The acclaimed actor and humorist discusses his approach to Judge John Hodgman and the challenge of political humor in the age of Twitter.
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It’s hard to keep a bead on John Hodgman.
The author, actor, and humorist wanders blithely across the media landscape, bringing a droll, jocular edge—and a certain literary high-mindedness, or at least the appearance thereof—everywhere he goes.
A regular contributor to The Daily Show, This American Life, and The New York Times Magazine, and the author of three compendiums of fake knowledge (The Areas of My Expertise, More Information Than You Require, and last year’s That Is All), Hodgman has also appeared as an actor in Flight of the Conchords, Community, Bored to Death, and Battlestar Galactica, among others.
And yet, he perhaps best known for two personas: the personification of the PC, opposite Justin Long, in Apple’s famous “Get a Mac” ads, and—on The Daily Show, with They Might Be Giants, and as author of his books—as the Deranged Millionaire. Tomorrow, his latest release as the latter, That Is All, which tackles wine, sports, and the apocalypse, will see release as an audiobook, featuring comedy and musical contributions by Jon Hamm, Patton Oswalt, Dick Cavett, and Rachel Maddow.
And then there’s Judge John Hodgman, a regular podcast that began as a recurring segment on Jesse Thorn’s Jordan Jesse Go podcast. In it, Hodgman mediates listener-submitted debates with wit, verve, and surprising amount of sincerity, ranging from a couple that couldn’t decide whether to play with their original X-Files action figures or leave them in the packaging to whether two expatriated Americans living in Canada should take the Canadian oath of citizenship—which would include pledging themselves to the British monarchy.
Hodgman dialed Podspotting up one day later than scheduled, as The Daily Show urgently called on Hodgman, in his Deranged Millionaire persona, to tackle Mitt Romney’s 47 percent spiel. Hodgman discussed the pressures of making political jokes in the Information Age, his approach to Judge John Hodgman, and what 1970s sci-fi franchise he failed to account for in his end-of-the-world survey in That Is All.
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The Daily Dot: It probably says something about the world that we live in—or at least about me—that the moment I heard Mitt Romney’s infamous 47 percent comments, my first reaction was giddy anticipation of what The Daily Show would do with them.
Yes, it was something of an instant comedic meme. As I was thinking about the comments on Monday evening, I suggested to The Daily Show that we do something. I think I suggested my wearing a powdered wig and pre-revolutionary France attire. When I came in, it morphed into a Rich Uncle Pennybags top hat and tails.
As we were about to go out and film it, we heard word that Stephen Colbert was also wearing a top hat and tails in some capacity. I had a distinct suspicion that he’d had the same idea and would likely do it in a way that was superior to mine. I will leave history to judge that. And that very night, after I finished watching The Daily Show, I watched my friend Rachel Maddow on television, and she also put on a top hat.
DD: It seems like there’s probably a lot of added pressure on comedians, in this world of instant online reactions to political gaffes, to come up with something clever really quickly.
When you have something that is as clear-cut—as much as Mitt Romney would like it not to be—as what he said, it truly does seem like there’s a race on Twitter and other social-networking platforms to be the first to arrive with the joke. I think this happens now with most major, or even minor, news events. And anxiety is born out of the fact that those of us who make jokes professionally or semi-professionally—or in my case, literary humor bon mots—are more aware than ever, because of the cloud hive mind of Twitter, just how many smart, funny people are out there.
It truly is a matter of time, and often not very much time, before what you might imagine in your head has already been done several times on Twitter. There are a lot of minds working on the same problem at the same time. You’d hope that would have some practical application, like curing deadly diseases. But for the most part all of the minds are working on responding to Mitt Romney’s dumb thing.
DD: In Judge John Hodgman, for all the podcast’s jokes, you make a very genuine attempt to sort through your listeners’ problems in an intellectually honest way. When you first conceived of the show—back when it was a segment on Jordan Jesse Go—did you feel a responsibility to tackle your listener’s questions honestly?
First of all, to give credit, it was really Jesse Thorn’s idea to ask me to do the segment. And I immediately said yes, because one of the things I enjoy most when I go out to perform is interacting with people. I like talking with people, especially people who are not from the Northeast or California. I enjoyed being a magazine writer because you’d occasionally have reason to call someone in another part of the country—and they weren’t dumb savages the way New Yorkers sometimes characterize them as being. They were interesting, funny, smart people, even if we disagreed on certain subjects. I enjoyed talking to them.
So I immediately said yes to Jesse, and my only problem was that we weren’t doing them often enough. So, as I was cycling down the book trilogy—and hopefully being somewhat hopeful that the world was not actually going to end—I thought turning it into a podcast would be a project that would be fun and engaging and entertaining, and one that would instruct me as much as anything else as to what people were thinking about and talking about out in the world.
It was always my intention to, first of all, listen to what people were fighting about, and then to try to find some resolution to it. Truthfully, the jokiness and the humor wasn’t my intention when we started. Now, Jesse and I are both gentlemen of wit who wear green jackets from time to time. We’re both going to riff humorously, obviously. But I do think that my job is to listen to what people have to say, to try to find a resolution, and also to push them around in a way that amuses.
DD: Do you often hear back from the listeners whose cases you’ve presided over? Do they offer you feedback on what kind of impact your verdict had?
From time to time. One of my favorite cases was from very early on. Two people were trying to decide custody of a classic wind-up toy of a giraffe. They had gotten it together on a trip to Japan. They both wrote to me to tell me that my ruling helped. Of course, I don’t recall what it was. I’m a tremendously corrupt judge, so I might have told them to smash the giraffe in half and each take half of the parts. Although later, someone came to the annual MaxFunCon and gave me one of those giraffes, which made me very happy. And it also made me very angry. Because, of course, it meant that they could have just gotten another one. Why did they waste my time by bringing it before the Internet court?
DD: The occasional positive feedback must be gratifying, if it’s something that you get often.
For the most part, people write back and say thanks, or more commonly don’t write back and say nothing at all, or they just ignore my ruling. But yes, a few do express gratitude. I did hear from a family when I helped them rethink the base cruelty of their plans for the post-apocalyptic zombie wasteland. The father of that family planned to occupy the local Wal-Mart. But I had to point out to him that to take and hold the Wal-Mart would, of course, necessitate shooting a lot of your neighbors in the head. Some would be zombies. Others would not. I think I pushed that family in the right direction. I think the father ultimately decided that in the case of the apocalypse, it was wiser to run to a safe and isolated location.
DD: Sometimes your verdicts touch a nerve, though. When you adjudicated the case of the husband and father who wanted to participate in an Ironman triathlon against the wishes of his family, you got some blowback from your commenters.
I said that he could not run the triathlon because had promised his family not to continue with that after a certain period of time. That period of time had passed. Now, he did appreciate my counterargument, which is that training for and participating in a triathlon is essentially a 40-hour a week job, maybe more. That’s a long period of time in which he would effectively not be a part of his family. It was not a completely solitary pursuit of self-betterment, which I would have supported and encouraged him to do. But he had obligations to his family, and furthermore he had promised to stop.
This judgment seemed to offend people, at least in the Internet sense in the word, which means that I received maybe six negative comments. People felt compelled to argue for this gentleman. But if the guy had come to me with a completely equal proposition, time-wise—say, to go to McMurdo Research Station in Antarctica for the exact same amount of time, to fulfill his dream of watching every episode of Doctor Who—well, the jocks would have said, “That nerd is out of his mind.” The negative blowback on that one was a clear issue of athletic bias.
DD: Speaking of bias, you’ve admitted to sometimes having a pro-wife bias when resolving marital disputes. Has doing Judge John Hodgman made you more aware of any other biases you may hold?
For a while, I refused to hear marital disputes for two reasons: One, The Marriage Ref was still on television. I hate that I have outlasted The Marriage Ref. Two, I was finding very often in the wife’s favor, because usually the wife is right. Now that I’ve started hearing more man-and-wife cases, if you did an analysis of my verdicts, I’d be curious to see how swayed or biased I actually am. Because honestly, when I go into every case I’m open to either side winning. I don’t have biases going in. It’s just that, usually, the wives make the strong arguments and the husbands are dummies about it. They presume their own righteousness. I don’t mean to be rude, but it’s kind of like a sitcom in that way, in my experience.
DD: That Is All is the last installment in your trilogy of knowledge, which has for the last several years given you an excuse to invent fake facts and write in the voice of this deranged millionaire. As a writer, that seems like it would be a very fun gig. Are you sad to leave that style behind?
I don’t know that I can leave behind that style, because… well, those books were on the one hand very stylized, right? They emerged and spoke in this voice of deranged authority. That voice spoke falsely about reality in an absurd way. But on the other hand, they were also very personal a lot of the time. Certainly by the second and definitely the third, I was starting to write in a mode that was not just making up crazy fake trivia and balderdash lies about history and the world around us. I’d say there is a very authentic voice in there, one that is actually me. For instance, I really do tend to speak in stilted paragraphs rather than short sentences. The totality of the writing is certainly my own. So in that sense the style will continue.
But I do think I definitely felt, as I finished That Is All, that I was coming to the end of a period of my life. Coming to the end of a project that I had begun in 2004, when I started writing The Areas of My Expertise, where I had truly scraped from within my brain barrel all of the knowledge that I felt I actually had, and that I’d accumulated by education through an accredited four-year institution called Yale University, and then through a different kind of education where I had to trick myself into learning a lot of stuff to be a freelance writer. And thus the books, and indeed the world, had to end, and now I have to figure out new things that I’m going to know.
DD: So there’s an element of remembered, or half-remembered, truth to the various facts in your knowledge trilogy?
The adage of writing what you know sounds very simple, but the truth is there’s two other things you have to figure out to do that. One is that you have to know interesting things. Two is that you’ve got to actually know what you know.
Part of the pleasure and the weirdness of the enterprise for me was really going back and figuring out all the received wisdom I had about American history, mythology, mole man hobos, and the end of the world. It was better for me if I could not do actual research to make up the fake facts, but instead remember what it was that I had picked up that had accrued on the inside of my brain like plaque.
Knowing what you know is kind of the hardest job of any writer. You have to not just experience the world around you and learn things but reflect upon them and remember and be aware of how it makes you feel and put that forward. It’s all such a drag. It’s so tiresome to be aware all the time. Which is another reason to finish this trilogy out and make time to watch ‘70s science fiction.
DD: Such as?
I’ve been looking back at a lot of Tom Baker’s Doctor Who. I have to finally get into the Jon Pertwee stuff. I’m also deciding it’s time for me to re-watch what was known in this country as Star Blazers. Space Battleship Yamato in Japan. That was an oversight in my research as I was looking at apocalyptic theories. What if the Comet Empire is coming to destroy us?
Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the name of the John Hodgman’s podcast. It’s called Judge John Hodgman. We regret the error.
Photo via @hodgman/Twitter