For comedian, personal struggles are creative juice

When Marc Maron interviews certain guests on his popular podcast, he has no problem asking the impolite question that one usually deduces more covertly: “So, you’re a Jew, right?”

For the longtime standup comedian, who has conducted more than 400 in-depth interviews with comics, writers and celebrities on “WTF with Marc Maron,” the question is simply a point of entry.

“Then I can integrate them into my assumptions of what it means to be Jewish, if I feel there is some cultural bond,” he said in a recent phone interview. “There’s a lifestyle that I assume we’re all familiar with. And 80 percent of the time it’s not a bad assumption to make.”

Ask Maron the same question, however, and you receive a talmudic answer. “What is Jewishness? What does that mean?” he asks. “It’s a cultural identifier. Am I a religious person? No. Do I have a specific god in place? No. Do I do my mitzvot, do I pray? No. So what does that mean? Am I a Jew? Yeah, I’m a Jew. But not a Jewy Jew.”

Marc Maron photo/leigh righton

With an identity “formed from my East Coast family,” which included his beloved Grandma Goldy, “keeper of an eternal stash of melon balls, boiled chicken and soup,” Maron says he grew up into “a panicky, worried, self-consumed adult who is fundamentally unable to feel like things will be OK.”

He uses all of that angst to great effect on his podcast (www.wtfpod.com). Not only is he self-revealing — about his past addictions (he’s been in recovery for 14 years), relationships (two divorces), sexuality, neediness, dread and anger — but his openness and natural curiosity have led many of his guests, from Louis C.K. to Robin Williams to Mel Brooks, to be less guarded as well. The result is often a revealing and relatable exchange.

“I like the focus of engaging and listening and having a conversation that goes where it’s going to go,” he said. “It’s very cathartic for me and very nourishing in a way.”

Maron launched “WTF” in 2009 when his career had hit a wall; the podcast appears regularly on top-10 comedy lists, with 3 million monthly downloads, and he has found a new stride. He stars in the IFC cable show “Maron,” based on his life; has a very funny new book of essays, “Attempting Normal”;  and just released the standup special “Thinky Pain” on Netflix.

He comes to San Francisco on Wednesday, Oct. 16 for a City Arts & Lectures appearance.

Watching comedians when he was young, Maron was drawn to how they “seemed able to handle things, they had a point of view, they could disarm things and make them manageable … through being funny. I thought that was very powerful. Emotionally that’s why I gravitated toward it. Looking back, I also think it was a way [for me] to be seen — I exist, I have something to say, I am going through a struggle, and I want to share that with you.”

Even before that, Maron recalls, the seeds of comedy may have been planted when he would come home from school and his mother would say, “Why don’t you go make your father laugh?” In his book, Maron writes about his father’s bipolar diagnosis, narcissism and “erratic, selfish, sometimes abusive behavior” that included overshadowing both his college graduation and his first wedding. “I love the guy,” he writes, “but it took a long time to seal up the damage from the paternal storm that I went through to get to my island.”

Maron’s willingness — or need — to self-search so candidly and publicly has won him many fans who identify with his struggles.

“I’m a fairly sensitive, somewhat socially awkward person,” he said on the phone. “I get worked up to express myself, and I get excited about things. Wearing your heart on your sleeve can get a little exhausting sometimes, but I don’t know how not to do it.”

At the same time, he doesn’t buy into the notion that misery is the driving force of humor, or that it explains why so many comedians are Jewish.

“I think that’s an old trope that someone decided on in the ’70s [when] comedy was specifically New York and specifically Jewish,” said Maron, who appears in the new documentary “When Jews Were Funny.”

“The truth of the matter is that it’s not misery that characterizes the Jewish experience, it’s struggle, and it’s the struggle that is compelling. How you handle that struggle, that’s where the juice is. That’s where the creativity comes from.”

Although Maron, who just turned 50, is trying to enjoy his current success, he admits that “sometimes worry and complaining become like mental phantom limbs. There is nothing to worry or complain about, but the brain still thinks it has to.”

More of the time, though, he appreciates how the changes “happened on my own terms, after I’d given up on anything happening, so I have a certain amount of gratitude.

“Also, I’ve been putting things out in the world that seem to have relevance to a lot of people, and I was really true to myself through this whole process. That’s a good feeling.”

Marc Maron, in conversation with Adam Savage,  7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 16 at Nourse Theater, 275 Hayes St., S.F. $27. Benefits 826 Valencia scholarship program.  www.cityarts.net/event/marc-maron

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Sue Barnett

Sue Barnett is J.'s senior editor. She can be reached at sueb@jweekly.com.