Marc Maron worked as a comedian for years before he became the internet’s favorite podcaster. A regular figure in the alt comedy scene as it came into ascendance in Boston, New York and Los Angeles, a repeated guest on Conan and Letterman and a personality on the late Air America Radio, his career had stalled out by 2009, when he found a new outlet for his sui generis voice. Maron’s still a comedian, one whose stand-up shows take him around the country, but he’s also the host of one of the best and most influential podcasts around — the semi-weekly “WTF with Marc Maron,” centered around in-depth interviews with Maron’s friends, colleagues and sometimes-rivals, most of them recorded in the garage of his Los Angeles house, which he’s nicknamed “the Cat Ranch.”
The ferocious honesty and neurotic openness of Maron’s approach to his own life, as seen in each episode’s monologued intro, fuel the free-form discussions that follow, ones that find the likes of Sarah Silverman, Louis C.K., Robin Williams and a ever-expanding list of comedy’s best and brightest speaking about their lives and careers with astonishing frankness. The podcast is the inspiration for IFC’s new scripted comedy “Maron,” in which the comedian plays a lightly fictionalized version of himself, hosting interviews, fretting about his cats, and dealing with his family, his love life and his personal baggage. Luke Matheny, who won an Oscar for his short “God of Love,” directs the series, which features appearances from former “WTF” guests Mark Duplass, Dave Foley, Jeff Garlin, Denis Leary, Aubrey Plaza, Adam Scott and others.
Indiewire caught up with Maron by phone to talk about turning his life into a TV show, which premieres on IFC on Friday, May 3 at 10pm.
Tell me about the process of building a fictionalized version of yourself. How would you describe the Maron on screen as different from you?
I don’t know how it is different necessarily, but I think you’re seeing a Maron (and I don’t want to talk of myself in the third person) that has a fairly broad personality. I’m not really a caricature, that I know of — I think the best thing that can happen is that I become one and I don’t know it. The situations we put me in on the show highlight different aspects of my personality. You see me engaging with women on dates, with an assistant, at the mic alone, and in conversation with guests. There may be one or two differences, but we were holding pretty true with the script with the bulk of the stories.
I am not a trained actor. I think I’m okay at it. My approach was really to go there, to be present for every scene as best I could — I just reacted. There wasn’t a lot of thought on my part about what is this Marc character, other than what I do every day of my life off-screen. I didn’t necessarily do it to be a character that is me on a TV show. Given the pace we created all of this stuff at, I didn’t have a lot of time to think of that. But now we do, and if we do go into a second season it would be exciting to sit down with the writers and work on each episode and really make some decisions around that character and how we can more effectively use it for stories, seeing how people respond and what the character is really about. I’m looking forward to figuring that out.
What was the writing process like? You worked with other writers?
There was a small staff. It was me, Duncan Birmingham, Michael Jamin, Sivert Glarum. Sivert and Michael were brought on as the showrunners and Duncan was the guy I wrote the pilot with. I basically came in with nine of the 10 stories and we only had a couple months to break them down. We sat there for days and built them out, made outlines, then everybody was assigned two or three scripts. You get those out to the production companies, the network, the studio, then you all sit there and rework them. It’s a very collaborative effort.
You’ve spoken on the podcast about finding it challenging sometimes to write in a voice that’s not yours — on material, say, for other people. Did you feel this was your voice in this case, even if it is a fictionalized you?
I definitely think we were able to find some area where yes, it was my own voice. I watch some things and think this is almost uncomfortably me, which is a good thing. When I’m watching this episode where me and my dad [played by Judd Hirsch] are having this loaded exchange, it’s all very layered and real to the point where it’s making me uncomfortable. I’m thinking, “Well, this guy ought to grow up.” But that’s a good reaction to have.
Your father doesn’t listen to the podcast. Do you think he’ll watch the show?
Yes, I think he’ll figure out how to get IFC.
What do you think the reaction will be with people in your life as they’re watching this?
I think I was fairly generous and respectful of both of my parents, and that they’ll be okay with it. As to how people are going to react — I don’t know. It’s definitely a character that’s rooted in my father, but there are plenty of elements of it that aren’t quite my father. Judd made it his own, but the character is still there. I think the emotions of that relationship are pretty genuine and relatable, I hope. I spent a long time thinking about if anyone has the same struggles I do, but after doing the podcast for a few years I thought that yes, there are a few out there.
I love the fact that the podcast is such a central element of the show. It’s still a relatively new phenomenon — was there ever a discussion of whether what as podcast is needed to be explained to people?
There definitely was that discussion — I think many of the events in the show around that point did happen a few years ago. When I first started doing it, this stuff with my manager [in which he has no idea what to do with or how to monetize the podcast], that’s real stuff. And that stuff with my father is real too. As much as everybody on the inside, people that are hip to it know about it, to the point where some are like “enough, alright with the podcast,” there are exponentially more people who have no fucking idea of what it is. That’s still the reality — I think we explain it enough.
So is it fair to say the Maron in the show is a few years behind where you are now?
I think that is fair to say. A lot of the events in the show are a little back there, but that’s helpful, I think, to build the basis, to be able to root through stories. It was important to go back.
The first episode has you confronting an internet troll who picks a fight with you on Twitter, actually tracking him down.
That’s based on a real story. Most of it took place online, but that happened. The way that I figured out who he was exactly was the way I portrayed it in the show. I got in a dynamic with that guy for months around his comments he made about me on a blog and on Twitter. I did track him down and I did go at him for a long time, but he seems okay now. It was a weird thing.
It was interesting to see how that confrontation was portrayed — a lot of times people who are really aggressive online back down immediately in person.
That is true, eventually they do. But that wasn’t the case that I experienced in real life, and I think that the way we went in the show was the better way to go. You would assume that this type of person would back down, but the fact that there was many of them and there was no backing down I think got us a lot more comedy.
How much do the guests in each episode guide the theme? Did, say, Denis Leary or the idea of masculine identity come first?
The idea came first. Then it was a matter of casting the right person to play that ultra male role.
Did your guest stars have input in how they wanted to be portrayed in the show, since they’re frequently playing themselves (for the most part)?
No, I wrote that thing for Dave [Foley, who appears in the first episode]. And I know those guys. The guys that have had a part in the narrative as far as [Jeff] Garlin, or Foley, or Leary, you have someone with a public persona you can write for pretty easily. The podcast moments, a lot of those are pretty loose. We know where we want to go but if there is any improvising in the show, it’s in those moments, whether in conversation with somebody or with someone else.
Ken Jeong gets incredible charge out of playing himself. He played himself in the pilot and was excited to do it again because he’s always cast as the kooky Asian guy. He was like, “I love doing this, I never get to play me.” With everyone else there was never really any conversation or issue around what to include.
Any autobiographical comedy TV project at the moment seems bound to be looped in with “Louie.” You and Louis C.K. have a history together and you were on the show last season. Was this something you had to contend with while working on “Maron”?
Well, that’s what a troll culture does. It tries to pit things against other things with some sort of comparison. But we knew that it would probably happen. We were fortunate on some level that Louis was taking a break — I also talked to him and he was very supportive and excited about my show. When it comes right down to it, not many people are bringing it up because there is not all that much to compare.
The establishment of comics blatantly playing themselves as comics on television is relatively new since “Seinfeld,” and that’s what Louis does. Comics on television asserting their comedic voice is certainly not unusual. It’s been going on since the beginning of television. Louis and I share a profession and we share a single camera format. Outside of that, they’re very different shows. I honestly believe that. I had some fear about it, but we’re episodic, we’re story-driven, I’m not doing stand-up in the show and my life is very different from his.
Your appearance in that episode of “Louie” last season seemed to pull so much from the interview you did with him on “WTF.” Can you tell me a bit about that?
I don’t know. He and I have knew each other forever and we have a certain way we engage with each other. It’s gotten better now, since my podcast. I think his idea to do it the way he did it, which was on my podcast, which was a reality frame, I was the one who owed him an apology. And on his show, I think that was his apology. That was very true to him as a person, to have that kind of like “Oh, I’ve got to do this. I already did it? Now I’m still not going to talk to you for five years.” Which wasn’t completely out of character for him, so I guess we both apologized to each other in our respective mediums.
What can we expect from the character over this first season? Does he have an emotional journey to go on?
As things start to work out a little bit more, he comes to terms with this existence, meets a girl, a younger woman, after going on several dates with different types of women over the course of the show. It’s a difficult relationship that starts in a very weird way, but he chooses to ride it out. There’s some love at the end, and we’ll see how that goes.
Going into the show, were there specific influences in film or TV you looked to? Who were your guys?
It’s weird, people ask me that about interviewing and ask me that about this — I don’t know. TV direction is different from film direction, I’ve learned. But not unlike the podcast, it’s about being as true to myself as possible. My journey as a comic has always been to find myself, above being an entertainer and everything else. So I think my real journey with the TV show was to be as true to myself as possible, and I feel like we accomplished that.
Outside of that, I visualize the same sort of presence that “Larry Sanders” did with celebrity bits. Sometimes it was there, sometimes not. Then there was the decision not to do stand up on the show because I wasn’t sure how much people needed to see that. I’m a comic and this is a comedy, so we tried to use the podcast to explore and give you a little more range. You can pull off some highs, you can be serious. The guy talking on a radio mic — you don’t see that a lot.