Monday, July 25, 2011

Ten Great Episodes of WTF with Marc Maron

Even if his name doesn't ring a bell, chances are you've seen or heard stand-up comedian Marc Maron at some point- whether it was during one of his many appearances on Letterman or Conan, one of the episodes of Short Attention Span Theater he hosted on Comedy Central, or when he was a radio personality for Air America. Since 2009 he's produced a podcast, WTF with Marc Maron, where he interviews notable comics, comedic writers and actors in his garage studio, inviting them to speak candidly about their successes and struggles. These are not softball press-junket interviews, nor are they hard-boiled confrontational ambushes. Marc's openness about his own insecurities and flaws seems to evoke genuine introspection from his guests, resulting in interviews that appear to surprise Marc and his subjects as much as anyone listening.

The format of each show is consistent. Marc begins with a "riff" which may or may not be intentionally funny, and sometimes ties in with the subject or theme of that show's interview. The interview follows, and after that Marc usually caps the show with some post-interview observations. It's almost always worth listening all the way through. While Maron has scored some major celebrities in the show's short life (including Louis C.K., Robin Williams, and Ben Stiller), his best shows aren't always the ones with the best-known guests. The interviews that really leave an impression are the ones where people lay themselves bare, admitting their mistakes and imperfections, or where they relate amazing or unusual stories from their lives.

There are occasional "live" episodes where Marc interviews several comedians in front of an audience. These interviews are necessarily shorter and shallower, but are frequently amusing, at least.

All of the show's episodes are available online in some manner, although the options for listening to them vary depending on how old the show is and who the guest was. Older shows with particularly famous guests usually end up as iTunes album downloads called "WTF Premium" shows, which are available for a price. Shows too old to be cached in iTunes' free podcast directory are available for streaming through the WTF mobile app, or by subscribing on the official site. I link to the most convienient/affordable means of obtaining each of the below episodes. You can also refer to the show's episode guide for a complete breakdown.

Note: Aside from the WTF Premium episodes available from the iTunes Store, I've only heard episodes back as far as 124 (Paul Scheer). There are certainly some gems in the first non-premium 123 episodes that I have not yet uncovered.

75. Carlos Mencia
76. Willie Barcena, Steve Trevino, and Carlos Mencia
The first entry in this list is kind of a cheat since it's technically two episodes, but you get the point. Most people who follow Comedy even casually remember the controversy when Joe Rogan and others publicly accused "Carlos MenSTEALia" of lifting material from other comedians. In episode 75 Carlos addresses the problem directly and with a humility that convinced me, while listening, that people were overreacting to the scandal. But Marc closes that show with his own doubts and some telling details that he hadn't revealed during the interview, which shed doubt on Mencia's story. Things become much more interesting in the following show where Maron interviews two comics with specific and alarming details about Mencia's antics, and then gives Mencia a chance to respond to the new criticisms. I almost guarantee you'll come away from this second part with a totally different perspective than after the first one.

130. Mike DeStefano
Listeners first got a taste of Mike DeStefano in a short and hilarious live interview Marc had tacked onto the end of episode 129 (Janeane Garofalo). In this long-form studio interview, though, we get a much clearer understanding of why so many people in the business love Mike DeStefano. His honesty, strength, and love for life are just as appealing as his sense of humor. Very few people have lived through the horrors and struggle this guy has, and almost none of them managed to cling to their humanity as he did.

This interview was recorded and published in late 2010. After listening to it, fast-forward to episode 156 (Kathleen Madigan) for a heartbreaking epilogue in Marc's opening riff.

145. Gallagher
You don't have to search very hard for evidence that lowbrow prop-comic Gallagher is an insecure and bitter old man. So it's not surprising that Gallagher comes off as an evasive ass in his WTF interview. You get a very clear sense that Gallagher didn't know what he was getting into when he agreed to appear on the show, and probably didn't even know what a podcast was. This is not to say that Marc was overly confrontational; it's just that Gallagher seemed to expect it to be your average Morning Zoo kind of fluff whereas Marc was ready to discuss some specific criticisms about Gallagher's act. This is, I believe, the shortest WTF interview because Gallagher walked out halfway through. "Aw, c'mon Gallagher" has become an unofficial WTF meme.

146. Dave Foley
One of the most likeable characters from The Kids in the Hall and News Radio, Dave Foley had an enviable life and career for several good years. But after the agents stopped calling and problems at home started escalating, the likeable Canadian's life took a number of dark turns. Foley details his woes in good humor if not good spirit, charting the course of his life from promise to desperation.

147. Stephen Tobolowsky
The prolific character actor Stephen Tobolowsky has featured in over a couple hundred movies and shows since the Seventies. His career has taken him to interesting places, and in this interview he shares a number of amazing and inspiring stories. After hearing this show it should make sense that Tobolowsky has his own podcast.

151. Carl LaBove
While he's never even approached household name status, Carl LaBove is well-known in stand-up circles, and was one of Sam Kinison's closest friends throughout that comic's entire tumultuous career. Marc Maron actually has some history with both Sam and Carl, some dark and traumatic times which still haunt him. He confronts Carl about their shared past and delves deep into Carl's own troubled friendship with Sam. Listen very closely to this one; it gets heavy.

173. Jonathan Winters
I've got to admit, ever since I was a kid I never liked Jonathan Winters. The first I ever saw of him was when he played that adult baby on Mork and Mindy. Well the fact was that I was just too young to get Winters; he won me over in this interview. Marc traveled to the 85-year-old Winters' home to record the interview, and it's just astounding how easily the old guy drifts into character and riffs between fielding serious questions. It's just as delightful to hear Marc cracking up every few minutes whenever Winters goes into a bit. If I remember right Marc also tells a great little story in the closing comments about a tour of the house Winters took him on which shows what a pure and youthful heart that man still has.

174. Sally Wade
Sally Wade was George Carlin's long-time partner. They never married, but they shared a magical, storybook-romantic relationship for many years. This interview illuminates a side of Carlin that no one else ever saw. It's a heartwarming (and breaking) tribute to the man she loved.

190. Todd Hanson
This episode was recorded as two separate interviews a few weeks apart. A longtime writer and editor for The Onion and a longtime friend of Marc Maron's, Todd Hanson tells the story of The Onion's early days and its ultimate effects on the world of Comedy. The first interview is easy-going and light-hearted, even though both Marc and Todd allude to something more ominous without going into detail. Things are made clear in the second interview, where Hanson lifts the curtain on some life-altering events and analyzes their impact on everyone he knows. You might never hear another person who's not an immediate family member speak so honestly about something so painfully private.

194. Rob Riggle
I envy the opportunities Marc Maron has to get interesting people to talk openly about interesting things. Rob Riggle is a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Marine Corps Reserve, and at a broad-chested 6'3" is about the least likely guy you'd expect to find working with some of the best minds in comedy. He's appeared on Upright Citizens Brigade, Chappele's Show, Saturday Night Live, Human Giant and the NBC version of The Office. He talks about his career in the military, including working Search and Rescue detail at Ground Zero after the September 11 attacks. A hard-to-pigeon-hole guy with a fascinating career.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Home Is Where the Hot Is

In the late Sixties, my parents moved to Guam, the southernmost of the Mariana Islands, to teach local children in English-speaking schools. They worked under a program that brought educators from the mainland to this tropical United States territory, and remained there for several years- until just a few days after I was born. This summer, my parents kept a long-standing promise to take me back to my birthplace, showing me the island where their young marriage was forged.

The island is remarkably remote, closer to the Philippines and Papua New Guinea than to any part of the United States. Guam’s indigenous people, the Chamorros, thrived on the island for nearly 4,000 years before Magellan discovered the place in the 1500s, at which point their fortunes would change. The Spanish conquered and converted the local population for hundreds of years until losing the island to the United States after the Spanish-American War. The Japanese captured the island mere hours after the raid of Pearl Harbor, committing unspeakable atrocities against the Chamorros. Three years later, the United States bombed the shit out of the island, ultimately winning it back from its Axis foes and making Guam a remote stronghold for both the Air Force and Navy; a military presence deep in the Pacific.

While Guam’s people were exploited and exterminated by other nations, its wildlife was ravaged by invasive species, both plant and animal. The only birds you’re likely to see on the island now are sparrows, stowaways from visiting ships long forgotten. The indigenous birds were almost completely wiped out by the brown tree snake, another invader from foreign lands- so new to the island that the local species had no instinctive fear of the serpent. Almost gone as well is the once prolific fanihi, or Mariana fruit bat- formerly a local delicacy, but now a protected species.

Wondering why Man and Nature should have all the fun, the Elements jump in every now and then, thrashing the island with typhoons that destroy homes and cripple businesses, scaring away foreign investors, leaving the modern landscape an almost post-apocalyptic mess of abandoned hotels, storefronts, and unfinished construction sites.

So basically, God has a grudge against Guam. And yet the island survives. The Chamorro people are gradually rediscovering their historical identity after centuries of cultural and genetic dilution. The United States government is slowly opening up more land for civilian use. And the tourism industry still manages to survive, almost exclusively catering to young Japanese and Korean couples wishing to wed on an erstwhile tropical paradise.

Guam is the home I never knew. Join me now, as I endeavor to explore this humid little pile of coral in the sea.

Day 1

We stayed at the posh, modern Westin Resort on Tumon Bay. Like all other hotels in the area, the Westin has a wedding chapel, and it hosted up to six Japanese weddings a day while we were there. I could see three other wedding chapels from my balcony, although two belonged to a resort which has been abandoned for some time and is now only populated by squatters.

In response to an article in the Pacific Daily News about our arrival (long story), Guam’s Governor, Eddie Calvo (R) invited us to his offices for a quick visit. He treated us to lunch at a “Chamorro fusion” restaurant, and also to a visit (a couple of days later) to the Fish Eye Marine Park nearby, where we saw some aquatic wildlife and enjoyed a dinner show.

After lunch with one of the governor’s cabinet members, we visited the Guam National Wildlife Refuge at Ritidian Point, were we saw a cave that once housed Chamorros thousands of years ago. It was eerie to be in the middle of the jungle and not hear anything but wind, the ocean, and the occasional distant car.

Before retiring for the night, we visited the Guam K-mart for supplies. It was huge, and a surprisingly popular tourist attraction.

Day 2

On the next day we met up with the author of the Daily News article for a tour of Pagat Cave and the site of an ancient Chamorro village in the jungle. Mom almost didn’t make it back. Later that night we dined a Kinney’s in Agana, where the food was all right, but the view was amazing. I really cannot emphasize how hot it felt at times during the trip- the short daily rains were pleasant, but as soon as the rain stopped falling, the sun would steam it all away, leaving the air thick with humidity. Not optimal mountain climbing conditions.

Day 3

We met Filamore Palomo Alcon, a fascinating artist, at his establishment, the Guam Gallery of Art.

In the evening we visited the Fish Eye Marine Park observatory, an underwater structure positioned in a so-called “bomb hole” in the ocean, where you can view the local fish in their natural environment. (Note: The bomb hole wasn’t created by a bomb, although many locals seem to believe that. It’s really an underwater sinkhole.)

After admiring the fish, we went across to the restaurant to eat some of them and enjoy a “Polynesian Dinner Show.” Guam is actually part of Micronesia and there’s no evidence that the ancient Chamorros even knew about fire- much less juggled flaming torches- until the Spaniards arrived. But it was still a good show.

Day 4

We took a drive around the island, spending most of the time on the southern and eastern coasts, where the mountainous landscape has kept these areas of the island mostly untouched and unpopulated and beautiful. Mom got to ride a carabao and we ate at a place called Jeff's Pirates Cove, which is definitely the most happening location on that entire side of the island.

Day 5

We explored the Latte Stone Park in downtown Hagatna, Guam. The Chamorros used these stones to support their houses long ago. The park is also the site of some caves that Japanese forces commanded Chamorro and Korean slaves to build during World War II. The caves are vast and completely open to the public, surprisingly enough, but we didn’t have flashlights, so only ventured as far in as sunlight would allow.

Mom and Dad got their Masters degrees in Education at the University of Guam before having me. While exploring the campus we encountered a large pack of “boonie dogs.” In Guam, the word “boonie” refers to anything derelict or abandoned. As well as dogs you can find boonie cats and severely rusted boonie cars scattered all over the island. The word derives from the Tagalog (the language of the Philippines) word, “bundok,” meaning mountain, and implying a place that is far from civilization. You’ve probably already realized it’s where we get the word “boondocks.”

We then visited Two Lovers Point, perhaps the most famous legendary landmark on the island. It is the site where the mythical lovers jumped off a steep cliff into the waiting sea, to escape their parents. It is a sort of Romeo and Juliet story that involves the unwelcome union of a Spanish and Chamorro family, and to me represents the sad history between those cultures on the island.

While on the island we also found the first school where Mom and Dad taught, as well as the houses where they lived- including my first home. All the buildings are still standing, although the two apartment buildings would likely be condemned today by Mainland standards. The hospital building is apparently new, but operates at the same site, its once beautiful view now permanently marred by four huge unfinished apartment buildings that were abandoned about halfway through construction.


Here's some stuff I couldn't manage to work in elsewhere. The city of Tumon, where we stayed, is an odd mix of high-end, expensive merchants and seedy Asian massage parlors. The tourism economy is so focused on international visitors that some stores don't even have any English on their signs or windows; only Japanese. There are places with names I wish had been in Japanese (a strip club named The G-spot and a billiards hall called Ball Scratchers), and a number of hilarious looking "gun clubs" that seemed to cater to foreign tourists' warped views of American history.