Q&A: Marc Maron on Burning Bridges and Music as Therapy

'You can make your iPod an IV of music, dripping peace of mind into your ears,' says the comic

Marc Maron performs in Pasadena, California.
Michael Schwartz/WireImage
Marc Maron
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Marc Maron, who has made obsessive self-destruction his comic calling card since the late Eighties, may finally be ready for success. Pushing 50, he's busier than ever: His WTF With Marc Maron podcast – on which he interviews fellow comedians in his garage – has been one of the biggest hits of the form, leading to a new show Maron (which debuted on IFC last Friday), and his second book, Attempting Normal, which came out last Tuesday. "Whatever is happening now couldn't have happened at any other time," the chronically overanalyzing comedian told Rolling Stone on the morning of Maron's premiere. "I couldn't have handled it."

Whose idea was it to release your book and debut your show in the same week?
It was either ridiculous or brilliant. I think it was smart, actually, outside of thinking how it would tax me.

Your podcast is heightened conversation, with both you and your guest knowing you're being recorded, and Maron is a lightly fictionalized version of your real life. The lines are all blurred. How is that affecting your actual life?
The show is rooted in events that happen in my life, but there is some significant fictionalization going on. It's not a reality show – we had to structure it in 22-minute increments. My father doesn't live in a trailer, and he's not Judd Hirsch. But if you play it close to the bone, the emotions will resonate. It's a risk to display yourself emotionally, but I don't know how else to do things.

Like so many comics in the Nineties, I'm sure you were trying to land your own sitcom. Is what you're doing now what you would've envisioned then?
I did have a few deals that never went beyond script. The first deal, I was a chef that burned all my bridges. The second deal, I was a strip mall lawyer, trying to do the right thing. Years later, after my life had taken another turn, we decided I was going to be an Oscar-winning short film director who burned his bridges, then went back to Tucson and opened a wedding business.

Always with the burning bridges.
That's how I saw myself. I don't know how many bridges I actually burned – probably not as many as I think, but I'm definitely a difficult personality. I romanticize – some part of me thinks I was marginalized because I have such a profound effect on everyone. Not too long ago, I had another script deal, with HBO, which I wrote with Jerry Stahl. I was an advertising executive who had a meltdown and wanted to incrementally change the world by doing good deeds. None of those things really honored who I was. You have to manufacture this life, and I'm not that great at being a caricature. Once Seinfeld and Larry [David] and Louie introduced to the world that "comedian" is a job that people have, and also the media landscape became more intimate, you could find an audience that digs that.

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How's standup going? Has it taken a back seat?
I've been doing a ton. Quite honestly, I don't think I've ever been more validated. The standup has never been better, and I'm really enjoying it. For years it was part of the job – to pretend you're not afraid. Now I feel a bit embraced by people that dig me. I just taped a special for Netflix that will be out in June. I find solace in knowing I'm in good shape performance-wise.

You wrote in your book that you have a "blues-based brain," and that when you were younger, you thought of music in terms of two kinds – driving music and sad music.
Playing guitar is the only meditative thing I have in my life. It's not something I ruined by trying to do it professionally [laughs]. I can go in the garage and play for 20 minutes, put on some blues songs or whatever and really lose myself – blow off steam and get out of my head. It's very therapeutic. There's music I listened to in junior high or high school that I can go back to and get the same thing. You could sort of make your iPod an IV of music, dripping peace of mind in your ears, if you pick the right song. And I've been listening to a lot of new music. I'm happy to say I'm enjoying records by people I've never heard of. There's no real cultural momentum like there was when we were younger. Radio played roughly the same hits. We were all getting the same information.

You just had Huey Lewis on the podcast, and you've had other musicians, including Nick Lowe. What's the criteria for booking musicians?
Because the show has a bit of a profile now, I get approached. Blues Traveler? Hey, it's been a long time since I thought about them, but I'd like to hear that guy play harmonica. And they turned out to be great guys, same as Huey. These are people that were huge, bigger than life, culturally resonant, as hot as possible. And all of a sudden it's like, "What happened to that guy?" Some of them are doing the best work they've ever done. But you forget, because the culture moves so quickly – the plowing-under of the past. That [Huey Lewis and the News] record, Sports, was bigger than anything. It came out of nowhere, and it was everywhere. I didn't buy all the Huey Lewis records, but a lot of these guys have a history. Their journey as an artist was interesting, and genuine.

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When was the last time you watched your fight scene in Almost Famous?
[Laughs] Not too long ago. I turned it on around the moment I come on.

Was any of that scripted?
We ran that a few times. On the director's cut, there's a little more extended fighting. At one point, Noah Taylor actually mooned me. Cameron Crowe is a very generous guy – he sat and ate with me one night. He was walking around the set like, "We had to import this anger from New York!"

You got to interview Jonathan Winters before he passed away. You must have a long list of comedians who died before you got them to do the show. Who comes to mind immediately?
Well, [Richard] Pryor would have been interesting. Then there's my personal experiences and relationships – [Sam] Kinison, you got [Bill] Hicks, Mitch [Hedberg]. Bob Schimmel never got to do the show. Greg Giraldo appeared on a live one, briefly. Thank God I got Patrice [O'Neal] and Mike DeStefano. In terms of the bigger guys, there's a lot of people. Buddy Hackett. With Kinison, I could have used a little closure. Sam never gets in the pantheon. Rodney Dangerfield and Sam were from the same world – two guys, insanely great and original comics, who do not get respect. With Rodney, that completely makes sense, given his shtick. But Sam, that first record, I still listen to that once a year. The spectacle he became hasn't diminished his relevance. He was a difficult guy, not really a right-minded guy. But he did some bits that transcended anything that's ever been done.

Given how much you talk about neuroses, I'm wondering how you sleep at night.
Oddly, very well. I wake up early. I don't have any trouble sleeping. All I can say is, whatever is happening now couldn't have happened at any other time. I couldn't have handled it. Whatever the reason – I'm older, more self-aware, sober – I'm able to handle it. A friend of mine said that's one sign of maturity – accepting and understanding your limitations. That always hung with me.

So you're admitting to maturity now?
Yeah, on some level. I'm professionally mature. I don't know about emotionally. You'd have to interview my girlfriend.

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