Marc Maron: Wrestling With Big Questions
This article originally appeared in RELEVANT Magazine > Issue 75: May/June 2015.
Why does the comedian and podcaster always lean toward spiritual conversations?
There’s a book on the prophets in here somewhere,” Marc Maron says, perusing one of the several bookshelves in “the garage,” which is actually more of a glorified shed in the backyard of the two-bedroom house on the hills of Highland Park that he refers to as “The Cat Ranch.”
The garage serves as a home studio, where multiple times a week for the past six years, Maron has produced the innovative and beloved podcast, WTF with Marc Maron. Guitar cases, several bookshelves and rock posters cover all available wall space. They surround a modest desk in the center of the room that is overrun with wires, microphones, books, gifts from fans and various kitsch. It’s hard to tell if everything has its place or nothing does. Either way, Maron sits comfortably in the midst of it.
The podcast itself inhabits a DIY rock ethos befitting, well, a garage band. Maron books his own guests, chooses only sponsors he feels comfortable shilling for and allows his entire personal life to filter into the programming. The addictions to cocaine and booze, the two failed marriages, the love for vinyl and stray cats—everything is on the table. As WTF nears its 600th episode, it’s tempting to wonder if the podcast has any topics left to explore.
Anything that hasn’t been said on the podcast is likely covered in Maron’s 2013 book of essays, Attempting Normal, as well as the semi-biographic IFC show Maron, in which Maron plays a slightly exaggerated version of himself. What keeps the content fresh is the malleability of Maron’s opinions and daily outlook. He analyzes his own life daily, attempts to hone his philosophies and then articulates his findings to the world.
Before the WTF era, Maron was known primarily as a stand-up comic from the lineage of controversial, brash comics like Lenny Bruce and Sam Kinison, whose penchants for self-revelation and personal freedoms were rivaled only by their need for narcotics. Maron’s comedy in his twenties was firmly planted as a counter-culture voice in the wilderness to the conservative Reagan ’80s. Maron, with his own well-fed addictions, was working on and off the stage to keep some mayhem alive.
“I was angry and guarded and volatile and defensive and provocative,” he confesses. “You know, provoking audiences. But I think all that really is sort of about trying to figure out how to let myself be loved or accepted, because I don’t think I accepted myself.”
Maron realized he couldn’t keep up with those who came before him. He started hearing voices and recognized the strain of addictions on his relationships. He joined AA and has been sober since 1999. The past 16 years could be seen as a retraction of his former self.
From 2004 to 2009, Maron hosted three separate talk radio shows on Air America Radio. Despite positive fan response, all three shows were short-lived due to contract disputes or cancellations, and by the fall of 2009, Maron found himself out of work, still struggling with the ending of his second marriage and occupying a lower rung of the comic ladder than the peers he came up with like Jim Gaffigan and Louis C.K.
What he did have was the ability to churn constant thought into oratory. A friend told him about podcasting, and after learning how to operate some basic recording equipment, he pressed record and began talking to himself in the garage. Twelve episodes in, it had turned into an interview show, and by 2013, the podcast had obtained 100 million downloads.
“I have a religion section somewhere,” Maron says while eyeing a shelf below what appears to be the philosophy section. He pulls down the book The Prophets by Abraham Heschel, a heralded philosopher and theologian in 20th-century Jewish thought. He clears some clutter and plants the book squarely on his desk.
Maron, himself culturally Jewish, went to Hebrew school and had a bar mitzvah, but as he puts it, “I was never taught what God meant other than, ‘Hey, God made everything.’”
However, his background is important to him: “Jews are interesting in this kind of ongoing conversation about meaning and God’s presence. There’s a little more poetry to it. I mean, there are life lessons, but it’s a little more cryptic. I think I come from that tradition.”
It’s far from the first time religion has been discussed in the garage. During a typical WTF interview, Maron will delve into a guest’s background and unpack any topic, especially religion. He pushes for the all the details, despite the fact that, as he says, “I believe man created God. I think it has to go that way.”
Over the past few years, listeners have been privy to conversations like Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo giving Maron tips about Eastern meditation, The Daily Show’s Aasif Mandvi opening up about his period of being a practicing Muslim resulting in getting beat up for praying to Allah, and Silicon Valley’s Martin Starr going to great lengths to explain the benefits he has found as a Buddhist.
Perhaps the most memorable conversation regarding faith occurred with comedian Norm MacDonald, whom fans know generally as a guarded instigator with an aloof grin—which hints at his ability to self-destruct an interview or performance at any moment.
In the interview with Maron, MacDonald breaks character and candidly reveals his long-standing gambling addiction he confesses has rendered him penniless three different times. Maron tries to understand the “how” of this type of addiction, and the two eventually land on the conclusion that, like any escape, it allows MacDonald to avoid the real fears in life.
The final 10 minutes of the episode feature MacDonald recounting that he’s “trying to get to God” to deal with the emptiness and fears of life. He confesses that he thinks “the only salvation is through faith,” particularly the smart faith of literary greats like Tolstoy, but he “doesn’t know how to get it ... It’s the hardest thing to believe.”
Maron has noted in the years since the interview that he was surprised at how real the conversation got. Despite going into the conversation as total strangers, he and MacDonald ended up genuinely connecting.
The Benefits of Religion
It’s these transparent moments between two human beings that endear listeners to Maron. He regularly gets books, vinyl records and hand-drawn pictures in the mail from fans. The comments section on the WTF website seems devoid of the standard vitriol, replaced with genuine thanks and admiration.
Maron attributes his ability to connect with his guests to lessons he learned while in the 12-step program.
“With AA, the idea is that you reach out to somebody else to get out of yourself—you know, go help somebody else, go listen to somebody else’s burden. And then, you’re out of you. And I think that happens a lot in here with the podcast.”
He calls the 12-step program a “slightly gutted Christianity.” Recounting the program’s founding intent, he suggests, “They realized that if you start telling a bunch of aggravated, angry, belligerent drunks that they need God in their life, they’re going to resist that. So, how do you make that as vague as possible without taking away what religion offers?”
In this vein, Maron also sees the benefits of some Christian teaching without the need for including God: “A lot of the lessons I’ve learned about trying to minimize the ego, doing charitable actions—I imagine that if you were brought up in the Church this is something they taught you early on,” he says.
“Another thing that’s compelling and attractive about Christianity is community. I mean, I get that. I get church. Every week, we’re going to go and see those people. We’re going to eat with those people and we know those people and we know their kids. That’s a good thing, if it’s not too tribal.”
In his last comedy special, Thinky Pain, Maron does a bit on the perils of atheism versus Christianity. In a sort of backhanded compliment, he concludes that while many atheists see Christians as delusional, the fact remains “there are no atheist soup kitchens.”
But as easily as he offers praise to Christianity, he brings up what he feels are Christianity’s greatest shortcomings.
“You can have God without believing the biblical interpretation of history,” he says. “I think that’s going to be the biggest leap. To accept God without that baggage of having to believe the mythology of creation, that’s the real trick. That’s where I think God could maybe work for more people.”
And, he argues, people don’t necessarily have to be Christians to live with purpose.
“Me not having Christ, I’m obviously serving some purpose. I’m creating something that gives people some sort of relief and some sort of feeling of not being alone,” he says. “It wasn’t my agenda. I was trying to survive and also come to terms with myself and self-acceptance. Through that journey, a lot of people have gotten something out of that, and it’s very gratifying in a way I can’t even explain. But I still am wary to say I’m doing God’s work in any way.”
Maron acknowledges that he does recognize something outside of himself is at work. But he fails the need to define anything further.
“There is this idea that you’re supposed to turn yourself over to a power greater than yourself. And what I’ve grown to realize is that can remain vague for me.”
When questioned about what or who ultimately is responsible for his own recovery, he offers, “I’ve had to seek psychological explanations for my pain. In the program, it’s called outside help. I would imagine that within church, there are certain sanctioned avenues you can go on in doing that research.”
But while psychology has been working as a solution overall, he recognizes there are questions that remain unanswered.
“My struggle is understanding what is the joy of giving? What is the joy of being alive, really? What constitutes happiness? How do you hold onto that feeling?” he says. “When I feel joy, I find it a little overwhelming. But I get very moved by other people’s stories. I get moved if I am there for somebody else, to the point where it’s unusual. I don’t think it should be that unusual.”
In former generations of Christianity, Maron would almost certainly be relegated as a secular outcast, an opponent of the faith. His podcast’s name alone would likely incite protest. Yet, evidence can be found in the blogosphere of Christians and even pastors from varying denominations pronouncing themselves fans of WTF.
This comes in spite of regular use of Christianity by Maron as comic fodder, though his bits often have more of a problem with practicing Christians than with actual theology. He scoffs at the fundamentalism that believes “there were no dinosaurs, or that men and dinosaurs walked the earth.”
And while it may be understandable for Maron and the Church at large to remain in separate camps, forging their own paths, the fact remains that Maron will continue to listen to Christians, attempting to understand what makes it all work. Conversely, Christian leaders may also have something to glean from the way Maron connects with those around him. We may be “a city built on a hill,” but the palatial views often seem to prevent the kind of intimate interactions and vulnerability Maron regularly encounters.
Henri Nouwen, the Catholic priest whose writings have influenced generations of pastors, discusses what it means to have a pastoral conversation in his book The Wounded Healer:
“Pastoral conversation is not merely a skillful use of conversational techniques to manipulate people into the Kingdom of God, but a deep, human encounter in which people are willing to put down their own faith and doubt, their own hope and despair, their own light and darkness at the disposal of others who want to find a way through their confusion and touch the solid core of life.”
Maron seems to have stumbled into this type of conversation without the influence of the Church.
Christians would certainly argue that God is a necessary part of the humanity Maron seeks to understand through personal experience and psychology. But, he says, the suspension of disbelief is something he’s never been able to achieve. However, his future belief, like the ever-moving pieces of clutter on the desk in the garage, seems to remain in flux.
“I’m not willing to commit to not believing. I’m not willing to commit to believing—so I live in that place,” he concludes. “I feel like I’ve contributed something to the world. I think that I do something good for the most part. But I know I have my own personal struggles and problems and lapses of good behavior. I don’t know what happens now.”