It's still dark out when I drop my daughter off at school, and I replace the "Phineas & Ferb" CD with an episode of the "WTF" podcast on disc. As I drive around the Perimeter, heading back home for breakfast, I hear Louis C.K., the most acclaimed stand-up comedian of the moment, tell "WTF" host Marc Maron about how the birth of his daughter changed his life. There's a long pause as C.K. gets choked up, takes a drink, and quips, "Water washes away your love for your children."
A little later, as I drive to the office at Atlantic Station, Maron marvels at C.K.'s work ethic, as his old friend can craft nearly an hour of new material a year, then retire the jokes once he records a new album or special. When my workday comes to an end and I head north on I-85, Maron admits that his envy can sabotage his relationship with friends like C.K. Maron even jokes about it in his own stand-up act: "I don't know when my friends' success will feel like anything but an attack on me. I don't know why Louis C.K. had to name his show 'Fuck You, Marc Maron,' but that's what comes up on my television."
When I pull into my neighborhood, C.K. calls Maron on his petty behavior. "You're being a shitty friend by being jealous," he says. "Think about the other person, and what they might need. I could've used ya. I got a divorce. I got a show cancelled. Those times that were making you jealous, I was struggling." They apologize to each other and promise to be friends again as I pull into my driveway.
Over the course of a day, I've listened to a full, funny, emotionally fraught hour of "WTF" — and I don't even have a particularly arduous commute by Atlanta standards. It's a testament to "WTF" — and the flexibility of the podcast form itself — that the dead time behind the wheel can be not just amusing, but emotionally moving.
Since their emergence in the mid-2000s, podcasts and other Internet broadcasts have evolved as increasingly powerful voices that draw on the strengths of talk radio, stand-up comedy, and other formats. Comedy shows currently make up about 20 percent of iTunes' top podcasts, attracting innovative performers and listeners hungry for more from their favorite funny people.
Twice a week Maron's "WTF" offers new in-depth interviews, primarily with stand-up comedians, along with Maron's occasional musings on his life and current events. It's not iTunes' most popular podcast — "The Adam Carolla Show," a daily show comparable to Howard Stern's free-ranging, off-color discourse draws the most downloads. But "WTF" has become the gold standard of what interview-based podcasts can accomplish. Pop culture review site the A.V. Club picked "WTF" as the best podcast of 2011, and declared "professional neurotic Marc Maron became the furry, bespectacled, and unlikely face of podcasting in 2011."
Since its debut in 2009, "WTF" has enriched popular understanding of the comedic craft, demonstrated the power of podcasts, and — what the fuck? — rescued Maron's showbiz career along the way.
Maron, who's performing Jan. 19-22 at Atlanta's Laughing Skull Lounge, makes a surprising standard-bearer for the comedy community. Over the course of his 25-year career, Maron has injected confrontational anger to an openly neurotic comedic tradition. Where Woody Allen stammers in mock-apology and Richard Lewis fires one-liners from a defensive crouch, Maron defiantly presents his personality flaws. Scruffy and restless on stage, he used to open his sets by demanding, "What do you fuckin' want?"
Born in New Jersey and a graduate of Boston University, Maron pursued stand-up comedy all of his life. He replaced Jon Stewart as the host of Comedy Central's "Short Attention Span Theatre" in the early 1990s and has made more appearances on "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" than any other stand-up. He belongs to the raw, personal alt-comedy movement of the 1990s, but never broke through on the level of his peers like Janeane Garofalo, Louis C.K., Sarah Silverman, Patton Oswalt, and Dave Chappelle.
Maron insists that he's not a political comic, even though he railed at the Bush administration for years as the host of Air America's "Morning Sedition." More often he turns his angry gaze on himself, speaking candidly about his two failed marriages and battles with substance abuse. (He's now 12 years sober.) He admits that his relentless candor makes his fans a little too familiar with his personal life. "People know me pretty well, but I don't know them at all, so I'm walking into a pre-existing relationship. That can be dicey, but I try to be gracious."
In 2009, Maron found his career at an impasse after he lost his latest Air America job and learned from his manager that he could no longer book decent stand-up gigs in New York. Out of desperation, Maron started a podcast without any real plan beyond a love of radio. "I knew other guys were doing it, but I hadn't listened to their shows," Maron says. "I knew Adam Carolla had one, and Jimmy Pardo had one, and Kevin Smith, but I didn't know the format. I just put something together and started doing it. It's great. It's the Wild West out there. You can do whatever you want."