A surprising level of anti-celebrity is attached to the Brookline-grown author, actor, musician, and podcaster John Hodgman, known for everything from his mustachioed appearances on The Daily Show to his embodiment of the “PC” psyche to Justin Long’s “Mac” in the Apple ads of yesteryear.
In spite of that, or perhaps because of it, Hodgman enjoys professional respect and hipster approval all at once, and he returns to the Wilbur Theatre in September to bring his brand of delightfully nerdy observational humor and absurdist comedy to his hometown.
I caught up with him to talk podcasts, contemplating death, and why Philadelphia being called “The City of Brotherly Love” is a comedic misnomer.
Boston comedy: Go.
Boston Comedy always had a fairly rough edge even in the performers. Bill Burr and Louie (C.K.) are truth tellers. Yet I come from a slightly different vein of Bostonian culture, which was the weird kid who dressed like Doctor Who and watched public TV and rushed home from high school to listen to NPR. So my comedy as I developed it in New York was more in an absurdist vein. That’s what put me on The Daily Show as the resident expert, the kind of person that would say with a straight face that Franklin Roosevelt had a hook for a hand but you never noticed it because it’s shaped like a wheelchair. Now when I go out into the rest of the world there are profound differences. In Minnesota nobody laughs as they’re so busy politely listening to what I have to say. And in Philly … they’re really drunk. Boston may pride itself on its no-BS attitude and toughness, but in Philly I’ve never done a show where there was not one ruinously drunken person who decided he also needed to be on stage.
Explains the grim Philly fate of the hitchBOT last week.
“The City of Brotherly Love” is one of the most profoundly comedic misnomers. It’s really the city of “stay away from me.” Stay away from me, robot.
Most “Boston” story of yours?
The last time I was at the Wilbur. Marty Walsh was running for mayor and had also co-sponsored a bill to make “Roadrunner’ by Jonathan Richman as the official rock song of the Commonwealth. I was supporting this effort casually online, and was contacted by … Walsh’s people asking [me] to come to the show. I asked, “Will he sing ‘Roadrunner?’” They said no, but “he’ll count it off for you.” So he got on stage and counted it off, and I sang “Roadrunner” on the ukulele, and I remember the moment when the now mayor looked out at the crowd and said onstage, “I don’t know what I’m doing here, I don’t think there’s a single Boston voter here. [You’re] all from Brookline and Cambridge, aren’t you?” The house came down.
How has your act and crowds morphed over time?
I began in comedy doing a lot of this absurdist silly impersonal comedy, [but] in more recent years I’m moving more towards unvarnished self sabotaging stories about my own life and my own obsession with the days before my death. Boston crowds has a reputation of being rough around the edges, a little combative, and that may well be true. But my people tend to be polite and some of the kids like I was who dress up like Doctor Who. A lot of “Who-vians”. It’s that realm. I think [they] would say “hey tell a joke about hobos from space! Stop talking about your preoccupations of death!” But don’t worry I still have jokes about Shirley Johnson witchcraft and other weird jokes to tell as well.
I was listening to a recent podcast and you mentioned you were “hiding” in New England. Why are you hiding?
My wife is a high school English teacher, and I’m a marginally employed person. And since I was a freelance writer for magazines and self employed, we’ve had the luxury of going away during summers. Somewhere else was for years Western Mass, and more recently we have been going to Maine which is the place in the world that my wife loves more than any other place or person. So I have to go. I lead a very busy life have about 15-35 part time jobs, which I love doing, and all of a sudden I’m not in the city and I’m out in the countryside killing mice that are trying to invade my home, ruthlessly, in manners that make me question my humanity, and it’s a tremendous amount of time of self reflection and eating hot buttered corn. So hiding out is precisely what I do, I try to get away as much as possible to recharge and contemplate my death, and I can bring that back to the citizens of Massachusetts.
Did you catch any of the dust up in the media that surfaced the other week about the Wyatt Cynac-Jon Stewart imbroglio?
Just because I’m in rural New England doesn’t mean I don’t have internet. I’m certainly aware of it. I can tell you I wasn’t there when it happened, but I remain friendly with them both and wish them both well.
What do you like more: touring or podcasting?
I mean I love them all for these reasons: the podcast is a wonderful opportunity to talk to people all over the country and learn and hear about their lives and their insane theories as to why a machine gun should be considered a robot, or why it’s okay to eat out of the garbage in Canada. People have a lot of strong opinions they bring to my podcast Judge John Hogman that they don’t really think about until they say out loud on a podcast to me, and I get to tell them they’re wrong while wearing underwear and sometimes nothing more. Podcast is a non-visual medium, you can do it without shaving. I continue to do The Daily Show, and have a role on FX’s Married, that’s wonderful because I don’t have to think of the joke. If I have an extra I add it, but they have talented writers. They even make sandwiches on set. The live show is both the riskiest and most personal thing I can do. I started as a writer, and the job of humor is to be honest even if it terrifies you. Even that joke of FDR having a hook for a hand has to proceed from a place of honesty. And I honestly was obsessed with the idea there was a US president that secretly had a hook for a hand and nobody wrote about it or talked about it. That emerged from an honest place for me.
Then there’s the honesty that’s more terrifying where you look at your life. I’m 44 years old now. I keep thinking and acting like I’m 29, and that’s not true, and recognizing that is terrifying. And recognizing that I’m in a different (but happy) place in my life and one in which you realize you’re not longer becoming something but ending up as something, and doing that, for example, while standing on a painful rocky beach on the coast of Maine in front of a body of water that nobody should swim in because it just wants to kill you…that’s a truth that’s a little more terrifying. So just writing truthfully is hard to do because you often don’t appreciate what you’re thinking about or preoccupied about until it’s out there on the page, and often times you want to throw that page into the fire because it’s too close, it hurts too much. But then imagine doing it in front of strangers … it’s exhilarating and energizing and scary and fun and when they don’t hate you it’s even more fun. But they have to be there, and it’s better when there’s an audience. I’ll have fun either way.
Okay, word association time: Judgement.
Word. Did I get it right? It’s a word right?
Phrase! no, that’s a word. WORD.
New York Times
Oh, that’s three words! Does that count?
The Paris Review
Three more words, my first publication.
JOHN HODGMAN. PLAYS THE WILBUR 9.12. FOR TICKETS AND MORE INFORMATION, VISIT THEWILBUR.COM.