Friday morning, Marc Maron—whose WTF podcast has featured some of the most raw and riveting interviews with comedians of all time—interviewed President Obama. This was not something Maron had ever expected to do. And yet, months ago, Obama’s people reached out to Maron’s people, and then the plans kept inching quietly along, and suddenly, Friday morning, Obama’s chopper was circling Maron’s neighborhood and before long the president was sitting in his garage. In the hour-long interview, which will be posted online Monday, Maron and Obama discussed Charleston, gun violence, racism, and comedy, among other things. Slate spoke to Maron shortly after the president had left his house about how he prepared, how the interview happened in the first place, and how he thought it went.
You must be exhausted right now.
I’m actually hungry. I’m not that exhausted. I’m trying to eat a little something. It’s been a very exciting day. The actual conversation with the president was the easiest part of the day.
So what was the hardest part?
Keeping my shit together so I could have an easy conversation with the president.
What time was the interview?
He came over at like 5 to 10. He was out by 5 after 11. It’s been a crazy few days.
What were you doing in the minutes before Obama got to your house?
I was playing some guitar. Looking a bit at my notes. Trying to find a space among snipers, LAPD, Secret Service people, my producer, White House staffers. And so I was playing guitar and going in and out of the garage. Trying to stay in a zone where I could be present for what was about to happen.
Tell me how you were feeling at the moment when he pulled up.
We were told he was going to chopper into the Rose Bowl, which is about eight minutes from my house. He was going to leave the hotel, get a chopper in Santa Monica. The alternative would’ve been to tie up traffic in the entire city. It was bad enough that around here I felt the weight of my neighbors being a little aggravated.
Had you and the Secret Service just been hanging out for hours?
Some guys came and started building this tent over the driveway yesterday. So the first people here were really just a crew of dudes putting up the rest of the tent. And then at 7 this morning, the Secret Service came and they were briefed in my living room. I live in a small house.
And you have cats, right?
I have two cats. They were in the back. I locked them in the bedroom.
Did you put out snacks for everyone?
No, I didn’t put out anything. But they could use the bathroom. My one bathroom.
Then at some point the snipers came. You saw these guys pull up, and it was like, okay. These are the dudes with the big guns. Then they went up on my neighbor Dennis’ roof.
No, Dennis was thrilled. Dennis is retired. This is very exciting for Dennis.
So then after everyone set up, there’s LAPD on my other neighbor’s deck, two snipers on Dennis’ roof. Secret Service spread out in front, LAPD around the perimeter on the bottom of the hill.
They tell me to go outside and there’s a flurry of activity at the bottom of the driveway. One big police vehicle goes by. Another police vehicle goes by. And then a big vehicle drives up. All of the sudden there’s a couple Secret Service people, and some White House people, and then in the midst of them all I see a hand go up. And he says: “Marc!”
I told him which chair to sit in, and then we got right into it. One Secret Service guy stood in the room. One stood outside.
When you have someone roll up like Louis C.K., or Mindy Kaling, or Judd Apatow, what’s that arrival like? I assume the LAPD does not show up.
I don’t have to set up a tent for Judd Apatow. As much as he might find that flattering. A lot of people park up the street and are like, where is this? I’ve seen a large number of celebrities wandering my street wondering where it is.
In the Times, you talked about needing to engage in a conversation that would be “worthy of the president.” How do you prepare to do that, specifically?
In my mind, being that I don’t really do political talk anymore, and quite honestly I’ve been a little bit disconnected from it, I was talking to the president. And he’s a politician. So I’m not going to go in there and talk about what kind of salads we like. It’s my responsibility to myself and to him to try to have a varied conversation that ranged from personal to political without getting too wonky or getting into areas that I really don’t know about.
You’ve said you read Dreams of My Father to prepare. What was your preconception of him before the interview?
That was the best thing I did in my mind. I got a deep sense of who he was as a younger man and how he struggled to sort of put his own identity together and figure out what was important to him personally, on an emotional level, on a level of his racial identity.
How was that prep different from your normal interview prep?
I don’t prepare like that, that’s for sure.
When we were preparing to have him come over, I got home on Wednesday night, after the shooting in Charleston happened. And I thought, I guess this isn’t gonna happen anymore, and that’s understandable. We didn’t know if it was gonna happen or not. We waited. We watched his statement the next day, and it seemed like they were still coming out here. The guys were still moving forward with the tent-building, and everything seemed to be on schedule.
So then I sort of felt like, we have to address this. He lost someone he knew in that tragedy and was clearly very emotional during his statement.
And because of the timing of it, knowing we were taping on Friday and it was coming out on Monday, I knew we had to address it. He might be going down there this weekend, I don’t know.
How did you feel about the idea of discussing Charleston with the president?
I said to myself, if he’s still coming out here, I have no problem engaging that. It didn’t make me uncomfortable. I thought of it as respectful. I think he showed up here expecting a certain tone, and I think the array of tones we were able to engage in, emotional, political, and personal was pretty varied. Talking about the shooting got us to guns and race and all sorts of other stuff.
Was there a pivot moment? One moment in particular that changed how you felt about him?
The moment that changed how I felt about the guy happened immediately. Because he’s the president, and no matter how cynical I may have gotten in my life, or how disengaged I am with politics, as an American, you know the opportunity to meet the president period is insanely big. No matter how jaded you are and no matter what party you’re from. So right when he showed up, all I wanted was to feel that he was a man, a human guy, that he was real. And right away, not only was he real, but he was disarming. I was stressed out! And he made me feel better.
Were you a big Obama supporter? Did you vote for him?
Yes I voted for him. Was I a big Obama supporter? I mean yeah, I wanted him to be president.
What was the first moment you realized this interview was a legitimate possibility?
I couldn’t believe it almost up until it happened. Then I just got nervous. I was like, what if I have nothing to talk about? What if I’m in way over my head? I didn’t want to have an interview that was just me going like, yeah so I have cats, you got a dog? I’m terrified of that. And I just couldn’t let that happen. And it didn’t. In other words, it was a little different from my other interviews.
How did the interview happen?
They reached out to us! Months ago. Apparently one of his staffers was a fan of WTF. When they reached out to us I was like, oh yeah sure. Then all of the sudden it was happening. I was like OK where do I gotta go? Do I fly to D.C.? I’ll fly to D.C. to talk to the president. And they were like no. He wants to come to the garage. I was like THAT’S CRAZY.
Was he funny?
He’s very charming. He’s got a funny sort of thing he does, kind of: “I get it, I get it.”
You didn’t have to give his people final review of the interview?
No, no. He’s a big boy. He’s the president. I’m pretty sure he’s confident he can handle himself with me. I asked him if he was nervous on the chopper coming over to talk to me. He goes: No.
I like that he didn’t even humor you. He wasn’t even like, sure, Marc.
Nope. Not at all.
Someone at Slate was wondering jokingly whether you were going to ask Obama whether he’d ever met Lorne. You didn’t feel obligated to work that in, kind of like a callback?
A lot of people wanted me to. Maybe he has met Lorne. I think it would’ve been funny. But quite honestly, the time went by so fast. When I started looking at the clock, at the amount of time I had, and trying to figure out where can I get him to go—how do I prioritize, Lorne didn’t come up. Though strangely somehow Louie did. Which he is gonna love.
Were you surprised at who Obama said his favorite comedians were?
No. Richard Pryor, Dick Gregory, Louis C.K., that makes total sense.
Is there anything you wish you did differently?
Not yet. Talk to me when I actually have time to think for a second.
Were you overwhelmed by his smoothness? Like: This guy knows how to talk, he knows how to be interviewed, how do I crack him?
Yeah, I mean, but I knew that going in. I don’t know if I was overwhelmed, but I have a tendency to be like, OK I get it, lets just keep going, but you don’t wanna do that to the president. And I wasn’t there to do a confrontational political interview.
But you’re not there to do PR for him either, so I imagine it’s hard to strike the balance.
Well, he told me why he wanted to do the show.
What did he say?
He said I want to try to talk people into engaging in politics. I mean, the code there could’ve been that he is a Democrat, he is out here raising money for the Democratic Party, we know who the Democratic candidate is—but he didn’t say that to me. He said, I want people to engage in the political process. I want people to get involved. That’s why he said he was using my show.
Are you a Hillary guy?
Well, let’s see what happens. I’m generally a Democrat, yes.
I’ve heard you say that you try to go into every interview and figure out “Who is this guy?” So what’s the big takeaway here? Who is this guy?
I think this guy is very intense, earnest, focused. He’s very passionate about making peoples’ lives better and making the country better. And the way he negotiates that and keeps going at it every day with seemingly no bitterness or sense of disappointment or anger that he would allow anyone to see. He struck me as a very responsible man. He walks the walk.
A lot of your best interviews are so good because you’re leveraging a very personal perspective on the comedy business—you’ve done it, you’ve suffered through it, you have regrets, you experience envy of others’ success, and you are very open about that. Is it hard to do an interview where you don’t have any of that experience, and those emotions, to bring to bear?
Yes! Yes. First of all out of respect I was not gonna sit there and say, I kinda relate to, uh, some of the decisions you made in your foreign policy because you know, I have neighbors. I’m not gonna assume that my experience—other than the experience of being around the same age he is and having my own struggles with who I am in the world—has anything to do with him.
But where we really sort of met emotionally was toward the end. I asked him frankly about how he compartmentalizes when he has to show up and do things. How do you show up and do this in light of what happened Wednesday? How do you do stand-up comedy at the White House Correspondents Dinner while they are killing Osama Bin Laden? How do you show up to the final campaign speech, which I was at, in Manassas the night before the election the day after your grandmother who raised you dies? How do you do your act? How do you do your job?
So what did he say?
Basically, he said, the more you do it, the more it becomes second nature to you. He brought up something that I’m very aware of in myself, which is: There’s a point in your life where you realize that you’re not afraid anymore. That because of your experience, you realize one day that you’re fearless. And that’s an amazing day.