Marc Maron, Podcast King Unplugged
The host of WTF is clean for nearly 13 years but he’s the first to admit that he may not have the kind of sobriety you want.
Marc Maron is perhaps the best living example of the fact that anger, when honed, can entertain, amuse and even inspire. The 48-year-old Jersey native isn’t new to the comedy scene—he started doing stand-up in 1987 and has appeared on late-night television so much that he actually holds the world record for Conan appearances (48 times and counting)—but it was when Maron decided, in September of 2009, to do a twice-weekly podcast that the world discovered his raw, acerbic style.
WTF, which has featured interviews with Ben Stiller, Amy Poehler, Louis CK, Robin Williams and hordes of other bold-faced names, has been downloaded over 53 million times, regularly takes the number one spot on the iTunes charts and has netted mainstream success to a comedian whose shtick, at least in part, was once focused on how mainstream success had primarily eluded him. Today, his live shows tend to sell out, his half-hour scripted series has been picked up by IFC, his highly-anticipated memoir will be released in April, and he’s even logged a spot on Time’s 100 Most Influential People list.
I’m the kind of alcoholic that needed to understand the tools of the program and then make them my own.
As anyone who’s listened to WTF can attest, the thrill of Maron’s podcast is not the high wattage of his guests but Maron himself: he somehow manages to inject himself into every interview in a way that’s never cloying and he’s honest even when it will make everyone uncomfortable—perhaps especially when it will make everyone uncomfortable. What this means cannot be overstated: publicist-controlled interviews with famous people (which is to say nearly all interviews with famous people) are specifically designed to reveal as little as possible about the subject so that he or she can remain larger than life in the mind of the listener or reader or viewer. Maron turns that concept on its head, so skillfully that his guests almost seem not to notice, and he’s often mending fences with a former rival in the process (conveniently, Maron seems to consider many of the people successful enough to merit a slot on his show former rivals).
It’s this unfettered tearing open of Maron’s id—the fact that he’s willing to admit and joke about his crippling feelings of competitiveness—that’s at least part of what makes his show so addictive. But by giving voice to these feelings—by showing his legions of fans that feelings about work and success and competition and life are complicated and worth discussing—he’s bringing a form of therapy to the masses. The way he thinks is nothing knew to addicts; the revelatory part is that alcoholic thinking, when combined with a brilliant mind and razor-sharp wit, can be an undeniable form of service.
In this exclusive interview, Maron shares that mind and wit with The Fix, in the process confessing his deep appreciation for drug addicts, his own journey through recovery and why he thinks he’s always popping up in people’s dreams.
You’ve always been open on WTF about the fact that you’re a sober addict. Was that a conscious choice?
My experience with addiction and recovery is life-defining so I never had any shame around it. If anything, I probably talk about it too much. The biggest challenge for me in talking about my own drug addiction and recovery is in making sure that I keep it to my own experience and do not pass judgment on others—and also to protect the anonymity of the program. Whether addiction comes up or not, it defines a big part of my disposition, both sides of it: both acknowledging that I’m an addict—knowing what that looks like—and also using the tools of recovery by making the principles that got me sober mesh with my own philosophies. That’s defined a lot of my evolution as a person. I don’t need to talk about it, I’m not doing a recovery oriented show, but I think people in recovery can certainly relate to my disposition and outlook and they can read between the lines and hear some of the principles of recovery.
Are you a big program guy?
I’m a meeting guy and a sort of “talking to other addicts” guy over being a program guy. I’m not that hung up on the God thing. I can be just fairly okay without a defined concept of a Higher Power. The biggest thing to learn from the idea of a Higher Power is, I think, essentially that it’s not you and that most things are really out of your control. Those are philosophical and logical mathematics that I can see. In order to live a reasonably responsible life knowing that, you have to have some sort of faith but I don’t know that it has to be in a Higher Power. I don’t feel like I’m on a search for God or spirituality; I’m not really propelled that way. I know people that are more spiritual that would say, “Well, clearly you’re not—look at these still-existing character defects” or “Look at the way you behaved in this situation.” I can live with that. One of the weird slippery slopes in program literature is that you’re going to deal with your character defects when you’re ready. There’s a little but of leeway and, in my mind, that means you can choose which ones you live with. But then if you want to release them, there’s a system to try to do that.
I have a joke about how when you’re in therapy as a teenager, you have to go because everyone’s given up on you but when you actually go as an adult—when I actually went as an adult—I walked in going, “Look I know there are some things that we’re not going to be able to un-fuck. If we could just tweak the things that are un-fuckable so that I could just live with them a little easier, that would help a great deal.” And sometimes I think that’s the best you can ask for: to learn to act against your instincts—to first identify the instincts that you’re wired for and are destructive to do and then to try to take a beat and not act on them. And if you do, to then apologize and try to make it right as soon as possible. As far as a cognitive self-exercise, I think [with me] we’re just going to have to live with a little bad wiring and embrace that and accept it. Self-acceptance is a very appealing part of the program.
Do you think your still existing character defects are in danger of leading you back to drinking?
Not in my experience. I’ll tell you the miracle of the program for me is that the obsession to use drugs and drink was lifted. That was a promise that came true. It was baffling—I don’t know how it came true but it came true. I work in nightclubs, I’m around people that drink and use and I don’t really ever feel the desire to do it. I was told early on by the person who brought me into the program—by my ex-wife—that the first step is the only one you have to work perfectly and that really stuck with me. That can certainly get you by for a long time. I have prayed in my life and I’ve tried to meditate and I do think that the act of prayer is a humble act, whether you believe in it or not. That act of getting on your knees and the sort of weird emotions that come around that act are real and human. There’s a lot of humility in it. But I still think that those feelings can function without having to feel the pressure to define your God. The idea of a Higher Power of your own understanding leaves a lot of room for personal evolution.
I have a healthy fear of alcohol and drugs. I know what they can do and I find that I need to go to meetings. And, at different points in my recovery, I’ve been a lot more active in doing the work around it. The program definitely saved my life but I had to make it my own. That’s the healthiest way I can do it. I’m not essentially a follower—like a lot of us. I just work my own version of the program—I talk to my sponsor once a week and when I get squirrely, I go to more meetings. I’m the kind of alcoholic that needed to understand the tools of the program and then make them my own. But I would say—and a lot of people would say—that my sobriety is not something they want. Still, I’m fucking sober. I’m probably drier than what most people would like out of their sobriety but it keeps me…uh…uh…
You told CNN that you “did your graduate work” by chopping lines for Sam Kinison. Does that mean that cocaine was your drug of choice?
Cocaine, booze, I was a daily pot smoker. There are very few drugs that I haven’t tried but I never wanted to get involved with needles. I always had a deep appreciation for drug addicts who pushed the envelope of creativity and took chances with their life. As I’ve gotten older and have met some of these people, I’ve learned that this really wasn’t necessarily a plan and, in most cases, it cut their life rather short. I was never one of those people who was hung up on how drugs made you more creative—or at least that idea seems to have gone away along with my obsession to use. Because I’m better now [creatively] than I’ve ever been.
You’ve talked about Keith Richards’s memoir a lot on your show, even going so far as to say that you were reading it slowly, like it was the Bible. He’s pretty open about the fact that he doesn’t embrace sobriety. What are your thoughts on that?
Heroin’s a tough one to shake. Returning from the world of the needle seems to be a very tall order and there are two or three guys I know that used to bang dope and now drink but they don’t drink [in any kind of an] out of control [way]. They didn’t go get another drug and destroy their life with that. I don’t know what that’s about or what that means.
Would you say that the comedy world is rife with addiction or it’s more that life is rife with addiction and there’s no more in the comedy world than anywhere else?
I think absolutely the second. This idea that high-profile junkies and alcoholics always insinuate to the general population is that musicians and artists and writers and comedians are all fucked up on drugs. But I think if you look at the numbers, they can’t be any different for plumbers or doctors or anyone else. I once took a certain pride in the fact that I was running with a group of gypsy rebels—this group that said, essentially, “We choose our life to honor our addictions”—but in retrospect, I don’t think addiction’s any more prevalent [in comedy] than it is in any other profession.
I think that most people that listen to me every week are getting two to three hours of content, usually through their headphones. And many people have told me they listen to me in bed. I never thought I’d help people get to sleep but I think that some people find my intensity to be a distraction. I don’t know exactly how or why, but I think being plugged directly into your head affects the subconscious. It’s not intentional. If I actually had control of that, I think I’d be a much more powerful person.
Anna David is the Executive Editor of The Fix and the author of the books Party Girl, Bought, Reality Matters, Falling For Me and Animal Attraction. She's written about sex addiction, gambling addiction, Thomas Jane and Tom Sizemore, among many other topics, for The Fix.