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Tom Teicholz

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Comedy, Seriously

Posted: 09/13/11 06:27 PM ET

Can comedy save a life?

A few years ago, Marc Maron, a comic of more than 25 years standing, was at his lowest point -- rock bottom -- ready to give up on everything, even his life. Today, he has a just-released new comedy album, This Has to Be Funny (Comedy Central Records), a thriving stand-up career, he's writing an autobiography, recently delivered the keynote address at the Montreal Comedy Festival and has a cult-like following for his podcast -- a twice-weekly conversation with comics.

And it is that last, the podcast, that, quite literally, saved his life and has given him a place in the comedy world, along the way creating a community of comedy geeks. WTF? you say. Exactly!

Since Sept. 1, 2009, Maron has created his podcasts, dubbed "WTF," from his garage (for the most part) where he talks to comics (for the most part). He recently marked his 200th episode. Since launching, Maron says he has garnered more than 20 million downloads, accessible through the Web, his app, or from iTunes, and he's been praised by Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, The Onion, Slate and The New York Times.

Maron's parents hail from New Jersey. He, too, was born there, but the family moved to Albuquerque, N.M., when he was young. From a very early age, he loved comics and comedy.

"My parents took me to see Jackie Vernon," he recalled in an interview. "I was probably 11 or 12 years old. I wanted to see him; he was one of my favorites." That was his first experience with live comedy.

He always knew he wanted to be a stand-up comic. "It seemed to be a noble profession, where you could speak your mind and make people feel better and get attention -- everything I needed and wanted."

During his keynote at the Montreal Comedy Festival, Maron went further: "When I was kid watching comedians on TV and listening to their records, they were the only ones that could make it all seem OK. They seemed to cut through the bull -- and disarm fears and horror by being clever and funny. I don't think I could have survived my childhood without watching stand-up comics."

After graduating from Boston University, he took the plunge. Over the next 25 years, Maron took on almost every gig available to a comic, including serving as doorman at a comedy club, doing stand-up in rooms large and small nationwide, going on comedy tours, doing TV pilots, live series, specials for HBO and Comedy Central, auditioning for Saturday Night Live, hosting game shows, playing an angry promoter in Almost Famous, appearing off-Broadway in his one man show, The Jerusalem Syndrome (now available in book form), and doing radio and TV in every format. And yet, until recently, it seemed to be going nowhere.

Shortly after he moved to Los Angeles, after years of living in Astoria, Queens, he got call from Janeane Garofalo, saying, "There's this new thing, Air America." It was to be a new radio station: "It's going to be political. They're looking for comedy." She asked if he was interested, "I said, 'Hell, yeah!' "

"I got in there, and I'd never done anything like that. It was hard work. I learned a lot. ... It changed my life, definitely," he said. Looking back, he sees his radio education as having "changed my trajectory more than anything else. I don't know if I'd be doing a podcast without that."

As much as he enjoyed radio, the business of Air America was a mess. Maron had already been fired twice when Air America approached him about an Internet TV job, which he accepted only because he was going through a divorce and thought the money would help set him free -- but Air America ran out of money first.

Broke, defeated, in danger of losing his L.A. home -- things seemed so bad, he told the audience in Montreal, he found the thought of suicide relaxing.

Although Air America had fired him, they hadn't taken away his entry card to the studio.

"Me and my partner, my producer, we started to do these podcasts, recording them in their studios after hours, and that's how it started."

Maron reached out to friends, other comics, and their conversations were about comedy and their lives. Eventually, the podcasts moved to the garage of his home, where most of them now are recorded. Initially these voice-only interviews may have seemed like a form of self-therapy for Maron, but they eventually also became a safe haven for his guests to talk about their lives, as well.

By now, Maron has interviewed Louis C.K. (a two-parter, where they reviewed and patched up their more than two decades of friendship), Robin Williams, Ben Stiller, Patton Oswalt, Phil Rosenthal, Jeffrey Ross and Garofalo, among many others. Even the normally guarded Conan O'Brien opened up to him.

Perhaps because a podcast is heard, not seen, the conversations sound particularly personal and intimate. In a two-part conversation with Judd Apatow, whom Maron dubbed "the original comedy nerd," they discuss how Apatow, at 16, had a high-school radio program much like what Maron is doing, where Apatow interviewed emerging comics, including Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno and Garry Shandling. Maron even played some of those clips, in which you can almost hear Apatow dreaming his future. Apatow spoke candidly, admitting that all his work is about being a guy who's still, at least in his head, a kid who would prefer to stay in his room and watch TV but must learn to connect with his loved ones -- his wife, his kids, the world.

In a recent interview with Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Recreation), she starts by claiming how easily her career success had come but also shared that, since age 12, she has obsessed about being on SNL, and how at 20 she suffered a stroke. All this in a conversation that was as gentle as it was revealing.

For someone whose comedy was once full of bitterness and envy, Maron offers a wonderful quality of gratitude in his interviews -- toward the guest for coming, delight at the conversation, and, by episode's end, amazement at what guests as varied as Andrew Dice Clay, Demetri Martin and Shandling have shared. As Maron, who is 12 years sober, put it, "My bitterness is not a choice. The real choice when you're bitter has to be to stop it. ... I don't think anyone is fundamentally bitter. It comes from disappointment, entitlement and a lot of ego." Now that he likes what he's doing, Maron finds himself engaged and excited.

Maron is proud to have created a business of his own, and he is trying to extend what he does, by interviewing a greater range of people, by doing live "WTF" shows that tend to be more comedic -- funnier -- than his interviews, and releasing a new CD, which Maron calls his "best album." And, given that many of the podcast's fans don't know him from his stand-up, they can discover on the CD Maron's riffs on facial hair, including his own (he's against handlebar mustaches), the way he dresses (he's gone from dressing like a college student to dressing like a hip college professor), his trip to the Creation Museum (for all the wrong reasons), dating aggressively, and other reports from his personal frontline. Fundamentally, however, Maron, is grateful for what he's got now -- even if his place in the universe is, literally, in his garage.

"I am definitely happy where I am at -- I'm incredibly anxious about everything else. I'm not as angry as I was. I definitely feel like I'm contributing something to the world, that I'm engaging my creativity and that I'm being respected for what I do. And that people are coming out to see my stand-up. I'm not a big star, and I don't know if that will ever happen. But I seem to have carved out my own place in this world for myself, and that's a relief, and I'm grateful that it happened, and I'm happy about that."

Maron's podcast can be found at wtfpod.com and on KCRW Sundays at 1O a.m. for a limited run.

A version of this column appeared in print in The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles.