Humorist, satirist, and former physical embodiment of the PC to Justin Long's Mac, John Hodgman is going through a life change. Hodgman, known from his work as the Resident Expert on The Daily Show and as an author — he wrote a trilogy of Complete World Knowledge, The Areas of My Expertise, More Information Than You Require, and That is All — originally branded himself the quintessential expert on nonsense. But now he's turning toward a more honest, straightforward brand of comedy.
His latest special, Ragnarok, is a Netflix original and features Hodgman, shoeless, lamenting the fact that they must have sold all the computers (why else would they have stopped asking him to make the commercials?) and revealing that he is a real human, named John Hodgman, who can't help but enjoy a little Ayn Rand cosplay now and then.
SF Weekly: What's this show going to be like, how would you describe it?
John Hodgman: The show is called "John Hodgman Stars as the Famous American Humorist John Hodgman In: John Hodgman Lives." The show I have put together over a year of performing my imitation of stand-up comedy, in secret in New York and in public for the rest of the country, in which I attempt to come to terms with the fact that the world did not end on Dec. 21, 2012, as I had a) predicted; b) expected; and c) secretly hoped for, and how I am choosing to fill up the rest of the time that remains to me and us. And one of the things that happened when the world did not end, I realized I needed to start from scratch. I was not writing any more books. I had no material to draw on ... for any other projects. And so I started scaring myself into creating new material by doing it on stage. Consequently, the stuff that I've been talking about is a lot less artificial and a lot more personal. It's not John Hodgman the Resident Expert, it's not John Hodgman the Deranged Millionaire; it's John Hodgman the Regular Person. And, I dare say, a very talented John Hodgman impersonator.
Will you be wearing shoes?
That's a very good question. I will not be wearing shoes, I can promise San Francisco that. And it's about 50/50 whether or not I will have taken my socks off on stage. That has to do to some degree with the temperature of the theater. You know, I don't like to be chilly. And then also, in the previous show where I took my socks off, I was wearing a tuxedo. And that is a nice contrast. But for this show, I'll be wearing blue jeans. And blue jeans without socks just makes you look like a prosperous hippie. And that's not what I want.
Even in San Francisco?
Yes, you don't need another prosperous hippie in San Francisco.
Will the show be a good place to take a first date?
Yes. I think it would be a nice place to go on a first date, because it seems like a beautiful location. You will hear not only me, but also the amazing comedian Scott Simpson, who will open the show. And then, I think that if you were taking a first date to a previous John Hodgman show, you might be accused of being a nerd who only likes fake facts about hobos. But this is a much more straightforward and open-hearted comedy show, for good or ill, in which I talk about the strange life that I happen to have led for the past several years, since I became an accidental minor television personality. But I am also just a regular human who is married and has two human children. And I will talk about those children for the first time ever in public, though in order to protect their privacy I will pretend that I am talking about my cats. And there will be some singing and ukelele music involved. Ukelele is the music of love. Even if it is me dressed as Ayn Rand in 1980 playing the ukelele. Perhaps the most anti-romantic thing you can imagine, even still the ukelele spins a tune of seduction.
You mention in your latest special that you get upset that people no longer recognize you from your role in the Mac commercials.
I've learned to accept that life goes on. And the world doesn't end, even when you hope that it will because your career is coming to a turning point. The reality is that whether it is the end of a commercial campaign that utterly transformed my life and that I enjoyed and loved very much, or whether it's the end of a job or someone in your life dying or someone in your life being born, there are all kinds of little Ragnaroks that force us to start all over again. And that is something that I am willing to accept now. That the world does not end at my command.
Which are you finding you prefer, performing in character or as yourself?
The character was always me. That's why he was always named John Hodgman. Whether he was the Resident Expert, or the Deranged Millionaire, it was always a heightened exaggerated version of me at my best or my worst. It was always me, and I think that in part this new material I've been working on, which is the first time I've ever written specifically to perform material, as opposed to writing something for a book and then adapting it for the stage, is really about as bare as I can be. There actually is a person named John Hodgman, and I am actually this crazy. And in many ways I bare myself, and I'm as nude as I've ever been on stage, which is to say I'm wearing shirts and pants. But no jacket, you know what I mean?
How did you first realize you were funny?
I think that it was — it's a hard question to answer without sounding like an absolute monster.
It never occurred to me to do something with funniness. I always loved comedy, it was always woven into my interactions with my friends, because, let's face it, I was a weird only child with long hair and a black fedora in Brookline, Mass., who liked Dr. Who and sucked on an asthma inhaler all day long. Funniness had to be part of my makeup or else I would have no friends. But it didn't occur to me that it was going to be part of my professional life until I wrote a serious short story about persons with feelings for The Paris Review in the late 1990s, in the previous century. One of what I thought would be many serious short stories about persons with feelings that I would write. And when I went to an event and read it aloud, for The Paris Review, a lot of people said, "Wow, that was really funny." And it wasn't my intention to be, but I couldn't help it. A lot of the lines were funny. But I didn't realize it when I was writing it. A kind of deadpan literary funniness, but funny all the same. For a long time my job was best described as literary humorist. I was there to provide not laughter, but low chuckles for the arched-eyebrow set, New Yorker subscribers, you know? But laughter is better. That's the goal.
Are you working on anything else now?
I am working on this show, this is the project right now for John Hodgman, both real and imagined. To be on stage and perform as much as possible. And it's really exhilarating, having written a thousand pages of fake facts — not all of which were fake, some of them had some really personal confessions woven into the made-up history and nonsense — but this has been extremely invigorating to write specifically to say words in front of other people and make them laugh. I continue with The Daily Show, and I continue with the Judge John Hodgman podcast and column in The New York Times Magazine, which I also love, and in many ways is also an outlet for me just being myself as opposed to playing a role. But you know, we all reach those times in life where we thought we had it all set up, but we discover that we have to start all over again. And I'm seeking to find out what that next thing will be. And I'm lucky enough to do it on stage and drag you all down with me. And this particular show, without wanting to seem too depressing, is a product of the seeking of the next thing. And it isn't depressing, I dare say it's funny. But that's for others to say. I will say that I do dress as Ayn Rand as she dressed the year before she died. That may be the most important new thing I've found in my life, that my body may be inhabited by the deceased spirit of objectivist philosopher Ayn Rand from time to time, and that usually happens on stage.