Those were Marc Maron's first words as he entered the room for our interview at Book Expo last May, and it wasn't really a question. That's somewhat ironic: Maron is the host and creator of the successful and influential WTF podcast, a series of more than 800 interviews all driven by his knack for connecting with people through conversation, rather than scripts or prescribed questions. Initially a show featuring fellow comedians (he is a veteran of the standup scene) Maron's interactions were frequently concerned as much with his own insecurities as they were about his guests—fraught relationships, substance abuse, and professional jealousy, to name a few. That could have been annoying, but his raw honesty encouraged the same from his subjects, and compelling dialogues followed. Therapy as entertainment, with good jokes.
Sometimes it works better than others. An early "talk" with the melon-crusher Gallagher was a spectacularly entertaining grease fire, ending with the tinfoil-hat philosopher angrily abandoning Maron in his hotel room, mid-interview. While that probably stoked some of those aforementioned insecurities (unfairly, this was all on Gallagher), a two-part meeting with Louis C.K., in which both went deep to rehash and repair what had been a lapsed friendship, has been called the best podcast of all time by both Slate and People. As the show's popularity expanded—accelerated by a 2011 New York TImes profile—so did WTF's range of guests. Actors, directors, musicians, and writers, often legendary, became regular visitors to the garage of his Los Angeles home, where he records most of his exchanges. Many would say his signature moment arrived when the Secret Service locked down his neighborhood for the appearance of then-sitting President Barack Obama, while Maron himself might tell you Keith Richards sits atop that mountain. But it doesn't really matter who he's talking to; in my own experience (hundreds of hours—I commute), some of the most rewarding episodes are with people I'd not previously known.
WTF deserved a chronicle, a catalog of its memorable encounters and personalities, but two episodes released every week over eight years makes for an intimidating project. Waiting for the Punch finds a way. Instead of reproducing entire interviews (which often run an hour or longer), Maron and producer Brendan McDonald identified the common themes running through the entire history of the podcast; Amy Poehler, Robin Williams, and Obama weigh in on the book's chapter dedicated to Parenting, while Terry Gross and Mel Brooks address Mortality. Sexuality, Addiction, and Failure, and Success are more provocative topics explored by Maron and his more than 100 contributors, sometimes fearlessly, occasionally less so.
Here are a few highlights from our own visit at the Javits Center in New York (both transcribed and as a video below). Fortunately, I had a couple of questions. Do it up.
For those who don't know, could you describe how the podcast got started?
I started the podcast, I think in 2009, out of complete desperation. I was out of a job, out of a marriage, going broke, so we started doing it in a radio studio—my producer Brendan McDonald and myself. It evolved into this thing.... Over about a year, it became this interview show. It's basically a one-on-one interview interview show with me talking to another person, not unlike this. Sometimes two people, but that gets tricky, because then I have to add a mic. Three people's out of the question.
What do you want to accomplish when you bring someone into to garage?
That's a good question that I rarely know the answer [to]. The objective is to at least have a connection, to get to a point where the conversation is natural and loose and effortless in the way that it's not an interview. I don't generally know where it's going to go, and that's better. I know what they've done, usually, I know why they might be there, but it's better if something surprising happens that is both exciting for me and them.
Does your interview style change depending on who you're talking to?
I don't think it changes by virtue of what they do; it does change because how I feel about them and their work. With President Obama we had an hour, and I did have to plan that out fairly efficiently. I'm not going to wing it with the president. But I do generally wing it for the most part. With musicians, I tend to be a little bit more excited, fanboyish, it seems. With actors, I've grown to focus a little more on how they do what they do. I always wanted them to be the character that I knew them as. I had a real problem with Bryan Cranston, because I was really expecting to talk to Walter White. Arguably my Keith Richards interview was me going "Oh my God! Oh my God! Keith Richards! I can't believe you're Keith Richards!" It was a little more conversational than that, but that's what was happening.
How did the book come about?
There was a general sense that we should do something. There was an idea that we'd do a book of specific interviews, longform, which didn't really manifest. Thankfully. There [were] some other ideas around bits and pieces of interviews—as sort of an inspirational book. Brendan McDonald and I became interested [in] the idea of having a thematic book... There are certain things that we talk about on the show consistently—themes—and those would be the chapters, and then we just fill them up with pieces of upward of 100 interviews.
I do have to say that Brendan... he's got this memory. I'm not going to remember talking to you in a week. That's not an insult. But somehow or another, he can remember. "Oh, you talked about that for three minutes on episode 750 with so-and-so." What? He was essential, and [he] did all the picking and choosing.
Were there any revelations in revisiting the material?
Yeah. Once I have the conversation, I don't do the editing. My memory of them, if it holds—which is not always the case, as I told you—is of the event itself. I'm not sitting there remembering the conversation, because I'm having it. When I read the galley [pre-publication copy], it was wild to get back in the conversations. There's something about reading spoken stuff. The way people talk is not the way people write. When you write, you can play with a paragraph for a year, if you want. What happens in a moment, when people are just having the thoughts, it's an entirely different delivery system. And when you read that, I believe it goes into a different part of the brain. There's a lyricism to it. There's a continuity to it. It all kind of flows together, all these different people talking.
On the title, Waiting for the Punch
I think it was something Judd [Apatow] said. [turning to McDonald] I had that fear of space debris, or being hit in the head with a hammer while I was sleeping. It's a weird fear to have. It's not the idea that someone came into my house, it's the actual idea of being woken up with a hammer to your head. "Waiting for the punch" is what life is like. It functions comedically—the punchline—But I think that Judd and I were talking about a more existential fear, which is the dread of the next thing. It has at least a dual meaning... but waiting for the punch, in general, is what we're all doing.
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- Ghosts of the Chelsea Hotel
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