T’S NOT everyday that the sitting president of the United States comes to visit your house for a chat. That’s exactly what happened to Marc Maron back in June. Barack Obama’s handlers reached out to the stand-up comic and long-running host of the podcast WTF with Marc Maron last year via his website to see if he was interested in having the president on his show for an interview. He was.
When the Obama entourage hit Highland Park, Los Angeles, to conduct the interview in Maron’s garage, they turned his house upside down. White House staffers and LAPD cops shuffled around his house.
Some 50 secret service men staked out the surrounding neighbourhood. Sniffer dogs sniffed for bombs. Maron’s cats — who are regularly name-checked during his shows — took refuge under a bed. His driveway was tented so Obama could walk up to the house without giving any sightlines away.
“It was amazing to see what it takes to secure a private presidential visit,” says Maron. “It was an education. The secret service came two days early. It was their job to take in the environment and secure it. Apparently my environment in the big picture of environments to secure was relatively easy. Asking my neighbour if it was OK if we had snipers on his roof was an exciting moment. He’s retired so he was thrilled — ‘Something is happening’.
“But for me the most jarring element was that days before they came they had the phone company set up specific types of wires and the secret service put in two large, box-like machines that were just humming in my spare bedroom. They were isolated phone lines so if anything were to happen to the planet and all communication was to break down, they were there to make sure the president could be contacted on a landline. That to me was the most powerful bit of business.”
Maron spoke to the president for an hour. Their conversation ranged over topics like gun control, Obama’s parenting of his two teenage daughters and inevitably race; the interview made global headlines because of Obama’s use of the word “nigger”.
Maron has long been a scourge of politicians as a talk-show host on different radio and TV vehicles before launching his podcast in 2009. Getting to grips with as smooth an operator as Obama, however, was taxing, he admits.
“Although he is the president and it was an honour to talk to him, on some level you are talking to a politician. To get around their public narrative, their talking points, for which he has many, and there are very few things he hasn’t deliberately and thoughtfully spoken about publically. How do you get him to speak directly to me in a tone that is conversational and honour what we were doing which was really a one-on-one audio interview?
“There was a candid, intimate nature to the talk that I really wanted to happen and I felt like it did happen; I was surprised by that. When it comes right down to it you want to feel like these people are human and hopefully in a decent way. I felt that from him. Maybe I was duped but I don’t think so.
“My point about being duped is that he is a good politician but it’s hard to manufacture humanity and humility and I think he had that in a real way. The one thing I got from him and I have not got that from most of the other presidents that I’ve lived through is that he is a decent guy. There’s not some bubbling moral questionability side to him on a personal level.”
Maron’s show is testament to his prodigious energy. He’s knocked out two a week every week for going on six years. A staggering array of entertainment stars have broken bread with him for his confessional-style interviews, including Nick Cave, Thom Yorke, Ian McKellen, Jon Hamm, Larry King, Dylan Moran and a recent girlfriend, Moon Unit Zappa, whose father Frank Zappa sported similar hipster-type facial hair as Maron.
He’s also had Breaking Bad’s showrunner, Vince Gilligan, and its lead actor, Bryan Cranston.
“When I had Cranston on, which was years ago, I was so into the series. Part of me wanted to interview Walter White not Bryan Cranston — I was so compelled by the character.
“But Cranston turned out to be really grounded. He’s got a mindset that is almost working class; it is not celebrity. His father was an actor and it is a case of ‘you do the job’. The funny thing was that the one point I could connect with Bryan Cranston was about Albuquerque and I completely forgot to do that because I was so intimidated and nervous.”
Albuquerque, New Mexico was where Maron grew up and is, of course, the atmospheric setting for Breaking Bad. Maron was born in 1963, and attributes some of his intense, anxious disposition to a difficult relationship he had with his father, which he explores in his 2013 memoir, Attempting Normal, and is touched on in a riveting passage during his two-hour podcast interview with Louis CK, which has voted by Slate’s website as the No 1 podcast of all-time.
Maron’s stand-up, especially his early introspective, vitriolic shtick— which Irish audiences will get to experience at Vicar Street next week — shares some similarities with Bill Hicks, one of his old colleagues from America’s alt-comedy scene of the late 1980s.
“I met Hicks around 1989,” he says. “There was a brief period of time where he lived in New York. He had gone there for whatever reason. He had an apartment in New York. I think he thought it was the logical place for him to go. But he never locked in there. He was always on the road.
“I’d see him at the Original Improv in his last days and he would get up with his intensity and New Yorkers were like, ‘What’s he so mad about? We live here.’ He didn’t really connect but that wasn’t unusual for Bill. He was this intense, sensitive guy.
“I remember meeting him in San Francisco. He was playing in the Punch Line in 1992-1993. I had dinner with him. A guy I know had given him a book about the Kennedy assassination with all these pictures and stuff. He just sat there eating a cheeseburger going, ‘Seems pretty clear to me it wasn’t a one-man job’.”
Marc Maron’s The Marathon Tour is at Vicar St, Dublin, on Wednesday, 2 September. www.vicarstreet.ie