John Hodgman takes Vacationland on the road

by W. Andrew Powell
John Hodgman

John Hodgman: the man, the myth, the legend. You may know him as Judge John Hodgman, as an author, a stand-up comedian, or perhaps as that guy who showed up a lot on The Daily Show. However you’ve connected with him in the past, his new show, Vacationland, is taking him on the road to talk about his home, Massachusetts, which he’s dubbed “the birthplace of rage”, not to mention his “exile” to Maine, and other sundry topics.

Chatting over the phone ahead of his appearance for JFL42 in Toronto, Hodgman talked about his career,

Andrew Powell: Well I’ve got to say it’s really, really a pleasure to chat with you. I actually don’t even know where to start, so I’m going to start simply. Could you tell me about Vacationland?

John Hodgman: “Yes. Vacationland is my new show of standing up comedy that is based upon, well, you know–my last stand up special called Ragnarok. In it I predicted the end of the world. It coincided with the publication of my last book of fake facts and invented trivia called That Is All. In that special I predicted that based on my apocalypse-ness and my own vision that I had while bathing in absinthe that the world would end. You may have noticed that didn’t happen.”

Andrew: Or it doesn’t seem to have happened at least.

John Hodgman: “Well I think what happened is that the world did not end so much as we were phase shifted into a different dimension. You may have noticed it because things in this new dimension are very subtly different. Mostly everything is the same but instead of me, John Hodgman famous purveyor of surreal fake facts, I am now John Hodgman the person who doesn’t lie, but just tells the truth on stage about his own life as a mustachioed weird dad to two human children. And basically doing more straight forward storytelling and stand-up comedy than I have ever done before, where all of the personas cast aside and there’s just me and my mustache on stage talking to audiences. It’s been really fun and exciting and energizing for me and I think that’s true for the audiences as well.”

“Now as for the words that I will actually say when I take the stage at Juste Pour Rire Toronto [AKA JFL42], I like to try and keep it to myself a little bit. Let me say this, Vacationland is one of the nicknames for the state of Maine. Maine you may know is somewhat the lost Province of Canada, but also used to be parts of my home commonwealth of Massachusetts until 1820.”

John Hodgman's Vacationland“It is called Vacationland for curious reasons. It sort of was called Vacationland before people understood what vacation means. Because it really dates back to a time when the only people who can go on vacation were wealthy people from Boston. For them vacation then going north to a place where they would never speak to anyone else and drink martinis and look out at water. That you would never ever want to go into because they wanted to kill you with its coldness and the beaches are no comfort because they are made of rocks and knives. And that is the place that I have chosen to spend a great deal of my time lately with my family and I have determined that if you really find a person who questions whether or not he deserves pleasure and happiness in life, Maine may be the vacation place for you.”

“But I also talk about New England as the place of my birth and upbringing and what happens when you start to feel like a stranger in your home and why weird dads grow mustaches in order to announce externally to the world that their evolutionary purpose is done and they’ve procreated and therefore no longer deserve physical affection. Other hard transitions in life such as figuring out that you’re not the kind of person who gets high in a country river anymore, you’re the kind of person who goes to cocktail parties where you someone just drinking a martini and staring out of water. You become your parents. You become that what you most loathe in life, always. That’s what this is about.”

“John Roderick my friend and famous musician and most recently candidate position aide on the Seattle City Council. After I performed some of the show earlier this year, he came up to the audience afterwards and said, ‘Well I hope you all enjoyed this white privileged brutality comedy of John Hodgman.’ And thile that’s done, I am now, I am no longer the John Hodgman of lies, I’m the John Hodgman who tells the truth and must acknowledge the truth. There comes this time in your life where you are able to really acknowledge really what you are and what you’re doing. It’s hard to dispute with John Roderick.”

Andrew: I think you asked this not too long ago. I think it’s worth asking you. Why are jokes funny? I just had to bring that up because I thought that that whole interaction between you and John Cleese was phenomenon.

John Hodgman: “Well thank you. You are referring to my…. my conversation with John Cleese at the Brooklyn Academy of Music from late last year which was truly an unexpected task and a overwhelmingly terrifying prospect. Then once we were on stage, just some of the most fun I’ve ever had. I mean he has always been one of my comedic heroes. My favorite of all of the Monty Pythons, necause he wasn’t wacky and I think anyone who knows a little bit of my comedy work, it is always presented from the point of view of a very sober but deranged authority. The influence that he had on me is so clear as perhaps as to be termed criminal.”

Andrew: That was part of why I wanted to bring it up. because I love the inter play of you two because you had so much in common at the same time as coming from two very different realities.

John Hodgman: “Well I am a 75-year old British man and have been largely since I was a child. As I discussed in my show, I’m an only child. That makes me an automatic member of a worldwide super smart afraid of conflict pacifist club.”

Andrew: Me too.

John Hodgman: “I was fascinated from early on with British comedy. Not just Monty Python, but also Peter Cooke as well as American comedy. Like Steve Martin and Andy Kaufman and Richard Pryor for that matter. Someone who from very early on had no experience whatsoever with meaningful conflict in life became terrified of all kinds of conflicts. Including very nice kinds of conflicts such as hugging and kissing confrontation.”

“So from very early on I wanted to be a 75-year old British man and worked hard in my affectations to do so. I dressed like Dr. Who, I carried around a briefcase. Just real weird and I’m talking about high school. It’s a real question mark as to why I was not more bullied in my life because I think I really deserved it. I was well liked by all my peers and teachers which I think was my goal to the longest time was to be liked and approved of by everyone in the world, and part of what this show is about too is going into circumstances that are new and alien to me and realizing that you’re not necessary going to be liked by the guys at the rural dump where you’re going to drop off your bags and garbage and diseased mice.”

“In fact it is okay for them not to like you. That’s fine; that’s part of their job. I really wanted to be a 75-year-old British man from early on and accomplished it for a long time. Then grew up into what I actually am which is a 44-year-old man from Brookline, Massachusetts and Brooklyn, New York and parts of New England, and I can be myself. I think it made my conversation with John Cleese a lot of fun for me and I hope for others.”

Andrew: Well, the other thing that this all leads to as well as the amount of things that you’ve done in the last few years even–just the last 10 years–it’s an amazing body of work. I’ve heard you say how lucky you feel. What does lucky feel like for you? What does this look like to you?

John Hodgman: “Well, you know I just was at the very last taping of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. The show will go along but obviously he will go along to other things. It’s almost 10 years since my first appearance on the show–first as a guest and then very quickly thereafter contributor and the resident expert. That gesture of faith that Jon put in my comedy, which has always been weird sort of comedy, profoundly transformed my life and really put it on a path that I didn’t know existed. I didn’t know. I hoped that I would get to write books of fake trivia for the rest of my life. It didn’t occur to me that I would get to go on a show that I loved, and then to do a series of ads for a computer company that I was and I am devoted to, and become an on camera performer because honestly, why?”

“Even before I added this hideous mustache to my facial ensemble I looked like a 35-year old weird man baby Muppet. The idea that I might be on camera was beyond absurd to consider. Yet because of that gesture of faith in me and my desire to live up to it, I grew as a performer and as a writer and was given or offered a lot of opportunities to do different kinds of things. I have always been the sort of person who, when given the opportunity to do something interesting, will go out of my way to say yes and do it if I can.”

“Before I was a famous minor television personality and comedian, I was a professional literary agent and I worked as a cheese monger and as a stockroom employee at a furniture store, and I worked at a movie theater for a long time, and traveled to different parts of the world just seeking stimulation through the weird things that I happened to find interesting. Be it cheese or the works of Jorge Luis Borges of the city of Buenos Aires, or watching terribly directed videos all day at work when you were still renting video cassettes. So I had already done a whole bunch of different things, but even with my long and checkered past, the idea that I would go on TV, a thing that I loved, just never occurred to me. And then it happened, so I felt an obligation to do as much work as I could, the best that I could. It’s put me into increasingly weirder situations; boxing with Jason Schwartzman, or hanging out with Patrick Stewart, and acting opposite Patrick Stewart on this new show that he has coming out called Blunt Talk.

Andrew: You’re in that? That’s fantastic.

John Hodgman: “I have a little role there. It’s been tremendous, and I’m glad to say no signs of stopping. But the thing that I really I think was gifted with through this whole experience was my increasing confidence and pleasure in live performance. I’ve always done readings from my books, which were largely theatrical and I had a guitarist with me. I would do a lot of audience interaction and they were performances, but they always had to book there. It wasn’t until my last stand-up special that I really let the book go and started just making comedy. Somewhat prepared, somewhat improvisational; conjuring a moment with a particular audience in a particular space that could never be repeated again in the exact same way. To me that’s been such an incredible experience and I’m really grateful to be able to do it.”

Andrew: Well I just have one last quick question. Based on what I’ve seen you doing recently and everything, the conversations I’ve seen you have in a few situations have you ever thought, or would you ever consider doing something like a conversation with and having an interview thing? Because you’re Judge podcast is certainly speaks to that in some degree. Would you do it for celebrities? Or people you want to have conversations with?

John Hodgman: “Well, the answer, as it always is yes and no. Yes, I will always speak to John Cleese when summoned, of course. If it is someone that I admire or I’m fascinated by or just would love the opportunity to meet, of course the answer is yes.”

“And by the same token, the beauty or the pleasure for me selfishly of Judge Hodgman is that I get to interview all kinds of people who aren’t celebrities. Do you know what I mean? Just normal interesting people who have jobs and preoccupations and obsessions and delusions. I get to hear and probe them and tell them which ones of them are right and which ones are wrong. I get to meet people, Germans who are afraid of air conditioning and Canadians who eat pizza out of the garbage at this great Canadian restaurant chain, Canadian House of Pizza and Garbage.”

“In those circumstances, I will always be very happy to interview another person, and no disrespect to all the other celebrities in the world as my fellow celebrities, I honor and respect them too; I would be happy to talk to them. That said, I think the big goal for me is to work as hard as I can to create something that is interesting enough that someone would love to interview me about it. That’s not just ego, for me that’s the hardest thing to do. Look here, you’re interviewing me so I’m very happy and grateful.”

Andrew: Well I’m very happy and grateful as well. It was really a pleasure chatting.

John Hodgman: “I’m really looking forward to coming to Toronto. It’s been a long time. Jesse Thorn and I have a lot of listeners in all of the provinces and territories of Canada. Canada is one of my favorite places. I’ve been to every province except Alberta.”

Andrew: Really?

John Hodgman: “Yeah, and I’ve been to Toronto before. I did a week’s worth of Match Game with Darrin Rose, but I’ve never performed my stand-up there. I’ve done other stuff on stage but never performed stand-up until now. Toronto will be the debut. So any Torontonians. Torontoshians. I don’t know how you say it. Toron-tora-nian. If you would like to come to see the wit and wisdom of me at my finest, and would love to come by and say hello, I’d be so grateful to say hello to you as well. And I may even say bonjour, but that will be the extent of my bilingualism, I’m afraid.”

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