“To be a non-self-conscious asshole — God, I’ve wanted to do that all my life,” cracks Marc Maron as we sit down at the offices of The Hollywood Reporter to record an episode of THR‘s Awards Chatter podcast and begin discussing his Netflix comedy series GLOW. He’s describing the character he plays — it recently earned him Critics’ Choice and SAG award nominations, with an Emmy nomination likely to follow. Maron, 54, is best known as a standup comedian who was a central figure in the early days of the “alternative comedy” movement, and as the host of the groundbreaking podcast WTF, for which a sitting president, Barack Obama, trekked to Maron’s Highland Park garage to chat with him. Acting is something that has always intrigued Maron, but it wasn’t until GLOW, in which he plays a washed-up Hollywood director hired to turn a ragtag group of actresses into professional-level wrestlers for a TV show, that he really stretched himself. “I had no expectations,” he says of the accolades that have come his way. “I was thrilled. I couldn’t believe it.”
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Maron was born to a middle-class doctor and homemaker, and was raised for most of his childhood in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Much of his personality and interests were shaped during his early years: a complicated relationship with his parents left him with hard-to-escape neuroses and insecurities, and a close relationship with his grandparents left him with a love of comedy and conversation. A “smart-ass” kid with “behavioral problems” who was kicked out of one school he attended, Maron didn’t take academics seriously until just before graduating from high school, when he was inspired to go to college by a witty and intellectual bookstore owner whom he idolized. He ultimately wound up at Boston University, majoring in English lit, minoring in film criticism, acting in plays, writing for the college newspaper, editing the literary journal and, for the first time, dabbling in comedy.
After graduating, Maron was, he admits, “very ill-equipped to deal with almost anything” in the real world. He had already become a regular cocaine user. He had little motivation or direction. And he ultimately decided to move, with a friend, to Hollywood to try to make it as a screenwriter. He spent a number of years in and around The Comedy Store, where he worked as head doorman and occasional performer, all while living — and getting further into drugs — with fellow comics. “I don’t know how we survived,” he confesses, “but I eventually lost my mind… got cleaned up [back in New Mexico]… and started my comedy pursuit in earnest.” He moved to New York in 1989, where, over the next few years, he began making a name for himself as part of a swell of young comics who practiced confessional, improvisational comedy at Luna Lounge — others included Louis C.K., Sarah Silverman, Jon Stewart and Janeane Garofolo — at the vanguard of what came to be called the “alternative comedy” scene.
But promise soon turned to darkness. In 1995, Maron landed an audition for Saturday Night Live, the top of the mountain for most comics, but, as anyone who has ever listened to WTF knows, he didn’t land the job and was haunted by his “odd” encounter with Lorne Michaels for more than two decades, until Michaels came on WTF and assured Maron that he had done nothing wrong — the time was just not right. Not long after the SNL audition, Maron moved back to L.A. and, despite landing frequent guest spots on David Letterman and Conan O’Brien’s late night shows, began a downward spiral. His substance abuse damaged his personal and professional relationships; he was engaged to perform comedy at only minor venues; and his future prospects seemed bleak. As he puts it, “Nothing was really taking.”
On Aug. 9, 1999, with the help of his second wife, he got sober, if not exactly “successful.” Soon thereafter, he wrote and starred in a one-man off- Broadway show that he then adapted into a book — but, he says, it never made back its money. He landed a small part in Cameron Crowe‘s high-profile 2000 film Almost Famous — but says it didn’t lead to other acting jobs. And he began working at Air America, the left’s answer to conservative talk radio, in 2004 — but each of the three shows he anchored over the next five years ended up canceled. With his second marriage culminating in an acrimonious divorce at the same time his professional options were looking bleakest, Maron and his Air America producer Brendan McDonald decided to take a gamble. Several comedians had recently started podcasts, so they decided to start one, too — initially by covertly using Air America’s offices and equipment after hours — with the goal of putting out episodes featuring conversations with fellow comedians twice a week.
Maron soon moved back to L.A. but continued to churn out episodes from his Highland Park garage. “It was a very dark time,” he recalls, noting that he was single, broke and without professional representation, having fired his longtime manager after the manager questioned the wisdom of doing a podcast and then pushed him off onto a junior manager. “I was very depressed,” Maron continues. “I didn’t know how it was going to go. Either I was going to kill myself in that garage or things were going to turn around.” He smiles, “Once I started doing the podcast and talking to people, I started to feel better — I started to laugh again and enjoy other people’s company. I think if you really listen to the first 100 or so podcasts, it’s me inviting celebrities [eventually noncomedians, too] over to talk about my problems, and that’s sort of how I developed whatever style I have.”
Maron’s candid and confessional style motivated his guests (more than 900 and counting) to open up about their own lives — Robin Williams talked about his suicidal thoughts, Terry Gross opened up about her personal life and Obama vented about the frustrations of being president — and that, in turn, made listeners feel as if they had an intimate relationship with the host. Maron’s two-hour 2010 episode with C.K., which Slate later deemed the greatest podcast episode of all time, exemplified this — they sorted through their strained friendship in a way that revealed new things about each of them to listeners. (Maron says that the conversation buoyed their relationship at the time, but that they since have fallen out of touch again. “Obviously, there was a transgression that he did that is undeniable, and he’s certainly paying a price for that,” he says in reference to recent allegations of sexual misconduct by C.K. to which C.K. has owned up. “We’re not really in touch, which saddens me…. He’s got other issues. I don’t know what’s going on. I’ve reached out a couple of times. I don’t know who he’s talking to at this point or what. You’ve got to let him live his life. I can’t imagine what he’s going through, what his victims went through and the state of that public a fall.”) The Obama episode, in June 2015, was a game-changer, not only for Maron and WTF, but for podcasts overall. It drew large numbers of people who had never listened to a podcast, and some who didn’t even know what one was. (For the record, Maron says WTF would welcome Donald Trump to the garage — a new one, since the Highland Park property is up for sale: “My producer said, ‘If he agrees to the same terms [as Obama]: not vetting questions and we get final edit.’ I’d just like to tool around the insane narcissism.”)
In 2013, Maron, like C.K. before him, also wound up creating and starring on a TV comedy series loosely based on his life, IFC’s half-hour single-camera comedy series Maron. The show, which ran through 2016, wasn’t particularly acclaimed or widely seen, but it taught Maron a lot, and he quickly followed it with something that resonated far more with TV consumers. “I get done with Maron,” he explains, “and yeah, I wanted to do an acting job where I’m not myself. But I wasn’t pursuing anything. I was ready to take a little time off, really. And then I get sent the script for GLOW — the sides — from my manager, and I read it. The writing was so good. And I’m like, ‘This guy — I know this guy, I can be this guy!'” ‘This guy’ is a drug-addicted failed artist who lands a gig about which he’s not particularly passionate, but then decides to try to make the most of it. Maron taped himself as the character, sent in his audition and, thanks to the confidence of executive producer Jenji Kohan (Orange Is the New Black), landed the part. He loves the process of making the show alongside Alison Brie and some dozen other young actresses. And he was truly surprised to receive the Critics’ Choice and SAG noms. He bought a suit for the first time in decades to wear to those awards shows, and felt proud to be there. “I was there as a peer, not as ‘the guy from the garage,'” he says with a smile, “so it was great.”