On The Couch with John Hodgman

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John Hodgman

The subject today is a man who wears many hats. And although his livelihood depends on making people laugh, his costumes and characters are often representations of the most deplorable people in our society—selfish millionaires, pedantic narcissists, Ayn Rand. The personality beneath the personas is unsurprisingly eloquent, playfully clever, and self-aware. Unlike his many characters, the subject openly worries about fitting in and following the “rules” of society; perhaps this is what drives his absurd brand of humor. How could someone who describes his younger self as “a good child” not find freedom in spreading silly lies (“there are nine presidents with hooks for hands”) and subverting society’s social graces. Although he was made famous through his character work on The Daily Show and his purposely facetious novels, John Hodgman is embarking on his newest tour with every intention of being his honest self—talking about fatherhood, New England, and becoming the person you’re going to be, even if that person is a monster. I spoke to him about his new tour, his consistently funny podcast, and his weird Wikipedia obsessions.

So you are pretty well-educated, you studied literature at Yale…

I studied literary theory at Yale because literature on its own is too practical. I was such a dilettante that I only wanted to know about the theory, the idea of books. ‘What if there were books?’ That was my theory. It was easier than reading books, let me tell you. It gave me the skills to do nothing in life, so I had to re-educate myself as America’s favorite mustachioed humorist east of the Mississippi.

Your characters, especially your doomsday character or your impersonation of Ayn Rand, seem well-researched. Is that an attempt to make up for the gaps in your knowledge, to re-educate yourself? Do you just like learning about esoteric things?

I really do love learning about new and esoteric things. I have read a lot, but all of the research that I’ve done, whether it’s for comedy or any other job that I’ve had has been very haphazard and largely accidental. My reading of Ayn Rand dates back to when I was a writer for New York Times Magazine and I was assigned to profile a competitive bridge player who was also an avid Ayn Rand-ian objectivist. So I had to learn about Ayn Rand then, and I became fascinated with her worldview and with her as a personality, because she is such a complicated weirdo, who on the one hand was sophomorically selfish in her worldviews, but also could be personally very generous and very funny. Then I had to perform as Ayn Rand for Paul F. Tompkin’s Dead Authors podcast—he’s the best American mustachioed humorist west of the Mississippi. And what haphazard research I did there led to recent interviews that Ayn Rand gave with Phil Donahue back in 1980 or 1981 and she was so funny. They were just flirting with each other. They were “baes”; that’s what children say. When I get in bed to read, sometimes I’ll read a novel or a comic book, but just as often, I’ll go through Wikipedia and try to never hit the back button. So I’ll read an article on Zimbabwe and learn all about the maniac who was Cecil Rhodes who annexed a country for himself with the help of the British government, that he ridiculously named after himself—Rhodesia—just because he had a lot of money and decided he wanted a country. A monster character, a human monster. The monsters usually are more interesting than non-monsters.

The monsters usually are more interesting than non-monsters.

That’s a commonality between your characters—whether they’re The Daily Show’s Resident Expert or Ayn Rand—they’re all kind of monsters. What draws you to those kinds of characters? Also, can we expect a Cecil Rhodes character in your next stand-up special?

I mean, I’m not going to work Cecil Rhodes into my stand-up act; I’m not sure how translatable that is. But the pleasure of the personas is that the Resident Expert is a person who never doubts that the world is taking him seriously. The Deranged Millionaire is one who believes that the world is obliged to take him seriously simply because of his bank account. Those are both reflections of a lot of real people. When you’re portraying a kind of monster—whether a fairly benign monster like the Resident Expert, or a person like the Deranged Millionaire who actually advocates using children to clean chimneys that are made out of children—there’s a liberty that you have to say all of the dark and evil things that other people would never articulate, but are part of our culture.

But in the past couple of years, since Ragnarok, I’ve been shedding these personas and really just being me, John Hodgman, the famous John Hodgman impersonator. Instead of pretending to be someone else, I acknowledge who I am in the world, which is a 44-year-old man who has about 35 part-time jobs and lives part of the year in New England and is getting older. And suddenly, you realize, ‘I don’t have to pretend to be a monster. I am a monster.’ I have my own monstrosities that I can speak about on stage. In this show that I’m touring around, I don’t even dress up as Ayn Rand for once. I wear clothes that I would otherwise wear, and I just try to be as honest as possible about my life and what’s going on around me. Part of the job for me, after the world failed to end as I predicted it would in my Ragnarok special, was figuring out what’s next. And for me, what’s next is to cast aside costumes and just be myself. The version of John Hodgman you will see on stage during this tour is very much the same human who hosts the Judge John Hodgman podcast, which was my first effort to introduce people to my real persona. I’m not an insane, psychotic professor or Monty Burns-type character. I’m a regular human being who has a lot of weird obsessions, who has human children that I acknowledge, and is, like everyone in life, just trying to do the best he can. Being honest has always been the key to the humor I do. All of those obsessions that existed through my books and The Daily Show and so forth, are all honest expressions of the things that fascinate me—wealth and authority and that sort of thing. But there comes a time when I want to let that go and say to everybody, ‘Hey, this is me. And sometimes I go out to western Massachusetts and I’m terrified because I’m a child of the city and the country is a place where there are no rules, or the worst kind of rules—unspoken rules.’ And it’s been very gratifying to go out on stage and people don’t loathe me.

Were you uncomfortable being yourself on stage before this? Was it a tough process to work your way into being so honest?

Well, I had started as a writer before I was a performer. So what onstage chops I had were developed from hosting and presenting literary comedy events—readings. It’s not to say that we didn’t have some fun; we had some dog shows and Ouija boards and other gimmicks. I went on The Daily Show because I had wrote a book of incomplete sentences and fascinating fake trivia lists called The Areas of My Expertise, and that launched me on The Daily Show as the Resident Expert. And that began an expectation that I also performed comedy. And I had, because I would go out and perform comedy in bookstores and stuff. But as I got to know real comedians and real onstage storytellers, I realized, ‘I could do this too.’ So by the end of my third book tour, I stopped using a book, and I was doing a one man show about the end of the world. And when that ended, I realized I still wanted to do this, but I had to figure out what was next, because fake facts aren’t where I’m at right now. So what am I interested in? Ayn Rand and visions of my own looming mortality, both of which I consider to be funny. And if people don’t agree with me, they’re wrong, and I promise to prove it.

On your podcast Judge John Hodgman, you settle petty disputes between two people, and there is always a definitive right and wrong. Do you love to be right?

I don’t love being right, it’s just that I happen to be right most of the time. I cannot tell you how to fix a car – I don’t know how cars work, I think it’s magic, like airplanes. I cannot tell you how to plumb a sink, and I certainly know nothing about finances other than sometimes money comes and sometimes money goes. But in the areas of human emotions, and making the perfect scrambled eggs, and best drives through New England and the maritime provinces of Canada, and whether or not a hot dog is a sandwich (answer: not a sandwich), I have a weird amount of expertise because of my various careers as a comedian, actor, writer, journalist, former professional literary agent and one-time cheese monger. And I’m delighted to bring that to bear on the podcast and gain wisdom from the people who are calling in from not only all over the country, but all around the world, and learn about how people feed their infants in Columbia, for example. So that’s the pleasure of the Judge John Hodgman podcast, and then in stand up, it’s still me as John Hodgman telling the most recent stories from my most recent life that I think are really funny, and it’s more of a one-sided conversation, unless someone speaks up and then I have them rejected by security. Or maybe we’ll talk, I don’t know, we’ll see what happens.

I’m an only child, which means I’m a part of the “Super Smart Afraid of Conflict Narcissists” club.

In your comedy, you lie a lot—making up fake facts. Does that come from anywhere in your childhood? Did you lie to get out of situations?

No, no, no. I’m an only child, which means I’m a part of the “Super Smart Afraid of Conflict Narcissists” club. I was a good child who wanted to know what the rules were so I could follow them assiduously, and it worked. I was loved and approved of by all humans for most of my life. And so I would not lie in order to get out of things, which is what made lying about obvious truths like saying that there were nine US presidents who had hooks for hands, a real fun-filled transgression for me. Lying was fun for me. It became clear after a while that telling the truth was more transgressive. I could make up a weird lie about a zeppelin any day of the week, after a while. I’d gotten used to it. But telling the truth about how I really feel about being a 44-year-old who is no longer going through the part of his life where he’s becoming something, but is ending up as something? Telling the truth about what it feels like to be leaving my cultural and spiritual home of Massachusetts and going to Maine, which is a slightly whiter shade of pale in the color palette of New England’s Caucasia that is still culturally alienating to me, but I’m doing it for the benefit of my wife who wants to be there. Basically, I had to realize that these are the things that are truly occupying my mind now, and that when I’m honest about it, I realize what a flawed and foible human that I am. Figuring out what truth you have to tell is a lot harder than you think. Like anything good in life, you do it because it’s terrifying.

How has performing comedy affected your mental health?

Positively, question mark? I don’t want humans to think that they are part of my therapy. I am telling jokes to make them laugh, and yet I think that every comic, and indeed every writer of stories because jokes are just super-short stories, has to figure out what they’re mad about, what they’re happy about, what amazes them, what disgusts them on a really honest level. So there’s a reason that Louie C.K. and Bill Burr and Amy Schumer are so compelling—they’ve really tuned into an honest part of themselves. ‘This is what I’m obsessed with, and this is who I am.’ And in that sense, it can’t help but be cathartic and therapeutic for the performer. But the ultimate goal is: Tell stories that are true, and interesting, and fun, and fun to listen to, and create a moment in a room full of other humans where everyone has a good time. It can never be replicated, because it happens only once. And that’s sort of the beautiful thing about standup.