I’ve listened to enough WTF Podcast episodes to have finally realized, “You know, what? Marc Maron is actually pretty good at this.” A previous thing I wrote about a Marc Maron article inspired me to go more in depth into what makes him so good at what he does.
As it goes with many comedy-related things, the first time I heard the podcast I wasn’t too incredibly impressed. I remember thinking it was an interesting show, but there wasn’t anything particularly novel about it; you sit in a garage and talk to a person for a while. I mean, what else is there to the show, really?
Nowadays, the simplicity is actually what I admire most about the show. Having listened to a bunch of other podcasts that tend to embellish, with people who do voice characters and three other co-hosts and “let’s play this game,” WTF‘s austerity is refreshing. Maron has the connections to simply talk to interesting people about personal stuff that you wouldn’t normally get to hear. And that’s enough. I can’t remember which guest it was, but a recent guest on the show started out by saying that he usually didn’t reveal too much about his personal life to people, so he was excited that Maron might actually coax it out of him. Maron isn’t invasive, he’s curious about what makes people the way they are. He makes them feel comfortable and excited to talk about themselves. Celebrities reveal information about themselves they might never otherwise reveal. Pretty good? He’s definitely one of the best interviewers out there. That’s why he got to interview Obama, for Christ sake!
How does he do it? Well, if you’ve never heard an episode of WTF before, Maron starts off the show with what is really just a rant about something. Eventually, the rant finds its way towards introducing the guest. This isn’t an unusual format – to introduce the guest off the top of the show. But, in the context of Maron’s show, it’s almost like he’s stripping away the shell of the person we see in the media so that we can get down to who the guest actually is.
After the guest is introduced, Maron cuts away to their conversation, often jumping right into the middle of it.By bringing lowering the audience right into the middle of the conversation, we’re getting thrust into the action, getting to the good stuff right away. There’s no nonsense like, “Hey nice to have you here, how are you?” The beginning of the conversation is driven by whatever it is about the guest Maron finds the most compelling: whatever it is Maron cannot wait to talk about. Usually this doesn’t last more than a few minutes before Maron realizes, “Wait, let’s start over from the beginning.” I’m not sure how intentional this is, but I think it’s a great strategy for the opening because his enthusiasm for speaking to each guest really comes through. He’s excited, you can tell. And makes me excited, even if I’ve never heard of the guest before.
When Maron backs up the conversation to the beginning, he almost always asks what the guest’s family was like and what it was like for them growing up. Simple questions, but ones you normally wouldn’t hear on, say, a late night talk show. Childhood is something that pretty much everyone enjoys talking about, because they like to talk about their own experiences. And, at the very least, it’s always easy to talk about, and that’s important. You don’t want a guest sitting around and not saying anything.
Maron will ask follow-up questions like, “What’s your relationship like with your parents?” Which sounds pretty damn personal, but it’s the type of question that guests actually find interesting to talk about. And it sets a precedent for more questions later on, like “Did you drugs?” Guests are used to doing promotional interviews with the same type of boring questions over and over again. Right from the start, Maron establishes his show as something different and more fun to do. And this openness gets extended throughout the show, making the conversation free and flowing.
Going back to his rant, you do get the sense that the podcast is just as much about Maron as it is about the guest. And that’s perfectly okay; to me, a podcast is the best medium for that. The rant offers a glance into what drives Maron’s genuine curiosity in the people he has on his show: he wants to know what makes them tick, because, just maybe, if he can figure out them he can figure out himself. He’s exploring his story in the interviews just as much as he is exploring his guest’s story. He’s a fantastic listener and asks great questions, but he also talks about how the answers relate to himself. And that’s where we can see the stakes for Maron. He wants to know more about why people are the way they are. He draws on similarities between himself and his guest, topics they are both interested in exploring about each other, so that they can both come away with more knowledge about themselves as people.
It’s okay for Maron to be selfish sometimes by talking about himself. It’s something that makes his show special. Usually a host is somewhat faceless because he must focus primarily on showcasing the guest. And Maron does do that really well, but he’s also figuring himself out. In some parts of the show, his guests end up being even more of the interviewer than Maron is. When Maron gets on a roll, talking about something like his father, he gets excited and angry and the audience is there figuring it out with him. Through each episode, we’re not only getting to know the guest, we’re also finding out more and more about Maron and getting a fuller schema of who he is. Which is probably as interesting to the audience as it is therapeutic for Maron; it’s a whole side story of its own. It never gets too out of hand, though. Maron knows more or less when to rein it in and keep things about the guest. You can tell he tries to do more listening than talking, even when it isn’t that way.
Having conversation that appeals to both the interviewer and the guest also allows things to get “off track” like that quite easily. And that’s a good thing, not a bad one. When a conversation gets off track, what that really means is that two people have found something more interesting to talk about than what they were talking about before. That’s just a better conversation! Which makes for better listening. Maron embraces tangents. He looks to get off track rather than to stay on track, but at the same time knows when he dwells too long. He talks about topics that are easy for him and his guest, so that getting off topic is natural. Topics come up like “What things have been like in the writers’ room of the most successful television shows?” or “Who gets along with whom in Hollywood?” And he doesn’t worry about losing his audience. As long as the conversation is engaging enough for him, he lets it go. He does what he wants. He even pulls out his guitar to strum some chords.
As he follows the guest’s life path in each interview, the common theme of Maron figuring out where he went wrong always comes up. All his guests are successful people and sometimes it seems like the only reason why he brought them on the show is to ask, “Why not me?!” Ironically, it’s these conversations that have made Maron successful. He’ll ask what high school and college were like and then try to analyze and pick apart the differences between the decision-making of his guests and himself. Maybe if Maron had made better choices of what to do after school he would be more of a star today. It’s endearing. And I think it’s also a main reason why people want to hear the successful guests talk about themselves; we also can’t help but compare ourselves. We want to know how we’re different. What are we doing wrong? How is this person a TV star, when I’m sitting on my futon in a tiny apartment? What did they do right? What did I do wrong? We’re there, along with Maron for the ride. We’re on his side. And that’s also why we’re so happy for him to have finally succeeded.
The last thing I want to say about Maron is that this isn’t some accident – that he’s so good at what he does people. He’s worked hard his whole life trying to make things work for himself, failing over and over at television shows and writing so that he could find out what people do actually want to hear. His podcast is the result of effort. You can tell the amount of knowledge he has about his guests before they sit down in his garage. He might know some of them personally, but a lot of them he doesn’t. He researches and thinks about people before the interview, coming up with hundreds of ideas of what to talk about. You can tell by the quality of the conversation that he has a sense of who this person is before he speaks to them, and that takes a lot of effort on his part. The great part is that you can tell the effort is driven by his interest in other people and himself. That curiosity is what makes his interviewing such a cool thing to listen to.