“When you want somebody to relax, ask them about their shoes or what kind of tea they’re drinking,” says Marc Maron, who never seems all that relaxed himself. The enlivened comedian and podcast host was referring to an interview he did this spring with Keith Richards. For the record, Maron asked the Rolling Stones guitarist about hats, not shoes. And, while we’re setting the record straight, technically Maron doesn’t interview his podcast guests.
“I think of them as conversations, not interviews,” he says, speaking from Los Angeles. “I don’t write questions down. I’m not in the business of information, I’m in the business of whatever leads to having an authentic interaction.”
Business is good for Maron, one of the headliners of this year’s Just For Laughs festival in Montreal. Since 2009, the 58-year-old American has taped 1,351 episodes of the podcast WTF With Marc Maron, which averages 55 million listeners a year. As the show’s title suggests, the format is loose: Conversations with everyone from Richards to Ian McKellen to Lena Dunham to Louis C.K. to Barack Obama are lengthy and free flowing, led by an engaging, empathetic host who aims to leave no nuggets behind.
He chalks it up to spontaneity and a genuine interest on his part. From a 2020 episode with the late actor James Caan, for example, listeners learned about Caan’s unlikely rodeo background and that his shaping of the Sonny Corleone role in The Godfather was partly inspired by insult-comic Don Rickles.
“No matter how many times a guest has told a story, they haven’t told it to me, and I don’t know what I’m going to ask them about that stuff,” says the New Jersey native. “If you are actively curious about a human being and they’re laying out their biography for you, you’re going to find a window into something that wasn’t there before. I mean, an entire life is not a résumé.”
Maron’s own career has been a late-blooming one. From 2013 to 2016, he had a television comedy series, Maron, on the Independent Film Channel. From 2017 to 2019 he co-starred in the Netflix series GLOW. On the film side, he had small roles in such major movies as Joker and Respect, and a more substantial part in the 2020 David Bowie biopic Stardust.
In a recent WTF monologue, however, he reminisced about doing “pretty horrendous” one-nighters in New England in the 1980s as an “angry, neurotic Jewish guy” learning how to do stand-up comedy in bars and bowling alleys. On another episode, Maron recalled his time as a cocaine-fueled doorman at The Comedy Store in Los Angeles.
He’s straight now, and on top of his game as a stand-up headliner and a virtuoso of the long-form interview. Like another of his kind, Dick Cavett, Maron has a conversational, erudite style. But where Cavett’s inquisitiveness was laid-back, Maron’s foot is always on the gas.
“I’m going to interrupt and I’m going to be part of every conversation,” he says, addressing the criticism that he steamrolls guests at times. “Some people can’t quite wrap their brain around it. Why do I interrupt? Because we’re talking, you know? That’s how I approach it.”
Sometimes the conversations don’t click. Maron is fine with that – a dud interview can be revelatory. “If somebody’s going to hold back for an hour, you can assume that’s who that person is.”
More often than that, engagement is achieved. A recent charismatic episode with Bonnie Raitt ended with the musician picking up Maron’s guitar and teaching him a tuning she uses. An amateur musician himself, Maron loves to tell the story about interviewing his guitar hero, Richards, at an NPR studio in New York, where people were “freaking out” because they were smoking.
“I got Keith laughing,” Maron says. “And at the end of it he said, ‘You’re a fun one.’ I don’t know what that means, but we had a good time. We connected.”
Marc Maron plays Montreal’s Just For Laughs July 28 and 29, and hosts a gala on July 30; and Toronto’s Just for Laughs, Oct. 1.
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