only ever aspired to be book-famous. Once I got a little
bit above book-famous and got to almost semi-famous
famous, the idea that I would fall back to book-famous
was intolerable," says John Hodgman with his
trademark dry hyperbole. Then he pauses. "But in
fact, that’s really where I belong."
the comedian became a know-nothing know-it-all
commentator on "The Daily Show," before he
declared "I’m a PC" in Apple’s television
ads, Hodgman actually worked in publishing. He was a
is really hard. It’s challenging and lonely. The
reason I was a literary agent instead of a writer was
that it was social, and less work," he says with a
speaking with me via Skype from his home office in
Brooklyn days before the launch of his fourth book,
"Vacationland," which is subtly behind him in
the frame. After three books of satire such as "The
Areas of My Expertise," Hodgman has written his
really enjoyed writing it, and I really felt at home,
and at my most open and honest, while writing this
book," he says. It’s framed around two loci, his
family’s house in western Massachusetts and their
summer house in Maine, which allows him to riff on
growing up, parenting and coming to grips with being in
book is about the moments of clarity when all the
illusions you tell yourself about who you are and what
you represent fall away," he says. "In my
case, I realized I was a mid-40s white male monster
staring down what I hope is the second half of my life
and wondering what there is possibly for me to do."
ironic, arch Hodgman, the one with the fast wit and
sharp way with language, is still there. But he’s
ceding ground to a side of himself that’s warmer and
reaching for something beyond the laugh. He continues:
"There is always new and important work to do if
you’re willing to face yourself honestly."
was born and raised in Massachusetts. He was by any
definition an odd teenager — "in high school I
had long hair and I wore a fedora to school and a Dr.
Who scarf and I carried a briefcase," he admits. He
went to Yale and studied literary theory, then moved to
New York for the literary agent job. In
"Vacationland" he mentions his wife — a
teacher with an obsession about a certain unnamed writer’s
property in Maine — but doesn’t detail their
relationship, nor does he write about his children.
Instead, he focuses on a bunch of funny stories about
himself, and telling them well.
process for writing the book was an unusual hybrid.
Listen to his podcast — Judge John Hodgman, where as a
self-designated "fake internet judge" he rules
on disputes between pairs of listeners with the help of
producer-slash-baliff Jesse Thorn — and you’ll hear
him working out notions of bullying, or what to Marie
Kondo out of your life. And then there’s the third
thing, the live performances, which he eventually took
on tour and from which the book takes its name. Those
started out almost as a dare to himself.
decided to go down into the basement of a bar in Park
Slope, Union Hall in Brooklyn, and just set a weekly
deadline for myself to see what was still inside my
head. I felt like I had nothing, having written a
thousand pages of fake facts," he explains,
"but an audience and a deadline and panic are all
good catalysts for creativity."
than once, Hodgman has experienced what seems like a
setback only to have his career take on new dimensions.
He loved doing the Apple ads with Justin Long, but the
campaign ended in 2009. After that, he started the
podcast. He hoped "Vacationland" would be a
stand-up special, but it didn’t happen (one outlet
told him they weren’t commissioning any specials from,
as Hodgman puts it, "white dudes in their middle
again I have to thank famous fame for abandoning me,
because it was only then that I was like, what can I do
next with this?," he says. "And I thought, I
will turn it into a book."
and writing the book was a profoundly rewarding creative
experience," he says. "In part because I was
finally telling the truth about my life, and in part
because the stories were honed and I was able to enlarge
them, and in part because I was able to know myself
better on the other side of it."
someone like me who grew up in New England, reading the
book is a particular pleasure — especially this
October, when Los Angeles is sweltering instead of
cooling off. Hodgman has a gift for capturing the modes
and mores of New England in a way that is wry and true.
Take, for example, his description of his friendship
with performer Jonathan Coulton.
is a musician and my best friend," he writes.
"I hope he does not read that last part. I would
never call him my ‘best friend’ to his face. I am
from Massachusetts and he is from Connecticut, and New
Englanders do not say things like that. ‘Yankee
ingenuity’ means the canny improvised fixes, repairs,
and craftwork our predecessors employed to keep their
barns and brains intact through long winters without
ever having to break down and ask anyone else for help.
Shame, embarrassment, and crippling emotional reticence
is what this part of our nation was founded on, at least
the white part, and Jonathan and I adhere to this
felt a kinship with this — and it might not just have
been regional. "We must be distantly related, you
know," Hodgman said the moment our call connected.
"Because my middle name is Kellogg." Indeed
— we are probably more closely related to each other
than to the breakfast cereal company Kellogg’s. New
England is small, and those family tree roots knot up
despite its New England resonance, it’s not really
about the place. "I want people to understand that
I talk a lot about Maine and about Massachusetts, but
this is universal stuff and in a lot of ways they’re
just metaphors for whatever place you happen to
inhabit," Hodman says.
that way, the picture he draws for us of his Maine
neighbors or Perry’s Nut House on Route 1 or the
swimming traditions of his western Massachusetts town
are specific but also bigger. They share something about
our weakness and prejudices and efforts (and failures)
makes me think of "Prairie Home Companion," so
I ask, hesitatingly, "Would you hate me if I said
you can do for New England what Garrison Keillor did for
you ever heard of the term ‘love-hate relationship’?"
Hodgman replies. "Here are the answers. I would
hate you, because it would reinforce the idea that ‘Vacationland’
is a regional book, when it is proudly universal, and I
might even say multi-universal, because I am not against
selling this book in other dimensions. I would love you
because that would be entirely high praise if it were to
come true, because Garrison Keillor is a hero of mine,
even though comedically he’s become a little bit of a
joke in certain sniffy comedy circles."
has appeared on "Prairie Home Companion" with
the new host, Chris Thile, after Keillor’s departure.
"He created a world that is a cosmos unto itself.
So I hate you because you suggested that Garrison
Keillor was a regional writer. But I love you just
because we’re human beings and we have to be better to
each other. So I’ll leave it on that."
I’m relieved that I didn’t cause a lasting dispute
with my many-times-removed long-lost cousin. Otherwise
we might have wound up in his fake internet court.