John Hodgman spent much of 2011 and 2012 detailing the end of the world, a multi-platform piece of conceptual comedy that left him, at the start of 2013, with fewer apologies to make than more earnest doomsayers, but still hurting for new material. His efforts in the months that followed gave way to a nationwide tour this fall, a series of dates billed as John Hodgman Lives.
Hodgman’s audiences are urged not to record his shows, and the push for secrecy has the character of both a tree house pact and a live performer’s sincere desire to keep things ephemeral. So, without revealing too much, I’ll mention that Hodgman began his Minneapolis stop by stripping off several years’ worth of TV guest-work swag until finally he emerged as himself.
Many of Hodgman’s fans first encountered him through his work as a special correspondent for The Daily Show—at least those who somehow missed his work as PC in Apple’s Get a Mac ad campaign. This past summer, Hodgman released Ragnarok, a Netflix-only special he had recorded in late 2012, on the eve of the projected apocalypse. He is also the author of The Areas of My Expertise, More Information Than You Require, and That Is All, a trilogy of books devoted to cataloging mole men names, the four elemental hockeys, and thousands of other fake facts. Through these works and others, Hodgman developed a public persona that extended not only to writing or to mock debates with Jon Stewart but also to manner of dress and grooming habits—a persona he recently discarded, with much anxiety, surprise, and delight.
I spoke with him in advance of his performance in Minneapolis.
John Hodgman: Is this Greg Hunger?
The Rumpus: Greg Hunter.
Hodgman: Oh, excuse me. It was given to me as Hunger. I was very excited.
Rumpus: Well, hopefully Hunter still has some sort of gravitas.
Hodgman: Yeah, that sounds pretty good too. But boy oh boy, what if your name was Greg Hunger? That’d be a cool byline. No offense. So how I can I help you? What information can I give you that would be of use to your readers of The Rumpus?
Rumpus: Earlier this year, you did a series of shows in which you dropped the fake facts and the deranged millionaire persona—consciously putting less distance between your audience and yourself, moving toward “real reality,” as you put it on The Best Show a couple months ago, and I was wondering if your performances this fall continue that shift.
Hodgman: That’s exactly what it is. But also…it’s true that when the world did not end when I predicted it would, at the end of last year, in my Netflix special Ragnarok, I realized a number of things, one of which was that I had not made a lot of professional or creative plans on the contingency that the world would continue. I just figured that it would end. And two, since it didn’t end, and since I was enjoying performing comedy so much, and since I was not going to write another book—since I had concluded my trilogy of Complete World Knowledge by destroying the world I’d invented—I was going to have to figure out what else to do with my life. And so, sort of as on a personal dare, I booked a series of shows at a bar called Union Hall, here in Park Slope, often not knowing what I was going to do until the morning of the show.
Panic is an incredibly catalyzing creative force. And almost out of sheer necessity, I found I had to talk about myself and my real life as it is effectively lived by me.
Rumpus: Did you ever find yourself readopting a persona without trying to? Like a shell trying to re-grow itself as you performed?
Hodgman: Yes, and to some degree that happened. I started out that series of shows writing some highly conceptual comedy. Quite seriously taking on the persona of the late Objectivist philosopher Ayn Rand. Which was an old-style piece of humor that I wrote to perform initially just in the drag of an Ayn Rand impersonation, her accent, and later in the full drag of an Ayn Rand dress, in anticipation of doing an episode of Paul F. Tompkins’s Dead Authors Podcast. And I did that at my secret shows, the shows I’d booked at Union Hall, called Secret Society.
So I used that as a catalyst—I had to figure out some things to say in the guise of Ayn Rand. And it had to be specifically Ayn Rand before she died. So I had to engage with the culture of her last couple of years, which was the late ‘70s. I was inspired by the fact that she went on at some length, in real life, on the Phil Donahue program about how much she loved Charlie’s Angels. And I really fell in love with Ayn Rand at that moment.
In any case, while performing as Ayn Rand with Paul F. Tompkins, without a script, I realized I really enjoy embodying this weird character. It brought a few things together for me. One was my first straight journalism article for The New York Times Magazine, when what I was writing for that magazine was a profile of a highly-ranked competitive bridge player, who was also an extremely devoted Objectivist and was using his bridge success to try and spread the word of Objectivism. So I had to read Atlas Shrugged at that time, and heard a lot about Ayn Rand and learned a lot about Ayn Rand from him.
What I discovered was that I could definitely see why her theories would be attractive. Both because I do believe in personal responsibility and I am not against self-interest, and also because I am an only child and therefore a perpetual narcissist. And Ayn Rand speaks to all of those things.
Rumpus: Have you been able to take a step back from the comedy and articulate how your Ayn Rand is different from your impressions of the woman herself?
Hodgman: I have to say that it’s not that different. Everyone thinks that my embodiment of Ayn Rand saying that she loved Charlie’s Angels is a joke, but she did! She said it! And watching the video of her in conversation with Phil Donahue created a lot of affection in me for her. She was funny! And she liked mixing it up. She said provocative things in order to get a reaction, and she was also incredibly principled in her way. And watching her flirt with Phil Donahue is one of the great performances that I’ve ever encountered.
So—I don’t know if she was a fan of Fresca. I do know she was obsessed with chocolates. I could’ve put that in instead. But I hope that people appreciate that while I am not an Objectivist, in no way a hardline Ayn Rand admirer from a philosophical point of view, I think that her concept of black-and-white morality is a really useful sort of palate cleanser to the cultural relativism that I was raised on in Brookline, Massachusetts, and at Yale University. But ultimately kind of limiting as a way of thinking, and obviously I think it is a philosophy—through no fault of its own, I would say—that could easily be co-opted into a scapegoating of others. But as a person, I would like to hang out with her! And I kind of enjoy being her—finally putting my experience of Atlas Shrugged to work, because I find it to be an incredibly weird and problematic and provocative cultural artifact.
I also realized, as I was doing it, what I’m really doing is not an Ayn Rand impersonation but a Brother Theodore impersonation. I don’t know what your age is, but when I grew up in the 1890s, David Letterman was on NBC, doing a show called Late Night with David Letterman. When he went to CBS, he could be still a comic genius, really funny and really subversive in his own way, but he adopted a lighter touch than when he was at Late Show and he and Merrill Markoe were really pushing the boundaries of what a talk show could be. When you turned in, it really felt like someone had left a camera on in a studio and some crazy people had taken over.
One of his regular guests in the ‘80s was a performance artist who performed as Brother Theodore. And it was an old, crotchety, Eastern European philosopher who would yell at David Letterman and would tell these incredibly depressing stories and just stare down the audience until they laughed. He also was the voice of Gollum in the original Rankin/Bass version of The Hobbit. That’s another story.
In any case, I realized performing as Ayn Rand was an opportunity to develop a character somewhere between Brother Theodore and the real Ayn Rand…and me. And yet that was right at the beginning of the Secret Society shows. As I went on, out of necessity, I realized that I had given myself permission—out of sheer panic—to talk about things that I otherwise would’ve backed away from. My family, my day-to-day life. Everything I presumed would be embarrassing and mundane.
What I discovered was, there are whole sections of my life that I wasn’t even aware of because, creatively, I was more focused on fake facts and jokes. I have a story now in my act—I can’t believe I say I have an act—but I have a story now in my act I was telling recently about a trip to a college show and some of the people I met and some things that unfolded there, finally culminating at a really fun and weird tragicomic party. I probably never would have told that story without the fierce imperative of having to say something right then. On stage at Secret Society, I had to come up with something to say, and therefore: “I can’t censor this, I just have to say it.” And the reason I would censor it would be that it’s a real-life story. It wouldn’t even occur to me to look at those events and tease out a beginning-middle-and-end story unless I was panicked enough to have to do it. And then I realized, Oh, there is some substance to this story.
You know, I began my life as a creative person writing true things for magazines and telling some very honest, straightforward personal essaying for This American Life, but until someone forces you, with a deadline, to really observe your life—unless you’re motivated to do it yourself—there’s so many stories that you miss.
Rumpus: So many sections of That Is All read to me like personal allegories. In the “The End” section, you touch on aging, mortality, in however roundabout a way. At the time you were writing those fake facts, how comfortable was that buffer? Did you not feel that same sort of risk?
Hodgman: Writing those books was also kind of an experiment in forced creativity through deadline. Though a much slower pace. So I sold the book, and I had an idea of the things I wanted to do in it, but ultimately it came down to, I have to fill up a certain number of pages. And then you have to scour your research and your mind and your memory to come up with any fake fact that is plausible and fun and enjoyable and not merely absurd and “non-sequiturial.” I had to have some basis in plausible reality, and even better if it was an emanation of something I was actually interested in or preoccupied by.
By the time I got to That Is All, even then, as I think you sensed, the conceit of fake encyclopedia entries and lists and little articles…I had already written 700 pages of that stuff. And my mind had turned to age and mortality and death as a subject, which, I’m lucky it did. It’s hilarious and it sells books like crazy. But I always gave myself permission to write in whatever form I wanted to, with the explanation being, It’s just the emanation of a deranged mind. So if I wanted to put a list of telephone numbers that begin with 666, without any further explanation, good. If I wanted to write a short story in the form of marginal predictions of the apocalyptic future, good. If I wanted to write a real short story, which is fiction, about quitting being a literary agent, good.
I really wouldn’t censor myself. But because it was on such a slower scale, I would throw things out, and I indulged the personal stuff as little flashes of truth. Little in-jokes for anyone who was paying particular attention. And, I don’t know, I’m very proud of the work that I did, all three of the books. But after sneaking myself into the margins, it’s really quite a relief to just be myself.
Rumpus: Does that mean your post-fake facts career anxieties have settled somewhat? Or is it new anxieties all the time?
Hodgman: I would say that it has settled to some degree because, you know, the Secret Society stint—I met a lot of new friends. And I count you among my friends…
Rumpus: Well, thank you.
Hodgman: …Mr. Hunger.
January of 2013 started with me in a dead panic. I had shows booked that I had booked without even thinking—because suddenly I realized, Oh, the world did not end. I cannot use any of that apocalypse material anymore. Plus, the other material I had been performing…at that point, I had been performing it for a year. It was time to move on. I had recorded it for Netflix, and no one was going to want to see me perform that stuff again. I had to find a new way to fill up the time, and I didn’t know how I was going to do it.
It was Mike Birbiglia who, six months before, had said, “I sometimes do just a residence at Union Hall, just to build material.” I decided I wanted to do that.
So much of creativity is the feeling that you’re either getting a gift from some other dimension or some other part of yourself. When you’re sitting down and you’re blocked and you just start writing and something in your mind just clicks, you start seeing connections and so on, you really do feel like you’re channeling something else. I’m not a particularly religious person, but that feeling of getting transmissions from someplace else, even if it’s from your own consciousness, is very, very real. To me, at least. And the impetus to book these shows, to actually move my hand to the phone, to call the person at Union Hall, is like a gift from another part of me, because on a conscious level, I could have easily blown it off. And if I had done that, and the spring passed with me just doing pickup work for different TV shows or writing other little things—and not exploring that material—I would be, right now, in flop sweat and full of tears, because I would not have had the incredible experience of doing those shows, of having the fun of being on stage in front of people who I came to know over time, and of finding a new way to be creative in the world…
It’s much more rough and tumble in the sense that what I’ve created now is about ninety minutes of stories and comedy that I really enjoy sharing with people around the country. I’m enjoying doing that very much. But it’s not quite as solid as saying “I have a book contract” or “I’m writing a book, and this book is going to come out very soon,” because the work that I’m doing now is barely written down. It’s ephemeral. And it was finished on stage, and each time I go on stage, I do it a different way. And honestly, if someone were to say, “Do you want to record it? To write it down as a book?” I’m not sure I would say an automatic yes. I love giving it to the audience, letting it sit in that room for a while, and then having it disappear.
Rumpus: I wanted to ask you a question about that broader act of creating a story. I told myself this interview wouldn’t be driven by me citing your various podcast appearances—
Hodgman: Oh, no, that’s fine.
Rumpus: —but I did want to ask about your last visit to Pete Holmes’s show.
Hodgman: That was a good conversation.
Rumpus: The thing that stuck with me was your conversation about the need to be present as the only real way of confronting the challenges of life—the tears and the flop sweat, as you said—but also about the impulse to create narratives of our experience. How do you, personally, balance those things? The need to be present versus the drive of a storyteller.
Hodgman: This is something that the nimblest standup comedians learn, over time, to handle gracefully. They’ll go between prepared material, then they’ll respond to what’s happening in the room and weave it back into the prepared material and so on. And in these shows that I’m doing now—and I really wouldn’t say “in this show,” it’s really “these shows”—there is a large measure of prepared material that I’m going to perform and use to give structure to the show, and there’s a beginning, a middle, and end. But there are always, constantly, options: to bring someone up on stage, to play around and do…I guess you’d say crowd work. To find stories in the room.
One of the things about crowd work that’s so exciting is when you discover a character in the audience who’s interesting or funny, who you can vibe off of. If someone’s got a weird job that you can make reference to throughout, or you can bring that person onstage—humiliate them, or celebrate them! You can put people in conversation with one another. The best is when something that they’re doing can reflect back on something that you’re doing.
One of the things about the material that I’m performing now is that, beyond just being straightforward about my life—which already feels like an imposition upon all humanity—I also talk about my fondness for alcohol and my relatively recent fondness for marijuana. Which is very hard for me to say, because throughout life, I had been nothing if not a good kid. Never took a drink or did a drug before I was eighteen. I had perhaps smoked marijuana seven or eight times in my life before the last couple of years, and the only reason, I realize, I’m more inclined to it now is that a) it’s less fattening than my nightly martini gallon; and b) it’s semi-legal. And getting more legal all the time, and therefore a good kid can get away with it.
Rumpus: It’s funny that that next step coincides with you having been a parent for a few years. Do you worry about the material being preserved for posterity?
Hodgman: The reality was that the material I’m performing now was developed in a show that was called Secret Society for a reason. In order to fill up the time, I had to give myself permission to say whatever was going on. I had to use everything I had. And it might be stuff that’s embarrassing to me, that I wouldn’t necessarily want people to know, it might be me complaining about someone who’s a public figure—I wouldn’t want them to know about it. And so every Secret Society would begin…for the first four or five of them, I would collect as many phones as I could to reiterate that this was not for public consumption. “A secret society for you people in this room only.” And I would swear them to secrecy.
I revealed a lot, and none of it got out. The members of Secret Society are a bunch of really cool people, a lot of whom became regulars and very dear to me. And to take that material out into the world? I am concerned. I can’t hide behind a character. So my observations have to be my own, and they’re not always nice. Sometimes I say things that might be hurtful, and sometimes I say things that, if my children were to hear them, I would be nervous. But on the other hand, it’s very emboldening. It’s like making any sort of confession. You feel better when it’s done. When the truth is out there, you just feel better.
That catharsis is really the core of the incredibly personal comedy of Louis C.K. or Marc Maron or whatever. And look—I find it fascinating that I’m sitting here talking about some of these things, and not to low tones, and my kids are in the other room. I have to trust that if they hear what I’m saying and they have questions about it, I’ll be able to answer it, and that’s fine. But that’s part of the scariness of it—the reality of opening up my own life and my own feelings.
Rumpus: A parallel to the resurgence of Ayn Rand in the discourse these last few years—and I’m not sure there’s a connection outside of late-period Steve Ditko—what people call geek culture—
Hodgman: Oh, yeah. You’re talking some deep cuts now. You’re talking about the Question, you’re talking about Mr. A…
Rumpus: You’re sort of—I’ve got another one for you—a high- and low-culture day-walker.
Hodgman: Oh, yeah, I like that a lot.
Rumpus: Could the John Hodgman enterprise have existed at a different time?
Hodgman: No. My whole creative career is a product of the Internet. …I’ll take that back. To some degree. My fascination with cultural esoterica and trivia and so on was well-formed long before I got my first AOL account. I was a huge fan of books of lists, I was a huge fan of William Poundstone’s Big Secrets, I loved secret histories and hidden rooms in American culture. Literal hidden rooms and more figurative hidden rooms, sort of like the weird oddities of culture that you didn’t know or couldn’t believe were true.
Lyndon Johnson being obsessed with Fresca, for example. He actually had a special button he would press every time he wanted a Fresca. I love stuff like that. And the Internet did two things for me. One, it gave me a huge mass of rabbit holes to go down. I used to spend hours going through the huge, thick Leonard Maltin-style guide to television shows. Every person was cross-referenced to every show they’d ever been in. I just remember so distinctly, before the Internet, discovering that Jerry Seinfeld had been on Benson was one of the greatest openings of the third eye for me. I loved that stuff. The Internet gave me so many more rabbit holes. But more critically, it gave me a connection to other people who were interested in those things, which would become an audience, as I was writing my advice column for McSweeney’s, “Ask a Former Professional Literary Agent,” but also a huge group of teachers—of what was working, of what I could do that people would respond to. And from a purely practical standpoint, it allowed me to research and write and sell the articles that would be my living for seven years.
So I am a product of the Internet, and to some degree a product of this sensibility of constant cultural reference. But part of these shows that I’ve been doing were borne out of a terror that was put into my heart when my friend and inspiration David Rees saw me, in a project I was working on—I just said the words “Battlestar Galactica” to get applause. And I said to him afterward, “I feel real guilty for doing that. I feel dirty for some reason.” And David said, “Yeah, making a cultural reference is not the same as making culture.” And I was like, “How dare you! You’re taking away all of my joy and my livelihood, but you’re right.”
I realized that we’re now at a point of self-reference with the Internet culture that there’s almost no there left, you know? It’s important to make new things. It’s important to make culture, rather than simply reference it. I love a good cultural reference, and it’s one of the great joys in my life, but it has to all be in balance with the core job, which is to make something new. And that sort of brings me around to why I started talking about my fondness for marijuana. Apparently I can’t stop talking about it. But because of that material, I did a show in Alexandria, Virginia…I asked out of real curiosity and fear, were there any young people there? A lot of young teenage boys with bad haircuts tend to really groove on my books, and I love them so, but I needed some kind of warning to their indulgent dads, who had brought them to the show, that, I’m an adult, so how could there not be adult content material?
Well, it turned out there were two kids in the room. And I mean kids. One was a fifteen-year-old boy and one was a sixteen-year-old girl. And I identified them, I had little conversations with them, and of course I tried to arrange a marriage between them. And then I had this whole piece about outdated cultural references. I did a comedy piece—I wasn’t sure if the references I was making still worked. And I realized in the moment that the best way to do this piece was to bring the youngest person in the room on stage and see if he got the references. In this case, it was a fifteen-year-old boy. That was a moment I never would’ve thought to do—where the written material came alive in a new way. I’ve done it since, though I don’t always do it. It really depends if there is that audience member in the room who’s going to work for that, or if there’s an audience member in the room who’s going to show me something else, completely different from the work that I’ve prepared.
The nice thing about live performance is that I’ve never, ever been let down. Partly I’m lucky that my audience self-selects itself. Generally they know what they’re in for, and generally we all just like each other and get along. But I always find one or two or a dozen really interesting people in the audience who make the show different. And that’s one of the things I really like about performing.
John Hodgman is currently on tour. You can find dates and information about upcoming shows here.
Featured and final images of John Hodgman © Brantley Gutierrez. Images of John Hodgman and Paul F. Tompkins © Steve Agee.