Moment of Zen
Marc Maron on Obama, Gun Violence, and the ‘Great American Asshole’ Donald Trump
For years, the comic has mostly refused to talk about politics on his podcast or in his stand-up comedy. But that doesn’t mean he’s run out of opinions on Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, and more.
2015 was a big year for Marc Maron.
He got President Barack Obama to come to his garage in Highland Park, Los Angeles for an hour-long podcast interview that prompted yet another national discussion on race. He traveled to 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York City to confront Lorne Michaels about why he didn’t get a coveted SNL gig 20 years ago. And this Friday, December 4, his second major stand-up special in three years makes its debut on the Epix channel.
Maron is known for being a particularly angry comic, but he has noticeably mellowed with recent success. For example, his new special includes an entire bit about how much he loves ice cream.
His WTF podcast, which just aired its 660th episode this week, regularly tops the iTunes charts and has managed to turn his career around in a way that nothing else could. For the first time in recent years, fans are actually paying to see him perform live. Even if, as he has mentioned on the podcast numerous times, an outsized portion of them are slightly depressed loners who purchase single tickets.
When The Daily Beast caught up with Maron as he was stuck in Los Angeles traffic this week, some of that signature anger shone through an otherwise pleasant disposition. As the GPS on his phone kept interrupting his train of thought, he exclaimed, “How the fuck do I turn that off?” and later, “I don’t know how the fuck to turn this down, man.”
A previously announced TV interview series with VICE, to be titled VICE Portraits, recently fell through, but he has so much else going on right now, from his IFC show Maron, which recently ended its third season, to memorable appearances on such critical hits as Louie and Girls, that it doesn’t seem to phase him. “That’s not happening,” he explains. “I had a time window and they didn’t have a network and the time ran out.” Ultimately, it’s VICE’s loss.
Below is the condensed and edited conversation, in which Maron discussed the state of his comedy, his frustration with our political system and how he really has achieved some form of inner peace, despite the occasional outburst.
It can be a little bit intimidating interviewing someone who has conducted so many incredible interviews over the past several years. Have you been particularly nervous to interview any of your recent podcast guests?
I get nervous all the time for different reasons, you know. Sometimes I don’t know what I’m going to talk to somebody about. I don’t know how it’s going to begin or I don’t know the bulk of how it’s going to go, because I don’t really lay it out. I’m just kind of flying by the seat of my pants in terms of, hopefully, having a conversation evolve. Then other times I’m nervous about doing justice to someone who has had a particularly long career, or maybe I’m just nervous because I’m intimidated by somebody’s work. I’m always nervous for one reason or another.
Let’s move on to your new special. A lot of it is about how you either express or try to control your anger, yet I’ve noticed in some of your podcast intros, you seem a lot more content than you used to be. What is that balance like in your real, everyday life?
Well, I have enough peace of mind now to make different choices around my anger. You know there are some things in my life now that have never been there. There’s a certain amount of self-esteem that comes from doing something that people enjoy or that seems relevant or having accomplished something. I’m earning a living, which is something I’ve experienced not doing for years sometimes, so that is another piece to a peace of mind puzzle. But then what you’re left with is the sort of core wiring that is provoked or that activates anger and some of that runs pretty deep. So, it really is about making choices and figuring out what that is and why those feelings come.
And a lot of times, it’s really just what we’re used to on a very deep level. It’s what is actually comfortable with us, and that’s the tragedy of being anxious or neurotic or angry. It’s something that we’re wired with and it feels like home to us. So to overcome it, it’s very cognitive. You have be like, “That feeling’s happening. I want to fucking snap, but why don’t we just ride it out?” Keep it inside and maybe it will pass. Just practical tools. But a lot of it is still there, it’s just that I know better. And a lot of it’s not connected to anything, so I’m more careful with it.
In the epilogue to the special, you talk about how you don’t want to ‘divide people’ with your comedy. Can you expand on that a little bit? Is that something you see in other stand-ups and try to avoid?
Look, I’ve done political comedy, I’ve done very opinionated comedy, I’ve done comedy in my life that was in its nature offensive. And as I’ve gotten older and detached myself from politics and even from pop culture to a certain degree, I just find that I can share my experience of personal struggles, which are emotional, psychological, and experiential. That’s the most honest thing I can share. And I think in varying degrees, most people, or certainly the people that are going to connect with me, also experience those things. There are plenty of people who are going to go, “That guy’s a whiner, that guy is just angry, that guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” Fine. That’s always going to happen. I’m not trying to please everybody, but I am trying to be honest and true to my own self enough that people feel that they can relate to it. One of the great things that comedy can do is make people go, “Oh shit, I thought I was the only one who felt that.” Or, “I never thought of it that way.” Or, “I’m not alone.” Laughter that is connected to those three things is powerful stuff. And it’s very satisfying for me to experience that connection with people.
That’s a more positive view of comedy than you maybe had when you started your career.
No, I always felt that comedy could blow minds and offer people a certain point of view that may disarm things that are terrifying or overwhelming or incomprehensible. I always knew that it could do that. It’s just finding your own place within it. And in different points in my career I was more fueled by self-righteousness or anger or an assumption that I knew more than other people. I sort of wandered around the terrain of anger and enlightenment and political awareness and having an extreme point of view for effect. But you get older and certain things that used to seem so important kind of fade a bit and you’re sort of left with an existential reality that you deal with on a day-to-day basis. The more personal I can be, the less possibility there is of me crossing streams with somebody or talking about something within pop culture that everybody has a similar take on.
I just listened to your interview with Gloria Steinem, and you asked her about the impact of political correctness on comedy. I’m curious to know where you stand on that issue these days. Comics like Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have accused audiences of being too sensitive. Is that something you’ve experienced with your crowd? And does it affect what you decide to joke about at all?
There is a timidity of younger people in terms of what they should or shouldn’t be sensitive to. There’s a self-censorship that’s based on a vague paranoia of not wanting to offend anybody. And I think sometimes that’s a little dangerous. But I think having a discussion about that is not unreasonable….If you’re saying things just to push a point, just to create a controversy, you know what you’re doing. If you say something that is a mistake or has hurt a community’s feelings, then it’s on you to either defend it or apologize for it. It’s really just about taking personal responsibility. I don’t really believe in censorship in any way, but I do believe it is appropriate to be sensitive. If you still want to say something that is hurtful and challenging and you have a reason for doing it, and if you can defend that reason, do it. Say whatever the fuck you want, that’s part of the beauty of the freedom that we have, but you may have to take responsibility for it, so be prepared for that too. But I do think there is a profound amount of hyper-sensitivity that might be detrimental to emotional growth, both culturally and otherwise.
Can you talk a little bit about how the recent Lorne Michaels interview and how that came together? Why was it so important to you and what wisdom or closure do you think you gained from the conversation?
I’ve been relatively obsessed with a meeting I had with Lorne Michaels in ‘95 for a long time, in terms of what really happened there and what I remember and you know, what my life would have been like had it gone differently. And I had a certain feeling about him that had become malignant in my mind over time.
But to actually be able to sit down with him and talk to him about that meeting, which he seemed to remember, it certainly provided a certain amount of closure. And there was one beautiful moment in it that I thought was great and well played on his part. The part about his condescending — what I perceived as a condescending comment about what we were doing below 14th street not mattering. And in the interview, he said something to the extent of, “I was trying to help you. I was just trying save you some time.” [Laughs.] I thought that was very funny. But ultimately, I felt great and I liked him and I saw him as a person, with a job that he’s had for a long time. I saw him as a lifer, a TV lifer. Outside of the fact that he has a tremendous amount of power and a tremendous amount of money, he loves television and that’s his job. And to see him as a guy with a job, with a system and a world that he operates in, was very humanizing for me. So it definitely worked out in terms of me getting some closure, but also finding some respect in a way that I didn’t really have and have now.
And then of course, slightly less monumental than Lorne, was the interview with President Obama. The media immediately seized on his use of the “n-word” as the only thing they wanted to talk about. Did you know when that moment happened that it would get so much attention?
No, I’m not usually very good at that. My producer, Brendan McDonald, is very acutely aware of those things. I knew he said it. But I’m a comic and discussions about that word or being around people that use that word — primarily black people — I didn’t think like, “Oh my God!” But it was sort of jarring and it was powerful and I think that in saying it in the context that he did, to make a point about using that word in the context of racial progress was a powerful thing. The tabloid media is going to do what it’s going to do, but I think he had a context that was a service to the conversation.
The distinction that was kind of lost in the media was that people were saying he “used” the n-word, when in reality he said it in a very specific context. So I think that was the kind of nuance that can be gained in long podcast interview that was completely lost when people picked out that one moment.
Yeah, because people don’t take the time to process. They impulsively react and that seems to be enough for a lot of people.
Because of that, was there anything in that interview that you think got lost or buried because that singular focus happened?
I don’t know, I had nothing to do with that. I don’t know how many people listened — well I do know how many people downloaded it — I don’t know how many people processed that whole interview. It was downloaded, I think, close to three million times. And I got very little bad feedback from the left or the right. I got some people saying, “I don’t like him, but that was great.” Or I got some people saying, “I forgot how much I liked him.” Or I got some people saying, “I like him now.” But there was very little hate. I was prepared for people thinking it was some sort of soft interview, but I thought it was very nuanced. I sort of intentionally avoided policy, because I didn’t want to get lost. I wanted to stay connected to him.
And he knew when he was getting in the weeds. You’re dealing with a guy who has a fairly articulated position on most things and I wanted to get around that as much as possible. But it was a necessity to deal with what happened in Charleston because it was literally two days after that. And there was no way we couldn’t talk about that and a couple of other things that were going to be breaking the following week. But outside of that, we were able to change gears and we were able to have a lot of candid and nuanced conversations about fear and the job of president and about his family. And also the tone of it was unlike anything we’d really heard before [from him].
You mentioned Charleston. And now we’ve had this latest mass shooting in San Bernardino, California yesterday. What do you make of the country’s seeming inability to deal with the gun problem in any way? Now that people are describing this latest incident as terrorism, do you think that will somehow spur more action?
[Pauses.] Well, the fact that it remains a political problem is troubling. This is really about fear on behalf of Americans about being armed or not being armed. And I don’t really know how you resolve that other than putting more restrictions on gun ownership and more thorough background checks, and all the stuff that has been suggested by people who are rightfully opposed to how easy it is to get guns. When and if Americans have had enough of something, it’s very hard to say. It’s just a sad fact that there’s such a stalemate around progress on this issue. Whatever the agenda is of any person shooting innocent people, whether it’s impulsive or whether it’s planned, whether it’s based on mental illness or an ideological agenda, what these people think constitutes their freedom basically puts them and everybody else in so much fear that our freedom is actually compromised because we can’t make reasonable decisions around guns.
Amy Schumer recently jumped into this issue after there was a shooting at a screening of Trainwreck. I know you’ve really left politics behind since your days at Air America. Do things happen in this country that make you want to start talking about politics again or are you happy to leave it behind?
There are political issues that affect everybody. But how do you get everybody to access the feelings that are necessary to create an urgency around any political issue that is really based on human progress? It becomes very tricky. So if I can attach my personal experience to some sort of logic around political issues, I’ll do it. I just don’t want to be in the dialogue because that just becomes a ridiculous fight of punditry that doesn’t seem to go anywhere. A lot of people seem to find that as entertaining as watching sports and picking teams. At some point you would hope that if Americans have the desire to live with a quality of life that is tolerant and progressive in terms of being civilized, it would happen.
I guess I romanticize the idea that I still believe most people are innately good. I think a lot of people are distracted and self-involved, and I may be one of those people, but I never feel that I want to get into the political dialogue again because I think you end up honoring a dialogue that may not be your own, just to service a political system that is corrupted in a lot of ways. But I think what’s going on certainly with regard to guns, gun violence, terrorists, lunatics, even police gun violence to some degree, is disturbing and it’s heinous and it’s frightening. And I hope that something gives, but it’s hard to be optimistic when something like [the San Bernardino shooting] happens.
On a personal level, are there any 2016 candidates that you are excited about in either a positive or negative way?
I don’t want a Republican. [Laughs] I love a lot of what Bernie [Sanders] has to say and he’s created a dialogue around certain issues that this country needs to hear in a practical way. I don’t know how many people are hearing it. I think it would be exciting to have a woman as president and Hillary [Clinton], I would be OK with that. Talking to Obama, it’s a very difficult job, most of the people that can do that job or are voted to do that job cannot really fulfill their vision. Most of them are paying a lot of lip service to things they know they can’t do in order to get to where they want to be. So there’s a lot of bullshit involved in all of it. Ultimately, I’d like the country to move in a direction where there’s less angry people and less poor people and a little more justice and a little more fairness and a little more access to basic human services for everybody. I want all those things. Unfortunately, it’s very slow going in, theoretically, the most advanced country in the world.
So is it safe to say you don’t think Donald Trump is up to that task?
Donald Trump’s a clown. He’s a very traditional, populist, American clown. And whatever he’s doing seems to be fragmenting and befuddling the entire Republican [party], so that’s fine. But I don’t see him as a serious candidate even if other people do. I think that if somebody like Donald Trump actually got into office, he would very quickly be emasculated and neutered by Congress, probably his own Congress. So, whatever, he’s a great American asshole and it’s making people excited. Probably the wrong people, but what are you going to do?
What do you think explains that excitement? What is it about the American people that make them want someone like Trump?
They’re angry! And many of them, this is not what they expected in their life and in their country. Some of them are nostalgic for an America that I don’t even think existed, ever. I think it was always just an idea, this idea that everything was OK for everybody. Whoever speaks to rage and relieves it somehow with their rhetoric will be popular in the hearts of excited, angry people who feel like they’ve been dealt a bad hand.
Now that you’ve interviewed the president and Lorne Michaels, who looms large as a guest that you haven’t been able to get on the podcast yet that you would really like to talk to?
There’s always people I want to talk to. I’m talking to William Friedkin on Saturday, I’m excited about that. I’d like to talk to Albert Brooks at some point. I just interviewed Todd Haynes, the director. There’s always people that I find interesting and that do things I’m interested in or can learn from. But for some reason I’m mildly obsessed with Albert Brooks and I don’t think that’s ever going to happen. I don’t think he wants to do it, it’s just not something he does.
Leading up to the Lorne Michaels interview, you joked about it being the end of your podcast. Can you imagine a time when you would actually let it go?
No, because it’s sort of the core of what I do: stand-up and the podcast. I see other things — my life on television in a fictional way [on IFC’s Maron]. Acting, I’m OK at it, I’d like to try a little more of that. But the podcast is something I have complete creative control over, as well as my comedy. And I like having that. I like having time, for however long it lasts, where people want to see me and want to listen to the podcast. So as long as that audience is out there, I’ll keep working...I do have fantasies of going entirely off the grid and just living peacefully, but a lot of people think that’s some sort of weird dream of mine that’s impossible. So, I don’t know, we’ll see.