The Real John Hodgman: We're Not Making This Up!

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It’s been three hours since John Hodgman told me he’d be right back. I’m sitting in the Ferret Skeleton room of his ridiculously large mansion, but I couldn’t tell you what city I’m in. I was blindfolded on the way here from an office in Brooklyn. The interview got off to a good start, but then he told me he needed to go check on Paul Rudd who was upstairs fake-recording Hodgman’s audiobook by speaking into a cereal box. But there was a second click when he shut the door, and I’m trapped with creepy rodent skeletons until the deranged millionaire decides to return.

Or that’s how I might begin this story if I had the imagination of John Hodgman, who grew to moderate fame by becoming an expert in fake knowledge. But before he was the author of three books, a regular on The Daily Show or the uncool PC on those ubiquitous Mac commercials, he was just a plain old magazine writer like me, so I’ll stick to the facts in hopes that the impending apocalypse of Ragnarök will not begin Dec. 21 of this year, as he predicts in That Is All, the final installment of his trilogy of Complete World Knowledge.

And while he writes about the town of New Brookline where his children Hodgmina and Hodgmanilla are being raised in an environment where nothing exists that wasn’t created before May 22, 1980 (The Empire Strikes Back came out on the 21st), the first fact is that he was born in Brookline, Mass., in 1971. In many ways, it was a childhood easy to idealize, though Hodgson qualifies, “Everyone who enjoyed a stable and relatively happy childhood will look back on their childhood and think that it’s the best. That’s the parlor trick of nostalgia, and it’s why nostalgia is the worst. It is a toxic impulse that leads to nothing good, honestly. The idea that things were better once and are terrible now and getting worse every minute is what fuels the worst, in my opinion, movements in contemporary culture. …But in this one case, it really was the best.

“I think culturally it is a really complex and interesting period, just in terms of popular culture and high culture. If you go back and look at the artifacts of the ’70s—like Empire Strikes Back, which was the last of the great films of the ’70s, even though it came out in 1980, because it is in many ways morally ambiguous, paced in a fast-paced way compared to the ’70s but in a slow-paced way compared to now, with great realized characters and an incredibly downbeat ending that would not ever be tolerated today—you can’t help but feel like we had something in culture at that time.”

With Hodgman, a simple question about childhood leads to discussion of sweeping changes in technology and the fracture of mainstream culture (except sports) into the myriad of underground culture—a discussion that touches on the Tea Party, the great cars of the ’50s, Three’s Company, radical Islam, The Village People, the death of print magazines and Super Train (a ’70s ensemble TV show about an imaginary coast-to-coast cruise train). You quickly get the sense that he’s interested in everything (except sports), and that his curiosity about the world, along with his adventurousness and humor were the perfect ingredients for his unique career path—one that he couldn’t have ever predicted in that pre-Internet age, but still pursued beginning with a literary zine called Samizdat in high school.

“I kind of always wanted to be everything,” he says. “I’ve always been interested in culture. I’ve always loved books, movies and TV. And writing seemed to be the easiest way, on one level, for me to be able to do all of them. So, when you’re in high school in the 1980s, we didn’t have the technology to create podcasts or blogs or video channels. The best we could do would be either to fax a blog around or tack it to an actual, physical bulletin board or take part in the zine community, which was burgeoning at the time.”

His love for comedy originated in “another one of the great gifts of the ’70s,” the UHF band of broadcasting that filled its airtime with sitcoms from the three previous decades, from The Honeymooners to Jack Benny and the Marx Brothers. Thankfully not all of that humor was beaten out of him by the literary pretensions that can come along with an Ivy League liberal arts degree. “I graduated from high school and I went to Yale and I started walking around with a serious look on my face, thinking I had to think about serious things,” he says. “I was really into the Argentine writer Jorge Borges and the faddish literary theory that was swarming around the academic campuses at that time that suggested there was no author, only text to unpack and explain.”

During his freshman year, he made a friend in his dorm of a young man named Jonathan Coulton, who now maintains his own level of moderate celebrity with geek anthems like “Code Monkey,” “Re:Your Brains” and the Portal theme song “Still Alive.” “In those days,” Coulton recalls, “John had—I don’t want to say goth—sort of a suburban hipster look. He was a complicated man in terms of style. He had very long hair, extremely long hair, although you rarely saw it down. It was kept up in a tiny bun, most of the time. And he wore cool leather jackets and had a messenger bags and skull rings. He’s always been a very eloquent speaker. He was always great at making people laugh and he was always enthusiastic about being social and making an impression and that sort of thing. He was also really smart and a really great writer and seemed to be a very dedicated student and intellectual person. We took a liking to each other immediately and have been friends ever since.”

On one particularly sunny day, Hodgman convinced Coulton that what really needed to be done was to carry the furniture down from his third floor dorm room, set it up in the quad and watch the day go by. “John was something of a rebel in some ways,” says Coulton. “He definitely liked to say ‘Well why not? Why shouldn’t we do that?’ He was really into the idea that there were little conventions you could break and that it would be a hoot to break those conventions. There were a lot of things like that that he did.”

While most of the Yale students avoided the nearby city of New Haven, Conn., Hodgman got a job counting traffic for the city—literally counting cars as they went by. His curiosity led him to find all the places in town no one else knew about. “I think it’s that thing where he’s always wanted to be a little different from everybody else,” Coulton says. “If he can come up with a way of slightly tweaking the plan, he will tweak the plan. Instead of going to lunch at one of the on-campus locations, he’ll say ‘Hey, I know this place where they sell fruits and vegetables and cheese. It’s 20 minutes away but let’s take a walk and get a couple of kiwis for lunch.’ He’s always been into that kind of thing. He likes to see what everybody else is doing then do something just a little bit different and not only do it, but insist that you do it to and that it’s going to be awesome.”

After college, both Hodgman and Coulton moved to New York and kept in touch. Hodgman was a literary agent at Writers House representing everyone from Guggenheim fellow Darin Strauss to cult-film star Bruce Campbell. Coulton worked as a computer programmer three blocks from Hodgman’s office.

“We would see each other all the time and wonder what the fuck we were doing with our lives and why we were wasting our time in these office jobs,” says Hodgman. “And the answer was kind of clear in that neither of us felt the appropriate amount of sheer narcissism to pursue a life in the creative arts. We kind of both wanted the calm stability of having an office to go to and having sodas in the fridge and having a quiet place in the office that you could hide in like a mad man. I think whatever ambition we both had was tampered by our love of leisure time and our lack of sociopathy. But you can only do that so long before you realize that you are wasting your life in something that it is not your heart’s desire. I was jarred out of that cocoon fairly early on, primarily because my mother died in 2000 and I thought, ‘Well, I’ve had enough of this.’ So I left and started writing professionally. And it took Jonathan a couple of years to realize that he was too talented to spend his life writing Visual Basic for a software company that has developed tools for corporate recruiters.”

In addition to writing short stories and articles for the likes of Wired, Men’s Journal, The Paris Review and New York Times Magazine, Hodgman put together a variety show called The Little Gray Book Lectures. “The very audacity of that was completely inspiring for me and, I think, for the whole circle of friends who knew him,” says Coulton. “I think the conventional wisdom is, when your friend says to you, ‘I’m going to quit my job and start a variety show,’ the first think you think is, ‘Oh God, what are you doing? Why does he think he can do this?’ Of course that’s your own fear about yourself speaking, and so when he did that and invited the rest of us to participate, lo and behold, it actually worked. People would come, and people would pay money to see the show and enjoy it and laugh, and it was the first time I had seen a peer make such a brave move like that. The fact that it paid off for him almost immediately was a big part of the reason why I felt able to take that step myself later on.”

While he found that he could make money as a writer, the real turning point came when both Dave Eggers at McSweeney’s and Mark Adams at Men’s Journal recognized Hodgman’s gift for humor. Hodgman had noticed that when he read his serious short stories aloud to people, he’d get laughs, but never really pursued those laughs in his work. “I thought I had to write serious magazine articles,” Hodgman says, “and [Adams] told me, ‘A lot of people can write this way, but you have something that not a lot of people have, which is the ability to be funny. And you will be more successful if you just allow yourself to be funny.’ Once I allowed myself to do that, things began to happen.”

“My advice to Hodgman was that he should stop trying to write like some sort of boring, objective New York Times metro reporter and allow his natural voice to come through in his writing,” says Adams. “He’d written a story for a zine that was absolutely hilarious. John is so naturally funny, and semi-famous for being so, that people now forget what a first-rate nonfiction prose writer he is. His work really began to blossom when he was able to combine those two talents. It also probably helped that it was the late ’90s in New York and everyone was always drunk then.”

The idea for writing a book of fake trivia didn’t come until Hodgman had already turned down an offer to write a book of actual trivia. “I liked that idea, but there had been so many great books of trivia that I had to think of what would be my contribution,” he says. “I didn’t write a book for a long time because I used to work in a literary agency. And so I knew what a book looked and felt like when it was written solely for the purpose of having written a book. There are a lot of people out there, whether they are fine-arts writers or literary authors or thriller authors or business-book authors, who just feel like they have to write a book. And when they write a book for that reason, the book is no good. So I refused for years to write a book just for the sake of writing a book until I got this idea—which did not seem very bright to a lot of editors but seemed unavoidable to me—to write a book of fake trivia.”

That book, The Areas of My Expertise, contained fake knowledge about the now-extinct Furry Maine Lobster, the migrating 51st United State Hohoq and other matters historical, literary and cryptozoological. He brought Coulton out with him on the book tour—a straight man for his surreal brand of humor. “I think our onstage personas, to some degree, reflect our personalities,” says Coulton. “When he and I perform together, the relationship we fall into is that he is the star, he is the guy in front, and I’m sort of the quiet one, a little behind him. It’s a very enjoyable role for me—just fully supporting this ridiculous universe he’s spinning out of nothing. It’s a really funny dynamic. We behave that way onstage for the same reason that he thinks it’s okay to take the furniture from the dorm room and put it on the quad, and I’m a little afraid we’re going to get in trouble.”

The Areas of My Expertise got him his first booking on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, something he assumed at the time would be the craziest thing he’d ever get to do. After a discussion with Stewart about presidents with hooks for hands and the time when hobos took over the U.S. government and issued beef jerky dollars, he assumed that his 15 minutes of fame had been fully spent. “I flew to Seattle the next morning to pick up my book tour from there,” Hodgman remembers, “and saw that the book had jumped on Amazon [rankings] from about 14,000 to 14, and my life was changed.”

He didn’t realize how much it would change until he got a follow-up call from Stewart offering him a regular guest spot on the show doing comedy. “I had done a performance of my humor material in New York City but it was always, to me, in a semi-literary event. What performance chops I have were developed there, but I didn’t expect to go much further than that. And, suddenly, I was on television.”

Soon after, he got a call out of the blue to audition for a series of Apple ads. “I was as curious as anyone as to why they were asking me to audition. I went to the audition in part to find out. I was auditioning as PC opposite a young dude, and I remember the casting agent saying afterwards, ‘So, what’s your name again and why are you here?’ And I was like, ‘Well, my name’s John Hodgman, but I was hoping that you could answer the other question.’ It turns out it was a very broad call for both roles. But for the second audition I got to meet the director, Phil Morrison [and] he said, ‘Yeah, I saw you on The Daily Show, and I thought you might be fun.’ So I realized he was the one who put my name into a pretty large hat. So, he and Steve Jobs also profoundly changed my life.”

Those commercials led to more film and TV work, including guest spots on Battlestar Galactica, Bored To Death and Community and a role in the upcoming film Movie 43 alongside Emma Stone, Kristen Bell and Gerard Butler. He completed the Complete World Knowledge trilogy with More Information Than You Require and That Is All, along with a recent audiobook version of the latter. He even hilariously tackles that area of his non-expertise, sports. The persona he’s taken on for the book is that of a deranged millionaire who refers to Coulton as his “feral mountain man butler.”

“The books seem to have gotten more and more personal as time has gone on,” says Coulton. “Even though the third book is ostensibly the third volume of almanacs filled with fake facts and trivia, it’s hard to ignore the fact that it’s a bit of a personal memoir. And I think that the deranged millionaire character is a way that he has of explaining to himself what’s going on in his life. I have no idea if he’s a millionaire or not, and I wouldn’t say he’s deranged, but I think it’s a big change for someone to go from being a literary agent at some firm in Manhattan to becoming a internationally famous television celebrity and author and comedian. It’s a strange trip.”

The book trilogy may be complete, and there’s currently no itch for another book, but fans of Hodgman’s writing don’t have anything to worry about. “Whenever I had other opportunities to do other things, writing is the thing I kept finding myself going back to,” he says. “There’s a certain compelling thing about writing that I can’t really seem to shake, even now when my opportunities as a famous minor television personality suggests that I might be able to leave it behind and I couldn’t. And I say that sentence with both equal adoration for writing and frustration. Because of all the things that I do, writing is the most rewarding but it is also the most difficult.”

In the meantime, he continues to be the resident fake expert on The Daily Show and Judge John Hodgman on his Maximum Fun podcast, delivering verdicts on his guests’ most minor points of contention of dog care, laundry sorting and dairy avoidance. “But, beyond that,” he says, “the world is coming to an end on December 21st. What happens after that is as much your guess as it is mine.”

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