"The path of my professional life is twisted and implausible.
– John Hodgman
John Hodgman: Is that Guy?
Guy MacPherson: This is. I hear you, you hear me.
JH: I think that's the whole point.
GM: You're on the east coast, am I right?
JH: Yes, that's right. For a hot second. I just got back from Toronto and a week and a half of touring, I'll get a little time at home, and then I will go back out on the road.
GM: Are you in Maine? Or Connecticut?
JH: I live in Brooklyn, New York. We have a home in both Maine and Massachusetts. The home in Massachusetts belongs to my mother, and the home in Maine we recently acquired. And that is part of the problem in my life.
GM: It's a good problem to have.
JH: Oh yeah, there are far worse problems.
GM: It's part and parcel with being a deranged billionaire, I guess, is all the many properties.
JH: Well, except the deranged billionaire was a character that I was playing and I'm not playing any characters anymore. At least not in this particular show. If I were a little bit more billionairey or deranged, then maybe I could make this work but as it is, one of these houses has gotta go.
GM: I knew about Maine because we went on a vacation, and we have a ten-year-old son. I listen to a lot of podcasts but a lot of them are filthy or otherwise inappropriate and I don't like to listen to that around my kid. So I downloaded a bunch of Judge John Hodgman and we listened in the car. It was great.
JH: Good. Yeah, it's important to both Jesse and me that the podcast is family friendly because people listen to it while they drive and very often kids are in the car. Sometimes the kids are driving, which is not something I approve of. It happens in life. So I'm glad that you appreciate that because it's something that a) it's something that I would enjoy listening to with my own children and b) it seems to connect with a very special and recognizable group of strange, precocious 9- to 12-year-olds who want to bring order our of the chaos of the world. And I recognize in them the same precocious, pretentious, weird child that I was at that age.
GM: Yes, and justice. You're a Judge Wapner for a new generation.
JH: I think Judge Judy is a Judge Wapner for a new generation. I aim to be the next Judy.
GM: You're better than both of them.
JH: I don't have the true full-on fake courtroom that they have in their TV studios. We just have the courtroom of the mind.
GM: And you're much more thorough. I love the way you attack a case from all angles. You're not so judgey right off the top like they are.
JH: Well, you know, the truth is that we have more time to play around with in the podcast form. And the reason that I enjoy doing the podcast is that I'm genuinely curious about other people in the world, who they are and what they do with their lives and why they would possibly believe that a machine gun might technically be considered a robot. That's the craziest thing that I ever heard.
GM: That was one of them?
JH: That was one of them. Two guys who've been in a long-time sort of bar-side argument over whether a machine gun might count as a robot. Obviously a machine does not count as a robot because while a machine gun can kill you, unlike a robot it does not want to kill you. It has no agency of itself.
GM: It sounds like you pre-judged this particular case.
JH: No, no, I really listened to the machine-gun-as-robot side and the truth is that that guy made some very compelling arguments about programmability and mechanical construction, but ultimately he was simply out of his mind.
GM: Right, because then a PVR would be a robot.
JH: Exactly so.
GM: When did you get the idea to sit and listen and weigh in on people's beefs with each other.
JH: Jesse Thorn, who is my friend and co-host of the show, makes a lot of different programming for his media company, which is called Maximum Fun. He's the host of the amazing and completely non-silly public radio interview show here in the States called Bullseye and maybe in Canada, I don't know if it's syndicated up there. And he also does a very silly podcast with his old, old friend Jordan Morris called Jordan Jesse Go. And Jesse suggested to me some years ago the idea that I come on and adjudicate a dispute between two guys who are having a fight over whether or not chilli constituted a soup or not and I thought this was something I had actually given a lot of thought to in my life, so I was very happy to come on and say, uh, you're wrong, chilli is a stew. And once I did that a couple of times, I really enjoyed it. I really realized that a) I enjoy telling people who's right and who's wrong, and b) my opinion is almost always correct. And therefore it seemed a benefit both to me and humanity for me to settle some disputes. So we started this separate podcast, Jesse and I, which is the Judge John Hodgman podcast which is now in its fifth year, and it's just been a remarkable experience talking to people not just all over the country of the USA and indeed quite a bit in Canada, but all over the world. In Canada, in particular, we seem to have a certain kinship. There are a lot of Canadian listeners. Quite a few call in from Toronto. Indeed, just last night I met up with two litigants who were from one of our earliest cases. It was a girlfriend and boyfriend and the boyfriend was constantly going into a very popular chain pizza restaurant in Toronto and perhaps throughout all of Canada, Pizza Pizza, and going through the garbage at their local Pizza Pizza to get coupons that were printed on the bottoms of the little cardboard pizza slice holders. And she was embarrassed by this...
GM: As she should be.
JH: ... and asked me to order him to stop. He made an impassioned case that he was looking to be frugal and get discounts on more pizza and maybe even win a motorcycle, an admirable goal in any part of life. I did have to tell him that he is not garbage and therefore he should not be pawing through the garbage if he is not in great need and starving. He should spare his girlfriend the embarrassment of having to stand by a man who sifts through garbage. I did a show, my new Vacationland standup show, in Toronto last night and we arranged a meet-up for any Toronto listeners at the Pizza Pizza on the corner of Queen West and another street and there they were. I got to meet them for the first time and it was like greeting old friends. There's a real family now, in a sense, of listeners to the podcast. That is wonderful.
GM: Did he abide by your ruling?
JH: Yes, he did. And they're still together. And that has to be, I would have to double-check but at least three or maybe even four years ago. Lovely young couple.
GM: You saved the marriage.
JH: I may have, I may have. Actually, I don't think they were married and I don't know if they are now but one thing I will never do is marry another person. As a fake judge, I have been asked to marry quite a few people but I refused because I believe marriages should not be fake and are not jokes and therefore should not have a fake judge-slash-comedian officiate no matter how clever you think it is.
GM: I know you originally from the commercials, the Mac and PC commercials, and then through The Daily Show. And your books. Which came first?
JH: The path of my professional life is twisted and implausible. But real. I started in book publishing and then quit to become a magazine writer. As a magazine writer I started writing some humour for the internet and decided to write a book of fake facts and made-up trivia. My first book came out almost ten years ago, called The Areas of my Expertise. I was booked on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart as a guest and we had a great time talking about the presidents who had hooks for hands and the time that hobos took over the United States government in 1929 for about 35 minutes but they did manage to issue currency that had pictures of birds wearing hats on them. And we had a really good time and they invited me back to be a contributor on the show, which was the most unlikely thing to have ever happened to me because at that point I was a pudgy, round baby-faced man with a little bit of a lazy eye in his mid-thirties. It was not really a time for someone to take on a new career as on-camera entertainment for other humans, but it happened. Perhaps it was an unusual look for a television personality but it was a great look for a bumbling PC and I was asked to audition for the Apple Computer role and I did. I auditioned largely thinking it would be a fun story to tell later on: "Can you believe I was asked to audition for a commercial? I had to go in but I didn't get it, obviously." But I did get the job and I ruined the story, so sorry.
GM: Now you're primarily a performer, right?
JH: Yeah. I wrote my last book of Complete World Knowledge, that is to say invented world knowledge, That is All, it came out in 2012. But by that time I had been having so much fun performing materials from the book in increasingly theatrical ways that I wanted to continue to do live performance so I started performing. I went into a basement in Brooklyn where there's a performance space once a week for a year and just started talking on stage about whatever I could fill time with. And what I discovered was that whereas all of my previous performances had been under the guise of an insane professor or a deranged billionaire, I was enjoying just talking about my life as it actually is – a regular, weird dad with a weird dad moustache and two human children and a wife living in Brooklyn, New York, whose career has been so ridiculous that it has taken me on a number of different adventures and misadventures that I enjoy talking about.
GM: So that is the show you're bringing to Vancouver?
JH: Well, the show that I'm bringing to Vancouver is called Vacationland and it is largely about the time that I've spent in the country in rural New England, first in rural western Massachusetts and more recently in coastal Maine, and how uncomfortable the country makes me for all sorts of different reasons. Physically uncomfortable, of course, because Maine, which is called Vacationland, is, I think, being profoundly ironic when it calls itself Vacationland. It is the home of the most painful beaches on Earth, the ocean water in Maine is made of hate; it wants to murder you with its coldness. The beaches are just jagged rocks and sharp barnacles. And the lakes are disgusting. I couldn't understand why people would enjoy it. And then there's a deeper discomfort that I have as a child of, originally, Boston, Massachusetts, and, obviously, for the past 21 years or so, New York City, I am a child of the city. I rely on streets that are navigable through numbers and grid patterns, subways that won't go off the rails and will take you wherever you want to go, things that are unambiguous. But in the country, it's a lawless land. There's only one sheriff per county in a lot of these places. People have to learn to get along with each other, negotiating a lot of unspoken rules, and that is very uncomfortable for me because I am an only child, which is to say a member of the Super-Smart, Afraid-of-Conflict Narcissist Club. I love rules. I love to follow rules. And I want to follow them perfectly so that I will be loved and approved of by every human on Earth. And that is a hard thing to do when you are bringing a bag of garbage to the dump in rural western Massachusetts and an angry dump man is staring you down about to ask you where you live because you know you're dumping illegally and you have to come up with a lie.
GM: And they see right through it, probably.
JH: Well, if they ever would ask I've been preparing a lie for them for the past 14 years and they haven't done it yet. But it could be at any time. At any time I could finally be called out on my breaking of this rule and I guess I would go to dump jail. And while it sounds like I'm making a joke, even as I say it now I have a terrible pit in my stomach that there is probably behind one of those corrugated metal sheds a dump jail that is waiting for me, that I will finally face the justice that I've evaded for so long by dumping across town borders at this particular dump.
GM: Yeah, the countryside has always given me the creeps. It's nice to look at from inside a moving vehicle but I don't really want to get out into it.
JH: Yeah, it's a different world and it's a different culture. It's one that I've found myself through fate, and often happy fate because we get to go to the country, do you know what I mean? But it's one I found myself adapting to somewhat painfully but once I adapt to it, particularly a summer in Maine, that's just prolonged trauma of mosquitos and horseflies and fresh water clams at the bottom of disgusting lakes and painful beaches and angry, and appropriately angry, year-round residents who endure cold and darkness for ten months out of the year and as soon as it turns nice in the place where they live, people like me show up demanding things from them like lobster roles and fudge and housecleaning. They're being made to work during what is their summer, too. So it's a very contentious relationship and a lot of careful human negotiation goes on. And through it all, you know, for someone who's been so afraid of conflict his whole life, to go through this process and learn that it doesn't kill you, well, that's the gift of a vacation in Maine.
GM: They're thankful, I'm sure, just for some human interaction in the summer months.
JH: Oh, no they aren't. No, no, no, no! The people of Maine are profoundly misanthropic. One of the stories I tell is of a very old roadside souvenir stand called Perry's Nuthouse in Belfast, Maine, where they sell nuts and fudge and bridge mix and souvenirs and all kinds of things. They had a sign on the door that said No Bathroom. Handwritten sign in angry Sharpie pen: No Bathroom. Which is a lie. It's a building. Of course there's a bathroom in there. Arguably, the whole place was built in 1927 to lure people on the road in to use the bathroom so you could sell them fudge. But truly what the sign should have said was no No Bathroom but We Have a Bathroom But You Can't Use It Because We Hate You. There is a real misanthropic streak to the world that caters and yet resents tourists so much. I think that the motto of Maine should not be Vacationland; it should be Maine: Putting the 'Spite' in Hospitality Since 1820.
GM: Is this a love-hate relationship you have with it or is it a hate-hate relationship?
JH: I love-love it but I don't presume that love is returned. And as I say, for an only child who grew up never having had a sibling to tease or bully or train me to understand that conflict is anything other than fatal, even a disagreement was terrifying to me. A simple disagreement. And routine confrontation of any kind, whether it's having to say to someone else, 'No, you're wrong,' or to hug and kiss another person, for a long time, since conflict was so unusual to me as an only child, I was terrified of it. But now I think Maine and the country and the rural parts of the world in general are good training for someone who feels that terror and you learn most people aren't thinking about you at all. And if they don't like you, that's okay, you'll survive.
GM: You speak so eloquently and literately – is that a word?
JH: Literately? Sure. I speak like I can read. Sure.
GM: And you speak like you write. I know they say don't write like you speak but yours seems to be closer together.
JH: Who's been telling you this? I don't know where you're picking up this nonsense. You should write like you speak. That's called having a writerly voice.
GM: But yours is more elevated than normal speech. And usually writing is slightly more elevated than casual speech.
JH: I don't know. It's true that I dig words a lot and I dig language a lot and have lived my career jamming words together into sentences and then selling them, one way or the other. So I do take a certain pride in my craft. And I have had daily brain enhancers put directly into my brain but I can't reveal... Never mind, that's a terrible joke. Anyway, I enjoy the craftsmanship of making words. And I guess I'm pretty smart. But the truth is, the thing that I learned through this process of becoming a performer as much as a writer is that your brain... I will sit and try to write out what I'm thinking a million different ways trying to get at the core of what I'm trying to say in a story, why I'm telling a story, what it means to me that I'm saying it or how the best way to tell a story would be, but when you get on stage in the light of pure panic with people sitting there waiting for you, suddenly everything becomes intensely clear. And suddenly the most complicated sentences are discarded in your mind because you find the simplest way to say exactly what's on your mind because you're just trying to survive. And then you suddenly learn all about yourself, do you know what I mean? This is what talk therapy is all about. And in the show, I talk for a little bit about how I sought out therapy when I first moved to New York having graduated from college with a degree in literary theory – not literature, that's too practical; literary theory. I liked the idea of books. And it turned out that New York City did not care for that skill set at all. And I was really beginning to wonder whether I had made a horrible mistake in my life and what was going to happen to me now that I wasted all this time and my parents' money on a completely impractical set of skills. I was so anxious about it that I sought out therapy and NYU had a therapy centre that was a pay-what-you-can sliding scale therapy centre because that's where they were training therapists. It was like a barber school for therapists. You would think that maybe you would get some bad therapy but no. If you have a change to get some discount therapy, some half-price therapy, grab it because the mark-up on that stuff is obscene. If you're paying full-price, you're paying too much because what you're doing is you're sitting in a room and in a context that gives you permission to talk out loud about yourself, which is not often something that we give ourselves permission to do. And when you start saying things out loud, you immediately start hearing the things in your life that are lies or evasions or truths. And you hear them and you're like, 'Oh!' And that's how you have breakthroughs, right? Having another person in the room is almost a formality. You could basically have a cardboard cutout of Captain Kirk sitting over there and you'd probably get a lot out of it. And comedy can be therapeutic for both the comedian and the audience because a lot of stuff is getting aired. A lot of things that people don't allow themselves to think or feel, maybe a comedian will say those dark truths and that's funny. And from the performing point of view, it really is a situation where you are up there on your own and you've got to survive. When that happens, what I've discovered is your brain really doesn't let you down. What you are getting out of your brain is stuff that may even surprise you. When you are doing that and the audience is there enjoying it as well, it's a pretty electric moment and a fun thing to be a part of.
GM: Do you classify the show Vacationland as standup comedy?
JH: I don't classify it as anything. I mean, I'm standing on a stage and people are laughing. I'm telling stories. There are labels for these sorts of performances but all I can say is that this is a John Hodgman show so if you're a listener to the Judge John Hodgman podcast, you're going to know that there's going to be a lot of my preoccupations in the show and it'll be very much a mix, as the Judge John Hodgman
show is, of jokes but also sincere interests in the world and an occasional song, because I've been indulging my singing on the podcast a lot. And if you're a fan of John Hodgman from The Daily Show, and you want some esoteric, weird cultural references and completely bogus phoney trivia and made-up authoritative facts, there are elements of that, as well. I'm the guy who's doing all of these different things. They all live within me. A lot of the show is really about the fact that I can only give you who I am. I talk a lot about this terrible beard that I grew over the summer while I was away for a while. The beard is awful but I wear it as a reminder of two things: 1. You can only grow the beard you can grow and [2.] sometimes you just have to face who you are in the mirror and say, 'That's a terrible beard. I look like the part-time bookkeeper for the church of Satan.'
GM: You could shave it.
JH: No, I want the audience to see the sad, scraggly, bald-patched inglory that is this thing.
GM: How does it compare to the twirly moustache?
JH: I still have the moustache.
GM: But it must be covered up more.
JH: No, I can't get the moustache to connect with the beard. They're like separate entities. They're fighting for pale cheek real estate right now. They won't join forces.
GM: If nothing else, it'll be worth it just to go see that.
JH: Yeah, it's a freak show. Come see the barely-bearded man.
GM: Do you consider yourself a performer now more than a writer?
JH: Yeah. The truth is I've been writing for the stage now for two years. I did a whole different comedy show last year and this is a whole new comedy show. I'm starting to work on a new one for next year. And while a lot of the material is sketched out with words, it was developed on stage and continues to be refined on stage and I would never publish my notes for the show. So I continue to write. I'm writing a teleplay for a potential TV show that I've been hired to write. I've written screenplays. My Judge John Hodgman column in the New York Times Magazine is just about to relaunch after being away for a while. I do it. I write it. I write. But my main life these days is primarily doing the Judge John Hodgman
podcast, which is all off-the-cuff, performing on stage, which is Vacationland coming to Vancouver October 13th, and obviously acting as well – I have a recurring role in the TV show Married on FX here in the United States; I don't know if or where it airs in your neck of the wood, but it's a sitcom about a married couple and I play one of the best friends. Maybe I guess we'd say the second best friend.
GM: Have you been to Vancouver before?
JH: I have! Oh yeah. I've been to Vancouver twice before. Once as a writer for the New York Times Magazine eleven years ago, maybe more, to visit the set of Battlestar Gallactica and write about it. And then after a weird change in life where I started going on television, I returned to the same set to act in a small role on Battlestar Gallactica. Two of my favourite days. About to be upstaged by a new favourite day in Vancouver on October 13th. You guys make a lot of great culture up there. I have a lot of fond memories of visiting Vancouver and I'm looking forward to coming back.
GM: I'm looking forward to seeing you.
JH: Thank you. Alright, well it was really nice talking to you, Guy. I'm afraid I'm going to have to go make dinner for my human children.
GM: And I have to go pick up my human son from school.
JH: Alright, well have a wonderful afternoon.