If nothing else, 2013 is the Year of Maron. After a long career as a journeyman stand-up comic who moved from Boston to San Francisco to New York and finally to Los Angeles, Marc Maron has surged forward in the last three years, in large part due to the success of his unique and popular podcast, WTF. In extended, wide-ranging conversations, Maron interviews comedians, writers, musicians, and other creative artists, discussing their career arcs, the nature of creative work, and the meaning of success and failure. The podcast has revived his stand-up career, and in the next month alone, Maron is releasing a book of essays (Attempting Normal, out April 30) and a semi-autobiographical TV series debuts on IFC (simply titled Maron; the first episode airs May 3). In the midst of all this and more, Maron is stopping here in San Francisco on Saturday, April 13, for a performance at the Palace of Fine Arts, just a few days ahead of the New York City taping of his Netflix-exclusive stand-up special.
Maron recently spoke to us by phone about the whirlwind his life has become, and we started the discussion by dissecting a recent episode of WTF, taped live at SXSW, at which guest James Franco took umbrage at a remark Maron made near the close of the interview: Franco, referring to his Freaks and Geeks days, said, "I took myself pretty seriously then," to which Maron rejoined, "Not now, though, which is good." It was said in good-natured jest, but Franco, apparently, was not having it.
Can I ask you about the Franco thing?
Sure. What about it?
Did you shut down [that interview] to keep things from getting more awkward, or was he really annoyed?
He was difficult from the fuckin' get-go. The thing was that he sat down with his back toward me, and I said, "Really? Are we doing this?" And he was like, "Well, you're a little close." So that's the way it started. My approach with him was, I want to know how much of whatever it is you're doing is bullshit and a conscious prank as a performance art piece -- or are you really in earnest about this? Some people said I was condescending; I was really, from the first second, just trying to lighten things up. That's all I was doing. I thought I got some good stuff out of him about acting, about the Oscars, and about the soap opera thing. But he just made it very difficult.
So, whatever people were hearing from me was really just me trying to keep the momentum and trying to lighten him up a little bit. I thought there was a funny guy in there. And finally with the Oscar thing he got funny, and said a couple of funny things. But at the end, when I made light of the fact that he thinks he's not taking himself seriously -- he really seemed sort of jarred by that. I was just fuckin' done with it. It was just a struggle the whole time, and I sort of lost interest, in a way. Like, where was this going to go? No fun. He's not relaxing. So that was that.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems like you haven't interviewed a whole lot of actors on the show -- people who come from a pure acting background.
It can become tricky. I interviewed Bryan Cranston, who was very forthright and almost utilitarian in his approach, just a sort of working guy. His dad was a working guy in the studio system. He has a really grounded sensibility about it. Stephen Tobolowsky, who is fundamentally an actor, was also very engaging around that stuff, and Jon Hamm as well. It's tricky with actors because -- well, I don't want to make any generalizations, but I don't have a lot of them on for a reason.
Let me ask you about the book. Last time I talked to you, you were just starting to work on it. And you said that writing tends to be a sort of drudgery for you, and you kind of dread it. So what was the process for putting together these 220 or so pages?
It is drudgery to write. I know writers. And being a writer is a job, whether you're a screenwriter or a playwright or a novelist. That's what you do every day, as much as you can. And a lot of people say, "Well, comics are writers." Yeah, we are to a degree, but we write in a very specific way. I know that I have a certain sensibility on the page, and once I get going with it, I'm very excited by the act of discovery that happens when I do write. I have a real respect for writing and poetics and everything else, but I'm fundamentally insecure about it, so that's where the drudgery comes in. I like to have a certain precision. I like to be a little sparse with writing, to have some kind of a punch with the images and phrasing. I'm a fan of that, but I'm not some sort of Rabelaisian describer of things. So, really, my drudgery is relative to the fact that I just want it to be good.
I was thinking back to those books -- like the ones Paul Reiser and Bill Cosby wrote. And they're not bad or anything, but they come off as pamphlets, like comedy pamphlets.
Yeah, and that's really what I wanted to stay away from. I knew I was going to be doing memoir to some degree, but I didn't want to do a full memoir, because there's so much more you can do with an essay. And it might speak to my own need to compartmentalize. I can focus in on an essay, and see the beginning and the ending of that piece. It's easier for my brain to digest, as opposed to looking at an entire book about my life and trying to figure out which sections need a little more help. It just felt more manageable to me, and I think I was able to write better in that format, without having to honor some ridiculous timeline where you're like, "And then I was seven."
How did you go about forming a writing team for the series?
But I had never been involved in this process. It's all new to me. I never thought this would happen to me in my life. I had let the whole idea of it go by the time I'd started the podcast; I was just trying to hang on. I wrote a pilot presentation with a guy who was recommended to me by my production company, Duncan Birmingham, who seemed to have a good handle on the dialogue business. We sat down with my story and the two of us wrote the pilot presentation. That's what IFC responded to -- we just used it to sell the series. And IFC bought it. We only had two-and-a-half to three months to write 10 scripts. I came in with about nine of the 10 stories, so breaking stories was made a little easier because of that. So we outlined the 10 stories and then assigned the scripts. So everyone goes and writes their scripts. We had about six or seven weeks to shoot 10 episodes. It was a hell of a ride. I'm in every scene, and I'm re-writing as we're shooting, with the other writers, while memorizing eight to fifteen pages a day. It's all very exciting. I'm proud of the show. But now, in my mind, I'm like, "Now I get how this works. I want to do some more, and make them better." I want to start to understand myself a little more as an actor, to get at what the strengths were in the tone of the show. You get that creative bug. I love these episodes, but now that we've had the baptism by fire, let's focus and make it better! Who knows if that will happen? But I'm very happy with what we've made.
Marc Maron appears at the Palace of Fine Arts on Saturday, April 13. For more information and tickets, visit www.wtfpod.com/calendar.