I listen to a lot of the Nerdist and WTF with Marc Maron podcasts. I like them both or I wouldn’t listen to them as frequently as I do. But they are also podcasts of last resort, those I listen to when my preferred podcasts — Radiolab, This American Life, Serial, Reply All, Mystery Show, Planet Money, Criminal — don’t have new episodes available. Those podcasts post more infrequently, which leaves plenty of time to listen to Chris Hardwick and Marc Maron, who post around three episodes a week.
I listen to them because one of out of three episodes are excellent, and because I get an opportunity to learn more about the actors, writers, musicians, and comedians who make the media that I spend so much time consuming. I also really like gossip and trivia about celebrities and their movies and their tv shows, and podcasts are great fodder for it. Sometimes. It also helps that they frequently bring on guests who were not as accustomed to hearing from on late-night talk shows.
And here’s the thing about Hardwick and Maron: They’re both very good at opening up about themselves in a way that relaxes their interviewee into talking about themselves. People complain often that they interject themselves into the podcast too much, but it’s a smart way to open up lines of communication. They’re both so disarming and open about themselves that they often manage to elicit unguarded reactions. It helps — at least for interviewing purposes — that they’ve also both had difficulties in the past with insecurity, with drugs and alcohol, and in their professional careers. That creates an ability to find common ground with their subjects and get them to open up.
However, it comes at a cost. Because after you’ve listened to 50 or 100 or 150 Maron or Hardwick podcasts, you get to know them better than you may have ever wanted to. I feel like I could ghost write both of their autobiographies at this point. I don’t want to hear any more about Maron’s narcissistic father, and never want to hear Hardwick mention that his father was a professional bowler again. I feel like I know Hardwick’s entire history with MTV, but I also feel like I know every person who Maron has ever hung out with in his life, and which friends he likes and which he doesn’t.
That’s my biggest issue with Maron, who I think is a marginally better interviewer, if only because he’s able to elicit more insightful answers. For all his complaints about his narcissistic parents, I’ve never heard a more narcissistic interviewer. It’s no longer that he uses his own experiences to draw out the stories of his subjects; at this point, he’s full-on interrupting his guests to talk about himself. He has the “me me me” mentality of a toddler, and he’s a bad habit of one-upmanship. He has a sadder, more tragic sob story to counter every sob story he’s told by his guests. “You’re Dad was an asshole? Well, let me tell you about mine.”
He’s also a cranky asshole, which works against him sometimes — because he can be so dour — but works for him, because he’s honest and usually doesn’t give a shit what other people think of him, including his guests (unless the guest is a pretty woman, for which Maron seems to have a weakness). If you compare Maron vs. Hardwick with the same guests — and they have occasionally booked the same guests during the same press tours — Maron is a better interviewer, though I think that there are certain celebrities that probably avoid him in favor of the more upbeat, softball Hardwick interviews.
Then again, Hardwick is easier to pal around with and those softball questions often have a way of calming his guests into offering more insights into their lives and their work. I also like his practice of not telling his guests that the podcast has already started (although I feel like that’s probably going to backfire someday when a guest tells him that he should let them know before they say something that’s being recorded that they might regret). Hardwick also has enough experience with comedy, acting, hosting, and alcohol that he’s able to engage with a wider variety of guests, although it also means that we have to hear about his experiences in comedy, acting, hosting and alcohol. It’s when he tries to equate his experiences as “arson investigator” on some sitcom no one’s ever heard of to those experiences of his veteran guess that annoys me most.
He also has issues with sycophancy, and too often that means letting his guests dictate the interview to such an extent that they might digress into a half-hour conversation about their approach to a particular role. No one cares. Meanwhile Maron will rudely say, “That doesn’t interest me. Let’s talk about how fucked up you are.” Maron pries and sometimes cajoles, and while that can make for a very good interview, it can also be uncomfortable for both the guest and listener, as Maron turns his interviews into therapy sessions. Conversely, Hardwick is so apologetic and effusive that uncomfortable moments are incredibly rare.
Ultimately, however, I think that both approaches are valid. I think that both approaches are effective, and I think that both approaches can be very irritating after prolonged exposure to them. You can’t really blame Maron or Hardwick for that, however. They’re not considering the irritation a listener in his car or walking his dog might have for hearing the same story for the 37th time; they’re considering the guest in front of them, and in that respect, they’re both very good at their jobs.
To varying degrees, they’re both successful interviewers. They can also be grating. Which you choose to listen to will depend on your own preferences: Do you like the crusty asshole who drills down into a guest’s psychosis? Or do you like the exuberant ass kisser whose subject is so at ease that he or she opens up as though talking to a friend?
I like them both, and they both drive me fucking bonkers.