Marc Maron on Obama's N-Word: "Taking It Out of Context Does a Disservice"

Marc Maron with Barack Obama on June 19, 2015

THR chats with the podcaster following the 'WTF' get of the year: President Barack Obama.

Podcaster Marc Maron landed what is easily the interview of his career when President Barack Obama stopped by the comedian’s Highland Park home garage on June 19 for a stripped-down conversation on his WTF podcast about race, gun violence, comedy and absentee fathers.
Here the star and creator of IFC’s comedy Maron offers a play-by-play of what happened before the interview (which, by the way, had been solicited by Obama’s team), the talking points that most surprised him, the crushing blow of the Charleston tragedy, why the media is misinterpreting the president’s use of the N-word, and why Maron’s comedian pal Louis C.K. is feeling pretty good about himself today.
How are you feeling? It’s been quite a whirlwind few days for you.

I feel good! The interview was on Friday. Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday were a bit intense, but I feel OK today. What day is today? Monday? It’s all been very exciting. Maybe I'm exhausted. … I don’t think so. I’m very excited about all of it. It’s kind of amazing that I’m not sure I fully believe the weight of it all. The actual president coming over. I was so set on connecting with him as a person and staying focused that now I have these moments where I’m like, "What?! The president was in my house?! Why didn’t somebody tell me?! And just a few days ago I was on vacation in Hawaii reading Obama’s book, Dreams From my Father."

How clean did your house have to be?

The Secret Service had some requests that led to some tidying. They wanted a lot things taken off the floor, out of the path of the president.

Like what?

Piles of books, my guitars and amps, and there were some items on the desk that had to go. The Secret Service said, "We have to lose the hammer and the pocketknife." But mostly it about was cleaning comic books off the floor.

Describe the moments leading up to when you first met him. What were your immediate impressions?

I was amazed. I was nervous. I didn’t know how to approach it all. I fill my head with stuff. My driveway was tented — there was a long path; we had to wait for the motorcade. I had to hit record before he came in, and it was only me and my producer, Brendan McDonald, who could be inside. Outside were his team and law enforcement. Secret Service guys were standing by my garage door. Then I was told to stand at the end of my driveway and wait for him. I saw the police vehicles approach and then the motorcade. Half a dozen staffers and Secret Service were all on the driveway. I couldn’t identify what was happening. Then out of this little crowd, through my gate I hear, “Marc!” I was like "Oh my God, that’s the president of the United States waving at me in my driveway." I was like, “Mr. President." He came up and put his arm around and said, "This is going to be fun, let’s have some fun." The weird thing was he put me at ease.

How much did your neighbors know about what was going on?

They knew a lot. Secret Service had been working out a strategy for days. They wanted a sniper on the garage roof but it was too noisy, so they had snipers on my neighbor’s roof instead. LAPD was here. They closed the streets, which was annoying for some people, but ultimately everyone was pretty excited. I’ll tell you man, it’s a pretty amazing operation. Secret Service were very gracious and polite. They were like, "Was everything OK for you? Was it a good experience? I mean, the day before, they had to secure Tyler Perry’s estate, and then Chuck Lorre’s house. So my one bedroom, one bathroom cabin on a hill in Highland Park — they were probably like, "Oh this is easy. Piece of cake." But the president left the Hilton and then went to Santa Monica airport and took a chopper to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena so he didn’t stranglehold the city traffic-wise more than it already was.

Where were your cats during all this?

Well they had to bring in the bomb sniffing dogs. I told them I locked my cats in the bedroom and they said, "OK, we will do that room by hand so you don't have to cage them up." Monkey and Lafonda were thinking, "Who are these people? We’re not dangerous. Why are they looking at us? This is our special hideout!"

How familiar was Obama with you and your work?

I think they’d played the Mel Brooks podcast for him. He was definitely familiar with me and my relationship with Louis C.K. I’m not sure how much he’d listened, but I think he might have been surprised that it wasn’t a lightweight fluff interview, that I was capable of shouldering some harder topics. I thought it was a very well-rounded conversation.

What surprised you most about what he said?

I think the way he framed his father and the idea of working on a craft. Working at something long enough, getting older, realizing you’re becoming fearless with wisdom, age and experience. That connected with me a great deal. It’s a weird moment when you get older and you’ve achieved a certain amount in your life because you’ve worked hard, and a lot of the things that used to be terrifying on a personal level are almost meaningless now. You just notice it one day. The stuff about his father not being present and how his family didn’t demonize him gave Obama some distance from the reality of his father’s weaknesses, allowed him to become his own man without falling victim to some of what his father experienced.

That’s a narrative not dissimilar to many of the comedians you regularly interview on your podcast.

Yes it is. That’s very true. There’s a part of me that wishes we’d talked about that more, but there wasn’t enough time.

It was unavoidable that you’d discuss the tragedy in Charleston, South Carolina, which had happened only two days earlier. What his emotional state and demeanor during this part of the interview?

I didn’t know if the whole thing was going to happen because of Charleston. So we felt it necessary to bring it up. What’s interesting about him, he’s a guy, a man, who operates on several different frequencies. He’s able to tap into his emotions. So I think when he showed up he felt, "I have to put certain things on hold now." Brendan and I knew we needed to talk about it. But it was interesting because were were having a very nice, "Hey what’s up this and that," chat and I wanted to get the Charleston stuff out at the beginning, which may or may not have been the right idea. It definitely changed the tone very dramatically. I told him, "I’m sorry you lost this friend of yours; it’s horrible." And I saw his face change, I felt the weight of that part of him. We had a fairly serious conversation about race, violence and guns and eventually came back to something more casual, but it was definitely a different interview than both of us anticipated.

Did his use of the N-word surprise you?

I don't know, I heard the point of what he meant. I’m a comedian. I spent a lot time with [comedian] Patrice O’Neal before he died talking about this. Louis C.K., too. In my world, we talk about words a lot, so it didn’t register to me like, "What just happened?!" I think that it’s now being taken out of context is a disservice to the larger point.

How much pressure do you feel now moving forward to top yourself after this?

I don’t think that way. I remain pretty much detached from what’s going on outside my office. I’m not going on social media. Only talking to a few people about it. I don’t care how cynical you are, or what side you’re on — any of that stuff— but there’s something that struck in me as an American about doing this, and I’m going to honor that. It was an amazing experience, period. Hopefully now that the president has come over, I get to talk to Albert Brooks, Lorne Michaels or Lily Tomlin. Maybe more thinkers? But does this mean I’m going to be like Larry King and service political campaigns? No! I’ve never had a politician on WTF, and I don’t really talk about politics. What happened on Friday was that I was honored and privileged to have this opportunity as an American who works out of his garage.

No better interview could encapsulates the WTF ethos. What are you doing the rest of the week?

Yes. Eventually I have to get back to work, do comedy. Also moving everything around my house has made want to clean now. Also, I’m going to talk to Louis today. He’s probably excited that the president mentioned him. He loves Obama. He was one of the few people I told about it in advance.

Did he have any questions or advice for you on what to talk about?

He said, "Ask him about comedy," but what I heard was him saying, “Ask him about me directly." (Laughs.)