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.
25. #413: Bill Hader
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.
24. #479: Lena Dunham
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.
23. #621: Ian McKellen
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.
22. #711: Chris Gethard/Quincy Jones
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.
21. #163: Conan O’Brien
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.
20. #95: Patrice O’Neal
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.
19. #558: Jenny Slate
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.
18. #565: Paul Thomas Anderson
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.
17. #613: Barack Obama
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.
16. #256: Diablo Cody
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.