The comeback kid... Marc Maron
Six years ago US comic Marc Maron was washed up. He tells how a podcast recorded in his garage, with guests including Barack Obama, changed everything for the better
After a lifetime of failure, Marc Maron is finally living the dream. As host of wildly popular celebrity interview podcast WTF, this middle-aged, self-confessed neurotic has become an unlikely cult figure with an international following.
Some 220,000 listeners download Maron's twice-weekly show, while A-listers as Amy Schumer, Conan O'Brien and, just last month, President Barack Obama, line-up to be quizzed by the 51-year-old comedian. It's quite a turn around for a performer who, a few years ago, was washed-up and running out of options.
"Before the podcast, I was in a bad place," says Maron, who is returning to Dublin for a stand-up gig next week. "I'd been doing comedy 25 years. I'd gone through a second divorce. I was pretty broke, barely holding onto my house. I wasn't getting a lot of comedy work because I wasn't a big ticket seller.
"You look around and see how comedy ends for other people because they can't get any traction. It can be frightening. What was I gonna do - work in a restaurant? The podcast happened because I had no other plans. It was definitely a dark time"
Maron is in the kitchen of his modest suburban Los Angeles home. He's just seen the audience figures for his sit-down with President Obama. They are, he proclaims, off the charts at 1.6 million downloads - one of the highest figures for a podcast ever.
"I was nervous about interviewing the President," he nods. "Politicians in general are fairly deliberate and thoughtful and almost always have an angle. I wanted it to be a conversation between a couple of guys."
If you haven't heard the Obama tete-a-tete it's worth chasing down. Maron is a sweet, funny interviewer. In the nicest possible way he neutralised Obama's defences and cajoled the president into opening up, with Obama movingly reflecting on his internal struggle as the black child of a white mother.
The commander-in-chief also dropped the N-bomb - reportedly his first documented use of the word.
"I was nervous that he was going to come in and be a politician and steam-roll me with talking points," continues Maron, who records his interviews in a converted studio in his garage. "In fact, we had a real conversation. We covered stuff he hasn't talked about."
Maron was 45 when he started WTF. His story of overnight acclaim after a lifetime of underachievement stands as an example to anyone who has suffered their reversals and is tempted to chuck the towel in. By simply not giving up - refusing to acknowledge defeat as it taunted him in the face - Maron turned everything around.
Six years later, he speaks of his success in slightly abstract terms, as if he can't bring himself to believe it is real.
In his 20s and and 30s Maron enthusiastically embodied the cliche of the angry, drug-snorting stand-up. He was one of those tragic comedians propelled by rage and resentment (his father, a prominent surgeon, was distant and disapproving, providing Maron with a life-time supply of daddy issues).
Anger got him precisely nowhere and he watched from the sidelines as friends Sarah Silverman and Louis CK attained stardom. That he was addicted to booze and cocaine did not help (he went teetotal in 1999).
"My rage was a defence posture," says Maron. "I was hiding my emotions and becoming this character in front of audiences - confrontational, sometimes hostile."
Stuck on the bottom rung, he turned bitter and started falling out with his comedian pals. Maron confronted this period of his life when he invited Louis CK onto WTF. Once close, their relationship had broken down as the latter achieved international acclaim.
Maron couldn't handle being outshone by his bro from back in the day. Louis, for his part, felt Maron was needy, resentful and petty. They had it out on the podcast. By the end both were in tears and saying "sorry".
"It was candid," says Maron. "I'm not uncomfortable with displays of emotion. Some may think it isn't socially appropriate or is too revealing. For me that kind of honesty is what is lacking in human dialogue.
"I don't second guess what happens on the podcast. My feeling is that it would connect with listeners - that it would remind them of friendships in their own lives."
In 2010 Maron interviewed Robin Williams. Over the course of their rambling exchange, Williams held forth on suicide, revealing that he'd contemplated taking his life only for mocking voices in his head to assure him he lacked the conviction to violently end it all. Three years later, Williams killed himself, imbuing his WTF appearance with a chilling poignancy.
"I was happy I had that conversation," says Maron. "He was not a guy that gave many of those interviews. It was sad in retrospect and unavoidably bittersweet. That said, I think back on it fondly - it was a very thrilling day for me."
Not all of Maron's interviewees are as forthcoming. Singer Nick Cave didn't seem to have entirely understood what he'd let himself in for and was defensive throughout.
Veteran actor Harry Dean Stanton, meanwhile, was non-plussed by Maron's bantering style and reduced to impersonating (horribly) an Irish accent. Maron shrugs when I mention this. Some people are easy to talk to, some aren't. You work with what you have.
"The thing is, we're going to be sitting here for an hour no matter what. So they may as well talk to me - what else are we going to do? If you keep pushing, about a third of the way through something usually gives and they open up.
Success doesn't appear to have had a huge effect on Maron's life. He hasn't changed houses, still drives a battered Toyota. On balance he's happier. That isn't to suggest all the old demons have been exorcised, however,
"I'm not freaked out about money any more," he says, "I make a living. I'm trying to save. I'm still neurotic in my personal life (his latest relationship ended recently).
"My brain works the same as it always did. I try not to complain - I feel validated in my career. I'm doing some of my best work. I've accomplished something and I take pride in that.
"It has helped with the self-esteem issues. It's a big change from what my life used to be like, that's for sure."
Marc Maron is at Vicar Street, Dublin September 2