Podcast Savant Marc Maron… on Television? WTF!


I don’t know how many of my compatriots realize this — but we currently live in a golden age of American comedy. And this glittering era doesn’t follow from anything projected onto various screens by Adam Sandler or Jim Carrey or Tina Fey. Nor is it due to anything written or directed by Seth MacFarlane or Judd Apatow. And it’s not because Charlie Sheen left Two and a Half Men, finally allowing the flagship brand of televised network comedy (cough!) to reach its true potential.

Instead this golden age has resulted because Marc Maron — a formerly little-known standup comedian with more than two decades of performing experience, but little lasting success — has been producing his uniquely tense and revealing comedy podcast for more than three years now.

Maron’s podcast is titled “WTF” — an abbreviation which stands for the host’s characteristic expression of surprise and incredulity: “What The Fuck?” Maron was a natural for the podcast genre even when he began producing WTF in September 2009 — drawing on his years of talk-radio experience with Air America and National Public Radio. But as his podcasting achievements have piled up, Marc Maron has managed to reach a level of stunning accomplishment which few other comedians can touch.

And now Maron is about to branch out (again) into television. In Spring 2013, the independent-film channel IFC will begin airing a half-hour television comedy simply titled Maron. The show’s content will reportedly be drawn from the WTF podcast — although at this point it’s hard to imagine what that could mean.

While Maron’s WTF podcast is groundbreaking in several ways, its format is not one of them. In fact as comedy podcasts go, the WTF format is pretty much center-line average: Five or ten minutes of Maron introducing the current episode and promoting his upcoming standup appearances (often absent-mindedly or incompetently); an outro of two or three minutes, in which Maron summarizes the just-completed episode and often redoes whichever promos he messed up during the intro; and in between, interviews running an hour or slightly longer.

The interviews are where Maron excels. They’re usually presented straight, rarely edited, and are most often conducted one-on-one inside a garage studio located in the host’s cat-dominated Los Angeles home, informally known as “the Cat Ranch.” (Maron’s invitations to podcast guests seem to go something like this: “Come by the Cat Ranch sometime — we’ll go out to the garage and record a show.” And he has dubbed his current series of road dates the “Out of the Garage Tour.”) Occasional variations on the format are provided by musical guest performers, WTFs recorded at remote locations, and live WTFs conducted at public venues along with several guests. The live episodes seem to rely more heavily on rehearsed exchanges between host and guests — yet due to the presence of an audience, these episodes can sometimes be even more spontaneous than the in-studio interviews.

Amid all these constraints, Maron’s genius as a podcaster consists primarily of one talent: his knack for encouraging relentless self-examination in front of a microphone. And then presenting that self-examination as a form of entertainment.

Of course on this topic, Maron rigorously practices what he preaches. His podcast introductions are brief yet compulsive glimpses of the host’s own journeys into self. And this theme also appears prominently in his standup work — as anyone will note after hearing just a few minutes from any of Maron’s four comedy albums.

But Maron also plays his guests’ self-consciousness like a virtuoso. He encourages his interviewees to reveal all by first laying himself bare — in limited doses per podcast, but over time even these limited doses add up to a virtual Dostoevsky novel. Admirers frequently compare WTF to a form of psychotherapy — a comparison which the host hates, but has learned to live with.

The result is a Smithsonian-level, MacArthur-grant-quality oral history of American standup comedy during the career of Marc Maron — roughly from the late 1980s onward. With frequent ventures into television and movies, and occasional sidebars of music.

By now the volume and consistent quality of Maron’s podcast output staggers the imagination. His first guest back in September 2009 was “roast comic” Jeff Ross, an acquaintance. These days Maron produces an average of about eight original WTF episodes per month — often interviewing big comedy names like Ben Stiller, Conan O’Brien, or Chris Rock, or else other performers like Bryan Cranston, Jon Hamm, or Jack White — plus an occasional retrospective or special. By now this effort has resulted in approximately 365 completed episodes — or one for every day of the year, if you’re an exceptionally ambitious listener just catching on now. At this point I’m still about six months behind, myself.

And now Maron is going into television. Back into television, really — since he has had jobs on the fringes of that business going back into the 1990s (including short-lived shows on the Comedy Central cable network). Maron appears to be pitched at the same audience which currently enjoys Portlandia on IFC, and its format seems to be modeled on Louis C.K.’s FX Network series, Louie — source of another convincing argument that we currently live in a golden age of American comedy.

Of course I’m eager to discover what Marc Maron, a uniquely talented comedian and interviewer, can do in television given a certain amount of creative control. But at the same time I’m concerned. I expect the WTF podcast to be noticeably affected by Maron’s new occupation: producing a television show with his name in the title. But even if WTF declines or ends altogether, the three years during which Maron concentrated on producing regular podcasts — roughly, 2009 through 2012 — will still live forever in comedy heaven. And at least for a while at wtfpod.com and on iTunes.

Caricature of Marc Maron by DonkeyHotey/Flickr.

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