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On the Edge with Marc Maron

Ahead of his upcoming Australian tour we chat to the iconic comedian about the remarkable success of his ‘WTF’ podcast and his fear of inevitable failure.

In the opening scene of his 2013 stand-up comedy special Thinky Pain, Marc Maron confides to friend and fellow comedian Tom Scharpling while sitting backstage, that despite his incredible recent run of success he still thinks he could bring it all dramatically crashing down by having a catastrophic public meltdown.

“The stakes are higher if you blow it further along,” he says with a nervous grin.

Maron’s fear of inevitable failure has always been a running part of the narrative of his best-known work – the immensely popular podcast WTF With Marc Maron. Since its debut in 2009, the twice-a-week, part confessional, part interview show has opened with the veteran alternative comedian, a self-described neurotic mess of a man, monologuing about his latest worrying concerns, including health scares, relationship problems, issues with his family, and an ever raging struggle to manage an army of domestic and feral pet cats.

However, it’s that neuroticism that has charmed a massive audience into following his every move over the years, as he’s gradually grown in confidence, dealt with the pain of two failed marriages and a longtime struggle with drugs and alcohol abuse (he’s been sober since 1999), and eventually learning to cope with an ever-increasing momentum of present day success.

Afterall, failure seems to be further away than it has ever been for Maron. The last six years have seen WTF become one of the most popular podcasts of all time, downloaded more than 200 million times (100 million of those in less than the last two years). It’s that kind of popularity that has lead to achievements never before seen in the history of the medium, including being the first podcast to feature the President Of The United States, Barrack Obama, as a guest.

“That episode has been downloaded coming up on three million [times],” he tells me proudly on the phone from his now famed studio in the garage of his Los Angeles home – affectionately referred to as The Cat Ranch.

Admittedly that spike is expected when you’re securing talent of the POTUS’ stature. However, those download numbers aren’t fluky, and are in fact emblematic of what has become an institution in online broadcasting.

Recent appearances have included not one but two knights in Sir Ian McKellan and Sir Patrick Stewart, as well as Maron’s own personal idol, Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards – an interview now infamous after Maron relapsed from a 10 year abstinence from smoking to share a single Malboro Red with the rock god – something he obviously doesn’t regret.

“It was great man! How is that going to be bad? I didn’t start smoking or anything again. I’ve been on the nicotine lozenges again. I wasn’t really worried that I was going to start smoking cigarettes again, but I did think it was important that I had one with Keith.”

Yet Maron doesn’t like to deliberately celebrate any one guest more than the others. After all, the years have seen him share amazing conversations with some of the most recognisable names in show business across the board, as well as many of his friends from both the mainstream and alternative comedy worlds. But it’s hard not to credit that with each new celebrity name that graces millions of smartphone screens every Monday and Thursday, a growing sense of legitimacy and acknowledgement is being bestowed upon the medium by the public at large.

“Generally speaking, people kind of know what a podcast is now, compared to even a couple years ago when it was kind of a mystery to a lot of people,” he admits.

And with those new listeners comes a growing list of interview talent now clambering to visit The Cat Ranch. But after such an amazing recent run, it begs the question – who’s the next big get?

“I think big gets are relative to what people think of anybody. Some people are pretty excited about Steve Albini coming on. So, you never know who’s a big get.”

One white whale is in his sights though – the man that has become somewhat of a nemesis to Maron in the narrative of the podcast – Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels. Maron has had beef with the legendary showrunner for years, ever since he was passed on to join the SNL cast as a host for the Weekend Update segment in 1996, and often quizzes anyone who’s been involved with the show their opinion of the man.

“Yeah I think that’s going to happen. From what I hear I’m going to be doing that next time I’m in New York, so that might happen. I don’t know what will happen on that interview. But I think that I’m going to get to do it.”

In the meantime, Maron is set to return to Australian shores in October for a brief run of performances of his Maronation tour in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. He was last out here for the Melbourne Comedy Festival back in 2011 and he says he’s excited about the prospect of returning after what he believes has been a strong period of evolution as a stand up since that visit almost a half-decade ago.

“I guess the podcast was a few years old, so it was all kind of new and exciting. I think that the stand up at that time was definitely good. I remember it being a good hour. I like this set that I’m bringing this time. It will be a longer set and I don’t think I have ever been funnier than I am now.”

It will be the tail run of the Maronation tour, which began back in April, so he’s justifiably confident in this set of material – especially after having taped it all for the sequel to Thinky Pain, which is scheduled for release in December. But he still likes to change it up when he can.

“I always mix it up a little bit but the core of it sort of remains steady and kind of got tightened up over time. I always kind of go off road a little bit.”

These live shows also arrive off the back of the third season of his TV show Maron, the part fiction, part autobiographical series that has adapted his rise to podcast fame for the small screen. But it looks like his flirt with scripted TV will be ending soon.

“We’re going to do one more [series of the tv show] and that’s it,” he laments, a little wearily.

“You know it doesn’t seem like a lot of people have seen it but I’m happy with it and I think this season is going to be very different than the seasons before it. I think by the end of the season I’ll sort of be done with that.”

It seems that despite all the goals he’s kicked in recent years, a situation comedy about his own life may not be his forte, a fact he surprisingly sounds relieved about.

“I’m not sure that it’s necessarily my medium. I enjoyed it and I thought it was great but like I said it’s hard for things to get out in the world and part of the excitement is people watching it. So when that’s limited and I feel like I’ve told all the stories I can in this particular show – yeah I feel confident in not going on forever with it.”

After all it’s the comedy stage and the garage where he feels most comfortable.

“If I don’t do stand up and/or I don’t talk to somebody in the garage I kind of get sort of squirrely.”

Even after more than 640 episodes, he still revels in each new conversation and never takes time to dwell on what he’s done in the past.

“I really don’t listen to them once I have the conversation. Like, I talked to James Taylor the other day and that was pretty amazing. I didn’t expect it to be as good as it was but it was pretty great. They are still very immediate for me and the current ones are the ones I remember the best. But I think there has been some amazing episodes but there’re too many to mention.”

One does stick out in his mind though as being particularly important. It’s an episode he has previously said changed his life and also helped change a lot of people’s perception of the interviewee.

“In retrospect the Robin Williams conversation was pretty astounding and I’m glad that I had that conversation and that people can listen to it.”

The 2010 Williams episode was particularly heartbreaking in the context of the legendary comedian’s death, as it was one of the first times he had opened up on his battles with drugs, alcohol and the depression that would eventually claim his life in 2014. It rates as one of the most profound conversations to appear on WTF, and is often recognised as a landmark episode of the show, serving as a prime example of how Maron incorporates his own history, struggles and life experiences into the way he relates to his guests. It’s an approach that makes him a deftly skilled inquisitor, able to encourage openness and intimacy rarely heard from public figures.

His history in show business also provides an advantage in relating to his guests in a way most journalists never could reach. In fact, his two-part conversation with longtime friend Louis C.K. was named as the greatest podcast episode of all time by Slate in 2014, who said it was “one of the best interviews you’ll ever hear, providing genuine insight into the mind and career of one of the world’s great comics, as well as thoughtful meditations on success, failure, friendship, and fatherhood.”

Yet despite such accolades, Maron feels he’s still learning more and more about the craft as the years go on.

“I’ve gotten more sensitive about when I should or shouldn’t talk or when I need to talk. I think I’ve learned how to shut up and listen more than I used to and I think that if I am talking a lot it’s usually to sort of provoke something. But I’m aware of it now and I don’t do it as much as I used to. Unless I’m excited.”

He’s even had to start leaving details of his personal life and relationships out of his opening monologues, despite the fact that they’ve often proven as some of the most intriguing elements of the show. He’s learned that as engaging as that information can be to his audience, things aren’t so simple away from the microphone – especially when he’s going through break-ups.

“It’s not so much that it backfires but it’s this narrative that is a little tricky because the other person can’t really respond to whatever you’re talking about,” he explains.

“You know, sometimes there are some things I should keep to myself. Like, if I’m in a relationship that doesn’t go well, then I have to figure out how to talk about that, about the end of something that I didn’t anticipate or that got messy or ugly without really hurting the other person – it just became a little dicey.”

“I imagine I’ll ease back into talking about it more,” he admits, “I’m not as forthcoming as I used to be, only because if it goes badly it sort of becomes unfair to the other person and I’ll have to shut up about it anyway.”

So two years on from that conversation backstage, despite everything he’s learned from the hours and hours of interviews, and the undeniable success he’s achieved, does Marc Maron still fear he could blow it all up?

“Of course I still have that fear”, Maron bluntly states, adding that he’ll “always have a fear of the other shoe dropping.”

“But that’s not really what propels me. What propels me seems to be a desire to understand myself and to share my discovery with other people and to engage them about who they are. That doesn’t seem to stop. And I’m also a kind of an anxious, aggravated mess most of the time. I can’t seem to get a handle on that, no matter how successful I get.”

Marc Maron’s Australian tour starts on October 15. Dates and ticket details available here.