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Marc Maron On Robin Williams, Barack Obama And Learning To Be A Good Listener

On his podcast, Marc Maron (pictured here in Los Angeles in 2013) often asks guests what their parents do. "It's a very defining thing," he says.
Kevin Winter
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On his podcast, Marc Maron (pictured here in Los Angeles in 2013) often asks guests what their parents do. "It's a very defining thing," he says.

Podcaster Marc Maron has brought celebrity after celebrity through his front door in Los Angeles. In 2009, the grizzled, once-washed-up comedian launched a podcast called WTF, and it became wildly popular — many people say Maron has defined what an interview podcast can be.

He tapes most of his conversations in his cramped garage, where, in a bit of a role reversal, NPR interviewed him.

"I generally don't have a page full of questions, like you have there," Maron says. "... I mean, I don't judge that, but, like, there are some interviews where I should have had that."

Maron has a new book out called Waiting for the Punch: Words to Live by from the WTF Podcast.

Interview Highlights

On interviewing President Obama

I'm having an experience here where my house is filled with Secret Service and police officers; we have five or six listening stations out on the deck for his staff. And in the house it's just me and Brendan McDonald, my producer, beforehand and I'm playing some guitar, trying to, you know, get into my body, wondering what I should wear.

That was the first indication, was like, "What should I wear? The president's coming." And, like, it's my house — what am I going to wear? Am I gonna wear a suit? In my house? Because the president's coming? So I put on a plaid shirt and it just was fortunate that he's very disarming, he's very charming, he's very grounded. So, you know, he came in here and he put me at ease. ... You know, I was calling him "man" pretty quickly. I was finishing his sentences.

On why he often asks guests what their parents do

It's a very defining thing. That's what you lived in. You know, if you lived with your dad and he did a thing, that's going to define you somehow. You can't get out from under that. ...

My dad was a surgeon and my mother was — she tried to get her master's in painting and then she did some splatter art on sweat suits to try to create a business. And she got a real estate license; she had a boutique. But my dad, for the most part, was a functioning orthopedic surgeon until, you know, his mental disposition shifted and somehow or another he, you know, he's out of the game. ... He had some depression issues and then he mismanaged his life in a lot of ways, but he's OK. He's in Albuquerque, [N.M.,] sitting around, you know, wondering what the point of life is and why he's so miserable. ...

I kind of look at them as people I grew up with, you know, not parents.

On how hanging out at his grandfather's store helped him become a good listener

I was sort of on my own in the "defining self" department, which is why I always sort of gravitated toward screwed-up people to determine, you know, how I would live my life or behave. ...

My grandfather had a hardware store in Haskell, N.J., you know, when I was a little kid. And there used to be this crew of three or four old dudes and I was just sort of fascinated with it. You're just sitting there talking to these guys. I go talk to the guy at the bookstore, go talk to the guy at the record store, go talk to the guy at the guitar store, and just spend my life wandering around hanging out at places, having conversations to avoid myself and also to get some guidance. I still do it — I don't know what records to buy. So, over time, I just became a good listener and I'd get emotionally attached to people very quickly.

On interviewing Robin Williams about suicide four years beforeWilliams hanged himself

If you really thought about Robin Williams and really thought about that need to be that entertaining all the time — I would assume that, if you really think about it, that's not coming from a place of joy. He has to do it. He's got to do this thing to avoid something.

No, but I don't think anyone could have thought that we would lose him. And it turns out there was other circumstances around that. That wasn't just depression; that was, you know, he was suffering from a degenerative illness.

On whether good comedy often comes from a dark place

I used to think that. I used to romanticize that. But after talking to almost 900 funny people, some of them are relatively well-adjusted. They seem responsible and grounded and well-boundaried — had at least one good parent.

Justin Richmond and Jacob Conrad produced and edited this interview for broadcast, and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
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