When the standup comic Marc Maron moved into his house in Northeast Los Angeles, in 2004, he had grand plans for his garage. “I always wanted to do something in there,” he told me over coffee at a café a few hundred yards from his home. “I put a floor in there and had an ISDN line installed. I hoped to do a radio show there, I guess.” But when Maron’s second marriage, to the comedienne Mishna Wolff, fell apart, his plans did, too. The garage, which had been a place of hope and intent, acquired a new purpose: in the fug of breakup it was there, amongst the shelves and boxes, that Maron considered taking his own life.
“I was in a dark place,” he said. “I was up against a wall: my comedy career was floundering, and I had been at it for a very long time. I was close to broke. I had no answers. The suicidal ruminations made me feel better. I don’t know if I ever would have gone through with it, but those thoughts made me feel more in control.” Maron believes that it was pride, rather than virtue, that kept him alive and away from the garage. “I am not grown up in certain ways that might allow me to plan ahead. That often results in panic and darkness. But it’s also what prevented me from throwing in the towel. I don’t know where I would throw it.”
After Wolff moved out, Maron remained in the home, and commuted between Los Angeles and New York for standup gigs. He was also recording a weekly hour-long video Webcast with the comedian Sam Seder, called “Breakroom Live with Maron & Seder.” The show was filmed in the break room at Air America Media, on Park Avenue. Maron took the gig to “get out from under the divorce,” but it “hemorrhaged money” from Air America, which cancelled the show in July of 2009. Faced with redundancy, Maron, who had always been attracted to radio, and his coworker Brendan McDonald launched a podcast on which Maron interviewed guests about their lives. “We’d break into the studio with the help of the night tech and begin recording the podcast there,” he recalled. “We’d bring guests up there through the freight elevator.”
After recording a dozen episodes of the podcast, called “WTF” (Internet slang to express incredulity), Maron returned home to Los Angeles and, with McDonald’s help, converted his garage into a recording studio. “We had no expectation, but it was our thing,” he said. “I focussed on talking to people about how they live life.” Maron soon found that what had begun as a light-hearted venture resonated in unexpected ways. Through the vulnerability of his conversations, often with strangers, he began to examine his own situation with fresh perspective. “The first year of the podcast, you can hear me trying to get out from the darkness in my life,” he said. “But we didn’t really have any expectations other than to see whether or not we could build an audience.”
They built a huge one. Earlier this year, Maron stated that episodes of the podcast had been downloaded more than a hundred million times since its début, in September, 2009. But, despite the success, the garage itself has remained an informal space, a shantytown of books and wires. Initially, McDonald purchased an analogue mixing desk (which Maron still uses today) and two “high-end mics” that were “inappropriately set on small booms.” Maron and his guests would sit at a small table in the middle of the room, recording onto his laptop.
“At some point, I realized I had to make it more accommodating and comfortable,” he said. “I bought a separate computer just for the show, and some proper mic stands.” Nevertheless, the garage continues to function as storage. Maron keeps his books stacked along the walls, alongside items that fans of the show have sent in and assorted personal debris. “Guests sit within a history of me, artifacts from different times of my life,” he said. “There are photographs and pictures of me from across the years: pictures of relationships, pictures of my parents from when they were young, performance posters that are important to me, and pictures of my heroes. Some of it has to be cleaned out. But I always liked that kind of clutter. The feel of having interesting stuff.”
On a podcast episode in January, 2013, Maron talked about the mystique of the garage. “I don’t know why this garage changed my life,” he said in the show’s preamble. “This is a magic place. I don’t understand why what happens in here happens.” Indeed, Maron and his garage have become known for inspiring vulnerability in the luminary comedians, actors, film directors, and musicians who serve as his guests. The comedian Louis C.K. broke down during his interview, while describing the birth of his daughter; at the age of forty-seven, the comedian Todd Glass came out as gay on the podcast. In part this is due to Maron’s skill as a conversationalist (he doesn’t prepare a list of questions before interviews, preferring to improvise as if at a standup gig). But the garage itself has an aura of nostalgia, an environment that, by its very presentation, appears to invite intimacy. “It feels lived in,” said Maron. “It’s a personal rather than professional environment, and that sets the tone for the conversation. It seems to me that the best that can happen is that people forget that they are on the mic in there.”
For Maron, the return to the garage symbolizes a return to his interest in other people and their stories. When he was in high school, Maron told me, he was attracted to big personalities, people who appeared to “have an angle on life.” At the time, his grandfather owned an appliance store. “The old guys would stand around and tell stories, and I’d sit and listen to them,” he said. “I went on to work at a restaurant and I’d talk to the local lunatics. I was interested in people’s stories, especially if they were weird.” Later, Maron believes that his drug addiction numbed that interest. “Lately, I’ve returned to a curiosity that had been diminished by anger. I’ve had to rediscover empathy.”
Maron’s interviews are recorded in batches, sometimes five or six a week, but he records the introductions (usually a soliloquy on current events in his own life) the night before release. “WTF” recently passed its five hundredth episode, revitalizing Maron’s career and redoubling the show’s success. (In May, 2013, Maron launched an IFC TV series, “Maron,” which is currently in its second season).
But with this success comes a challenge: how to protect the spirit of a show that some publicists may view as a P.R. platform for their clients. “As the show becomes more popular, my sense is that some interviewees are now being prepped a bit, in terms of what to talk about and how to be,” Maron said. “Some people are more professional or have a public narrative, but I get around that, and usually there’s a genuine exchange going on.” Another challenge is how to keep the project vital for himself. “You don’t want it to become empty or just a plain job,” he said. “So there’s fear there. But I know that people are going to tire of it, because people tire of things. Things have their time. At least I have a body of work now that wasn’t there before.”
The success has also led to a material conundrum: whether or not to move to a larger house or, crucially, to a different garage. “I was looking at houses, and the first consideration was always the question of whether or not I can recreate my garage,” he said. “But I couldn’t pull the trigger. It does seem to be a magic place, a sacred place. I want to keep that magic for sure.”
Authored by SIMON PARKIN via newyorker.com.