Marc Maron reflects on 1,000 episodes of ‘WTF’ and returns to Aspen
IF YOU GO …
Who: Marc Maron
Where: Wheeler Opera House
When: Saturday, March 23, 7:30 p.m.
How much: $78
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House; aspenshowtix.com
“WTF” was born out of fear and self-loathing and desperation in 2009, when Maron’s stand-up comedy career was on the skids and his second marriage was recently ended. From his garage in Los Angeles, he launched “WTF” into an as-yet unformed podcast landscape with no clear path to finding an audience or making a buck.
It’s since become a cultural institution, with guests ranging from comedians and artists of all stripes to President Barack Obama, while reviving Maron creatively and leading to his defining stand-up work in the specials “Thinky Pain” and “Too Real.” Two weeks ago, Maron posted his 1,000th episode of “WTF.” On Saturday, he brings new stand-up material to the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen and a sold-out Boulder Theater show Sunday.
Arriving at 1,000, Maron finally felt the enormity of the podcast and how it had transformed him.
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“It’s the arc of the struggle,” Maron said in a phone interview from the garage in early March while he was putting together number 1,000 with producer Brendan McDonald. “Entering this thing with nothing more than, ‘I’ve got to do something.’”
For the landmark episode, McDonald and Maron broke from the established “WTF” format of a monologue followed by a long-form interview, and instead spent more than two hours reminiscing about the “WTF” journey together and responding to listener feedback: some hilarious, some heartfelt. (Yes, Maron shed some on-air tears as he thanked his longtime creative partner for making the thing happen.)
By the time he launched the podcast, Maron was already a stand-up veteran with specials and a record-count of appearances on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” to his credit, but he had become embittered as stardom eluded him. The podcast not only helped him find the massive audience he’d always craved, but also oddly humbled him and helped him find his voice as a comic (self-obsessed as always, but less angry and more funny).
“How it helped me is that once it became successful and I found my place in my business, my sense of self shifted,” he explained. “After working 25 years to get some traction and to get some voice out there that was me, it happened with the podcast. So after five years of the podcast, I had a certain amount of self-confidence, or self-esteem, that wasn’t there (before) because I had actually accomplished something.”
It mellowed Maron, now 55, and freed him from the confrontational and often alienating style of his early years.
“If you work your whole life toward something and it happens, it takes a load off and you can land in your body a bit,” Maron said. “So that helped. And the constant communication, talking to people and saying funny things.”
His relationship with listeners is distinctly intimate. Regular WTF-ers have become acquainted with Maron’s idiosyncrasies and obsessions — from his cats’ health to his tortured relationship with his narcissistic father, his ongoing struggle to quit nicotine lozenges, his long-ago struggle with alcoholism and addiction, his love of vinyl, his past as comedy’s biggest asshole. His stand-up has the same inward-looking bent, but his interviews end up being so revealing of guests because Maron himself is such an open book.
So how, as a stand-up performer, does Maron deal with audiences who already know him so well and may have spent hours listening to him talk about himself?
“The familiarity has only helped my stand-up in a huge way, because I don’t experience any apprehension or fear about being onstage,” he said. “Most comics pretend they’re not afraid most of their career and then one day it just goes away and you realize, ‘This is where I live, on this stage.’”
His free-form monologues at the top of the podcast led him to freedom onstage. He calls them a “workshop for ideas” for his stand-up sets.
“I don’t necessarily have an audience, but I have complete freedom of mind that lands with an audience,” he said.
But podcast fans may not realize that stand-up is his lifelong passion and can take an unusual interest in the mundane details of his life that spill out on “WTF.”
“They’d be surprised that I could do it so well, because it’s what I’ve always done,” he said. “And people would be like, ‘Hey, good show. Did you get that thing fixed at the house?’”
Putting together episode 1,000, Maron found himself thinking back to the early days of “WTF” when he was packing envelopes with schwag to send to people who’d donated $10 to keep the thing going: “There is a nostalgia to it, but — just like the beginning of my stand-up career — it’s like, ‘God, I can’t believe we did all that s—!’”
In the years that followed, the show rose to a hallowed place. In 2015, President Obama made the pilgrimage to the garage in a watershed moment for Maron and for podcasts at large. When the greatest interviewer of our time, Terry Gross, decided to open up in a rare and revealing personal conversation, she chose Maron as her interlocutor. When Robin Williams’ death by suicide shocked the world, Maron reposted a 2010 interview where Williams spoke candidly about his struggles with mental health. And, of course, Maron has ticked off consequential interviews with every comedy legend you can think of and with enigmatic cultural titans including Bruce Springsteen.
“It became something without any expectation,” Maron said.
The garage itself grew into such a hallowed landmark that when Maron moved to a new home last year, and left the Highland Park garage where it all started, it occasioned a New York Times story about the space that treated the ephemera piled there — posters and fan sketches and dusty books and family photos and Obama’s coffee cup — as treasured artifacts.
Concurrently, Maron has developed into a Screen Actors Guild Award-nominated actor, beginning by playing a version of himself on the IFC series “Maron,” then a washed-up wrestling promoter on Netflix’s acclaimed “GLOW” and now starring in the recently premiered Lynne Shelton comedy “Sword of Truth” and opposite Robert De Niro and Joaquin Phoenix in the upcoming Batman flick “Joker.”
Last month, Maron was enshrined in pop culture history, appearing as himself on an episode of “The Simpsons” where Krusty the Clown comes to the garage for a “WTF” taping.
“It’s very flattering and sort of amazing that, at least to some people, I’m enough of a cultural icon to become part of the legacy of that,” he said of “The Simpsons” guest spot.
Among his obsessions, for nearly a decade of “WTF” episodes, was the inner workings of “Saturday Night Live.” In countless interviews with “SNL” players and alumni, Maron talked through his failed mid-1990s audition for the show. The inquiry more or less resolved in a two-part interview with “SNL” founder Lorne Michaels in 2015. But a new frontier in the saga began in this season of “SNL,” when, in a sketch lampooning podcasts, castmember Alex Moffat spoofed Maron, playing a cartoonish version of the comic (exasperated and wearing Maron’s thick eyeglasses and Doc Holliday goatee, he declares crankily “I gotta find something new, people, I’m gonna freaking kill myself!”).
“Well, if I’m going to get on ‘SNL,’ I guess that’s how I’m going to get on ‘SNL,’” Maron said of the skit with a laugh. “I think he did a good job with it. I would have liked to see more. And I would have liked to have had the opportunity in my life to have hosted ‘SNL.’ I don’t think that’s going to happen, but I can live with the characterization of me.”
Maron is still a road warrior of a comic, flying to theater and club dates around the U.S. and Europe. He’s currently developing an hour of material for a new special, a follow-up to 2017’s “Too Real” for Netflix. The new material, he said, largely circles around the themes he’s been mining for decades like parents, addiction, middle age (there’s a bit about vitamins) and a dash of Trump and politics.
“I don’t think I’ve done better stand-up than I’ve been doing the last couple years,” he said.
And Maron is no stranger to the Wheeler Opera House stage. He first performed at the historic theater in the mid-1990s during the early days of HBO’s U.S. Comedy Arts Festival. After HBO left town, he returned during the brief run of the Aspen Rooftop Comedy Festival in 2010 where he taped an unaired “WTF” episode with guests Michael Ian Black, Hannibal Buress and Gary Gulman at Belly Up.
His stops here have ranged from memorable gigs at the Wheeler to small barroom shows and what he called a “horrible TV taping” of Comedy Central’s “Kicking Aspen.”
“I had some good and bad experiences in Aspen doing comedy — the lack of oxygen is always an issue, in terms of your mental capacity,” he said with a laugh. “The first time I came up there, I decided I had to work out and I think I almost died.”
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