Take It on the Chin: Marc Maron’s WTF Podcast in Print

Waiting for the Punch an engaging read of excerpts from the WTF Podcast, shows that "(E)veryone’s journey to the bottom is different."

The strength of any long-form interview-based podcast has always rested in the host’s ability and willingness to develop a real-time relationship with their guest. “Waiting for the Punch: Words to Live By from the WTF Podcast,” compiled by producer Brendan McDonald and host Marc Maron, is a compelling, strong collection of transcripts from over 100 of the guests that have been featured in the podcast’s eight years. More than just narratives from guests who are at times extremely eloquent (President Barack Obama) and confessional (Todd Hanson and comic Todd Glass), this collection is a goof example of how sometimes guidebooks can serve a greater purpose than just brief references to be enjoyed one section at a time. Whether the topics are Growing Up, Sexuality, Identity, or Mortality, the way this volume is compiled (childhood to death) encourages the reader to approach it from the beginning to the end.

What we can easily conclude about one-to-one interview programs is that no matter the connection or past relationship any host might have had with their guest, the goal needs to be capturing the here and now in real time. Many interview podcasts have copped Maron’s approach of an informal beginning to each episode as if to give the listener the impression they have entered a private conversation, and this helps when approaching the stories in this book (especially the stronger ones from Obama, Bruce Springsteen, and comic Barry Crimmins.) The glut of comedy-based podcasts featuring comics eager to plug their stand-up dates has created an overwhelming saturation and decrease of quality. The fact that more material is available than we can mathematically hear on a weekly basis (let alone daily) means more work for the discerning listener. The Sam Jones series “Off Camera”, from PodcastOne, and newer podcasts like Alec Baldwin’s “Here’s the Thing”, from WNYC, are two major examples of a format once exclusive to great late-night TV talk shows like The Dick Cavett Show and now only available from PBS-TV hosts like Tavis Smiley or Charlie Rose. Without the restrictions of commercials and timed segments, magic will always happen.

In today’s podcast world, comedian Maron remains a singular host whose “WTF” has grown from its September 2009 a forum for “alternative” comics, traditional stand-ups, and film/TV people into a twice-weekly platform for culture, journalism, and progressive political thinking. Maron’s evolution as primarily an acerbic stand-up comic interviewing his friends about life on the road has as much to do with his personal approach as the changing times. As he notes in his Introduction:

“When I was a kid I loved to talk to people… I wanted to hear stories… As long as I was talking to people I wasn’t lost in my own fear, pain, and dark thoughts.”

Maron was nine years sober when he and his partner Brendan McDonald launched “WTF” from the ashes of their time at the Air America. Maron was the host of a program on that progressive radio network that is now a distant memory (much like, one might argue, broadcast commercial radio has become.) Maron notes that early in the podcast, the goal seemed to be having celebrities over to help him with his problems. Fractured past relationships, like with comic Louis CK, were confronted when the guest visited Maron in his garage. Maron’s goal was to mend fences, and his recurring catchphrase “Are we good?” posed to the guest was intended to put the issue to rest. It wasn’t always successful, but the dependability of listening to Maron deal with his deficiencies (life in recovery, food addictions, a fractured relationship with his parents, two failed marriages, and regular girlfriend issues) was always compelling. If he didn’t ask that question, maybe things had no chance of being good.

Arguably, Maron’s most popular and justifiably important interview came through in his June 2015 interview with President Barack Obama. That historic interview was notorious for Obama’s use of the “n” word” when describing the state of race relations in this country. Finally, the nascent nature of Podcasts as a means to reach as wide an audience as possible was given the official imprimatur of a sitting head of state. More than that, the “Are we good?” question expanded to go beyond host and guest. Maron didn’t know Obama, but we knew he didn’t have to ask the question. We weren’t good, and with the election of Obama’s predecessor 17 months later, we were just going to get worse.

In his succinct Foreword, This Week Tonight host John Oliver notes that Maron is “…smart, constantly curious, and has almost a pathological desire to connect with people…His ludicrous levels of honesty act as almost an emotional wrecking ball to even the most guarded human being.” In “Waiting For the Punch,” the only problems are understandable and forgivable. Too many people are included. The transcript of Obama’s time in the garage, Springsteen’s, and Barry Crimmins’s (to name just three) could have taken up greater space in this text. There is a table of contents, but the book could have used an index for easy access to the more compelling interviewees. At nearly 400 pp., it’s both padded but always readable, always with a purpose. Maron introduces each chapter with some pithy observations about who he was at that time in life. Take this from the “Growing Up” chapter:

“I learned which cigarettes to smoke from Keith Richards. I dressed like Tom Waits for most of my junior year of high school. I looked to Woody Allen to understand what it meant to be smart and funny.”

In several compelling pages in this section — which read as powerfully as they sounded on the podcast — comic actress Molly Shannon tells a story of she and her friend, stowing away on a plane, apparently aided and abetted by her father. It’s people like this, with both something to say and a compelling way to say it, that make this section and others shine. Comic Maria Bamford, who has made her mental health issues the focus of her act, tells about how a Dale Carnegie course in public speaking/relating had immediate positive results — which then grew negative. Singer Aimee Mann tells about the drama created when her parents split. She was three, her mom (and mom’s new boyfriend) took her without legal permission, and “…this boyfriend hit me with a car and knocked me unconscious. Probably not on purpose, but he did yell at me for causing an accident.” Some of the longer narratives here, especially from singer/songwriter John Darnielle, deserved more space.

The “Sexuality” chapter effectively juggles some comparably compelling narratives. Its sub-heading, “The obliteration of self”, comes from writer Jonathan Ames as he discusses his fetishes: “I think that’s what I’ve sought out, the obliteration of self. I had to get away from myself.” Comic Jim Norton goes on at length about his sexual proclivities, many encounters involving financial transactions. “I don’t talk about this to be shocking,” he notes. Also in this section, actor Sacha Baron Coen speaks about encountering homophobia through some of his character portrayals. Sex columnist and activist Dan Savage’s narrative works well here because, again, he is a compelling presence and a good speaker. People like Savage know how to capture an audience, and the themes in this section (including Andy Richter discussing his father’s homosexuality) resonate with stories almost comforting in their initial shock and ultimate normalcy.

The “Identity” chapter features Margaret Cho, Ali Wong, Kumail Nanjiani, performers who may not have had a place in the fabric of comedy 30 years ago. The identity and persona explored concerns how others see us: race, ethnicity, culture. Zach Galifianakis relates a story of a dark-skinned Greek uncle and life growing up in the Southern United States. In the ’50s, this uncle was banned from a bus in North Carolina — he was mistaken for an African-American.

“Relationships” is a key chapter for Maron and the guests whose narratives he captures. “Ultimately the common problem with all relationships was me,” he writes. “I was pathologically selfish. Over the last decade, I have been humbled into allowing myself to be empathetic and understanding.” President Obama notes the importance he placed on being a good Dad because of the way he was raised (without a father and mom sometimes absent due to work.) Comic Natasha Legerro tells a suspenseful story of falling in love with an Australian drifter and moving there (temporarily) with him. While many of these comics are married, or simply others who have navigated our desire to connect with each other, the key is his reunion with comic Louis CK, and it reads like the drama it became on the podcast:

Marc: “Are we all right, me and you?”

Louis: “We’re under development… We were best friends for a long time… There are times when it’s hard to be your friend’s friend… We understand each other’s flaws very well… That’s why we’re able to tell each other things we don’t want to tell anyone else.”

Louis CF features prominently in the next chapter, “Parenting”, but there are also stories from Obama, comic David Cross, and Springsteen. Obama notes, with empathy and understanding, how his father was an abstraction. Cross, on the other hand, is unforgiving of his father’s failures, “I don’t forgive him”. Springsteen, a performer who usually does not come off as eloquently in interviews as he does here, provides a line that can definitely be of use for many of us frustrated with eternal familial conflict: “I know plenty of people who had to sign off from their families for a variety of reasons.” Actor Stephen Toblowsky, whose penchant for great narrative storytelling is well known through his own podcast, tells a story about parenting and perspective that will resonate with any reader.

“Addiction” is another chapter that resonates personally for Maron and other featured speakers. “Talking to other addicts is part of the way I stay sober,” he writes, and that’s a familiar approach understood by those in or around recovery movements. “Everyone’s journey to the bottom is different.” This sentiment is clear through stories from comics Rob Delaney, Artie Lange, and actress Natasha Lyonne. Jeff Garlin and Louie Anderson discuss food addictions, something that also afflicted Maria Bamford. Comics Kurt Metzger and Louie Anderson had brutal alcoholic fathers who drank themselves to death, and it’s particularly moving (after reading Anderson’s narrative) the simple button on the story: “I did forgive him.”

Logically, the “Mental Health” chapter follows. This book takes its title from Maron’s response to one of Judd Apatow’s anecdotes. Springsteen notes, after his parents moved from New Jersey to California in 1969, “I built a thing where I would survive alone.” Maria Bamford continues with details about her struggles, and Sir Patrick Stewart tells of the origins of his commitment toward activism for women struggling with domestic abuse. Crimmins, whose experiences as a childhood rape survivor have been chronicled in a recent documentary, writes about PTSD. These narratives make for a compelling and at times harrowing chapter, but they’re worth the time.

The theme of the “Failure” chapter, and in fact the entire book, is universal relatability. “Fresh Air” host Terri Gross speaks about her failure as a teacher: “But what gets respect in inner-city schools was not something that I had… you have to be tough… I’m the opposite. I’m shy and introverted and use self-deprecating humor.” Paired with “Failure”, (again, logically), is “Success”. Actor/Musician Jason Schwartzman tells of his auditions for (and breakout success in) the now legendary 1999 film Rushmore. Michael Keaton philosophizes about how he perceived motivations in the character of Batman, and Mel Brooks tells of the troubles (and eventual success) with Blazing Saddles.

Any long-term WTF listener will be familiar with how Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels might loom large over the “Success” chapter. For years, Michaels was Maron’s Wizard of Oz, the means by which he and his fellow comics might explode into national consciousness or fade away in obscure local comedy clubs for years. Will Forte, Jenny Slate, and Jason Sudekis tell their origin stories, and Michaels provides reminiscences throughout. The chapter ends with Michaels relating a feeling of warmth and family during the 2015 40th anniversary broadcast of the program that had played such a large role in his life. It’s an effective approach, from Maron and McDonald, to suggest that true success is almost always a collaborative, family effort.

Garry Shandling, Robin Williams, and producer Sam Simon are three of the more famous contributors to the “Mortality” chapter who have since slipped over to the other side. Of course, like everything in Waiting for the Punch, the subject is universal. Mortality is best positioned at the end of a book, at the last stop of the journey, and best absorbed (if capable) through humor. Brooks tells of a show whose host said to him “…when you were only two and a half or so, you lost your father.” Brooks responded: “No, no, no, no. He was dead. He wasn’t lost. We knew just where he was. He was in the back.” Maron ends the book with thoughts from President Obama. They were strong in 2015, stronger now (considering the current US President) and they’re a meaningful way to put in perspective our collective journey through life:

“The more you do something, you lose fear… I’ve been in the barrel tumbling down Niagara Falls, and I emerged and I lived. That’s such a liberating feeling. It’s one of the benefits of age.”