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Moontower fest preview: Marc Maron's second act powered by a podcast

Joe Gross

When Marc Maron started his "WTF with Marc Maron" podcast in September 2009, his career as a stand-up comedian was, to hear him tell it, over.

"I was, for most practical purposes, sort of out of the game in terms of getting club work with any consistency," Maron said from his home in Los Angeles. "I just never built a draw, and after a certain point, you are just shelved as one of those guys who had been doing it a long time who just doesn't have a draw and it is horrifying."

He pauses, then: "You are a performer looking down the barrel of anonymity and marginalization, and that is horrifying."

Maron was — to quote the title of the movie with his only real film role — almost famous. (He is the promoter who screams, "Lock the gates!" at Stillwater's departing bus; that line opens the podcast's title sequence.)

Maron, who performs Thursday as part of the Moontower Comedy and Oddity Festival, had worked as a stand-up for decades, honing his often deeply personal material on the nature of relationships, aging, his parents, his struggles with food — well, let's just call it the inner workings of his own head.

He hung out — and partied a little too hard — with Sam Kinison on the West Coast and found himself in the 1990s alternative comedy movement on the east. (Maron has been sober for more than 12 years.)

He hosted Comedy Central's "Short Attention Span Theater" for a year and a handful of shows over the course of the life of progressive radio network Air America. There isn't much in media Maron hasn't done, and there weren't many working comedians Maron didn't know well, know slightly or had worked with.

So there was no telling what would happen with the podcast when he started it, but over the course of more than 200 episodes — many of which can still be downloaded for free from his website or iTunes — "WTF" has become required listening for comedy nerds and a striking program about the creative process for everyone else. Maron has gone deep with a murderer's row of contemporary comedy.

"I didn't anticipate any of it," Maron said. "What's really fascinating to me is the people who aren't comedy people who listen to it."

Everyone from Chris Rock to Patton Oswalt to Sandra Bernhard to Aziz Ansari to international superstar Russell Peters has graced Maron's home studio at the "cat ranch," as he calls it, and there is something revelatory in almost every episode.

"Even if I've known a guy for a long time," Maron said, "a lot of those interviews are the first real conversations we've had, even though we all kind of know each other."

Gallagher stormed out. Carlos Mencia discussed his issues with joke-stealing in depth. Norm Macdonald's interview, where he goes into his let's-call-it-an-affinity-for gambling, is almost heartbreaking.

"WTF" has become that rarest of journalistic endeavors: an invaluable resource. Listen to a bunch of "WTF" broadcasts, and you start to put together an extraordinary timeline of comedy. And through it, Maron has received that oddest of showbiz gifts: a legitimate second act to his career. From his 12-minute monologues at the top of the show to the increased publicity, "WTF" has changed his life.

"It has been great to have the freedom of mind to talk without a live audience," Maron said. "Things come up, I make note of it and build out as bits or try to develop into stand-up pieces. And I have to assume that the people listening accept me for exactly who I am, and that has helped a great deal."

It doesn't hurt that, as Maron puts it, he is selling tickets for the first time in his life. "I have been playing the Punchline in SF for 17 years, and I have sold out all five shows twice since the podcast started," he said. "I sold out an 800-seat theater in Seattle. Three years ago, I couldn't get work, and now I can work almost every weekend if I want to.

"After 25-plus years of this, I just started really headlining comedy clubs," Maron said. "That's all I wanted to do: headline some comedy club and perform for people that like me. People say, ‘We got to get you into bigger venues,' and I say, ‘Why don't just let me sell out a couple of these places, now that my primary concern is not dying broke and sick.' "

Contact Joe Gross at 912-5926

Moontower Comedy & Oddity Fest