Last year, Marc Maron created a new metric for podcaster success when President Obama came to his garage to discuss Richard Pryor and Louis CK, but that has little to do with why I love WTF with Marc Maron. When I discovered Maron’s podcast years ago, I was entranced by the way he coaxed real conversations out of comedians and other entertainers. I think of David Cross bitterly revealing his heartbreaking relationship with his father, or Judd Apatow explaining why he’s terrified of joy. It’s not your standard talk show. The secret to Maron’s interviews is that he fearlessly puts what’s raw in his own heart out there, and the guests have no choice but to go deep with him.
Here’s the thing that's amazing about sharing what’s raw in our hearts: it exposes the stories that we tell ourselves to make sense of our lives, and often, we see how those stories are wrong. That’s true whether we’re talking with a friend or on a podcast downloaded by millions.
There’s perhaps no story that Marc Maron has spent more time processing with celebrities than the one meeting he had with Lorne Michaels while he was auditioning for Saturday Night Live (SNL). The chance to be on SNL is a big deal for any comedian, perhaps the biggest deal. Jimmy Fallon said on the WTF podcast that being on SNL was “The goal of my whole life,” an extraordinary statement coming from the host of The Tonight Show, the most coveted job in all of comedy. Fallon is far from alone in that goal—SNL was the big break for dozens of the biggest names in comedy over the last 40 years. Maron thought SNL could be his big break, too.
It didn’t happen. Lorne Michaels, executive producer of SNL (and generally the most powerful man in comedy), chose not to cast Maron on the show.
I (and millions of other WTF listeners) have heard Maron recount his one meeting with Lorne Michaels many times, often in excruciating detail, on dozens of episodes to more than twenty SNL alums, and other people. During Maron’s conversation with Amy Poehler, he speculated that Lorne Michaels was teaching him a lesson or using him as leverage in a negotiation with Norm Macdonald (the SNL Weekend Update anchor that Maron was hoping to replace). Jim Bruer suggested on the podcast that Maron’s prickly attitude hurt him.
As Maron told the story over and over again, he talked about his perceptions as if they were facts. Perhaps no aspect of the story is more delightfully absurd than the candy test.
Here’s the short version of the candy test: There was a bowl of candy in Lorne Michaels’s office. Maron took a Jolly Rancher* from the candy bowl. The moment that Maron took that Jolly Rancher, Michaels shot a knowing look over to a colleague in the room. That’s the moment that Maron knew that he blew it. He knew that he failed the candy test.
Over two decades, that perceived failure would harden into rigid views, such as “I got fucked,” “Lorne doesn’t like me,” and "Lorne is some kind of demonic puppet master." Those views softened as Maron heard so many people credit Lorne Michaels with mentoring their careers. Fascinatingly, Maron resisted his softening perspective, he said, “I liked keeping Lorne Michaels this evil wizard who somehow exiled me from a much different career in show business.”
It’s a sad story, right? Jolly Rancher dooms promising comedy career.
Yet Marc Maron’s career was far from doomed. Sure, Maron had some dark years, but not getting on SNL didn’t sink him. With the established path to stardom closed to him, Maron forged an entirely unprecedented route to success. Combining his talents as a comedian and radio host, Maron started a podcast long before that was considered a reasonable career move. Yet it was brilliant. The podcast struck a nerve. Comedy nerds, like me, could hear our favorite comedians talk about their messy career paths, approaches to comedy, and how they live their lives. The podcast begat a book, a television show, greater success as a comedian, and soon secret service snipers were standing on his neighbor’s roof, as President Obama critiqued fan art in Maron’s garage. Ironically, Maron frequently used his revolutionary platform to speculate about why the well worn path was closed to him.
So why was the path closed? The Norm Macdonald negotiation? Maron’s volatility? The candy test?
Spoiler: There is no candy test.
I know this spoiler, because not long ago, Lorne Michaels came onto the WTF podcast. Marc Maron finally got to ask Michaels the questions that haunted him for years, and in doing so, two decades worth of theories about that initial meeting dissipated over one conversation.
When Lorne Michaels explained the decision not to cast Maron on SNL, Michaels had nothing to say about what Maron did wrong. Upon placing the meeting in 1995, Michaels recalled that the staff was turning over, critics hated the show, and ratings were tanking. Michaels rambled a lot in his reasoning for not hiring Maron before finding a way to put it very simply, “You can’t really explain bad timing to someone.” He went on, “You meet people you think have something, and sometimes there’s a spot for them and sometimes there’s not.”
Upon hearing that, it’s so obvious to me. Those were the SNL years I loved as a kid—with Adam Sandler and Chris Farley—Marc Maron existed in a completely different comedy universe than those guys. Maron would never have fit in that cast.
There never was any candy test. Maron had recounted the story about why he missed the chance of a lifetime so many times that I imagine he thought he’d considered every possibility. But he missed one: the decision had nothing to do with him.
And how relatable is that?
I certainly want to control the most important moments in my life, and I also know about the humiliating consequences of figuring out where it all went wrong when those moment didn’t go the way I wanted.
Almost seven years ago, I started leading meditation classes at the place where I’d worked (a large non-profit). I started with a simple intention: sharing a practice that benefited me immeasurably and welcoming meditation into the office culture.
It started small. The first class was a lovely sit and conversation with my friend, Patty, the only person who showed up. Though it quickly grew through word of mouth, and soon over two hundred people asked to be part of the classes. We filled a conference room every week.
After a few years of leading the classes, it was clear to me that the meditations, which I’d been offering out of generosity, were my most valuable contribution to the organization. That was obvious to others, too.
An executive friend of mine sent an email to HR suggesting the company pay me to the lead the classes. I got a meeting with my friend’s contact in HR. I was elated. In my mind, this was the big break to be paid to do the work that I was best suited to do.
Then the HR contact canceled the meeting, over half-a-dozen times. Every two weeks, I got myself psyched up for the meeting, and then she canceled at the last minute. My mind had many explanations for her blowing me off: she wanted credit for the classes, why would she pay me when I’m doing the work for free, and so on.
The seventh time she tried to cancel the meeting, I didn’t get the message, and when I showed up at her office, all of my theories were proven wrong: She was overwhelmed and couldn’t bear the thought of writing another proposal. That was an easy fix. I wrote the proposal. She made a few tweaks, and set up a meeting for us and her boss, the ultimate decision-maker on my meditation program.
Then that meeting got canceled a few times over a few more months.
By the time I finally got my meeting, I’d scrupulously rehearsed every word of my presentation, and yet, the meeting started off poorly. Maybe it was a weird energy in the room, or my nerves, but I fumbled over a couple words and then started sweating, a lot. I got it together and finished strong, but the decision-maker rejected the proposal in the room—he didn’t even need time to think about it.
I was devastated. In my mind, that was my big chance, and I’d blown it. I went home and cried in my room and shook with the intensity of how furious I was with myself.
The next week, the contact in HR came up to my office to explain what actually happened. Before I’d even walked into the room, her boss told her that there was no budget for my program. Furthermore, the timing was terrible, because a new CEO was hired that week, and there was no telling if meditation is something that the incoming CEO cared about or not. She thought my presentation had gone great, and apologized for the process taking over six months, and for me never having a real shot. In other words: It had nothing to do with me.
It’s a bit frightening how convincingly we lie to ourselves to deal with disappointment, isn’t it? Every romantic relationship ended because of an ill-advised comment. I sabotaged every failed job interview with a wrong answer. And flunking the candy test is why we never saw Marc Maron host Weekend Update on SNL. Why is it preferable to tell ourselves these lies, rather than acknowledge that we don’t know why life didn’t align with our preferences?
It’s especially confounding, because not getting our way often turns out for the best. Marc Maron’s career path sans SNL is enviable to almost any comic, including many SNL alums. Maron has also recognized on many occasions that he wasn’t ready for SNL in 1995.
I left the large non-profit for a fellowship at the Insight Meditation Society, and I trust there’s no better work that I can be doing right now. That transition may not have happened if I’d gotten funded to lead the meditations at the non-profit, and the classes continued after I’d left, thanks to a dedicated group of friends**.
Here’s the reality: We don’t know how things are going to turn out. We often don’t know why they turn out that way, and there’s no way to know whether or not it’s for the best. That leaves us two choices: We can live in the suffering of telling ourselves that we know how we messed it all up or got screwed over, or we can learn to rest in uncertainty, and the truth that what’s most important to us is often beyond our control.
*Lorne Michaels says it was a Tootsie Roll.
**Thank you, Laura, Andrew, Eric, and everyone else on the committee that has kept the classes going.