John Hodgman Explains the Beauty of the Internet


From SF Weekly

January 19, 2012
By Alan Scherstuhl

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John Hodgman knows everything but not everybody.

He’ll make up for that at this week’s SF Sketchfest. There, Hodgman — the celebrated author, expert, Tumblr, fabulist, pretend-judge, deranged millionaire, computer-imitating pitchman, and life-giving fount of nerd resplendence — will talk up his new book (his best), perform in a kabillion shows (listed below), defend his mustache, and cozy up to select famous-type people who have thus far languished without his cozying.

SF Weekly spoke to Hodgman last week. With real passion and heart, he explains the beauty of the internet down toward the bottom of this discussion, after talking up his famous friendships and telling all lesser nerds to suck it.

The first time I saw your Deranged Millionaire character was on the They Might Be Giants Venue Songs DVD. Was that his debut?

It was. I had met the Giants through McSweeney’s at the end of the last century. John Flansburgh asked me, first, to narrate a performance of their venue songs at a concert in New York City. He had worked up a number of the jokes and stories that I was going to tell, and I created this character that would weave them all together– I imagined there would be a deranged millionaire in Brooklyn who would be their arch-nemesis.

Little did I know that not a decade later I would become that character: deranged, financially independent more or less, and situated here in Brooklyn. None of those things I was exactly in 2004 or 5 when I did that thing. But I am not their arch-nemesis. I think I’m among their biggest fans – certainly their most deranged fans.

The popcraft of those guys has never gotten its critical due.

Entirely. After I performed that once or twice in concert, they asked me to come into a small office and record intros and outros. This is one of the first jobs I had on camera.

They’re kingmakers.

For sure. It’s something that is known mostly to They Might Be Giants initiates, which, from my point of view, is pleasing. I have made it my habit, even before I was a deranged minor television personality, to insinuate myself into the lives of those people I admire, probably beginning with Jonathan Coulton, when we were both eighteen years old at Yale University, an accredited university in Connecticut.

He was already a songwriter at that time, and a very funny, nice guy. I lived two floors above him and abandoned my normal roommates to spend all my time down in his residential suite and listen to his music. I’ve followed that pattern ever since. I’ve insinuated myself into the lives of The Giants, Dave Eggers, This American Life, Battlestar Galactica, Apple Computers, all of these things I was a fan of before I was a participant in. To all other nerds, I say, ‘Suck it. I beat you.'”

And now you’re doing George R. R. Martin.
You mean to say that I am procrastinating working on my next book?

No, I heard you interview him on The Sound of Young America.

Now, it’s not fair. My predatory fanboyism is enabled by minor television personality such that I don’t have to connive my way into people’s lives– as I did Neil Gaiman years ago when I worked for a literary agency that represented him, and I said I wanted to ‘write’ about him. All I wanted to do was talk to Neil Gaiman and not have to compete with a bunch of goth boys to do it.

And now he’s blurbing you.

We’re become colleagues.

Is there anyone at Sketchfest whose life you might insinuate yourself into? Like Elliott Gould?

Certainly not. Give me some others.

Bruce McCulloch of The Kids in the Hall?

Yes, all of them.

Sally Kellerman?

Look, I’m a very happy star-friender. I’ll meet them all. [Impatiently.] Give me some more.

Paul Rudd is there.

I already got him. He’s on my audio books.

Jim Rash from Community and the Groundlings. He’s funny.

Sure. I’m looking forward to meeting people I don’t know all that well.

Marc Maron is there, with Laraine Newman. Did you ever do a WTF?

Yes. I was terrified to do it because they’re such great interviews, and I wanted to justify the conversation. We actually had a great conversation, but the tape was lost, or the hard drive either failed or went missing. I believe that Marc and I both share a certain measure of despair that the interview was lost, but he was very busy, and I am very difficult.

Are you’re worried the magic might be tough to–

The magic is not tough to regain. We’re both professionals.

Did you play your character?

I don’t know that there is a character, necessarily. Whenever I use the name “John Hodgman,” I am speaking and writing as myself with occasional exaggeration — sometimes high exaggeration, but often not as exaggerated as you may think. Even when I’m playing a role in my occasional bouts as an imitation actor who is not John Hodgman, I’m largely John Hodgman there, too.

On the Judge John Hodgman podcast, you issue real rulings in real disputes. Is the opportunity to play a gavel sound effect and tell people to straighten themselves out rooted in a desire to do that in real life?

In many ways, the podcast is a descendant of [his McSweeney’s column] “Ask A Former Professional Literary Agent,” where people would ask for guidance, and I would give it to them, often through the veil of absurd comedy but I hope always with a certain measure of “Here is what you should do with your life, dummy.” I take pleasure in telling people what they should do in their lives.

It’s a funny show, but your judgments are considered and thoughtful and often touch upon concerns bigger than the dispute.

People who come to my live shows see that the Q&A is always the most lively part. I really enjoy hearing of people’s experience sets and what’s going on in their lives and then telling them what they’re doing wrong and right. The podcast allows me to talk to people and not feel obliged to speak in the voice of the Resident Expert of The Daily Show, or the deranged millionaire of the books, or whatever other exaggeration of myself.

Are these exaggerations of yourself different characters?

No. They’re all aspects of my own authentic know-it-allism and vanity, tempered by crushing self doubt.

One joke of yours that makes me laugh again and again is the idea that the best video game ever is George Plimpton’s Video Falconry. How did that evolve? Did you commission the actual working online version?

Not at all. It was a Judge John Hodgman joke that someone on the internet took very seriously. I was talking to some guys who were arguing about the proper etiquette around a video game, and I had to admit that I had not played video games for a long time, which was true. But I said I was really an expert on George Plimpton’s Video Falconry, which I played on the ColecoVision when I was ten years old, and that I still remembered all the secret moves that you could unlock if you pressed left, left, left, right, right, right, beak, grab, beak, grab, claw, pitch, yaw, or something like that.

The exaggeration, of course, is that that game did not exist. And probably if it did exist it would not have been for ColecoVision but Intellivision, because that’s the video game system in the early ’80s that George Plimpton was a pitchman for. In that sense, it was a very confusing joke for some people, but it did accurately reflect my incredible abilities at the ColecoVision version of Donkey Kong, Jr, which was my specialty.

The beauty of the internet is that if they like what you’re doing someone out there will often spend a lot of time, with a lot of skill, to respond with a joke. Tom Fulp of New Grounds created a commercial and put it on YouTube as though it were an old 1983 ad for the game, using our friend Chris Hardwick as George Plimpton. Then he created the game. And it’s a good game!

It really reminds you what fertile ground the internet can be for creativity and collaboration, even in the realm of the most absurd joke possible. It also reminds you that the internet does what it wants. I can causally refer to George Plimpton’s Video Falconry, and through serendipity somebody out there in the world knows exactly what is going through my head and makes something better than I could possibly imagine.

But when I found an old photo of Dr. Zaius reading Mark Twain behind the scenes of Planet of the Apes, put it on my very popular Tumblr/Twitter account, and challenge the internet to create so-called “found footage” of Dr. Zaius performing as Hal Holbrook in Mark Twain Tonight – which you would think the internet would be very good at doing — nobody does it!

That’s disappointing.

It is the nature of the amateur culture of the internet. It can astound you and befuddle you but just as equally disappoint you when it does not take what you want it to do. This is why any company that tells you it can provide viral marketing on the internet is lying. The internet does what it wants. There are times when you have to turn to professionals when you want your Dr. Zaius/Hal Holbrook-performing-as-Mark-Twain YouTube video, and that is all that I’m going to say about that until the night of Friday, January 20 at my show.

Errata:
Note 1: John Hodgman’s Sketchfest schedule includes the sold-out John Hodgman: The Areas of My Expertise on Friday night at Cobbs and appearances Paul F. Tompkins’ Thrilling Adventure Hour at Yoshi’s at 2 p.m., 7 p.m., and 9 p.m. on Sunday. Hodgman ranks Tompkins highly among the celebrities he has been fortunate enough to cozy to.

Note 2: Because he’s a famous TV person, Hodgman has had to bow out of his appearance at Thursday night’s RiffTrax “Night of the Shorts” event. That said, he does brag about knowing Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett but admits that when he first worked with them, “I was very intimidated because I’m such a fan of them and the entire oeuvre of talking over movies.

Note 3: When Hodgman answered the phone, I bumbled a little, and I actually said, “I’m trying to reach John.” Then, after Hodgman’s polite “This is he,” I said “Of course. I recognize your voice.” Hodgman replied, “And I recognize yours.” HE IS A LIAR.

Note 4: After I asked Hodgman about introducing his Deranged Millionaire on an independently released DVD of songs They Might Be Giants never even put onto an album, Hodgman said, “You are perhaps the sole journalist — dare I say American — to make that connection.” This is not in the interview because of humility.

Note 5: Hodgman claims to have introduced They Might Be Giants to Jonathan Coulton, who opened for them at the Fillmore last November. He said, “I set them up on a date. I picked out the restaurant and bought them both flowers, signed by the other person. And I played not the violin as they ate dinner but the viola because that’s how I roll. Jonathan Coulton is not just a dear friend, but someone of whom I am an enormous fan. I am thrilled for his domination of the world.”

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