Arts, Culture & Media

From standup to Obama podcaster: Marc Maron uses vulnerability to stand out

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Comedian Marc Maron performs on stage at The New Yorker Comedy Playlist, 2014.

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Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

Comic-turned-podcaster Marc Maron has just become better known to a whole nation after President Barack Obama spoke with him on Friday, for a podcast being released on Monday. Here is Maron, talking in April, on what made him distinctive and his interviewing technique. 

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How do you get people who have been through every sort of interview to talk about something new?

It starts with giving up something about yourself, often something less than flattering, says Marc Maron, host of the very popular podcast WTF with Marc Maron. And for Maron, that hope of a connection is fueled by the memory of conversations before they became little more than staccato bursts between checks on a cellphone.

Maron, who admittedly began his garage podcast as an angry, bitter, cynical, just-fired talk show host, seems an unlikely model for insight. "For years I didn't even know what the word empathy meant ... I was incapable of experiencing it,'' he says. What he found with the guests in his garage: "My heart opening a little bit, and engaging with other people's stories... I'm pretty good at intimacy with strangers. I'm no good at maintaining it with people I know for a long time."

 

 

As a result, unique and human stories from Jenny Slate, Robin Williams and Mick Jagger. Old friend Louis CK, another interview subject, has said Maron's journey has been about bringing down his own defenses. Those flaws — addictions, dark moods, utter self-absorption — have been entry points for insight for guests.

Maron gave a master class on conversation with Shadrach Kabango, the rapper better known as Shad, during the CBC radio talk show, q. True to form, Maron related a failed interview with Harry Dean Stanton one morning when he actor was cranky and preferred to do his crossword puzzle, smoke and drink coffee. Maron said the experience was so unsuccessful he began to wonder if he had a problem connecting with older people — and concluded he might. 

How do you learn to shut your mouth? How do you let people sniffle in an interview without rushing in and making things better? Maron has lessons any journalist should learn.

"If I can offer up some part of myself, shamelessly, and connect on that level, it kind of raises the stakes on the conversation. If I'm going to say, 'Oh yeah, I used to do a lot of coke,' and somebody who probably isn't anticipating talking about that says, 'Oh, I did a little,' I go, 'A little?' ... I'm not out to sandbag anyone or make controversy, but I think if you volunteer your humanity and your humility and open your heart and share — it's just not normal for an interviewer to share so much.''

But Maron doesn't consider himself an interviewer, more someone seeking to relive the type of long conversations he had with other comics when they were young and struggling; ''gypsies with notebooks,'' as he put it. 

"There was a time, before — you know, hold on, let me check my phone — there was a time when people said, 'Let's hang out.' Now people are like, 'What's that?' ... Human beings are designed to handle and carry the burden of other human beings, and it's the part of the beautiful soul connection that we all have, is the ability to interact and fairly effortlessly make each other feel better. It's just that we've all gotten so self-involved and busy, with garbage, that we can't even do the basic politeness and listen to somebody for five minutes.

"Sometimes, all you need to do is listen to someone for five minutes and you'll see them 10 years later, and they'll be like, 'You changed my life that day.' And you'll say, 'What? When I put my phone down?'''

This story was adapted from an interview on the CBC radio program q.