Interview: John Hodgman Talks About John Hodgman
By Samantha Abernethy in Arts & Entertainment on Jun 12, 2013 3:40PM
John Hodgman poses with a ferret skeleton. (via Facebook)
John Hodgman is many things — author, comic, actor — but above all he is hilarious. He is best know for his roles as the "resident expert" and "deranged millionaire" on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. In 2012, he spent the year performing barefoot on stage as the deranged millionaire, touring the country to warn people about the Mayan Apocalypse. Now, six months after his failed doomsday prediction, Netflix will premiere his comedy special that was filmed on the night the world was supposed to have ended. Titled Ragnarok, after the Norse mythological theory of apocalypse, and it premieres on Netflix on June 20.
Hodgman also performs in Chicago this week with the Just For Laughs Festival doing a show titled, "John Hodgman, Performing as Celebrated Humorist John Hodgman in: JOHN HODGMAN TONIGHT!" on Thursday, June 13 at Park West. He tells Chicagoist this is not Ragnarok material, but instead his show deals with him coming to terms with the fact that the world did not end.
Did you know Hodgman is the only Daily Show correspondent to have been a guest before he was an employee? He appeared in 2005 (check out the video), then he became the "resident expert" and the personification of a PC in the Apple advertisements. Hodgman also runs a podcast, "Judge John Hodgman," in which he takes questions on real-life disputes on random, miscellaneous subjects and offers a ruling to officially end the debate over things like whether chili is a soup or a stew.
Watch a preview of Hodgman's comedy special Ragnarok, premiering on Netflix on June 20, then read our extensive (and hilarious) interview with him below.
Hodgman performs "John Hodgman, Performing as Celebrated Humorist John Hodgman in: JOHN HODGMAN TONIGHT!" at Park West on Thursday, June 13. Tickets are on sale now.
CHICAGOIST: Well, tell me about Ragnarok. Am I pronouncing that correctly? Like Fraggle Rock?
JOHN HODGMAN: [laughs] Like Fraggle Rock did you say?
HODGMAN: Very close to Fraggle Rock. Indeed the ancient world of Fraggle's apocalypse was called Fragnarok. I'm talking over the rain. There's a torrential, almost apocalyptic rain here in New York City. It's about six months late. Every morning I wake up and think, "Oh, maybe finally the world is going to end." So I had been traveling the country last year, presenting material from my last book That Is All, much of which concerned the Mayan prophecy that the world would end December 21, 2012. So I went on a spiritual inward journey and expounded or expanded upon that prophecy by predicting that over the course of the last year, there would be a series of major catastrophes and natural cataclysms would culminate in the world ending on December 21, 2012. The collapse of civilization and the end of human time, cataclysms including the collapse of the dollar, and a replacement of the dollar with a new currency called the beef jerky dollar; the rise of the oceans and in particular the devastating verbal tidal wave of blood called "The Blood Wave." And additionally the unexplained phenomenon of every dog in the United States abandoning its home to join up a massive Kansas-sized dog pack that would rove the Earth, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake which would be called "Dog Storm," among many many other terrible events. I anticipated that this would culminate with some final event known as Ragnarok on December 21, 2012, when all of civilization would collapse. Perhaps even the world itself would come to an end. So this is what I have been talking about to, frankly, an enormous amount of public acclaim and credibility throughout the year of 2012, and naturally on December 21, 2012 itself, people looked to me for guidance. So I gathered my followers together at the Bell House, which is a music and comedy performance venue on the shores of the Gowanus Canal, the most apocalyptic waterway in North America, to comfort them and await the end. I also charged them I think about $10. Why not? Money was pointless at that point anyway. And we had a very good time, and I told them some funny stories and attempted to distract them with humor and my ridiculous mustache, and two or three beautiful songs by a woman named Cynthia Hopkins, who was actually there to perform her songs and not just me playing her songs, although I have murdered her songs. And then as midnight came, closer and closer, less and less happened until at midnight we realized nothing happened. And I guess I was made a fool of by the Mayans. I should have known not to trust them.
C: Why not?
JOHN HODGMAN: Well, I mean, they're an ancient civilization that made their calendars out of stone. I don't know why exactly they thought that they knew what was going to happen on December 21, 2012 better than anyone else. Those guys couldn't even make smooth pyramids. So looking back it was all an error.
C: So why did you choose, what was it about the predictions that made you jump on board?
JOHN HODGMAN: Well quite honestly I began thinking about the end of the world when I turned 40, as I think most people who turn 40 do. I turned 40 and I realized that I personally was about to face an apocalypse that we all face, which is no longer could I deny being a grown-up. And what's more, I had to start facing the fact that my life was unwinding rather than winding up. It had run down, the great clockwork John Hodgman, which is for sale by the way. Consequently, I think I became fascinated with the end of the world the way all people who are over 40 become fascinated with the end of the world, become fascinated with apocalyptic stories, become fascinated with end of times predictions. There is a strange and perverse comfort in imagining that if I have to go, my life is so important and meaningful that it cannot expire without taking the rest of the world out with it. But as it happens, you may have noticed that the world didn't end on December 21, 2012.
C: How do we know?
JOHN HODGMAN: Well, that's a good point. As I say in my special, premiering on Netflix on June 20, by the way, as you probably know already, is it is the document of my great humiliation. As I say, it may be that the world hasn't ended. It may be that one of the ancient unspeakable ones, the Dread Gods that came before us and seek to retake this forest from us. They've managed to destroy the Earth, but after a thousand years, one of those ancient and unspeakable ones took pity on us and he used his transdimensional powers to wreck all reality and bring us back to this point. So we have no memory of the terrible things that we went through. And honestly you can't rule that out as a possibility.
JOHN HODGMAN: It may have been that the world, that society and civilization and the world itself collapsed but then we got somehow dimensionally, we dimensionally jumped into an alternate time stream where it hadn't happened that way. There are all sorts of explanations for why I am still right. As most failed doomsday prophets will tell you, there are always explanations for why I am still right. Maybe I miscalculated the date. Maybe the Blood Wave starts tomorrow, but whether or not it does, whether or not the Earth truly ended on December 21, 2012, even if it didn't, it's still ending, just in the slow way that we're used to.
John Hodgman on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
JOHN HODGMAN: I don't know what your age is.
C: I'm 29.
JOHN HODGMAN: Yeah, you're just beginning. As you face down 30, you're just beginning to get the fact that time is not stopping. Time does not stay still. It in fact moves forward, carrying you with it. So I don't know when this piece would possibly run.
C: That hasn't been decided yet, do you have a...
JOHN HODGMAN: Well I'm only thinking in terms of, you know, I'm coming to Chicago next week.
JOHN HODGMAN: And in one sense, you know, the prediction came true. Parts of my predictions have came true in ways that are rather unnerving. For example I predicted that a number of major solar flares would occur over the course of the year and I actually got pretty close. There was one in January 2012 and I was off by a couple of days, and there was one later in spring and my guess again was off by a couple of days. That might be explainable simply by saying there are tons of huge solar flares all the time. They're happening at an accelerated rate. Even a stopped doomsday prophecy is right twice a year.
C: Are you concerned that the world could end before you appear in Chicago next week?
JOHN HODGMAN: No, but what I'm saying is that another one of my prophecies that came true is that Chicago became, Chicago emerged from the swamp next to the lake and became real. Because as you know I, John Hodgman, have always maintained Chicago is a fable, a fictional city like Brigadoon.
C: And why is that?
JOHN HODGMAN: Well you know, for those of us in New York, we would meet these travelers who had come to New York, and they would tell these stories about this amazing utopia called Chicago where rents were still reasonable and newspapers still thrived, and old time bars still served boilermakers and the rivers were green with beer. I was like, "I'm sorry but you're insane. There is no such place. If there were, why did you leave it?" And that's how I came to believe that there was a mythical city called Chicago, a legend of folklore. There was this great city of wide shoulders in the middle of the country, but of course it's patently false. Or it was, anyway. I would come and visit quote-unquote Chicago for meetings and public appearances and lectures and comedy and so forth, and it was really amazing the lengths to which the so-called Chicagoans would go to maintain this fantasy. They'd build a great paper mache city, a great white city just to fool me and themselves that it was Chicago. I'm pretty sure as soon as I left the rain would wash it all away back into the lake. And now there is a real city called Chicago. It happened. It materialized, like magically. I'm looking forward to coming back to it.
C: And when did that happen?
JOHN HODGMAN: I would have to go back through my notes. Sometime in the fall of 2012.
C: That makes sense.
JOHN HODGMAN: Yeah. When did you get there?
C: I've been here since the summer of 2008 with some breaks in between.
JOHN HODGMAN: (sarcastically) Sure... you have been. Sure... In all seriousness, I love Chicago whether or not it was ever real. I'm glad now that for sure that it exists, because I love it so much. But I'm coming back to it next week, for the Just For Laughs Festival to perform new material that is not the Ragnarok material but in fact it is the beginning of me trying to process what I am going to do with the rest of my life now that I know that there is a rest of my life. I honestly told this story about Ragnarok so many times that I won't say that I honestly believed it, but I kind of tricked myself into making no professional, or for that matter emotional, plans for what would happen if the world did not end. And so I consequently I have had to start working hard here in New York City, a real American city, to stand on stage and think about what I'm going to do for the rest of my life and talk about it. And so part of the material that I'll be performing in Chicago has to deal with doing a kind of comedy that is a little bit more sincere and a little bit more personal. I talk about my human children for the first time in public. I don't give their names and in fact, I claim that they're my cats in order to protect their identity. And I kind of shed, to some degree, the persona of resident expert-slash-insane polymath-slash deranged millionaire and instead I give the John Hodgman who's worked behind all of those characters.
C: Does that mean you've shaved off the mustache?
JOHN HODGMAN: No! That's me! That's real! That's a real mustache. It was never a comedy mustache. It was a real mustache that I had to pretend was a comedy mustache in order to justify having a ridiculous mustache. And I reserve the right to shave it off in the future, but it is authentically me. I do not wear any costumes any more. No masks or guises of any kind. I do put on a dress in the style of the kind of dress that Ayn Rand may have worn in 1981, right before her death, and I perform certain material in the voice of Ayn Rand, but otherwise it's just me, your friend John Hodgman.
C: So when was the last time you came to Chicago?
JOHN HODGMAN: I came to Chicago in what had to have been the spring of 2012.
C: I wanted to prepare you. Over the last year or so, malort has become very hip. It's no longer just the dusty bottle, it is now an ingredient in fancy cocktails.
JOHN HODGMAN: I feel so sorry for all of you. I have to, I feel I have to bear some responsibility for this.
C: I was about to say the same thing.
Hodgman takes a swig of malort. (Via Facebook)
JOHN HODGMAN: I'm sorry to have been the Johnny Appleseed of malort, in its hometown, but I drank malort at my very first appearance in Chicago in the ETC Theater in Second City, which may or may not still exist. I don't know if that particular theater space is still used. They opened a new one, and then the UP Comedy Club.
C: I think so. I'm not totally sure.
JOHN HODGMAN: And my first baptism in malort goes back to probably about 2002 or 3, when having never been to Chicago before, I hosted a night of readings and music and comedy here on the theme of the fictional city of Chicago, and I had read about malort and had some shipped to me here in New York. So we drank the ambrosia, the bitter ambrosia of fictional Chicago in a warehouse in Brooklyn. And then after I came to Chicago and brought some malort, the terrible thing started happening which was that I would come to Chicago not bringing malort, but other people would bring it for me because they thought I enjoyed it. And then I would go to other cities where exiled Chicagoans would live, and I would show up at readings or comedy performances and there would be one or two bottles of malort on the stage before I even got there. It's like Chicago is trying to gaslight me. But I honestly have developed a taste for it, I don't think it's really quite as terrible as most people think. I mean I like all the witchy, bitter, weird sort of medicinal spirits, your Fernet Brancas.
C: You talked about malort in an interview with Marc Maron earlier this year. You said you're a fan of esoteric things and defined loathsome hipsterism as "the pursuit of esoteric knowledge or status." There's been a question lately in Chicago of whether or not malort is the quintessential hipster drink, if it has even replaced PBR in Chicago as the hipster drink.
JOHN HODGMAN: Well I can't speak to that, but it's sad that, I would say that because I haven't observed the behavior, I think that it's OK to enjoy something comically. It is not necessarily hipster. How am I going to phrase this... I think it is OK to enjoy something comically. That is not a hipster impulse. That is impulse that comes from pure curiosity, and if the thing is so gross that it causes you pleasure, that's fine. Then maybe over time like me, it'll infect you and you won't mind it so much and you'll enjoy it legitimately. You know, when we drink malort, malort pretty much is the masquerade of comedy shows. There is a sharing of spirit. Literally the bottle goes around and we baptize each other in our own saliva. There's a communal activity and bonding that goes with the spirit that is not un-genuine. As I say, when you use a brand of anything, whether it's a band or a fashion movement or a cocktail movement or anything, to establish status over someone else, that to me, whether it's hipsterism or not, it's loathsome. And I think if malort has replaced PBR as the hipster quaff of Chi-town, then that's all the better because malort is native to Chicago, not Milwaukee.
C: Ooh, good burn on Milwaukee.
JOHN HODGMAN: Look I love Milwaukee, but Chicago has a brewing history. There's got to be some terrible, terrible beers in a can made in Chicago right?
C: Yes. I believe Schlitz was made here before it moved to Milwaukee. (Ed. note: I was wrong. I misunderstood the history of the tied houses)
JOHN HODGMAN: Well there you go, that would've been a more self-congratulatory and thus more hipstery beer to drink, because not only did it have the benefit of esoteric history it has the benefit of being watery and gross. But there's a mournfulness to it because it used to be made in Chicago but not anymore. Like all the people who go to Los Angeles Dodger games wearing Brooklyn Dodgers hats. It's just baseball. Easy buddy.
C: Have you actually met the people from malort?
JOHN HODGMAN: No, you know, I like to maintain a firewall.
C: Actually the owner Pat, she came to an event we had a couple of months ago. Very nice.
JOHN HODGMAN: I'm sure they're very nice, but it comforts me to believe that no human hands are involved in making it, that it emerges somewhere out of a deep malort spring and is bottled by dwarves.
C: So how do you enjoy malort? Do you drink it straight or mix it with grapefruit juice?
JOHN HODGMAN: Nope, I would never mix it with anything else, you know what I mean? I'm actually having a malort mixer on Friday evening, it's part of a WBEZ pledge drive promotion, so I don't know that it's open to the public, but I think we're gonna set it up at one of these places that does malort cocktails. I'm trying to keep an open mind about it but I don't really know that it's a spirit that will mix well with others. It's kind of a misanthropic spirit in my opinion, and if you're going to drink it, the honest thing to do is just drink it. Either just get it over with or own up to the fact that you're drinking it. The best way I've ever enjoyed malort is to drink directly from the bottle, but not just directly from the bottle, directly from the bottle onstage after that bottle has passed around an entire audience of Chicagoans, so there's a little bit of each of them in the thing itself. I've done this many times and I've never once gotten sick. Wormwood just kills it all dead.
C: All right, well, I'm running out of time. Is there anything you'd like to tell me about the special or your event at Just For Laughs? Anything you'd like to add before we finish up?
JOHN HODGMAN: No, just that if someone in Chicago wanted to experience my life's work, and honestly it kind of culminates my life's work and fictions. In any case, let's just make it as simple as possible. I'm coming for Just For Laughs on June 13, performing new post-Ragnarok material that I'm very excited about. It even makes me happy that the world didn't end. And then on June 20, you can go back in time, December 12, and see my final thrilliation as I stand barefoot before an audience and the world doesn't end.