Comedian Marc Maron is known for tackling tough subjects on his WTF podcast, but interviewing President Barack Obama just days after a terrible hate crime took place in Charleston, S.C. took that to an entirely new level.
As soon as Friday’s hour-long interview from Maron’s garage — or a Secret Service-level secure version of it, at least — was posted this morning, media focus quickly turned to the President’s use of the N-word in discussing racism in America. Even as we spoke on the phone with Maron this afternoon, Fox 11 camera crews were camped out in front of his house — not exactly the response he’s used to when interviewing guests for his podcast.
Maron opened up about the response to his interview with the President, which you can listen to here, and revealed whether or not he would give Hillary Clinton the same treatment if she also requested an interview. Spoiler alert: once you’ve interviewed a President, the bar for future guests is set pretty high.
So how are you feeling about the interview now that it’s out there?
I feel good. I’m glad people are responding. People who have taken the time to listen and process the experience and the conversation have nothing but positive feedback. And then there’s a brush fire of press excitement over decontextualizing the “N-word” and using it for clickbait and provoking people, but yeah it’s all been a good experience.
Right, you did this hour-long interview but everyone is focusing on one word. Were you surprised by that or did you know it was going to be a thing as soon as he said it?
It surprises me because I don’t… Well, I guess I understand that they’ve got to find something [to focus on], but the context of what he said was very specific, and to take it out of context is sort of a disservice to the larger point. So, I’m not surprised that it happened, but he used the word to make a point about the word, and about the conversation around the word. Politely not using the word doesn’t indicate that racism is over. If you take something out of context, it’s going to get people all worked up.
How much time did you have to prepare for the interview?
The conversation around him doing it started a while back. Initially it was sort of vague interest from the White House and then it became a real thing. And once it became real, I read Dreams From My Father while on vacation in Hawaii the week before and it just became very immediate; I started to get a sense of who he was as a younger man and how he put himself together and became who he was, and I find that very interesting with any of my guests. And then as we got closer to the interview, I came home on Wednesday and the horrible shooting in Charleston happened so my producer Brendan McDonald and myself felt [the interview] wasn’t going to happen.
So you really weren’t sure until the last moment.
Obviously, it was appropriate if it didn’t happen, and we expected that. We knew coming into it that even once everything was planned, and they built the tent in my driveway and we had met with secret service, that the only thing that would stop it after a certain point would be a national or international incident, and it happened, so we were like, “All right, well, we got close.” We stopped promoting it but we watched and waited, saw the press conference, and then it became clear that he was going to come to West Coast but we still didn’t know if it would happen. But then it happened. So, we found it, in terms of prepping, different from what we might have done hadn’t [the shooting] happened, but we thought the right thing to do was to address it and it lead us to a conversation about guns and race and I think the tone of the interview was different than either me or the President expected initially, but it was appropriate.
Were there any topics that you had planned to discuss but didn’t because Charleston became a bigger focus?
I don’t know, it changed the tone a little bit, but it feels like we covered everything that we wanted to cover. I just think the tone was different. Having that not been on his mind, it might have been a little more casual tone and I would have spent more time talking about personal things with him, but I think we got to those.
The conversation felt very real and honest, like with most of your guests, but were there any moments when you felt like you were talking to a politician rather than a regular person?
That was my biggest concern, initially, that I wouldn’t be able to separate myself from the idea — or the reality, I should say — that he’s President, or not be able to feel like I’m talking to a person. But immediately, right when he walked on my driveway, he put me at ease and was very grounded and very present and very human. Sitting in here with him, I just kept looking at him and couldn’t help but see the “Guy.” It was great. I was really something I didn’t expect, I didn’t know it would happen as much as it did, and right away, and through all of it. Even when he was a “Guy” being the President, the feeling of him being just a person came through it all.
This is obviously a very reflective time for him, toward the end of his second term. Did you expect him to be so upbeat and optimistic in lieu of what was going on?
In his heart and in his mind, despite what anyone thinks from either side, if he feels like he’s made the country a better place, even a little bit, then he can enter the next day with optimism and hope. The weird thing about politics in general — you know I used to be a lefty talk radio guy back in the 2000s, and when I started the podcast I disconnected myself with that entirely — I don’t do a political show and I don’t talk about politics and I’m not really the guy to do that. There are people who do that better than me. It was never really my wheelhouse. However, people are going to politicize this. I don’t care how cynical you are or what side you’re on or what you think is right or wrong, if the President of the United States requests an audience with you, as an American, as a guy who works out of his garage, it was an honor and a privilege to meet the President and talk to him. To me that transcends the political dialogue.
Were you flattered or surprised when he said that he hoped to reach a less politically affected audience by doing your podcast?
He was speaking directly to me in that way. I am a great example of a guy who is relatively disconnected from politics; I’ve gotten somewhat apathetic and cynical about it and I don’t think to engage outside of my civic duty to vote. So, I don’t know about my audience, but I felt that he was speaking directly to me in what he was saying was the reason for him being on the show.
Let’s say Hillary Clinton wanted to do an interview with you during her campaign. Would you do it?
Nah, I’ll wait ‘til she’s President. I’ll talk to Presidents. I don’t really have a desire to talk to people running for President.
That makes sense. Why take a step down if you’ve already interviewed the President?
[Laughs] Exactly. If there is a bar, it’s that one.
(ED. NOTE: After the interview had concluded, we realized there was something we were curious about that we forgot to inquire about with Mark: what did he do with the coffee cup and napkin the president left in his garage? So we asked Mark’s publicist, who responded: “Right now it’s just sitting right where the president left it. He’s not sure what he’s going to do with it yet.”)