complex on "WTF." Maron initially recalled their first meeting, with Macdonald lying facedown on a hotel room bed, with hands over his ears, as the television played his first appearance on "Late Night with David Letterman," recorded earlier that day. Macdonald discussed how he hates to see and hear himself perform and that he suffered from debilitating shyness as a boy. Only when his father asked 9-year-old Norm to take a blind man shopping did he begin to overcome his shyness, through the experience of describing their surroundings out loud.
"WTF's" most provocative moments include Carlos Mencia squirming under accusations of plagiarism, and melon-smashing prop comic Gallagher walking out after Maron challenged him over homophobic jokes. Over more than two years of revelatory discussions, "WTF's" popularity has boomed. In 2011, the podcast had 28 million downloads, averaging about 650,000 a week and 2.7 million a month, up from a total of 7 million total in 2010. Maron monetizes the podcast like a small business, charging $1,000 to $15,000 per sponsor. The most recent 50 podcasts are all free, and after six months they cost $1.99 apiece on iTunes.
Maron's podcast, like other online projects, give entertainers the chance to circumvent the conventional showbiz apparatus and connect directly to fans. On a more modest financial scale, "WTF" follows the same course as "Louis C.K.: Live at the Beacon Theatre," a comedy concert that earned more than $1 million when the comedian released it online for $5 a download.
Budding comedians can make their own podcast with a $700 to $1,000 investment, but they shouldn't expect to share Maron's success. "It definitely resuscitated Maron's career, but it's not a lucrative business. He's really more like an aberration of the norm," says Ryan. "For the most part, podcasts are going to be an under-the-radar thing. For comedians trying to turn them into a tangible asset, it's harder."
Maron realizes that "WTF" hasn't elevated him to the Louis C.K. level, but it's opened doors to bigger clubs and theaters. Its long-term therapeutic value may be most rewarding. "It reconnects me with my friends. It takes me out of my dark, bitter self and teaches me to laugh again. It helps me enjoy the comedic community. It's deeply changed my entire life. I need help on some level, and to be able to talk to people in an in-depth way is nourishing to the soul."
His latest comedy album, This Has to Be Funny, from August of 2011, finds him still uncomfortably self-aware, but with his anger dialed down. "If I become a more grounded person, I don't think the podcast will suffer for it," he says. Looking to the future, he realizes, "I'll run out of comedians eventually, but I'll want to evolve into my other areas of interest. I'll want to take it out into the world. Certain things won't change." He looks forward to talking to more people from outside the comedy business, like cooking commentator Anthony Bourdain from his Dec. 5 show.
Maron suspects that "WTF's" appeal goes beyond hardcore comedy nerds: "The Robin Williams episode drew a lot of people to the [podcast] medium itself. I don't think a lot of the people who listen are innately into comedy. They like the conversation and the openness of the conversation. I get a lot of people at my show who say, 'This is my first stand-up show.'"
Podcasts like "WTF" seem to attract some listeners because of the intimacy of the experience. Stand-up comedians thrive on radio because they're innately good talkers, but podcasts can draw on their introspective, philosophical qualities, without fear of censorship. As his listeners plug in their earbuds while on public transit, at the gym, or on the job, Maron says, "The relationship with people in this medium is very one-on-one. It's very personal. Some people attracted to what I do feel isolated in their lives, or spend a lot of time in their heads, or feel self-conscious about their own addictions."
On the 200th episode of "WTF," Maron turned the tables to take questions from comedian Mike Birbiglia, and remarked, "I get emails from people saying, 'I'm so glad you're speaking your mind, because I thought I was fuckin' alone.' The best thing you can do as a comic is to make someone feel less alone."
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