"I'm losing my mind," Marc Maron says. "That's good for you, right?" Maron – longtime comic road warrior, ex-lefty rabble rouser, former addict, 13 years sober, and one of the darkest, funniest, most influential figures in comedy today – is sitting at his cluttered dining-room table in a working-class neighborhood of Los Angeles, trying not to lose his shit. He's leaving tomorrow for a run of stand-up gigs, but first he has a table full of errands to run: an envelope stuffed with cash he needs to take to the bank, a $400 check to deposit ("It's in Canadian dollars – what the fuck am I supposed to do with that?"), a tux that needs to be picked up for his appearance at the Comedy Central Awards, a box of merch to mail, and a small orange cat named Boomer (one of three strays he's adopted) who needs to go to the vet because he's lost his meow. Not to mention the show Maron's taping in about 20 minutes, which he hasn't prepped for at all. He takes off his glasses and rubs his eyes. "I've just been so fucking busy. I'm doing a million things."
There was a time when Maron wasn't doing much at all. He's been a comic for 25 years, but for most of his career he's been hampered by his self-destructive impulses – drugs, difficult material, a reputation as a prick. "I'm 48, and this is the first time in my life I'm selling tickets," he says. "I can actually make a living from stand-up comedy.'"
The reason for this can be explained with three letters: WTF. That's the name of the podcast Maron hosts twice a week, in which he interviews comedians from his un-air-conditioned backyard garage. Despite the low-budget operation, the thing is a total powerhouse: frequently Number One on the iTunes comedy charts, and averaging 2.5 million downloads a month. Maron's guests have included everyone from A-list superstars (Ben Stiller, Zach Galifianakis, Chris Rock) to comedy-nerd heroes (Sarah Silverman, Conan O'Brien) to wizened legends (Robin Williams, Garry Shandling). Judd Apatow has called listening to it "my nirvana"; Patton Oswalt, another friend and guest, says, "It's without a doubt the best thing out there."
What makes the show so great isn't just that Maron is smart, or funny, or smart about being funny. It's that after all his years of living that life – the touring, the drugging, the ex-wives, the failure – he's reached a point of brutal self-candor that makes people open up to him in a way they never would otherwise. Almost every episode features a confession that's either touching or surprising. The best – like the one where Carlos Mencia faced accusations of joke thievery, or the one where Todd Glass came out as gay, or the raw two-parter with Louis C.K., where he and Maron hashed out three decades of jealousy and on-and-off-again friendship – becoming the stuff of comedy legend.
These days, WTF earns Maron a healthy living. But he didn't get into it for the money, he says. "It was desperation. I was fucking depressed, I was suicidal, my career was in the toilet. I didn't listen to podcasts, but I was like, 'Fuck it. Let's figure it out.'"
Maron leads the way back to his studio, one hand clutching his ever-present mug of coffee. The garage is crammed with hundreds of books (Jewish mysticism, Marshall McLuhan, Richard Pryor, Don DeLillo – "Every book is a self-help book to me") and DVDs. On one wall hangs a photo of the cast of Tod Browning's Freaks that Maron used to snort coke off of ("Those weren't very good times"). He recently started production on an IFC series based on his life. He also just finished writing a book of essays about drugs, his cats and other Maron-esque topics. (On his writing process: "I spent a year going, 'Fuck! I'm not gonna have a book!' and then days before my deadline I gave my editor 90,000 words.")
Maron takes a seat at his Ikea desk. David Koechner ("Champ Kind" from Anchorman) is coming by to tape a WTF episode, and Maron's getting ready. "Check, check, check," he says. He looks at the headphones and frowns. "Some of this shit is shit."
He doesn't prep much: Usually he'll go to Wikipedia, jot down a couple of things. His go-to subject is childhood. "I'm sort of hung up with people's beginnings," he says. "What they grew up in, and what they ran away from."
Maron was born in Jersey City, the son of an Air Force surgeon and an art teacher. They moved to Alaska when he was five – "I remember a lot of grayness" – and then to Albuquerque two years later. He says his parents were pretty detached: He describes his dad as depressive and a little bipolar, and his mom as a worrier with a lot of body-image hang-ups. "I'm plagued by that deeply," Maron says. "She actually said to me recently, 'You know, Marc, if you were fat, I just don't know if I could love you.'"
Maron's early life was marked by a wide range of emotions: hypersensitivity, discomfort, panic, worry and dread. He got kicked out of private school for having "the wrong kind of leadership qualities," and he idolized rock stars and beatniks like Keith Richards, Hunter S. Thompson and William Burroughs. He was smoking at 12, doing coke by high school. But he was always lucky. Once he was driving home drunk and ran into a parked car. The next thing he knew, he was surrounded by cops and being given a sobriety test. Then a call came in saying the bakery was being robbed. "The cop says, 'Can you drive it home?'" Maron recalls. "And I'm like, 'Yeah – I was trying to.'"
He went to college in Boston, where he did some open-mic nights. Even though he hated it, he felt compelled to keep trying stand-up. After graduation he moved to L.A., got a job at the Comedy Store, started hanging out with Sam Kinison and a Satanist named Dave, did enough blow to kill a brontosaurus, and suffered a psychotic breakdown so severe that his own dealer urged him to leave town. After a stint in rehab, he spent the next few years bouncing between Boston and New York, living near a drug den on the Lower East Side, "trying to stay clean, but not really."
Maron was always working. He pitched some TV shows: one where he was a strip-mall lawyer, one where he was a "renegade chef," one where he was a director who'd won an Oscar for Best Short Film but screwed up and moved back home to start a wedding-video company. But he had a knack for torpedoing his own career, with a poorly timed joke or a surly refusal to play ball – like the time he met with NBC about a late-night talk show, and the executive asked him what kind of stuff he'd like to talk about, and he said, "You know – drugs, abortion . . ."
In 2004, Maron took a job on the fledgling liberal radio network Air America, excoriating the right on his morning show. But after butting heads with network executives, Maron was fired, brought back, fired, brought back, and fired again. "But if none of that happened," he says, "I wouldn't have gotten the podcast."
Maron likes to joke that he busted his ass in clubs for 25 years, and the thing that made him famous was bullshitting in his garage with his friends – and he's not wrong. Before the podcast, Maron says, "I'd ruined a marriage or two. I was known to be bitter and hostile and pompous and a bunch of other things that were probably true. But once I started talking to people, I evolved a capacity I never had before, which was to be an empathetic listener. I still step on people a lot, and I interrupt them with my own bullshit. But I was a better person. I was humbled."
Maron isn't all better. For instance, he still resents Jon Stewart. "I guess they call it a bête noire," he says. "He was my fuckin' enemy. Because I thought I could be him. We're both middle-class Jews, my family's from Jersey, I'm a smart guy too. . . . He'd be on TV, on the cover of magazines and shit, I'd be walking down the street and see his fucking mug, always smirking. He seemed so calculated and ambitious. In my mind, I was a rebel, and he was just a fuckin' phony. One time in Boston he walked in when I was onstage and I was like, 'Look, it's Jon Stewart, host of MTV's Spring Break. How's it feel to have sucked Satan's cock?' I was just relentlessly envious and angry at him."
Not long ago, Maron reached out to mend the fence. "I'm thinking, 'I'll have him on my show, I'll apologize, it'll be a great episode.'" He phoned Stewart's office and got a call back from Stewart himself. "He's like, 'Hey, Marc, it's Jon Stewart.' And I'm like, 'Hey, man, I know you don't really do interviews, but we have a history, and it would be great if you could be a guest.' And he's like, 'Why would I do that? I don't know if you remember what a dick you were to me. I'm not actively angry at you, but there's no love here.' And then he said the most condescending thing, but it was brilliant. He put me in my place. He said, 'Look, I've always thought you were very creative, and I'm sure whatever you're doing is nice. And if you wanna have coffee, I might be willing to do that.' I have not called him back."
Looking back, Maron has no illusions about his missteps. "If you're arrogant like that, people just want to see you fail," he says. "But if you're tempered by the struggle, it's like, now you're just cranky. People can root for that. I'm not a superstar. I'm not Louis C.K. But I've found my little thing – and that's a great place to end up."
This story is from the September 13th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.