For eons-or at least the last several years-former literary agent turned semi-professional humorist John Hodgman has toiled for obscure but laudable publications, such as McSweeney's and the New York Times Magazine. Now, without warning, a slow, subtle Hodgmania is sweeping the country, like a hobo in the night, assuming said hobo was involved in some manner of metaphorical sweeping activity. We had questions, which John Hodgman was kind enough to answer. Luckily, they were about him.
Let's get this one out of the way. You are the PC in the Mac vs. PC ad. Has the visibility of a national ad campaign affected you? When people recognize you, do they generally have some idea of all the other things you do?
For a long while in the spring, when the full strangeness of all that's happened this year first socked me in the head solidly, it was the case that I might be recognized and approached about 50% of the time I left the apartment. To a man and woman, they have been polite, friendly, kind and brief. Of those that said anything, about half mentioned The Daily Show and half mentioned the Mac ads.
The first time someone mentioned the Mac ads was in June. I had gone to a reception at the Museum of Television and Radio honoring the creators and much of the cast of the new Battlestar Galactica, a show which I profiled in the New York Times Magazine last spring. I was enjoying catching up with the show's creators, David Eick and Ronald Moore, who are geniuses, when a waiter passing a tray of cocktails with luminous sci-fi ice cubes in them passed by and said he hoped I was feeling better. I realized he was referring to the ad in which I have a sneezing fit. Ha ha, I said, thank you, thank you.
Then, like a sneezing fit, it did not stop. Soon more people put it together, either mentioning The Daily Show or the ads. Soon Mary McDonnell, who is a brilliant, Academy Award-winning actress and just the nicest person, was shaking my hand for a job well done on the television.
That's the time when all the various fun and bizarre adventures of the past couple of years all collided. No one could figure out why I was there, and what role I was supposed to fill at the party. I had come as a supplicant, a fan, a journalist. Or was I a minor, E-list personality, there to lend the party a little E-list buzz? And it didn't help that I was also mentioning to everyone around that the paperback of my book was going to come out.
Finally I felt very guilty about the whole thing and left so that my space friends could enjoy their well-earned celebration and glowing drinks without the minor distraction of me. I'm sure, once I was gone, no one noticed.
Hodgman with costar Justin Long in the popular "Mac vs. PC" ads
You used to be a professional literary agent, and I understand your first client was Bruce Campbell. How did that come about?
Like many whose lives have been touched by the genius of Campbell, my road with him began when I e-mailed him blindly, and to my astonishment, Bruce swiftly and politely wrote back. He showed an enormous amount of trust in me. I recommended I help him find a, you know, experienced agent, but for whatever reason, he let me do it.
It's sometimes hard to even find the humor section in the big chain bookstores. Were you surprised when The Areas of My Expertise became a bestseller?
Obviously, and obviously it was pretty much due to one single stroke of providence: four minutes on The Daily Show. While Daily Candy and the New York Times Book Review were critical and extremely influential early supporters. Dutton and its sales force were my heroes in their dogged belief in the book. But I remained skeptical. Inside I knew that most humans would still approach an excessively eccentric book of fake trivia with some hesitation, or I should say, plain confusion. I knew that many readers might not trust their initial impulse to like the book, wondering if perhaps it was simply too weird or trivial to invest their time and money in. And by November my feeling was they were saying more or less no thank you on presidents with hooks for hands.
Then The Daily Show and Jon Stewart did more than just put the book in front of a lot of eyeballs, although that was critical too; they essentially told their audience to not be afraid, that it was OK to like this weird thing, and that made all the difference, and I will never stop thanking them. The transformation-in how the book was seen by the public, and covered by the press, and treated by the bookstores, not to mention the plain old sales of the book-was dramatic. It happened literally overnight, as I flew back to Seattle to resume the scheduled book tour, bewildered and wondering what had happened.
Your book is an almanac. How did you choose that format?
The book is most immediately lovingly modeled on The Book of Lists, a 70s-era publishing sensation collecting lists of historical oddities and strange bits of trivia-author's last words, the sex lives of the European leaders, what Sasquatch ate for breakfast, that sort of thing. But that book itself was a sort of homage to the very old American publishing tradition of almanacs: little popular reference books full of weather predictions and facts and folk wisdom dating back to Ben Franklin's 18th century publishing sensation, Poor Richard's Almanac. This was the kind of literature I always loved-marginal, designed to be quickly read and forgotten, yet full of strange, amusing wisdom.
Are you working on a new book?
Yes, a continuation of The Areas of My Expertise called More Information Than You Require. It will be the second of a proposed three volumes.
On stage you performance seems incredibly comfortable, almost effortless. Do you have a background in acting?
No, but I had hosted a monthly literary/comedy/instructional lecture series called The Little Grey Book Lectures for several years in Brooklyn-whatever limited chops I could bring to The Daily Show, for example, I developed there. But I feel I've learned almost as much in just the past few months at The Daily Show, and on the stage of the Mac ads with director Phil Morrison.
You travel with a personal Troubadour, Coulton. How did you end up working together?
Jonathan Coulton is a super-genius whom I met at Yale in 1989. He is a singer songwriter, one of the funniest and most talented people I have ever known, and an inspiration. He also has an enormous beard, which is hilarious. When I began doing the Little Gray Book Lectures I immediately hoped that he would contribute original songs to the show, and since then I have conned him to accompany me on tour so that, through the magic of music and beards, we might make the reading aloud of lists of fake trivia not boring.
I believe you are the only nationally known comedian who is also an editor for the New York Times magazine. Is that a difficult balancing acct?
Only insofar as the Magazine, like The Daily Show, This American Life, and McSweeney's, is such a privilege to be affiliated, I fear I never can do it justice. These are each enterprises that I could easily spend my life serving and praising, so it feels almost unfair that I get to be able to divide my time between them. I am overly fortunate. But it helps that much of my work for the magazine involves helping to edit the True Life Tales humor page, and so my world is at least unified in the ha ha.
You play "The Deranged Millionaire" on They Might Be Giants' concept CD and DVD, 'Venue Songs'. It's a great pairing; I think your humor and their lyrics share a certain earnest quality. Did they have you in mind from the beginning?
Here is another dream job. I had been a TMBG fan since their first album, and I found it distinctly surreal to have been asked, from time to time, to emcee events that they would play occasionally with McSweeney's, and slowly get to know them. We had collaborated on the Deranged Millionaire script for a show they played in New York, and yet I was very surprised and happy when they asked me to recreate the character for the DVD.
You appear on The Daily Show as the Resident Expert, but your first appearance was as a guest, promoting your book. How did you end up being a fake correspondent?
My memory of the actual first appearance was erased the moment it was over. But quite soon thereafter, Ben Karlin, the executive producer, and DJ Javerbaum, the head writer, asked if I would consider coming back to do some actual comedy, and of course I said yes. I thought they were just being polite. But they were serious, as I am beginning to finally accept now, nine months later. Here is my recipe for success: Do the best work you can, wait to be asked to do things, and then say yes. Always say yes.
I've heard John Stewart is a tyrannical bastard. True?
Untrue. He is exceedingly gracious, considering the kind of pressures he and the staff are under, and alarmingly talented at making my scripts good at the last minute, once I have failed.
Forgive me, but you seem a bit of an odd duck to be on the verge of superstardom. What do you think that says about the state of our culture?
I watch the rise of Jonathan Coulton, who writes beautiful/hilarious songs about geeky subjects (robots, zombies, and feelings) for the Internet, and he makes a living that way, a good living. And I believe that points to the tenor of our cultural times far better than anything I've done: the internet has provided a new marketplace for culture that is not ashamed to be smart, geeky, informed, political, and occasionally very esoteric in their interests. The mainstream has been broken down into so many rivulets of culture now that the old, hidebound ideas about what people want (sports) are quickly evaporating.
After you discussed hobos with Robert Siegel on NPR's 'All things Considered', the mailbag response bordered on hostile. Is it possible people don't always realize you are a comedian?
Siegel passed along a couple of those letters. I missed most of them, actually. I think it's more important to point out that when I speak of hoboes I am talking of the wandering men of the Great Depression who became mythologized in American culture almost at the moment they took the rails, and not the contemporary homeless. Otherwise, it is true that people occasionally forget that I am joking, especially when a good 20% of my lies are made from actual truth.
You once said, "Comedy always tells the truth. That's why it's funny." Can you elaborate on that?Not without sounding pompous and stupid, no. The fact is, no one has ever properly figured out why anything is funny. It just is, or is not. Does that evasive little koan suit you better? Because I've got a million of them.