For the uninitiated, Marc Maron is a stand-up comic who also has a podcast called "WTF". He interviews other stand-up comics, as well as the occasional musician or director or other artist. I had never heard of Marc Maron before I started listening to his podcast. I've seen precisely one stand-up comic in my life, and I can't remember the comic's name. So it's not that I'm a fan of stand-up comedians or that I was a fan of Maron in particular. But in my opinion, his podcast is the most riveting thing around. Maron and the people he interviews are always interesting, and sometimes fascinating. But what's fascinating about Maron's podcast is why it's fascinating. He's doing things with the interviews that nobody else I know of is doing.
Marc Maron is a middle-aged stand-up comic who has had a rough time in some ways. He's had a couple of failed marriages, and he's also had bad problems with drug and alcohol addiction (although he's been sober for many years now). One thing that immediately strikes any listener of WTF is that Maron certainly appears to be uncannily honest and self-deprecatory about his history of drug abuse. Although he certainly counts as a successful comic, he's often said that the reason he started doing the podcast in the first place was because his career was on the skids, and he simply didn't know what else to do.
Maron's honesty about his own history is something that I respect and appreciate a great deal. Addiction, depression, and any other mental illness (using the term very broadly) carry a stigma that makes people very uncomfortable. I've frequently written about my own troubles with epilepsy, depression, and chronic pain, and I can certainly attest to the fact that nothing sends people running for the hills faster than learning that someone they know is suffering from such things. People with these conditions hide them, refuse to talk about them, and are generally frightened of what will happen if others find out -- with good reason. But besides overt discrimination, people with chronic medical, psychological, or neurological problems face a difficult and underappreciated challenge. It's unhealthy and counterproductive to hide our conditions from others; isolation is very unhealthy. But at the same time, we don't want to open ourselves up to discrimination or stigma by being too open. And just as importantly, we don't want to be known as tediously dwelling on the trivial aspects of our chronic medical problems.
I certainly don't know of any statistics about stand-up comics. But judging from the WTF podcast, these sorts of problems seem to be very common in that group. So the discussion on the podcast frequently turns to those topics. And here, I think Maron and his guests do a good job of demonstrating how to cope with these challenges. They certainly acknowledge their problems and their (often troubled) histories. But they don't leave the impression that drug addiction (or whatever) defines them or has set the entire course of their lives. There's a delicate balance between recognizing that you've been significantly affected by these things, and not seeing your entire life -- past, present, and future -- through that lens. Someone wiser than me might have some advice about managing that balance, but I don't. But what I'm quite certain of is that if the stigma is ever to go away, we need more people like Maron and his guests who are willing to publicly, honestly discuss the subject in a balanced and reflective way.
The guests on WTF are successful, of course. Otherwise they wouldn't be on the show in the first place. But even with this set of guests, it's remarkable how often the discussion turns to the uncertainty and setbacks of their careers. It would be a mistake to think of stand-up comedians as having no career experience that's relevant to the 99.99999% of people who aren't stand-up comedians. Obviously, I'm no expert on the subject, but it's safe to say that the career choice of pursuing comedy is very entrepreneurial. There's no clear career "track", formal education, or qualifications. Nor is there any job security; and there is very little formal employment. The failure rate is very high, and the opportunity cost is enormous. But a more interesting feature of their careers, as they discuss them, is the need to endlessly hone one's craft, getting as much critical feedback as possible as quickly as possible. Maron and his guests often talk about doing "open mike" gigs for no money, just for the sake of practicing one's material, and revising it in the light of an audience's reaction. Even extremely successful comedians who don't need to work at all will get in front of audiences in order to get feedback, especially negative feedback. Developing a half-hour of material in a year is considered extremely productive. My impression is that the best comedians will achieve that productivity by incrementally improving their material by getting in front of audiences as often as possible.
In this way, comedians are way ahead of the curve -- they've internalized the hard lessons that the rest of us will eventually be faced with. Instead of rising through the ranks of a traditional career trajectory, we'll be forced to learn as much as possible as quickly as possible, usually by failing. Although the end result of their work is different from most of our work, the necessary attitude and values are exactly what we need to adopt. Personally, I find this aspect of Maron's discussions totally fascinating.
On a different note, there's one feature of Maron's interviews that I wish was more common. He is the exact opposite of Larry King, who is the worst interviewer to have ever lived. A typical interview by Larry King -- if you've ever forced yourself to listen to one of those -- is a series of totally disconnected questions with no follow-up whatsoever. There is nothing a guest could possibly do to force Larry King to ask a follow-up question. His interviews were nothing more than a randomly-chosen sequence of totally generic questions, bearing no relationship to one another. The Larry King-style interview is way too common, especially for serious topics discussed by powerful people. The next time you listen to or read a typical interview, ask yourself if it's obvious that the questions weren't all written down beforehand.
It's got to be really difficult to avoid the Larry King interview style. A more engaging back-and-forth conversation has to avoid being nothing more than banter, while avoiding the "inside baseball" discussions that would alienate a listener who isn't immersed in the topic beforehand. The interviewer can't be totally invisible, but the guest should be the focus of the conversation. I don't know how Maron manages to strike the right set of balances, but he does a remarkably good job of it. I wish that the talking heads and mainstream news reporters would take a lesson. It's sad that we have to turn to a comedian for the sort of long-form interviews that would really be nice for discussing important, difficult topics. Come to think of it, I can come up with only three other people who do a good job of this: Terry Gross, Jon Stewart, and Harry Shearer, two of whom are also comedians.
I don't understand why we live in a world where our best sources of intelligent discussion, news, and commentary are comedians. But that's the situation.