Episode 613 of the WTF podcast will be its biggest yet, as host Marc Maron interviewed President Barack Obama in his garage. The president spoke to Maron for an hour in the podcaster’s home In East Los Angeles — not far from Obama’s first college, Occidental — just like any regular visitor to the podcast. There were no guidelines or restrictions on Maron, who was able to ask anything and has final edit over the conversation.
“If I thought to myself that when I was in college that I would be in a garage a couple miles away from where I was living, doing an interview as president with a comedian — it’s not possible to imagine,” Obama said.
The interview, aptly titled “WTF Summit,” will be available Monday — completely commercial-free courtesy of Squarespace.com — on the WTF website, iTunes, and the WTF with Marc Maron app
Catch the preview clip here and read one for a discussion with Maron about the interview.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was it like having the President in your garage?
MARC MARON: It was crazy, man: I had the president in my garage! I was on vacation in Hawaii three days ago up to Wednesday night. My producer, Brendan McDonald, had flown out from Brooklyn to meet with the Secret Service starting on Monday. I got home Wednesday night, then that tragedy happened in Charleston, South Carolina, and we were like, “It’s probably not going to happen now, and that’s understandable.” We waited until the next day, and he made his statement, and it seemed like he was coming. We still weren’t sure, but they were still tenting the driveway, so when he drove, he could walk up undercover with no sightline. It was just crazy, dude.
Then all of a sudden, everything converged. There were Secret Service agents all over the place. The Los Angeles Police were here, all of them very polite and gracious and helpful. They had the bomb-sniffing dog in the house; I had to hide my cats. Eventually, we heard the helicopters above, and then he showed up. They told me to wait at the end of driveway in front of my garage. His staff walked up with him and Secret Service; it was quite a bunch of people. And he said, “Marc, how’re you doing?” He was very social and friendly and put me ease. We walked into the garage, I told him where to sit, and we did it.
Did the cats realize the magnitude of this moment?
I’d like to believe they did, but I think they were like, “Oh, great. Now we can’t be in our own house?”
How did you go about preparing for the interview?
I read Dreams from My Father, his first book, while I was in Hawaii. I’m not really in the political world anymore [Maron used to host a show on Air America radio], and I shamefully don’t follow that intensely, so I felt a little bit out of the loop with that. When I got back into town, I had read the book, I had made notes, and that’s really how I would prepare.
I needed to know who he was as a young man and how he thought. He has a certain sense of poetry, and this is a Barack Obama previous to presidential aspirations and just trying to reckon with who he was. That was a very helpful window into who that guy was.
When I sat down with Brendan, we went over policy a little bit. We went over his accomplishments and how to be respectful; I wanted to be respectful of his accomplishments. I also wanted to know how he’s changed. I talked with Brendan and loaded up with my head with stuff and figure out some areas that I thought would be compelling and try to get to him.
What was the most revealing thing you learned about him?
Just how he approaches his job and his life psychologically, given the obstacles and amount of slander and shame and demonization that he’s had to put up with — just like I think any president puts up with from one side or the other — and having a Congress that was proud to not work with him at all on anything. In the face of all these obstacles, he doesn’t seem to possess the capacity to be consumed by disappointment.
He basically said that if he feels that there’s any incremental progress in what he did in making America a better place, that he’s doing his job. It’s not about huge leaps and bounds. Democracy works incrementally, and he’s looking at the long game in a sense that he’s not going to be bogged down by anything. He’s going to figure out a way to make progress despite whatever obstacles there are. He said that with a very clear mind, clear heart, that that’s the way he sees the world, and that’s pretty impressive.
How did the interview come about?
We got this call a month ago. There was a fan within the ranks over there, and they thought it would be a good thing for him to do. They brought it up to us, and we’re like, “Yeah, sure. I could talk to the president.” [Laughs] I just thought it’s crazy, and there’s no way that’s going to happen. They’d check every so often, “Yeah, we’re still trying to make this happen.” “Yeah, okay, sure.” Then it became more concrete: “We’re definitely going to do this, he’ll be in L.A. at this time.” I don’t even think we knew it was going to be “L.A. at this time:” It was like “whatever he wants to do.”
Then I’m like, “All right, so what does that mean? Where do I got to go? Am I going to Washington? Do I meet him in a hotel? What’s happening?” Brendan, who was in touch with them the whole time, said, “No, he wants to do it in the garage.” I’m like, “Oh that’s just crazy. That doesn’t happen in real life: The president doesn’t come to my garage in real life.” Then it picked up like that: They were going to make that happen. I never thought I would get to talk to the President. It wasn’t really my beat, politics.
You hadn’t ever put in a request to speak with him?
Beside the whole Secret Service presence, how was it different from a typical WTF interview?
He’s the President.
But really, there’s very few things he hasn’t publicly spoken to. Whatever his private private life is, I don’t know how to get in there or what that is. The best you can hope for is that he’s given you a new take on something, or you get something that he hasn’t talked about ever. But he’s talked about a lot of things at a very profound and prolific public narrative about almost part of his life.
So how it’s different is it’s not just a laid-back conversation, as much as that he may have wanted that to be or thought that was the vibe that was going to happen. How do you just have a laid-back conversation with the president, and how do you not talk about politics a bit? It was sort of tricky; it was different in every way. There was a respect afforded to the president, from my point of view. It was a lot different than any other one I had one.
Conversely, how was it similar to past interviews?
He’s just a guy. I was just hoping that it would be a guy sitting across from me, that at some point I’d go, “He’s the president, but I need him to be just a man, just a dude.” And he was like that very quickly. Maybe that’s how good he is, and maybe that’s really what I was experiencing. But then he disarmed me very quickly — I don’t know if I disarmed him — but I felt comfortable with him.
I felt like I was talking to a real person — very gracious and thoughtful — but you see his face, and you see his skin and shake his hand, touch his shoulder. He felt like a real person to me. I felt like he was genuine and connected. That was surprising to me.
Was there something he did or said that disarmed you? Or was it gradual?
We started off pretty quickly and rambling and talking about the garage, then I needed to bring up the tragedy and shootings on Wednesday in order to put the time and context. He took a different tone completely, and I wasn’t sure how we’d get out of the one or necessarily where that goes. It was a risk, but I felt it was necessary.
I just saw that there was a different capacity for him to operate at different emotional levels and different levels of connection in one conversation. There wasn’t any shift. But toward the end, it got immediately thoughtful around his family and his life, and also the idea of how do you compartmentalize as president mentally and emotionally to carry what you’re carrying everyday. We had a nice conversation and connected that to comedy and work, and fear vs. fearlessness. It got very interesting at the end in way that was more candid.
What were some of the topics you guys discussed?
We talked about everything. We talked about, toward the end, comedy. We talked about having done a job for a long time. We talked about fears dissipating and becoming truly fearless in what you do. We talked a bit about his father, about his wife, about his kids. We talked about race. We talked about guns. We talked about his struggle, the reality of this presidency being played out against a non-cooperative Congress. We talked a little bit about his past and living in this neighborhood and about his own racial identity. We covered about most of the topics. We talked about criticism and living with criticism, about things he learned from being president. There’s a lot there.
Was there a question you wanted to ask but didn’t for any reason?
Sure. There was a lot more casual conversation I would have liked to have had, but we only had a certain amount of time, and it went a lot of different directions. I think if I had another hour, we probably could have talked more about comedy and about dealing day to do. But it’s all in there.
What did he say about comedy? Did he name favorite comedians or shows?
He said he liked Richard Pryor a lot, and Dick Gregory. He thought Jerry Seinfeld was doing something interesting. He said he liked Louis C.K., even though Louis can be a little crass. Just a little bit about that at the end.
Did you get a sense he was a listener of WTF?
I know he had listened to some to prepare.
You just interviewed the president. Where do you go from here?
I have a lot of different conversations with a lot of different people. This is a very specific and unorthodox conversation for me to have. Now, hopefully it will make people that generally maybe wouldn’t talk to me want to talk to me more. But I go back to doing what I do and taking this all in and being grateful and humbled and excited by this once-in-a-lifetime thing that happened to me. I’m glad I can share it with other people, but it’s pretty amazing. Just meeting the president is amazing.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.