I was never good at hitting news pegs when I worked in public radio, and so it's no surprise that I'm writing my thoughts about Marc Maron and his podcast WTF weeks after the show's 400th episode. But seeing various websites compile their favorite episodes of the show, I wanted to write about how important Maron's voice was to my own life when I first discovered it.
I have Ira Glass to thank for the discovery. He recommended WTF back in 2010, describing it as "the New York Times of comedy podcasts." In retrospect, as much as I love Ira Glass, this is a terrible analogy. WTF is neither the New York Times of anything nor the anything of comedy podcasts. While WTF contains elements of journalism and comedy, it is wholly its own thing, some new hybrid art form, mixing comedy, interview and audio-memoir. Though Maron comes from the world of standup comedy and primarily interviews standup comedians, I don't even think his show is primarily about comedy. It's just that comedy, and the practice of comedy, offers the best lens for examining Maron's most enduring subject, which is anxiety.
The origin story of the podcast is legendary. After ending his second marriage, losing his job at Air America, failing to break through as a mainstream standup comic, and (by his own account) approaching the verge of suicide, Maron started interviewing fellow comedians in his garage, partly to examine why he hadn't achieved more success in his life. The critic David Haglund has argued in Slate that it was precisely this exploration of failure that made the show resonate with listeners.
When your work life is not going well—especially if you’re professionally ambitious and even more so if your chosen field is the sort that has an audience—it is easy to isolate yourself, to shy away from friends and from peers and avoid acknowledging that things are not going as you hoped they would. Much of the power of WTF comes from Maron doing the exact opposite of that. He said to the world, “My life is a disaster right now. Help me understand what the fuck is going on.” (I’m paraphrasing.) It is maybe not a coincidence that his podcast became a phenomenon at a time when many Americans were losing their jobs.
It may not be a coincidence that I started listening to the show after I had quit my own job and then failed to find the next thing I wanted to do. I was teaching part time at a technical college, but on my days off, I would struggle to work on a novel or a number of radio stories that never came to fruition. In the afternoons, I would go for a jog or a bike ride, exercise providing the only part of the day that I could be sure I hadn't wasted. I no longer felt the excessively sharp teeth of anxiety that had plagued me in my previous job, but I still felt dizzy from the view of the precipice between this life and that one, not sure if I'd made the right choice for myself or my family, and it was into the midst of that doubt that Marc Maron's sandpapery voice entered and served as a remarkably comforting companion.
The appeal of those early episodes is the hunger with which Maron pursues wisdom for the purpose of improving his own life, and his quest is especially intoxicating if you identify with his creative struggles. But what's revelatory, even if it should be obvious, is to hear Maron uncover not the secrets of happiness but how hard even his most successful peers have struggled and continue to struggle with stress, anxiety, rage, and depression, just like he does.
Almost everyone agrees that the pinnacle of WTF is the interview with Louis CK, partly because he and Maron share so much history. The interview itself becomes a kind of excavation of a friendship that had died as a result of Maron's resentment over CK's success. What I love is how baldly CK lays out the history of his own moments of abject failure and desperation as he struggled to make it as a comic. One of my favorite parts of the interview is what might be called the parable of the trumpet and the peep show, excerpted below.
I retold this story to my wife recently, and instead of being amused, she was mortified. "I'm not sure what you want me to make of that," she said. "Are you planning to spend $1400 on something or what?" I couldn't quite figure out at the time what made it so important to me, but thinking of it now, the story reminds me of something I read in an essay (subscription required, sadly) by Andrew Solomon, describing his own bouts of anxiety-fueled depression. He offered the following analogy.
If you trip or slip, there is a moment, before your hand shoots out to break your fall, when you feel the earth rushing up at you and you cannot help yourself—a passing, fraction-of-a-second horror. I felt this way for days.
In his story of the trumpet and the peepshow, Louis CK is describing his own desperate attempt to stave off this kind of anxiety, his own hand shooting out, and what it grabbed to break his fall. Maybe if I grab this trumpet I won't fall. Maybe if I grab this orgasm I won't fall. Maybe if I can just distract myself for a second from this sensation of horror, I can catch my breath and things will be okay. I know this sensation well. Often, in those days after I quit my job, what I grabbed was a two hour jog with Marc Maron in my ears.
Maron returns to the theme of anxiety again and again in his interviews with comedians. Of course, it's truism that most comedians are troubled, depressive, addictive personalities. But it hadn't ever occurred to me that so many of them would suffer specifically from anxiety. Of course, standup comedy is actually the perfect venue for someone to confront their anxiety and conquer it publicly. As Maron frequently puts it, comedians are often drawn to comedy because it's the one place where they can control why people are laughing at them. Maron made this point in another of my favorite episodes of WTF, an interview with writer/director/produce Judd Apatow.
I love that so much. "Is there any point where I get enough approval? And I've realized, there is no point." It's such a naked admission. This is just one example of why WTF, at its best, towers over all other comedy podcasts. Because it's not a comedy podcast. It's an exploration of the failure all creative people fear, no matter how successful they become, how that fear can both paralyze and inspire, and how we can get through it by telling each other stories and occasionally laughing.