by Patricia Grandjean
May 1, 2013
11:09 AM
Box Office

Front Row Q&A: John Hodgman

 
Front Row Q&A: John Hodgman

When it comes to the art of BS, nobody does it better than humorist John Hodgman, 41: Yale University graduate (class of '93), author of three books of faux world knowledge (including The Areas of My Expertise and More Knowledge Than You Require), and "Resident Expert" on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart." On May 4, he'll participate in The Connecticut Forum's final panel of the season—"Funny Smart People"—at The Bushnell in Hartford, along with Carrie Brownstein (creator and star of the Independent Film Channel series "Portlandia"), Baratunde Thurston (digital director at The Onion) and moderator Colin McEnroe. For more information, call (860) 509-0909 or visit ctforum.org.

How do you do?

How do you do?

All right. Let's talk about The Connecticut Forum.

Let's talk about that. You're going to be part of a panel in May . . .

Yes, I believe that the panel is called "Funny Smart People." I'm not sure if those are individual sentences or those adjectives are all supposed to modify "people." I definitely know that Carrie Brownstein is very funny and smart; I agree that that's also true about Baratunde. I can't say either about myself because that would be vain. I'm not sure, myself, whether I am a person or a robot. This was an invasive thought that came into my mind when I was 12 years old—what if I'm in fact a simulation of a human, and how would I know for sure? I could have been built two years ago and had my memories implanted. This is just pretty basic, science-fictiony stuff. They used to do this all the time in my hometown of Brookline, Mass., in the 1970s, that's why I'm concerned.

So did they call that The Brookline Project, like The Manhattan Project?

Yeah; you read about it! And, of course, Connecticut is the home of some of the most famous human simulacrums: The Stepford Wives. It may be a whole New England thing, for all I know.

I think I may work with one, come to think of it. Now I'm worried.

Oh, really? [laughs] I'm pretty confident that Carrie and Baratunde are regular old humans. Beyond that, actually: extraordinary humans.

Agreed. I guess Lena Dunham was supposed to join you, but she was unable to.

Yeah, I think she's a little busy these days. It's a shame; I was looking forward to meeting her, as I am a fan. But I hope that I shall meet her at some point, and all of Connecticut will meet her soon. But Carrie and Baratunde are both brilliant people.

I've been a fan of Carrie since her band Sleater-Kinney.

Yes, she is a rock star . . .

In fact, I once got into an argument with someone over who was better: The Doors or Sleater-Kinney.

I can settle that fight for you right now—the answer is Sleater-Kinney. The Doors were a terrible band.

Thank you! I've always believed they were a terrible band, and have a very hard time finding anyone who agrees.

Well, you may now include that on the record, in Connecticut Magazine.

And of course, their greatest moment of notoriety happened in New Haven, where I live.

And where I used to live. What was their greatest moment of notoriety in New Haven? I have not heard that particular legend.

They were the first band to be busted onstage, by a New Haven cop.

On what stage were they busted?

The Palace Theater.

[Thinking aloud] The Palace Theater . . . there are a lot of grand theaters in New Haven, aren't there?

There are. The Palace is not one of them—it pretty much fell to dust.

[Laughs] I would imagine a lot of them have, unfortunately.

 

So, is this Connecticut Forum going to be strictly conversation, or will there be more to it? I guess you'll be talking with Colin McEnroe of the Hartford Courant.

Oh yeah, my understanding is that it will be a discussion among all of us, in this case talking about how to be funny, which is usually the least funny thing that you can talk about, because it's impossible to describe without destroying it. It's akin to the mystery of how cats purr, which is not known to veterinary science precisely. Because the moment you search for the mechanism that causes the cat's purr, the cat tends to die—or usually stops purring.

The reason I asked if there is more is because I gathered, from your website, that you've been on a live tour of sorts . . .

The reason my website says that is because it's administered by me, and I am lazy and behind the times. So I am not officially on tour at the moment. I had been touring quite a bit last year, presenting comedy and semi-comedic warnings about the apocalypse that  I anticipated happening on Dec. 21, 2012, which is when the Mayans predicted the calendar would end. Unfortunately, it didn't turn out that way. I probably shouldn't have trusted the Mayans. They did a lot of things right, but on the other hand, they made their calendars out of stone and they couldn't even make smooth pyramids. Now that I continue to live, I have to redefine what I'm going to do with my life. If my professional life were to consist exclusively of doing panel discussions in beautiful theaters in states that I like and can drive to, I would be a happy man.

I thought I did see, though, that you're going to be in Alexandria, Va., the night before the forum.

Yes, I will be doing a standup comedy show there, that is true.

I've always what kind of culture shock that might create, to be in two places so far apart in two nights.

Well, Alexandria is a suburb of Washington, D.C., so it's part of that continuum of sameness that attaches to most major metro areas in the vague Northeast. Like the way all airports are sort of the same nation. Cities draw people from all over. I bet there will be a fairly large percentage of Connecticutians at the Alexandria show. But that said, it was extremely interesting to have toured last year, because I'd never quite properly toured as a comedian prior to that. I have certainly done a number of book tours for my three books of fake facts, but that's a different beast because the expectations are much different. You're going to major cities for the most part, and the expectation of the audience is that you're going to read from the book more than put on a show, you know what I mean?

My comedy had always been literary comedy, which is to say low chuckles for the arched eyebrow set. And if there was laughter, I'd never hear it, because I wrote it down and walked away. My career took a rather unexpected and happy turn to live performance when I went on "The Daily Show" to promote my first book, and then was asked to come back and perform on the show. Suddenly, my job was no longer to provide chuckles, but to create a single audible and ultimately very mysterious human reaction called laughter at a particular pace. So, that was very illuminating, to go from place to place and learn what standup comics have known for a long time, which is that different kinds of jokes work best in different kinds of places, and it's not always clear why that is.

I was doing quite a bit of touring with Al Madrigal under "The Daily Show" banner. So people who were buying tickets to these events were often expecting a certain amount of political content. That was fine and we were happy to do that. But seeing and feeling the different senses of humor around the country was really interesting. One of our best shows, both in terms of attendance and excitement, was in Birmingham, Ala., where we were not sure our "Daily Show"-style material was going to find an audience. I think we drew every liberal in the state. Being from the Northeast, I've spent all of my life within New England and New York. I've never lived anywhere else. And as open-minded as one hopes to be, there is still a snobbery that accrues.

The people in Birmingham showed us a really good time, and dug our humor a lot, and let us know it by laughing out loud. The people of the Midwest—Minneapolis in particular—are also amazing audiences, and they laugh, but what they really do is listen. So they're extremely attentive and gracious audiences, 'cause they really want to hear what you have to say. I've noticed this time after time when I've been to Minneapolis—they laugh and enjoy the show, but they're not knee-slappers. They'll come up to you afterward and tell you, quite genuinely, how much they enjoyed you.

I imagine Northeastern audiences would be more self-conscious in their responses. Not that I've ever performed in front of one; I've only been in them. They laugh, but at the same time, wonder if they should.

I think there's something to that. Famously, road comics will tell you that Boston audiences can be . . . some might say playful, some might say aggressive, others might say drunk. You know, that their relationship to comedy is much more, "I'm a part of the the show." They talk back and interrupt. In New York, you have people who go out and see shows of every kind. They have access to the greatest talents in the world coming through or living here all the time, so they're a little bit jaded—but not always. If it's a younger crowd, it's almost certainly people who have moved to the city in the last few years in order to see the kind of stuff you're giving them. Because they can also be very excited.

Philadelphia crowds—for all the reputation that Boston has—almost every time I've performed in Philadelphia, the audiences are really fun, and they laugh hard, but there's an undercurrent of danger. The Philadelphia kids like to drink. And they'll talk back, too, but sometimes you feel like, "I don't know what's going to happen: Either they'll love me, or they'll yell at me, or they're just going to get up and walk away." I've never actually felt threatened, but you definitely feel like you're riding more turbulent seas in Philadelphia. I love Phiadelphia and will perform there any day of the week, almost precisely for that reason.

So there is a lot of culture shock in what kind of jokes work or don't work. And I've been trying to work out, literally, what my creative life is going to be, now that I've completed these three books. My career at "The Daily Show" goes on, but it's a mature career, and I'm trying to figure out what to do next. A lot of times this involves me dressing up in a vintage 1980s blue dress and performing as the elderly Ayn Rand.

Really?! I didn't know she wore blue. It's so socialist.

I modeled my performance and my dress almost entirely on a single appearance she made on "The Phil Donahue Show" in 1980—which you can find on YouTube. That is not a fake fact; that is a real fact. She talked about how much she enjoyed "Charlie's Angels." That's also a real fact.

Y'know, Rand always struck me as the kind of person who would be a big fan of Farrah's, even though she couldn't get her hair to do that.

True; no, I don't think so. But she admired physical beauty in both genders. She admired them for being beautiful and unashamed of being beautiful, and she admired them for being capable and being unashamed of being capable. And the fact that they were made into crossing guards by a state authority that prejudged them, and then threw it away and would not be party to a system that told children that the government was going to protect them from risk—by providing them with crossing guards—and rather, went into private enterprise . . . why wouldn't Ayn Rand love "Charlie's Angels"?

Now that I've written complete world knowledge in the realm of fake facts, I'm free to engage with the bizarreness of actual life.

 

I've been wanting to ask you, is there any limit to your knowledge? Now that you've done these books, is there anything you couldn't write about?

I just had to look up on the Internet whether or not a cashew is a nut, a seed or a legume. Because I couldn't remember. Right before you called, I was in a very heated Twitter fight with the comedians Michael Ian Black and Marc Maron over whether cashews are a better nut than an almond. There certainly was no consensus, and that's fine—I don't attempt to legislate taste. But I did know that one of them is not a nut, and in fact, a cashew is a seed, botanically. It does not have a hard outer shell and it's the seed of the cashew apple, which is the fruit of the cashew tree.

There is more to explore—for a long time my blind spots were sports and wine, two things I really didn't care about at all. But I've learned everything I needed to know about all the sports, your bases ball and your two baskets ball.

Is there anything you know that we didn't know you knew, because you hadn't written about it?

I do know, for example, that the greatest sports logo of all time was the logo for the Hartford Whalers. Because it's the only sports logo that makes use of negative space. The tail of the whale, which forms a "W," in the negative space also forms an "h," which most people don't see until they really look at it. It was a beautiful piece of 1970s contemporary design, the kind you don't see any more. It was designed by a design firm in Connecticut, the name of which escapes me. So there's that.

I'm kind of sorry that the Whalers didn't last long enough for Alex & Ani to turn their logo into a charm bracelet. They've done that with every other logo there is. I think someone missed a bet.

Every time I fly into Bradley International Airport, I am astonished and thrilled to see that they're still selling a lot of Hartford Whalers' merchandise [laughs]. And I don't know whether they just have overstock, or maybe no one's gotten out there to Windsor Locks to break them the news. It makes me very happy. It's the only sports logo that I would ever choose to wear.

It's kind of like being in Boston in the late '90s, when "Cheers" had long since stopped production, but every store still had "Cheers" merchandise.

I'm sure they still do. The Bull & Finch Pub, I'm sure, is still branded as "Cheers," why would they stop? They llike money.

It's really interesting, because I actually just did a show last night and a young woman went on before me—I'll be 42 this year, and I'd guess she was in her early to mid-20s. I could be her father, right?

Could be, sure. The age difference might be a little tight . . .

I'm still waiting for the DNA test to come back, but I'm saying it's possible. I don't need another dependent, but basically, whenever I meet someone who's young enough to be my child I have to do a test. Who knows? But in any case, a lot of her act was talking about the TV show "Frasier." It was sort of an uncanny experience for me, because I was enjoying that comedy she was making about "Frasier," and I was enjoying the fact that someone else remembered the show. Then again, there was a weirdness to it, and i remember going up to her afterward and saying, "What's wrong with your life that you know so much about a show that went off the air 10 years ago?" But culture doesn't go away the way it used to. You know what I mean? We're making more of it than ever and it sticks around eternally.

That has to do somewhat, don't you think, with the Internet and YouTube? Or Hulu? Things live forever on those sites.

Well, I don't think my books will, but yes, I see what you're saying.

Gee, I hope they do.

Oh, I think they'll be available forever, I just mean to say, they're no "Frasier." I'm a 41-year-old adult; I can accept life's harsh realities. I'm happy to be pleasantly semi-obscure.

 

You did attend Yale in the 1990s.

I was in the class of 1993. Our 20th anniversary is coming up.

How did Yale shape what you do?

Oh, almost completely. I came to Yale from Brookline, Mass., and the very fine Brookline public school system, pretty well-formed in my intentions to be perpetually curious and to try to avoid work at all costs. Having curiosity but a deep aversion to the discipline required to study a single passion, I had the vague idea I wanted to be a writer , in part because it seemed like the laziest possible way to be creative. You didn't need a lot of equipment and you did it totally alone, so no one would be looking over your shoulder to make sure you were doing it correctly. it's a craft practiced outside of scrutiny.

Yale enhanced that impulse dramatically, because I suddenly had access to one of the greatest libraries in the world. It was an incredible resource, before there was the Internet, to really track down everything in a very lazy, follow my nose, undisciplined kind of way.

And obviously, there were amazing instructors who really changed the way I thought about the world. The other students there were intensely inspiring, challenging and exciting to be around. And angrifying, because they were so talented that they made me jealous enough that I pushed myself hard, really for the first time in my life. My closest friends still date back to Yale and high school. I'm married to someone I knew in high school. My best friend is Jonathan Coulton, who is someone I've known since I was 18 at Yale; he's a Connecticutian who's now become a very popular, fully independent singer-songwriter on the Internet.

Who were your faculty mentors at Yale? I know that in one interview you mentioned Harold Bloom, the formidable literary critic . . .

Harold Bloom was probably the most terrifying professor I ever had at Yale. I would hardly call him a mentor. He mentored a number of people that I knew, but the closest I ever got to him was being told precisely how wrong I was on an interpretation of Macbeth, I think it was. That was the only time he ever spoke to me. Later, we stood next to each other in the men's bathroom and urinated at the same time. But I consider even that to be a tremendous honor, just to be in that room with one of the highest functioning literary brains in history—incredibly stimulating and amazing. His being willing to tell me that my subjective take on something in Shakespeare was simply wrong, was an incorrect interpretation, was really startling to a person who had not only grown up in the good liberal public schools of Brookline, but in the alternative portion of Brookline High School where everyone was right all the time. It really got to me, and became a continuing comedic influence, because it was hilarious. And the lilting way he would deliver his put-downs—"Oh, my dear, I'm afraid you are simply incorrect"—was just great.

I interviewed him once for five minutes, and I think in that five minutes he made me believe everything I was thinking was wrong.

It's good to meet those people who really make you question hard. Because maybe it really isn't right for you, or maybe you'll redouble your efforts and work out your blind spots.

So, was there anyone else on the Yale faculty who was important in your development?

Oh, sure! Don Faulkner taught me how to write short stories—he's not at Yale anymore—and Michael Levine taught me how to do literary criticism, which is what I thought I was going to do with my life, literary theory. I became enamored of literary theory because it was so theoretical. Literature just seemed too practical. If I was going to go into literary theory, I was truly going to go into the upper atmosphere of making it all up. But I got brought back down to earth when I came to New York City and realized no one was hiring literary theorists here.

But you did become a literary agent for a time.

Yes, I went in the exact opposite direction—instead of treating of treating literature as a means to impress people at cocktail parties, and to transcend my earthly body and move into a world of pure intellectual leisure, I instead started selling it. Which was an equally valuable thing to do.

And you represented Bruce Campbell, which is majorly cool.

Are you a Buce Campbell fan?

I am. I'm probably not as well-acquainted with his work as others are. Or that of Sam Raimi, whose work I only know in the most commercial sense.

Well, I think that's all there is. Sam Raimi was never interested in making art films. And to be well-versed in Bruce Campbell—there's not a lot of verses. But I love Bruce; he's an amazing, amazing guy and an amazing figure, but I think even he would say, "What is there?" There's the Evil Dead movies, and then a happy and productive string of supporting roles in a million weird B-movies and TV shows.

I think I best know the supporting-role Bruce, is what I should have said. I've seen only one Evil Dead movie.

You should see all the Evil Dead movies. Bruces's best acting is in a movie called Bubba Ho-tep, in which he plays an elderly Elvis Presley—who has not died because he faked his own death—fighting a mummy in a nursing home. Without joking, his performance is tremendous in that. I'm thrilled that he now has a very popular recurring role on the TV series "Burn Notice," where they really "get" him and he is really able to be Bruce Campbell and have fun. One of my great regreats is when I first transitioned from writing to performing, and I was offered a chance to act opposite him on that show, I couldn't because of a prior commitment. I wish I had not gone on vacation with my family, as I had been planning. Because I've gone on a lot of vacations with my family. They're all starting to be the same.

 

Being from Connecticut Magazine I should ask you this: Did you have any favorite places when you lived in New Haven?

Yeah, but some of them don't exist anymore—like The Daily Caffé and Filmfest Video, where I worked and learned about movies. Claire's Cornercopia is another place that I worked that still exists, but I won't say a thing more.

We all love Claire's . . . sort of.

Yes, I understand that everyone is required to say that. I will assent—Claire's is great.

The Anchor Bar remains one of my favorite places in the world. I also frequented a little nondescript diner called Patricia's Restaurant with wooden tables, eggs and sausage and corned beef hash. It's lovely, very homey and friendly. I recently had that experience of going back and realizing that the grown man who was now running the place was the child who played in the kitchen when I was in college.

Did you ever go to the Yankee Doodle?

Of course. That's long gone, isn't it? That had to have closed in the '90s, right? I don't understand how that could have gone away, they only had about six seats in there. They could only do so much business.

I suppose the rise of Starbucks might have had an impact . . .

Yeah, but the town is still full of ravenous, monstrous young adults who want to destroy their bodies.

True. Unfortunately, now we have the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute, which is aiding the rise of healthy restaurants, salad bars and such . . .

That's not the tradition of Yale at all. 

Louis' Lunch is part of gut-bomb culinary history, with their dubious claim to have invented the hamburger. You almost believe it due to the sheer ridiculousness of their archaic set-up, cooking burgers on their side and such. It does sort of seem like their technological approach is so counter-intuitive that you almost believe they were the first people who experimented with frying meat.

Did you do Pepe's or Sally's Apizza at all?

I am utterly neutral on that subject, and honestly ashamed to admit—I get a lot of dirty looks—that I've certainly had pies from those places and love that thin-crust style, but I never went to either of them. I was just kind of a homebody; I lived on Edgewood Avenue, so to get in a car and go down there and wait in line when you're not a 40-year-old foodie hipster . . . [laughs]

The last time I got in to Pepe's was 1996, when there was an ice storm and no one else was out.

There you go. But at the same time, I was a bit of a foodie hipster because I used to go to a place called DeRosa's, does that still exist?

I haven't heard anything about it lately.

Of course, there's no way we could ever find out. I liked that place; it had its charm. Those were the places I would go. But I was between the ages of 18 and 22, and mostly going over to friends' apartments, drinking and hanging out. Or hanging out in the cross-campus library buying food out of machines. Or riding those tiny elevators up and down the stacks in Sterling Library. That was my good time.

I did some research in the School of Law library one time, and was actually struck by what a good set it would be for a horror movie.

Totally. It's one of the sadnesses of my life that you can't go in there without a Yale ID. Although, I don't know—maybe if I showed up and started flapping my dilapidated "Daily Show" windbreaker, I might convince someone I was a minor TV show personality and they'd let me in. I don't know.

Try it! They let me in forage in the stacks as a magazine editor. I was doing a piece on Patty Hearst and was reading her trial transcripts from the '70s.

Well, in a moment, unfortunately, I'm going to have to say goodbye and start working on forging some Connecticut Magazine credentials.

 

We can help you with that. I just had a couple of other quick things I wanted to ask: It seems that you haven't been on "The Daily Show" as frequently in recent times . . .

Well, I'm still on the show about once a month, but it is true that in the first couple of years I was on every three weeks. The thing is that the show lives and breathes . . . particularly during election cycles there's a little less time for me to come in with out-of-left-field analyses of historic presidential dog-racing or the other fake stuff that I would do, because when election season is upon us, that's "The Daily Show"'s bread and butter. I think the strength of the show is that it's guided by ideas and the news of the day—and first and foremost, what's the funniest idea any given day. I'm proud to be part of a show that would put that first, rather than my schedule.

I also wanted to ask about your mustache: I've heard some very divided opinions about it, and I was wondering if you get that kind of feedback, too.

No, in my life it's 100 percent everyone hates it. Except for my wife, who claims to not hate it, but I think it might have hypnotized her because of her proximity to it. In the same way it hypnotized me, because now I'm terrified of shaving it off. I grew the mustache as a funny—I had grown one 10 years before and kind of thought it was hilarious. So I decided to try it again, and I hate to say this because it's such a hackneyed joke . . . but it has grown on me. The more that people say it looks terrible or looks like a fake mustache or makes me look like a young Wilfred Brimley, the more I double down out of pure spite. It could go away tomorrow if a role came up that called for a non-weird -looking dude without a pitch-black mustache and sandy brown hair. That's the thing that's unnerving even to me when I see pictures of myself: In certain lighting, it's so clearly a different color than my hair. So others don't enjoy it as much. But they don't live on my upper lip; they can't control me. Only my mustache can. It may be that my computer brain is hidden by my mustache. We'll find out.

One of John Hodgman's classic appearances on "The Daily Show," from 2007:

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And in case you thought he must be making it up:

Front Row Q&A: John Hodgman

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