Marc Maron is a lot of things, but the reason his name has been in the news the last week is because he is a podcaster. Well, a podcaster who managed to get President Obama as a guest. Maron’s podcast is called “WTF with Marc Maron”, and there is no mistaking what the “F” stands for ... Maron begins his podcasts by proclaiming, “How are ya, whatthefuckers, whatthefuckbuddies, whatthefuckeneers” ... you get the idea. He usually starts with general ruminations, and then gets to the week’s interview. He’s cranky and has a knack for getting guests to say things they might have kept to themselves in another context, but Maron mostly has guests he likes, and there is a friendliness to the show, even when it is biting.
How and why Obama ended up as his guest isn’t all that weird, at least not in 2015. What is true is that Maron’s fans hoped that he wouldn’t hold back just because his guest was the most powerful man in the world.
Maron records in his garage, and so his street was closed off, Secret Service took over the block, and the President made his way into the garage. Usually, a host tries to make his guest comfortable in the first few minutes, but it was the other way around this time ... you could hear a bit of nervousness in Maron’s voice (and why not), and it was Obama who began by looking at the stuff on the walls and commenting, as if it was just two guys hanging out.
Was Maron co-opted? Yes, and again, why not? What did people expect? I’ve often said that I’d have trouble being angry with any president, even the ones I hated most, if I had them over for dinner. I might think the man had been the source of war and destruction, but how could I bring that up? “Mr. President, could you pass the peas, and oh, by the way, you are a war criminal.” OK, I might have found it easy to do that if my guest was Dick Cheney. But at the dinner table, the president isn’t my enemy and I’m not a journalist. I like to think I’d offer my opinions honestly, but the truth is, if the conversation never rose above how good the pot roast was, I’d likely leave it at that.
So Maron led the conversation in some interesting directions, but he served mainly as a set-up man. Obama sounded more casual than usual, but the words coming out of his mouth were often rather boilerplate. He never admitted to anything new ... when Maron brought up the good old days of college, no one said the word “drugs” but there was a kind of frat-boy good-natured “drink and smoke” thread, and other than the most virulent anti-Obama listener, nothing about such topics was particularly illuminating. The conversation gave the illusion of being “true”, and Maron led Obama into areas where we got a glimpse of what it’s like to be President that felt very “behind the scenes”. But for the most part, in the context of just sitting in some guy’s garage, Obama portrayed his accomplishments as being evident. He also said he understands that some wish he had gone farther, but that as President, he has to confront the realities of our system, and accept that he’ll only be able to lead us incrementally.
Maron didn’t ask things like “how does it feel to kill innocent people”, and I can’t believe anyone thought that was even a possibility. In fact, this was the key to why Obama was there in the first place. He knew that however cranky Maron can get, he has a fundamentally good heart, and he would know how far he could go with the leader of the free world, just as I would if I were having the President over for dinner. Maron was dressed casually ... it’s a radio podcast, on one level that didn’t matter, but the pictures got out, and while Maron was clean, not a slob, he looked a lot different from Obama (who, as POTUS, must present casual as “rolled up my long sleeves”). It made a visual that suggested more dogged questions than Maron offered.
I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m knocking Maron’s performance, which was human and completely understandable. But if there was the slightest chance that Maron would actually bring up, say, the deaths of innocents, Obama would never have done the show in the first place. It was just another version of the President turning up on The Tonight Show. Maron was less fawning than most hosts, but he was always respectful, and Obama is excellent in those situations, seeming like a regular guy who got high in college, then like a really smart guy who rules the world, then like a father who dotes on his kids, and never saying anything that will get him in any trouble that didn’t already exist. He wasn’t going to say anything for which he’d have to later apologize for.
In the end, like so many hyped affairs, the lead-up was more exciting than the event itself. I’m glad Marc Maron got some attention, but I don’t think people in general will remember this six months from now.