I hear Marc Maron before I see him.
The sound of music wafts down his block in Highland Park, Los Angeles, on a sunny Saturday.
Past the garden gnomes on the porch and the Toyota in the driveway with a WTF sticker on it, lies a screen door. Maron opens it and makes coffee amidst piles of papers and books on his table — a combination of hardcore literature, self-help and philosophy.
“Hi, what are we doing?” he asks. “Where are we doing it?”
He always seems to be getting his bearings like this, figuring out the boundaries of an intimate interaction — its location and parameters. Since 2009 he’s used his podcast WTF to explore questions of self-image and comedic success with heavy hitters like Lorne Michaels and the late Robin Williams. Coming up as a comedian in New York City and having struggled with addiction throughout the 1990s, he retains a tough edge in his frequent stand-up shows and his incisive writing for his IFC show, Maron.
As we sip coffee (he takes it black), Maron walks outside through the backyard to the infamous garage where he settles into a seat and peers across his desk through his rectangular glasses. (At 52, he’s kind of a silver fox.) The garage feels small — sized for two motorcycles or one compact car. Grey soundproofing material covers corners and doors. More books, including the Watchmen series, line the walls, and a poster of Maron himself hangs near the door. A tissue box, promising either emotions or allergies, rests next to the interviewee’s seat (recently occupied by Sacha Baron Cohen and the Duplass brothers). A low ceiling lends intimacy to the place, but to call it “womb-like” would be a stretch.
Rather, the vibe feels somewhere between teenage game room and esoteric shrink office, which is exactly what he seems to be going for. Maron’s magic power may be his ability to cultivate a middle school “if you don’t tell, I won’t tell” atmosphere with highly accomplished people who are sensitive to their image — before going public with that intimate conversation.
We spoke in the fall when he was gearing up for the release of his first full-length comedy special in years. At that time he seemed almost ready to drop out of the game altogether, feeling like he had reached the pinnacle of his accomplishments with WTF (now approaching its 700th episode). After all, he had recently interviewed the most powerful person on earth, President Obama, which might explain that feeling of peaking.
Months later, he’s still doing his thing in the midst of shooting season four of Maron; gearing up to release his EPIX stand-up special on Hulu next month; and going rogue in his interviews and comedy by continuing to improvise, confront hecklers or the occasional Twitter fan (“I lost my shit on some guy last night [at the Comedy Store], and I haven’t done that in a long time.”) and express deeply personal ambivalences (see his Louis C.K. interview for some great examples).
That ability to improvise in an increasingly scripted world might best explain his messianic appeal.
What precipitated the incident at the Comedy Store last night?
He treated me like an idiot, and I confronted him about it. He was yelling about something I did on Twitter and I just snapped. I did it right there in the hallway. I haven’t done that in a while — where people look at you different after, like, “What just happened? I thought I knew you…” Very awkward.
The rage curtain came up?
I’ve kept it down lately. But yeah, everybody had that look. There’s a consistency to how things go in any given environment and when the pitch raises — and if you’re the guy raising the pitch — it takes people a little while to reconvene.
Let’s talk about the relationship between sensitivity and anger. How do you balance them? Or do you think they’re opposed?
No, they’re not opposed. But the problem with being overly sensitive is that you’re very easily hurt. You’re going to “man up” or whatever. At some point you get old enough to realize that you’re not in danger and that a lot of things may not be a threat and reacting to them as such is a bit dramatic. As I get older I get a little more capable of detachment.
You mentioned “manning up” just then. You’ve clearly had your own personal evolution with masculinity and anger. How you would describe that relationship over time?
Masculinity is kind of a tricky thing. I try not to think about it as much anymore because I’m just getting old. A lot of those things, identity issues: how long can you wrestle with that shit?
In terms of masculinity, I don’t have the responsibilities that would enable me to really see what that is. I don’t have a family; I don’t have kids; I don’t seem to be either mature or together enough to maintain relationships for the long haul. Maybe that’s changing. I think as you get older, you just suck it up. Maybe that’s better than man up: Suck it up.
I’ve become a bit of a better man in terms of treating people better and being a little more empathetic and a little less selfish but in terms of Bros versus Emos (or whatever the opposite is), I’m somewhere in the middle. I don’t think you can break it up in such a binary way, the alpha-beta thing. But people do.
There’s a lot of dudes I don’t quite understand. I don’t know these guys that come from you know, “computers, Star Trek,” that whole nerd culture, that fashion, that identity, that tribe? I come from a different hero structure. It was always sort of “beatnik, rock ‘n’ roll, cigarettes and drugs.”
I’m curious to talk to you more about the use of personal material. I talk about my own personal life and sex life in a pretty public way in my writing. What’s the boundary when you make this choice to expose yourself publicly?
You write about your own sex life?
I mean, I think “sex life” is a weird term because a sex life is a life. It’s an extension of your life — your intimate life and your relationship life.
Kinda. I talked a little bit about that on the EPIX special I did — the difference between “pants time” and “no-pants time” — it’s really a weird thing. Your entire being changes. It’s different.
It is different, but it’s not unrelated to the rest of life.
Well, it has to be integrated, but it’s a different timezone. Desire is a weird thing. I don’t know that how one gets their rocks on is necessarily relevant at all to the pursuit of intimacy. Some shit gets tricky. It all comes down to, what do you really want? Out of your life, out of sex? Are you using it to get off (literally), or do you want intimacy for real?
What’s the answer for you?
Scared as shit. I understand why people seek to manage monogamy in a way. It might buffer the possibility of heartbreak [although] usually not. But if you go through the world without that — however immature you may be or however clumsily you may give your heart to somebody — it’s a lot to come back from, and it doesn’t go away. It’s gonna inform your future in terms of your capacity for intimacy.
I mean, shit fades but the wiring inside of you that seeks to protect your survival is gonna be a little more cautious. So in light of that, sex can be used to distance yourself from ever being intimate again.
Where do you feel like you’re at with love?
I’ve very uncomfortable with it [Laughs]. It wasn’t taught properly. I had panicky parents, not loving parents. I’m terrified of it, I think. I’m good at taking the actions — loving actions, you know? — [and] showing up. But to let myself really experience it in a way that doesn’t make me feel like I’m gonna disappear or be annihilated? It’s tricky. Receiving it is very uncomfortable. But I’m getting better. It’s like paralysis. You know, I let it happen but I’m like, [Stiffening] “Uhhhhhhh. Ok, ok, ok.” Hopefully I’ll get better at that. It seems like something that should be easier.
I think it’s a muscle. Everybody’s capable of it, and everybody has the capacity for it. For some people, loving and receiving love is just like breathing, but there are those of us who have trouble breathing. It’s all the same thing you know?
I think that’s true. But isn’t that damage something that in some ways only love can heal?
Yeah, I guess. You know, life is short. People really think that they’re going to do something or change something. And sometimes they’re surprised, but I don’t know. Sometimes it doesn’t get done.
I get a little emotional more now being the age I’m at. I’m very sensitive to feeling other people’s shit, usually strangers. I get a little blinded with people I’m in a relationship with. But, like, with people I talk to in here, I’m a lot more open emotionally and connected when I know it’s going to be over.
There’s a boundary to it and that can be comforting?
Yeah, if you have trouble with boundaries. If you see intimacy and love as an attack of some kind.
So how do you feel at this point about connecting with other people over pain?
Well, it’s dicey because I get very emotional. I cry all the time. Like, even that guy I got angry at last night — you know, he’s in a world of pain that guy. But I obviously connect with him and I identify with him because within 15 minutes we were sort of moping-ly apologizing to each other.
The weird thing about an emotionally insecure, distrusting person is that catharsis of rage or confrontation is kind a portal to emotional connection. It’s intolerable for the other person unless they’re a lot like you. And it’s not healthy. A lot of people ask me if I’m happy, and I don’t know if I’ve ever been looking for happiness. I’ve been looking for room to breathe.
Katherine Cooper has written for Playboy, BOMB magazine, and Women & Performance Journal. She’s currently working on a book about her job as a high-end matchmaker in New York City.