LOS ANGELES - If you want to know how a comedian behaves in a confessional, just listen to the podcast "WTF With Marc Maron."
Maron got Onion writer Todd Hanson to talk about his bouts with depression and a suicide attempt. Dave Foley shared how alimony payments for his first marriage destroyed his second one. Norm Macdonald admitted he has gone broke three times because of a gambling addiction. And in January, Todd Glass came out of the closet.
"That's the hardest thing I've ever done in my life, but you made it pretty easy to do, with just the right amount of compassion and jokes," Glass said in a late-night phone message to Maron after the show. "I would have never fathomed that, after all these years, it would have been you that helped me do this."
In short: Maron was once despised by his peers. As popular as he was with audiences -- he's made more appearances on Conan O'Brien than any other stand-up -- Acme Comedy Co. owner Louis Lee banned Maron from his Minneapolis club.
"He upset a lot of comics," said Lee, who took the unusual step after observing the comedian's boorish behavior at a festival where he ran way over his allotted time and talked loudly from the audience when others were on stage. "He was not real friendly to people."
But thanks to the podcast's popularity and, more important, his shift in personality, Maron will play Acme this week for the first time in 12 years.
"Before the podcast, I was not a draw. I was a difficult personality," said Maron. "I didn't realize I was there to be pleasant, perhaps build an audience. I was like, 'I'm here. Let's freaking do this. What do you mean I can't do two hours? I don't care if the waitress is mad at me.' That's changed. I've grown up a bit."
Maron's talent was never in question. For 25 years, he's been one of the most unpredictable, gutsiest, thought-provoking comics on the circuit. But he was going to the deep end for the wrong reasons.
"I'm not sure my anger and my edge was something I decided upon," he said, opening up about his neuroses, his addictions and his self-loathing in an otherwise empty hallway of a Los Angeles hotel. "I was genuinely an angry guy. I was genuinely afraid of my audiences and needed to push their buttons to make me feel like I was getting through. My material was overly provocative because that's what I was feeding on."
He could also be a tyrant to his fellow comics. The Onion's Hanson, who has known Maron since 2000, was such a fan that he overlooked his friend's flaws.
"People would say that he's obviously a really tortured guy, but he's a real genius so that made up for him" being a jerk, Hanson said. "I think Marc and I have both grown up enough now to realize that being a genius doesn't make up for it."
Welcome to Marc's house
Maron said a bitter divorce, going broke and being unable to secure gigs led to rock bottom. He dealt with his alcohol and drug addictions, hosted a short-lived game show on VH1 and had his own program from 2004 to 2005 on Air America Radio. But it was the launch of the podcast in 2009 that really turned things around.
The shows are taped twice a week, usually at Maron's house. Basically, he pours out the details of his personal life and then gets guests such as Robin Williams and Bill Maher to do the same. It is frequently No. 1 on the iTunes comedy chart.
"I think he asks questions that comics won't be asked on morning radio," said stand-up comic Todd Barry. "I'm sure they're a bit relieved to just be human for a change."
An in-depth exploration last year of Hanson's deep depression became one of the most poignant moments in the show's history. Hanson, who also voices a character on Adult Swim's "Squidbillies," can't imagine another format where he might do that.
"It's appropriate to talk about heavy, personal stuff on that show, because he does it himself," Hanson said. "It's like Werner Herzog gets his actors to do all these strange things they wouldn't do for anyone else, like eat a poisonous frog, because he'll do it himself."
Hundreds of listeners responded, thanking Hanson and Maron for the interview.
"A lot has been made about how that interview helped others not feel so alone, but there's not been enough said about how that interview helped me," said Hanson, getting emotionally choked up. "It made me feel less alone to be able to talk to Marc. Thanks to this new thing, he's now involving other people in his life. It's his ability to focus on other people that enables him to have reached a new level and find some peace."
His new relationship: fans
Audiences are growing, including people who have never been to a comedy show. Many simply want to meet the person they've been listening to on the podcast. They want to know how his cat's feeling and whether he got the toilet fixed.
Maron -- the comic who once put distance between himself and his fans -- embraces this new relationship.
"I just want to feel emotionally connected to my audience," he said. "Is that weird?"
Not that the gloves are off. Maron is still capable of shocking the uninitiated and biting the hand that feeds him. After appearing last year at Rick Bronson's House of Comedy in the Mall of America, he went on his blog to rip the setting, comparing the club to an airplane hangar. In his last appearance on "Conan," he made the host squirm with a routine about how uncomfortable he felt getting a prostate exam from an Asian doctor.
Maron still feels the need to dive into the deep end, but this time, he's learned to swim rather than drown.
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