It’s been over six years since that New York Times article on WTF with Marc Maron, and looking back several of the points it makes are hilariously moot (“the interviews…often end up feeling more like therapy sessions”). At the time, WTF was blowing up thanks to its landmark interviews with Robin Williams, Louis C.K., Dane Cook and Carlos Mencia, as well as the appeal of its scrappy, DIY aesthetic, unedited format, confessional atmosphere and Marc Maron’s compelling comeback narrative. Comedy podcasting had been around for years, but WTF marked the start of its first great boom, one that Maron still reigns over as an exhausted, cranky Uncle-King.
But for a podcast that’s so heavily associated with a few key elements, WTF has actually lived a couple of different lives. The first year of the podcast drew heavily on Marc’s radio background (its now pretty off-brand title reflects this), before finding its footing with the loose, vulnerable interviews that made it famous. Then you have a first victory lap of high profile guests, Obama, a second victory lap of high profile guests, an expansion into the worlds of music, film, theatre, and show-business history, and finally the show’s current incarnation, which features a shorter secondary interview that lets someone plug an upcoming project.
WTF’s old allure as a place where stars get vulnerable and raw is now the industry standard. Our mutual understanding that it’s perfectly acceptable (and actually expected) that people will overshare (one that WTF helped foster) has long since pushed Maron to move beyond “we good?” and find new ways to engage with guests he doesn’t have a rocky past with. Furthermore, while the idea of Maron as some washed up has-been is laughable now (watch GLOW, available June 23rd on Netflix!), his success has been as problematic for Maron as his failures were. As a result, each phase contains a ton of incredible interviews. As Maron continues to clock in over 800 episodes with no sign of slowing down, here are our top twenty-five.
Don’t get too complicated! Sometimes you just need a good “How I Got Famous But Stayed A Good Guy” story, and Bill Hader’s is the best. He walks us through his weird PA jobs (especially the time Marty Kove from The Karate Kid was a real dick to him) and early sketch experiences through his SNL audition, highlighting how even after he was on the show he didn’t feel comfortable for several years. Toss in a Lorne story, sure. Toss in some great off-the-cuff voice acting, why not. Give the people exactly what they want and need, and do it without trying or batting an eye, just like Bill Hader.
It has become way to common to dismiss Lena Dunham as a privileged Oberlin kid who had an HBO show handed to her. Those concerns are laid to rest completely in her conversation with Maron (who also has another excellent episode with Dunham’s collaborator and mini-Maron Alex Karpovsky). I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes Dunham’s public statements that result in some kind of public apology can be hard to whole-heartedly defend, even if, like me, you consider yourself a fan of her work. But she’s at the top of her game here, breaking her accomplishments, mistakes, ambitions and the criticisms levied against her with insight beyond her years. If you’re on the fence and want to hear Dunham talk openly without worrying about some kind of backlash, this is the place.
Sometimes “great actor” episodes of WTF can be a little tedious when it feels like the actor in question is excited to have an episode of WTF but then becomes reticent or unwilling to play ball. No one is more willing to play ball than Ian McKellen, who quickly commandeers the interview to great effect. He wastes no time in trying to get Maron to appreciate Shakespeare, culminating in a breathtaking moment when McKellen recites a monologue from Sir Thomas More (the only selection of any play that exists in Shakespeare’s handwriting) for an audience of one. It does the trick.
Gethard has always been a scrappy underdog, and he fully admits to Marc that it’s a big deal for him to be on this podcast. However, in telling Maron his life story, you can hear Gethard passionately resolve to stick to his guns and the weirdo ideals of The Chris Gethard Show no matter how nervous the situation may make him. He’s a motormouth in this episode, which distinguishes itself from other tellings of Gethard’s career path when he goes on a tear of excellent stories from his time working for Weird NJ—Marc is even able to get in on it due to his personal connection with the area. No one is more deserving of the moment Gethard is having right now, but this interview was recorded just before he really started picking up speed, and it’s therefore deeply satisfying for everyone when Maron communicates how much respect he has for him.
If you’re looking for the straight skinny on how Conan O’Brien reacted to the Tonight Show debacle, you could watch the bizarre, depressing and very entertaining documentary Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, but even that is performative to a certain extent (can’t stop, ever, being the operative idea there). Conan has never publicly let down his guard the way he does here. The insecurities that fuel Conan both epitomize and go far beyond the usual myth of the comedian that WTF has helped establish. Regardless, no one makes a better case for that myth than he does.
Patrice O’Neal was a uniquely beloved figure among comedians, who treasure this conversation that sees him operating at Top O’Neal. It’s a troubling interview, detailing how Patrice was convicted of statutory rape as a teenager and served time in a Massachusetts prison. That time unquestionably changed O’Neal’s outlook on the rest of his life—how could it not—and this interview does an excellent job of tracing the interactions between race, sex, comedy and family in Patrice’s life. He died tragically young, but you’ve never heard someone pack such a long, complicated life into so few years the way you do here.
Now that Jenny Slate is pretty famous on her own terms it’s weird to remember the time she dropped an f-bomb on SNL, was fired, and we all thought that was the last we would hear from her. Slate’s career has plenty of interesting nooks and crannies to dive into (this episode was released after her breakout role in Obvious Child), but for a podcast that winds up talking about SNL and Lorne Michaels so much that it had a full episode of “Lorne Stories,” no other episode presents the narrative of SNL from this perspective. Slate is moved to tears when discussing the impact SNL had on her life despite the circumstances of her exit from the show, and we are moved right along with her.
Building on the easy rapport between PTA and Maron (Anderson has been closely connected to the L.A. comedy scene through the club Largo for many years now), this episode provides an unfiltered look into the mind of an American genius. The result: he’s just a really, really cool dude. Anderson is able to walk us through his early days with ease and charm, with all the inside anecdotes you could possibly want. For a PTA completist, this interview is a must-listen. Plus, you get to hear about Anderson’s experience as a student of David Foster Wallace (makes sense) and his unique relationship with Robert Altman. Furthermore, you’ll never think about the word “nevertheless” in the same way again.
Yes, some fans were underwhelmed by this interview and didn’t think Maron went as deep with Obama as he did with, say, Robin Williams. Let me remind you: THE SITTING PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES WENT ON A COMEDY PODCAST RECORDED IN MARC MARON’S GARAGE. There is a photo of Maron and the President just chilling in his garage. And what’s most impressive about this interview is that you can hear Obama leaning towards prepared statements or expected conversational beats—not a criticism, that’s to be expected—and Maron is, again, able to get him to loosen up significantly. Obama has always been the kind of politician that people have a very personal relationship with, but there has never been a more intimate interview with any president, ever.
Yes, they discuss the stripper stuff, but more importantly they discuss how the stripper stuff is ultimately a footnote in Cody’s fascinating career. That conversation still builds to Cody’s admission that she has respect for people who admit they don’t like her because of their phobias surrounding sex work, despite the outrageous hypocrisy of those who condemn her and other women for it (they dive into that as well). Maron is onboard with the outsider art of Juno (Cody does a great job of breaking down how unusual that screenplay is without patting herself on the back), but he’s borderline obsessed with the themes at play in Young Adult, as well as Cody’s background as an artist in the Twin Cities.
A great fuck-around episode, Maron’s interview with Danny McBride should clear up once and for all anyone’s misgivings as to whether Danny McBride’s d-bag characters are a reflection of his own personality or not (they’re not). This has long since been cleared up, but back around the time this interview came out, there were still a few people (cough) who could not get on board. But Maron lets McBride go wild here, and his genuine excitement at being able to tell stories from his childhood that inspired Eastbound and Down as well as truly insane stories from his move to L.A. is infectious. Listen to this episode and hear McBride become a shy little nerd-boy taping audio from Ghostbusters so he can listen to it on the way to school.
Maron is good about spreading the love to comedians from across the pond—his interview with the great Stewart Lee is also worth your time. But his giddy fanboy enthusiasm about Dylan Moran’s (Shawn of the Dead, Black Books) own misanthropic stand-up career represents his respect for British alternative-comedy best. And Moran is a endlessly interesting person—he can go on and on about Catholicism, Don DeLillo, Twitter and any number of other topics and you’re just left wanting more. He’s also someone who doesn’t appear on a ton of podcasts, so this is an episode to treasure.
Mike White is one of the few people who you have even more respect for after you find out they went on a reality show. Between writing Chuck and Buck and School of Rock, writing for Freaks and Geeks and going on The Amazing Race with his father, White and Marc have plenty to talk about. But the bulk of their conversation surrounds the workplace meltdown White suffered while working on a TV show he hated, which forms the basis of his opus, the late, lamented Enlightened. It’s one of the most delightful conversations about mental illness ever recorded.
I love it when Maron gets really into a medium he was previously unfamiliar with and gets to register his astonishment with how cool it is with one of that medium’s great artists. He had figured out why he suddenly liked plays so much by the time he interviewed Stephen Karam, but earlier he interviewed Annie Baker about her Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Flick and the more recent premiere of (the arguably superior) John. Their takes on genre elements in playwriting and how New York theatre has changed are essential for any student of contemporary theatre. Plus, it’s just amazing to hear jaded old Marc Maron fall in love with something new so completely.
If this episode proves anything, it is this: a documentary about the making of Brüno would be better than Borat. Sacha Baron Cohen is bizarrely nonchalant about his experiences making his films, even as Maron’s jaw continues to drop at how insane the stories are. I don’t want to spoil anything, so I’ll just say Sacha Baron Cohen’s movies were incredibly dangerous and questionably legal. He seems as bummed as anyone else that his raised profile makes the kind of stunts he’s pulled off in the past practically impossible, but he’s already generated enough incredible behind-the-scenes stories to last a lifetime.
This episode was supposed to be an interview conducted by Maron’s oldest friend in comedy, Steven Brill, the way Mike Birbiglia interviewed him for #200. They kind of stick to that format, but a problem arises very quickly: Brill, who has directed several Adam Sandler movies, feels that Eric Stoltz’s appearance as a hack comedy director on Maron was a coded attack. It was a late return to WTF’s original calling card of old frenemy confrontation, but it really works. Maron had come so far on the show that hearing him reopen wounds these old proves to be a big test; all of Maron’s show business insecurities can be traced back to his friendship with Brill. Both men handle the conversation with a lot of love and many regrets; they end things on a positive note. If any episode could function as a series finale for WTF, it would be this one.
WTF hit a point where it almost had a minipodcast going on within it called “Marc Interviews Very Old Comedy Men.” His interviews with Jonathan Winters, Dick Van Dyke, Alan Alda, Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks are all worth listening to, but the best of the bunch is his episode with Bob Newhart—arguably the most modest comedy legend Marc has interviewed. Newhart has an excellent memory for the details of the early days of stand-up records, a medium he helped popularly invent as much as anyone. The story of how he abruptly rose from an advertising copywriter to recording The Button Down Mind of Bob Newhart is unexpected and hilarious, and while some of Marc’s interviews with men pushing ninety require a little repetition and clarification on his part, Newhart is still sharp as a tack.
Marc is a pretty shameless music buff, and he’s generally most excited to interview musicians that can give him insight into the rock and roll lifestyle he identifies with so strongly. There isn’t a story Maron loves more than one of personal demons, transformation, and rebirth. Given that, Laura Jane Grace, frontwoman of Gainesville punk outfit Against Me!, is the perfect WTF guest. They have a lot to talk about when it comes to punk ethics and how it felt when some fans rejected the band for its label activity. And that’s all on top of their discussion of Grace’s transition, how her band and the punk community reacted, and how it affected the composition of Transgender Dysphoria Blues, Against Me!’s best album in a decade.
For someone who established a reputation as a comedy recluse for many years following the end of The Larry Sanders Show, Garry Shandling provided us with two fantastic longform interviews before his death last year. Pete Holmes was obviously more inclined to engage Shandling on topics like God, Buddhism and spirituality, but it’s in this interview that Shandling drops this exchange on us: “I lose track. They say time doesn’t exist.” “How’s that going?” says Maron. “Well, then I don’t know what I’m wasting,” replies Shandling, without missing a beat. He also displays a fatherly concern for the soul of America and its culture that’s profoundly moving to hear after his death. Despite his neurotic protests, he could not have been more different from the narcissist characters he created, and his assessment of the world is realistic rather than fatalistic. It’s a hard interview to listen to, but a necessary one, and, ultimately, one of WTF’s most comforting outings. Plus, few people make Marc laugh as hard as Shandling does here.
Sometimes people almost insist that an episode of WTF must be heavy and confrontational, forgetting how good Maron is at having a fucking blast while interviewing someone he finds delightful. There is some ribbing in this interview with Amy Poehler, particularly when she calls Maron out for being a dick to the early incarnations of the Upright Citizen’s Brigade, but it’s all in good fun, and Maron wears his respect for her on his sleeve. What’s more important is the picture this episode paints of the World of Yesterday for New York comics; a bygone era of unprecedented experimentation and creative excitement following the collapse of the ‘80s comedy bubble. For sheer punk rock nostalgia, you can’t beat Poehler’s winsome memories of lugging around bulky costumes and props while sowing the seeds that would one day dominate comedy entirely. Plus, her swift takedown of Maron’s smug bias against improv is deeply satisfying on multiple levels.
Maron’s first truly great interview also was also his first major test, one that helped himself and his audience realize the unique skill set he possessed this whole time. It’s still exciting to hear Maron figure out in real time how by sacrificing himself on the altar of hyper-vulnerability regarding his own past with drugs, alcohol and depression, he can help the famously bit-happy Robin Williams move towards a meatier and more candid conversation. Re-listening to the episode after Williams’s tragic suicide, it’s reassuring to hear the complete lack of manipulation with which Maron conducts this tricky interview. Especially as Williams feels comfortable enough to discuss the cardinal comic sin—joke-stealing— Maron never abandons his empathic approach. We’d been trained to expect a radio host “gotcha!” that never comes, thank God.
Technically, most people feel that the second part of Maron’s interview with the notoriously plagiaristic comedian Carlos Mencia is the real classic, but for my money you need to listen to both to get the full effect. In Part One, Maron brings up the accusations made against Mencia, and receives guarded and unsatisfactory answers in return. Maron then broadens the scope of the story by including perspectives from Willie Barcena and Steve Trevino, two comedians affected by Mencia’s behavior, before taking his findings back to Mencia. Rather than inciting a full “c’mon Gallagher,” Mencia is pretty devastated and seems to give the closest thing to a genuine apology as we could have expected. A similar story plays out a few episodes later in Maron’s interview with Dane Cook. Again, Maron insists on honest answers without turning the mood toxic, and the issues at hand complicate themselves as they go along. We’re left with a compelling two-hander rather than an episode of Geraldo for comedians. Here was a level of accountability that hadn’t been introduced to the comedy community before this. Maron has expressed his reluctance at being viewed as a journalist in the wake of the interviews, but the level of persistence he displayed here certainly went above and beyond what anyone expected.
Maron has learned how to become a great listener over the course of the podcast, and nowhere is that more evident than in this harrowing and difficult interview with Todd Hanson of The Onion. A huge bulk of the talk revolves around the satirical paper’s response to 9/11, resulting in a conversation on comedy’s responsibility to tragedy that’s incredibly refreshing for its lack of pretension, especially on Hanson’s part. But the episode becomes a classic as Hanson teases the significance of a hotel mentioned in the first hour of the interview. Two months later, the two talk again, this time to discuss Hanson’s suicide attempt in that same hotel room. Maron gets completely out of Hanson’s way, but you can tell that Hanson wouldn’t be sharing this at all if it wasn’t for the environment Maron had created. It’s a difficult listen, but an ultimately hopeful story, and the perfect example of what WTF does best.
Maron’s later follow-up episode with C.K. (which discusses the process of creating Horace and Pete in exhaustive detail) may be of more interest to hardcore fans of his work, but this two part interview solidified WTF’s emerging reputation as essential listening. Recorded among the ecstatic critical reaction to the first season of Louie, which was the cherry on top of Maron’s jealousy regarding C.K.’s success, it is a profile wrapped in a long-overdue apology between estranged friends. Those elements are still moving but are more par-for-the-course these days as far as WTF is concerned. What you forget is how quickly these two actually forgive each other, and how their own timeline of the tensions between them form a spontaneous oral history of the various scenes they came from. People (and Slate) have called it the best podcast episode of all time, and while that may seem hyperbolic at first glance, anyone who listens to this episode will know where they’re coming from.
Graham Techler is a New York-based writer and actor. Follow him at @grahamtechler.