There’s only one man who can generate 16 hours of humorous, insightful and intelligent audio read by the likes of Patton Oswalt, Dick Cavett, Jon Hamm, Paul Rudd, Sarah Vowell, Brooke Shields, Scott Adsit, Robin Goldwasser, Jonathan Coulton, John Roderick and Rachel Maddow. His name is John Hodgman. In his just-released audio book version of his stellar That is All, that’s exactly what you get. You also get an ominous prediction: the world will end on Dec. 21. And to mark the occasion, Hodgman and friends will celebrate the end of the world on that exact date at the Bell House in Brooklyn.
And to celebrate the book, the show and Hodgman’s general existence, we decided it was high time we had a nice, long chat with the author, writer, humorist, actor and Daily Show contributor. The conversation took place before the presidential election, so that accounts for the first question. Let’s begin.
I want to start by talking about politics, since the election’s going on and politics are in the national imagination right now. You gained a lot of notoriety for your work on The Daily Show and then in headlining the Radio and Television Correspondents Dinner a few years back, and I’d like to know a little bit about the way you engage with politics in your comedy: how you got started on that track, what you look for when you’re thinking about ways to poke fun at or satirize the process, and in general how you imagine the relationship between politics and comedy.
I think that it’s the position of The Daily Show, and one that I share, that comedy must first be comedy before it is political. In other words, you may use politics as a way to – if you find something funny, in politics, and there is often stuff that is funny, because there’s a lot of hypocrisy and ridiculousness in both politics and media coverage of politics, then you should make the joke. If you’re making the joke exclusively to push an ideological point of view, then I would not make that joke and I don’t think The Daily Show would either.
In other words, I think the comedy has to come before the politics. If it’s funny, it’s funny. And that’s an acid test that goes beyond politics. The truth is that The Daily Show is not a comedy show about politics per se, it travels in that world, but it’s mostly a show that makes fun of political media coverage and hypocrisy.
I’ve read a little bit about shows like The Daily Show or The Colbert Report – they’re the darlings of the academic world, where comedy’s concerned – and I’ve read a few accounts that suggest that comedy and satire can undermine the democratic process because they illustrate the absurdity of the system and erase people’s agency in engaging with that system. I don’t personally agree with that, but I’m curious about how you understand the role of comedy broadly. What does it do, specifically?
Well, could you ask a question with a bigger theme? [laughs]
Yeah, let me broaden it – let’s talk about comedy in the universe.
What does comedy do in society… there have been a lot of efforts historically to quantify what comedy is and explain how it works. All of those things tend to be bogus, because comedy just, if you were to describe it, it’s the attempt to produce, as a form of art, a single emotional effect in the audience, an emotional effect that is audible, involuntary, and extremely mysterious.
The only thing that laughter is close to in the language of human emotions is the scream of terror. And there are lots of people, I think I heard this from Jimmy Carr, the comedian, who loves the science of jokes, who have speculated that laughter emerges from a scream of terror. The scream of terror is an involuntary audible reaction that happens when you are afraid you are going to die, and when you don’t die, you laugh.
I think there is something to that, in the sense that comedy is, any joke is a short story – a highly compacted one, with a beginning, middle, and end that evokes some underlying tension, and then a break, and a resolution. Oftentimes, that break, that surprising incident and the resolution as the punchline is revealed, evokes a kind of gut response of relief. Which I think is laughter. There’s also an abiding cliché about comedy, which is, “The jester is the only one that can tell the truth about the king.” Which is so stupid. It hurts me physically to repeat it. But it’s a cliché because it’s true.
One of the ways that comedy creates tension is to explore things that are otherwise taboo, that are otherwise banned from discussion in polite society. That kind of transgression is initially very anxiety-inducing in the listener, and then when the punch line hits, you know that it’s over, and you know you’ve explored something that’s probably been on your mind anyway.
That kind of comedy, to some degree, The Daily Show deals with. The show found its voice during the George W. Bush years initially and that was a time when no one would say what was trying in front of everyone. You know what I mean? No one would come out and say what was clearly obvious because there was such terror in the mainstream media to be branded as not supportive of the administration after a terrible attack on the country. Jon Stewart was the one who was willing to go in there and say to Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson, “What you do is meaningless. You are treating this as if it’s a simple prep school debate or a lacrosse match. Politics is not sports.” I think that everyone who had been watching Crossfire including myself, and this is long before I was on the show, felt this enormous sense of hilarious relief. I’d watched Crossfire for so long and got so worked up over it, and on one level I knew it was dumb.
You mentioned the fact that The Daily Show is sort of taking on these taboo topics and comedy has a capacity to do that. Do you feel like there are any topics or questions that are off limits? Is everything fair game in terms of your own work and in terms of the conversations that happen more broadly?
It is the taboo, particularly in political media culture, of simply speaking plainly. There’s a fetishization in political media these days, and indeed in all news media, but especially political media, saying, “Well, one side says this, but the other side says this.” And creating this false equivalency between positions saying, “99% of scientists say climate change is happen, 1% of corporate sponsored scientists have been hired to say it’s not happening. So I guess we’ll never know.” Well, that’s a false equivalency. It pays no attention to the data. It exists to create a storyline in which everyone can stay in perpetual conflict over these issues, because it’s easier for political media to cover.
They subtly address the issues of the day and evacuate what is true and not true. The taboo that The Daily Show is breaking is saying simply, “We’re not dumb. We’re willing to evaluate what is clearly bull feces and what is clearly not bull feces.” And there it is. That is the taboo I think they’re breaking.
Now, there’s also a lot of taboo breaking in comedy of telling jokes about, you know – a lot of comedians work blue. They say dirty things in a sort of cathartic way. People get to hear bad words that they might not say themselves, or hear expressions of frustration and hate that they may not be willing to express themselves. That too is taboo.
But I also think there’s something particularly noble about exposing a taboo, you know what I mean? To your first question, is anything off limits in general, no, there isn’t. Every comic has got their own sense of propriety, but more importantly, if they’re a good comic and not a hack, their own sense of what is funny and what they have to say in the world. Breaking a taboo for the sake of breaking a taboo is the worst kind of hack comedy.
And that certainly suggests that comedy is often built out of the exploration of taboo subjects, right? Racist comedy – there’s a taboo in this country about being openly racist, and I think it is a worthy one. Inciting people to hate other people is not funny, even if it does play on the taboo that a lot are terrified about how they feel about different races that they are not willing to say themselves.
For me, I personally in terms of what my comedy is, I do not feel an iota of desire to shock for the sake of shock. I think I have only one obligation, and this is true of any comic, and truly any artist, and that is to be truthful about what you are feeling and thinking about the world. I am not a racist so I’m not going to make racist comedy, you know what I mean? But, for the most part, I emerge as sort of twee and I like to make fun of the strangeness of the world around me in a way that is not particularly pointed. That’s what I do because that’s what I find funny. There are times when, if I am honest, I feel very strongly about something.
For example, for my first book, The Areas of My Expertise, I have a very light piece about my visit to the Mall of America, which I don’t even think could be satire. Basically, I make these incredibly fictitious claims about the monstrosities in the Mall of America. That there’s giant bats circling it, there’s a secret tunnel lined with human skulls that they don’t want you to know about, there’s a restaurant based on Machu Picchu that has extremely thin air, so the eggs take a long time to cook and all the waiters are ancient Incans who do sad little math with lots of string. That’s truly literary comedy. To some degree it’s about, I guess, the absurd, hyperbolic, over-the-topness of the Mall of America itself. But I didn’t write it with that purpose, I just wrote it because those are the things that I thought of when I actually wandered through the Mall of America.
And then, as I wandered through the Mall of America, I spoke to a few people – and this was in 2002 – who said we have to be really careful because the Mall of America is a true target for terrorism. I’m from New York City, and I’ve lived through September 11. It was a terrifying, awful day. And to be told that the Mall of America, “Everyone’s gotta be on eggshells because the terrorists are coming for that next,” it just seemed like a myopic and almost self-important attitude to express. I almost said to the person’s face, “Fuck you,” but because I’m a coward, I just put it in the book.
I wondered, “Is this too strong?” I don’t curse a lot in my work, and I don’t intend to express such an unmediated point of view, but – and did it throw the piece off balance? Ultimately, I worried about that, but whether it did or not, I had an obligation to put it in there because that was the most honest thing about myself in the piece. Ultimately, I think it was the one that anchored the piece to something real, that all the other flights of fancy powerful.
I’m a huge fan of very honest comedy so that story is really fascinating, especially considering 9/11 and the War on Terror. That brought out a lot of latent rawness in comedy that we haven’t seen as much of.
Now that a decade has passed, there was certainly a wave of comedy of real anger and sadness that came out of it. And that’s good. I think authenticity in comedy, as an emergent art form, is really important. But not everybody who is a comedian has the same thing to say about the world or themselves. I think that there is almost a tendency to look at comics, well, you know, like me, who avoid examining personal and family life onstage as maybe not doing legitimate comedy. I don’t think that that’s fair, because if I were to suddenly start doing material about my kids and started being sort of shocking and flayed skin honest as Louis C.K., for example, I would be doing it for inauthentic reasons. That’s not how I approach my life, you know what I mean? If I went onstage and said, “You know what? I’ve done a lot of fake history and fake trivia, and I have these absurd stories that weave into real emotional moments for me, but then weave into a larger story that I’m telling,” and then if I were to do something else that would be “more authentic,” then that would be quite seriously less authentic. And much more hacky.
But I want to be clear that I have tremendous amounts of respect and affection for Louis C.K. He’s someone who has totally, I think, reenergized what people think stand-up comedy is and should be, and he’s someone who quite rightly gets so much respect for being forthright. That’s what his comedy is. But not everyone’s comedy is the same thing. So my influences were Emo Philips, and Andy Kaufman, and Don Novello, also known as Father Guido Sarducci, who worked at sending letters to corporations and getting responses back. I think those people are all deservedly – stephen Wright – they’re all deservedly comic legends, not because they’re doing a kind of comedy, but because they’re doing their comedy, first and foremost. Whatever it is. And that, I think, is the most important thing. Whatever your comedy is, you should do it.
You’ve certainly carved yourself an interesting place in comedy as the absurd blowhard expert. I’m curious where that came from. How did you start satirizing the expert and taking on that role?
I didn’t know that my comedy was comedy for a long time. I thought, when I was in my twenties and working at a literary agency, what I wanted to do was write serious short stories about people with feelings. I worked very hard to get some of those published, and they were okay, but when I was reading from them, people would laugh even though they were not intended to be funny.
And then I started writing – almost by accident – I received an email from Dave Eggers soliciting submissions for this new magazine he was starting called McSweeney’s, which now is a website, and I started writing for MicSweeney’s, but I wrote in part because I didn’t know what it was and had nothing else, so I just started writing insane screeds from the point of view of a literary agent who had gone mad, telling his young nephew how to get published. I was working in book publishing and it was a very insane industry, and I was going mad inside of it.
When I started writing for McSweeney’s online, I did an advice column called “Ask a Former Literary Agent.” People would write in with real questions and I would answer them in absurd ways on subjects from writing to heartache. I would be absurdist about my answers, but I hoped to be a little bit honest about them. That’s when I realized, “Oh, yeah, simply by putting myself out there as someone who can answer a question, it does not matter what my background is at all.” If you have an email address and say you’re an expert, you become one. And that’s particularly true if you’re on television with the label saying “expert.”
That led directly to writing The Areas of My Expertise, in which I sort of amalgamated all of the information that I pulled together for the advice column, plus all of the weird, random trivia that I picked up while researching articles for Men’s Journal and The New York Times Magazine while I was a freelance writer for a long time. And all the weird trivia books that I loved as a kid, like The Book of Lists and Big Secrets by William Poundstone, and I sort of made a tribute with fake trivia. That brought me to the attention of The Daily Show, where I went on the show to promote the book and then was asked to come back and do comedy. They asked what I would do if I were to come back, and I said, well, I think something the show doesn’t have is the routine, tweed-coated, leather elbow-patched, professorial expert, who was brought in to explain esoteric and difficult, complex subjects. So that was me.
Do you find that taking on that role and playing that persona has a broad appeal? Or is it more focused on a more intellectually-inclined, narrower audience?
When I wrote the book originally – you obviously hope that what you’re doing is going to connect with as many people as possible, both for artistic and mercenary reasons – but I operated under the assumption that it would resonate with that subset of nerdy people who are coalescing around the McSweeney’s and that aesthetic. A lot of people in the scope of New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, arguably Atlanta, Austin, that sort of thing. Hipsterism, I guess is what you would say.
I think that that would be where the audience would have found had it not been for Jon Stewart’s active endorsement of the book by saying, “No, it’s okay, it’s for anyone to like.” It reached many, many thousands of people who I don’t think would have necessarily known about it.
The humor that I do has a very avid audience of people – it is not a mass, mass audience like Justin Bieber’s audience or Dane Cook’s audience. I think that my audience is pretty big, but I have no illusions that it is not the whole world. The takeaway from it is how do I get the audience bigger? How do I do comedy that I think is meaningful to me? The rest, you just hope it connects with people.
You released That Is All as the final installment of a trilogy – I’m curious if you have other long term, or long form, writing projects in the future, or if you’re focusing now on the several other things that you’re doing in media and comedy.
I have no long form projects of any kind planned. As far as I’m concerned, the world is going to end on December 21, just as I predict in the book. If it doesn’t, I’ll be very embarrassed; I’ll probably have to endure some lawsuits. What will happen on that new dawn of old Earth if Earth doesn’t perish in fire as I predict in the book – what’s next for me is truly an unknown. I don’t think I’m going to write another book of fake trivia. What I liked in The Areas of My Expertise almost immediately was that I was not just writing a series of absurdist lists, but I was creating an alternate world in which all of those things were true. Now I have literally brought that world to a ruinous end, and that is the end of that.
I have an ongoing relationship with The Daily Show that I would like to continue to have. I’d love to do more comedic acting, I’m really enjoying performing my stand-up comedy more and more, which – I’ve always read my book, but now I’m off-book and performing comedy and I’m really feeling and enjoying that challenge tremendously. And, in a sense, I’m going back to my roots as a professional literary agent – I’m doing this podcast and column called “Ask John Hodgman.” People call in and they tell me their disputes, I listen to them, and try to mediate them and ultimately figure out who’s right and who’s wrong and how to live their lives.
Sounds like quite a full plate.
Yeah! It’s lovely to be as busy as I am. It’s sad to say goodbye to this world that I created and now have destroyed, but it’s exciting to think about what’s going to happen next.
photo by Jesse Costa/WBUR