The Other John Hodgman

In his new comedy show, the part-time Western Mass. resident plays himself

As a correspondent on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, John Hodgman plays the Deranged Millionaire and the Resident Expert, the latter of which grew as an extension of his first book, The Areas of My Expertise. On Bored To Death he plays Louis Greene, the nemesis to Jason Schwartzman’s Jonathan Ames. As Judge John Hodgman, he adjudicates on issues such as “is chili a soup or a stew?” in a regular column and podcast for the New York Times Magazine. And, perhaps most famously, he was the PC opposite Justin Long’s Mac in a series of Apple computer television ads.

So I am a bit surprised when Hodgman answers the phone as himself — or at least, as the character purporting to be John Hodgman — to discuss his new one-man comedy show I Stole Your Dad, which he performs this Friday at the Academy of Music in Northampton.

“Doing comedy alone on stage,” Steve Martin wrote in his autobiography Born Standing Up, “is the ego’s last stand.”

Hodgman seems to agree. “It’s more personal than anything I’ve ever done,” he says, “a stripping away of all of my personas.”

In I Stole Your Dad, he talks about 24-hour surf shops, cats watching public television, his experimentation with marijuana (as a 43-year-old), and “the lamest DJ battle” he’s ever been part of. He also transforms into Ayn Rand to read selections from the film criticism he imagines she would write for Parade Magazine.

The show deals with several adult themes, Hodgman says, though they are decidely un-sexy, PG-13 adult themes, like “neurosis, and the fear of irrelevance.” Regardless, it still is a comedy show. “I will be telling jokes,” he says.

I Stole Your Dad explores some of the same themes Hodgman discussed in his Mayan apocalypse-themed comedy show Ragnarok, which brought him to the Calvin Theater stage in 2012.

“When that [the end of the world] didn’t happen, I grew frustrated,” Hodgman says. The world just moved on. He was over 40, and had already accomplished everything he thought he ever would. He had met several of his heroes and people he admired, including Jon Stewart, Don Rickles, and George R. R. Martin. He had even quizzed President Obama on the Commander-in-Chief’s nerd credentials. Where would he go from there?

“It was boring,” he continues. “I wondered, what am I going to do now?”

Answer: a new stand-up routine, “a comedy show about the fear of dying,” as he describes it. For someone who has crafted a career out of being funny, Hodgman sounds downright sobering, though no less witty.

We all experience these “everyday apocalypses,” he says, like having a break-up, losing a job, or suffering an illness. I Stole Your Dad explores the notion of carrying on in the face of a possibly imminent end. “What do you do,” Hodgman continues, “when you have to start all over again?”

 —

Hodgman has attended every Emmy Awards ceremony since 2008, and provided color commentary at the 2009 and 2010 ceremonies.

“It’s utterly otherworldly and utterly mundane at the same time,” he says. “Everyone loves The Daily Show, so it’s a lot of fun when your favorite TV characters, like Don Draper, congratulate you. But then you’re still waiting in line for the bathroom.”

This year, however, Hodgman attended the awards with Sarah Reid, Valley native and former Lady Killigrew Cafe co-owner (along with her partner Matthew Latkiewicz). The three formed their friendship 10 years ago, when Hodgman was working on his first book.

“I wrote huge chunks of all three of my books at the Bookmill and the Lady Killigrew,” he says. “It’s still one of my favorite places. There are several moments there that I remember very clearly, like writing the comparative chart of hairstyles in hockey.”

Hockey chart or no, it’s clear that Hodgman is no sports fan. “Please note that there are only two references to sports in this book,” he writes in The Areas of My Expertise, “and both are appropriately dismissive. If you wish for sports information, might I kindly refer you to every other aspect of our culture?”

His lack of interest in sports has long affected his relationship to Boston. In an essay on Massachusetts he wrote for the McSweeney’s anthology State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America, he describes his non-sports childhood. As a kid, Hodgman says, he determinedly read Dune. His fashion sense was influenced by Dr. Who, and he regularly rushed home to catch Fresh Air on NPR.

“I didn’t like or dislike sports,” he says. “I just didn’t have strong feelings about it.” Consequently, he’s felt “forever like an outsider” in his hometown. “Boston has all these incredible cultural resources, and all this history,” he says, “but it’s like, if you don’t like sports, fuck you, get out of here.”

Though he grew up in eastern Massachusetts, Hodgman says the Valley has always been important to him. His mother had a house in Northampton, and he and his family spend most of the summer (his wife works in the New York City school system) and many holidays here.

After finishing The Areas of My Expertise, Hodgman volunteered to do a book reading at the Lady Killigrew. It was one of the first he ever did, he says. His book led to a guest appearance on The Daily Show. That appearance led to his slot as one of their regular correspondents.

“I thought they were just being nice,” he says. “But they meant it.”

Looking back over his successes of the past 10 years, Hodgman sounds like he still can’t believe it. I ask him if there’s a role or occupation he would still like to experience. He responds by asking about the ownership status of Kathy’s Diner in Northampton.

“I’ve had serious contemplation about that location,” he says. But for now, Hodgman can’t imagine anything more satisfying than the career he’s created for himself.

“It’s 3 a.m.,” he says, “and I’m in Long Island City, filming a nude scene, wearing nothing but a genital sock. And I’m very pale, and the lights are very bright. And I’m very aware of how I look. And I’ll think to myself, what could I be doing that would be better than this? And the answer is nothing.”

He pauses for a moment, before adding, “except maybe making eggs all day at Kathy’s Diner. That would be nice.”

(Originally appeared in the Valley Advocate.)

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