John Hodgman Discusses New Audio Book; Listen to Exclusive Excerpt
Redefining the Premise
Nov 14, 2012 Web Exclusive
Q: How are John Hodgman and Holden Caulfield alike?
A: Both of them hate phonies.
It seems like a scene out of one of Wes Anderson's fevered dreams: John Hodgman, former literary agent, turned author of fake facts, turned minor television celebrity (as both a correspondent on The Daily Show, and a PC in a string of Mac ads), turned Tom Selleck's only facial hair equal, decrying inauthenticity.
And perhaps it would be, if it weren't for the honest zeal that he applies to his almanacs of the absurd. Over the course of three volumes (The Areas of My Expertise, More Information Than You Require, and last year's That is All), Hodgman has become a noted maestro of the seemingly irrational, documenting the world around him through dubious lists, charts, and graphs, while keeping one foot (or, claw, or peg leg—depending on what story he happens to be telling) firmly planted in the realm of reality.
Under the Radar caught up with Hodgman in a rare moment of downtime between live shows. From his home in Brooklyn, he told us about his crooked career path, eschewing non-sequitors, and why it's best to hedge one's bet when predicting the end of the world. Exclusively for Under the Radar readers' edification, he also provided us with a helpful portion of the new audio book version of That is All, entitled, "How to Be a Deranged Millionaire." Check out our premiere below.
Laura Studarus (Under the Radar): Do you consider yourself to be more of a writer or a performer?
John Hodgman: For a while I would say I was a writer who occasionally did my imitation of standup comedy and my imitation of acting. At most I would be a very famous minor television personality. I think to some degree all that is true. Although, performing is something that I did on a smaller scale, before my life changed with The Daily Show specifically. I hosted a variety show in a former mayonnaise factory in Williamsburg that had been turned into a bar, which is terrible conundrum, because I love both bars and mayonnaise. So I kinda don't know, is it sad that a mayonnaise factory was turned into a bar, or good? But it was good for me, because I hosted this variety show for almost five years, once a month there. What performance chops I have were developed there. That was primarily standing at a podium, fake facts and absurd assertions, largely from a page.
But since I've been doing The Daily Show, and performing more and more commonly, one thing I noticed over the course of the past year, is one year ago I would go out onstage with my book That is All and read portions of comedy from it. Six months later, I wasn't touching the book at all anymore. So my imitation of standup comedy reached a point where it might almost be called standup comedy, because it would vary and flow with the crowd, and I would engage with the crowd. As a professional fraud, I hesitate to say that I'm an authentic anything. But I would say, whatever it is that I do; it is performance as much as anything else. I say that, not to brag, but because it is a new, unexpected, and challenging aspect to my career that excites me a lot creatively. So it's something that I'm exploring more rather than simply doing it for money. Which is also something I'm doing.
Is this the sort of career that you would have envisioned for yourself as a kid or teenager?
It's really interesting that you should ask that particular way. Because the presumed answer would be, "No, never!" But in fact, if you were asking me specifically in the context of "Could I have envisioned this as a kid or a teenager?" then absolutely, yes! As a kid and as a teenager I loved comedy, and I loved performance, and I loved—as I still do—television and movies. As a kid and as a teenager, you think you are a), immortal, and b), capable of anything. What ended up, as a teenager is that I discovered I really loved and had a call for writing of all kinds. As my interests narrowed and the cells of my body aged, and my waistline grew, my expectations for where my career would go narrowed as well. By the time I was officially an adult, let's say in my 20s, by that point I remember very distinctly, a moment watching The Golden Globes or something, and seeing people get awards for creating stuff in television and movies, and feeling a real melancholy. That is something that I choose not to do, and never will get a chance to do, because I chose I different path. By that time, into my late 20s and early 30s, you know, someone of my weight, and complexion, and ample neck meat, and weird lazy eye—and this was before I had the insane mustache—it was simply not plausible that I would be working in a visual medium by the time I was 35 years old. Right?
So my expectations became realistic. That is what made it all the more jarring, to have television knock on my door and say, "You're up!" Had that happened in my late teens or 20s, like anyone who likes popular culture in those years, I would think, "Yeah, of course I'm up! Of course it's my time." Particularly in the era of reality television I think children are born now with the expectation that they'll end up on television sometime. But I had really given that up completely as a rational human being. To be told, "You're up," which I believe is a sports metaphor by the way, I'm not sure, but I think it has something to do with sports. At some point I think you're told, "you're up" when you have to throw a ball or kick a thing. It was very confusing.
You and I talk about sports with the same sort of enthusiasm.
Those of us who are into esoteric American and British comedy, and those of us who write for independent music magazines probably have common cause in our fundamental distrust of sports and sporting culture. Correct?
Did you play any sports when you were a child?
Does watching cartoons with the occasional sport motif count?
Then I guess not. But sports do come up in your new book, which is certainly interesting. I love the description of topics that you cover: "Wine, Wealth, and Sports."
Basically, I wrote my first two books of complete world knowledge. Which of course is invented world knowledge. These are compendiums of amazing true history and fascinating trivia with the caveat that it's all made up by me. The first book was really written from the point of view of what I was at the time, which was a professional writer and a former professional literary agent. I had already gone through what I had considered to be the biggest change in my career, from being a literary agent or a middle person in the world of weird, esoteric, socially marginal culture—which is to say books of all kinds—to a maker of weird socially marginal culture, which is to say books of fake trivia.
The second book picked up after I had gone through this tremendously strange transformation that I had not anticipated. Once the first book brought me on The Daily Show to promote it, and then I was asked to come back and do comedy on the show, and then in a matter of six or eight weeks, unexpectedly auditioned for, and got this job doing ads for Apple. My life had transformed dramatically, and I could no longer write from the same point of view as just a professional writer. The sheer reality of my actual life was outpacing the lies that I could write about it. The first book I had a list of the TV shows and movies in which I had made a cameo appearance, à la George Plimpton, one of my heroes, who used to show up in weird TV shows and movies all the time. My first book, that was a joke that was premised on absurdity, because of course I would never be on television or in movies. But by the time I wrote the second book, I had been making weird cameos and George Plimpton-like appearances in movies and TV shows. So my standard for absurdity had to change. So it was readjusted to "Famous minor television personality."
So by the time I wrote the third book, I really had to think, what's different now? What is the authentic place that I can write these absurd lies from now? The fact is, I had written almost everything I knew through a weird fun house mirror lens into those previous two books. What was the new thing that I knew? The Apple ads were over. My life as a contributor to The Daily Show had matured and become normal in a way that I had not expected it to. One thing that I had never expected was to be more or less financially independent. That is not something you think of when you're writing food columns for Men's Journal magazine. Do you know what I mean? You probably know better than most as a magazine writer. Suddenly I was this character that I had previously once pretended to be years before for a series of videos for They Might Be Giants, a deranged millionaire character. A morose, strangely facial-haired weirdo who had been set largely free from human care, and could now concentrate on his weird hobbies. That tied into the fact that the books were ending, the Apple ads which had truly transformed my life—practically and creatively—had ended at the point I started this book, and of course, as the ancient Mayans had predicted, the world was also coming to an end. So it allowed me to think that I would take up the things that I had been previously terrified to take up before, which were basically the topics of wine, which I find intimidating, and sports which I find loathsome, and the end of the world and mortality which I find terrifying—both as a human being, and as a person challenged to write humorously about the death of every living creature on earth.
It's interesting that these fake facts are coming from a very real place.
There's something that I loathe, which is phoniness. It may sound counterintuitive to say, if you're writing crazy fake absurd facts that pretend to be the truth, but there's not a lot of difference between that description and someone who writes a novel or a screenplay. We're all liars. All creative people are liars and pretenders and fakers to a huge degree. The only thing that sort of thing that saves us is if we're tapping into some authentic truth or knowledge or experience. Something that we know.
The difference between writing a fake fact that is interesting the way a story is interesting, versus a fake fact that's a dumb non sequitur is, does it ring with a certain kind of historical or personal truth? Other books of trivia might have the nine biggest presidential insomniacs; in my first book I listed the nine U.S. presidents with hooks for hands. That's crazy, right? Of course it's crazy. But it's not more crazy to imagine FDR had a hook for a hand that no one ever spoke about, than the truth that FDR couldn't use his legs and people ignored it. There was a commonplace conspiracy to edit that reality out of life for him. It would have been much stupider to say that FDR had a robot head or that FDR was a piece of chicken. That to me is an absurd non sequitur that might pass for humor in some circles. But not in mine.
After writing three books of fake facts, are there any real topics that you'd like to explore?
About two years ago I started doing this podcast with Jesse Thorn called Judge John Hodgman. It started as a hobby, and it's now grown to be a really exciting new creative venture, where I get on the phone, or the Internet telephone, with human beings who are having a real dispute. It might be a meaningful dispute, like who gets the bigger bedroom in the apartment, or it might be a completely bizarre dispute, like two guys who have been fighting for years over whether a machine gun qualifies as a robot. I hear their arguments, and I decide who is right and who is wrong, and I tell them how to live their lives, which is very gratifying for me. I love bossing people around. So if there's anything new that I want to explore, it's the pleasure in doing the podcast—talking to people in other parts of the world and judging them. But in a kindly way. That is all grounded in reality. Those are all real issues. Even the question of whether or not a machine gun is a robot—the answer, by the way, equals no, a machine gun is not a robot, it has no autonomy—but even that is a real issue between those two guys. Talking to them brought out a weird, funny human story that otherwise would have been known only to their friends. That's something that I really enjoy doing, and I think I will continue to do, if the world doesn't end. That's my backup plan.
If the world doesn't end?
Everyone who makes the claim that the world is going to end on a certain date—as I do, December 21 of this year—ought to have a backup plan.
If the world doesn't end on December 21, are you going to publish a book of fake corrections?
No. The fake facts are self-correcting. As I explain in the appendix of the paperback of the book that just came out, there is the slight possibility that some of my calculations were off. There's a lot of precedent of this, of people predicating the end of the world and it not coming true because they made a miscalculation in their calendar. This is of course the famous situation of William Miller, the 19th century preacher that predicated the world would end in October of 1844. His followers went to the tops of the mountains in upstate New York wearing white robes to be closer to heaven. And then nothing happened, and they were all destitute because they gave away all their belongings. That was called "The Great Disappointment." Such a melancholy way to describe it. If the great disappointment were to occur in this case, and the world does not end on December 21, 2012, as not I, but the Mayans predicted, first of all, I'll say that I didn't tell you to give away all your possessions and wear white robes. Number two, the white robes look pretty good on you. Number three; I blame the ancient Mayans, frankly. They're the ones who made this prediction. When we look back on it, why did we listen to them in the first place? They weren't even smart enough to make smooth pyramids.
So please don't sue me. And presume, the reality is with all Doomsday predictions, lots of people will make them, and be wrong. But eventually one dude—or woman—is going to be right. So, just keep my predictions on the back burner. If they start coming true you'll know what will happen.