by Patricia Grandjean
May 1, 2013
11:09 AMBox Office
Front Row Q&A: John Hodgman
(page 2 of 6)
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.