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John Hodgman: Fact, Factoid, or Fiction?

November 19, 2008

j-hodgman-3By Melanie Addington

As published in the Oxford Town (well, sorta. Actually this is much more lengthy as forced space issues necessitated a cut of the printed version, so enjoy!)

fac·toid

Pronunciation: ?fak-?to?id

Function: noun

Date: 1973

1 : an invented fact believed to be true because of its appearance in print

2 : a briefly stated and usually trivial fact

— Merriam Webster Dictionary

John Hodgman returns to Oxford this Thursday as part of the Thacker Mountain radio performance at the Lyric Oxford. Hodgman will be the visiting writer alongside Roy Blount, Jr. and Jack Pendarvis. Musical guests will be Dent May and the Magnificent Ukulele and Milton.

The show is a fundraiser for Thacker that costs $30,000 a year to produce. Now that they are an independent non-profit, their existence depends on donations from the shows fans and some grant money, said Mary Warner, Thacker Mountain producer. With the economic downslide, Thacker is struggling to remain going.

As follow up to the 2005 “Areas of My Expertise,” Hodgman has released more knowledge in his “More Information Than You Require.” Hodgman is widely known for his role as the PC in the Mac commercials but is also the resident expert on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. He is an author and former literary agent and continues to write features for McSweeneys. He also has been taking on several roles on TV as well as the big screen including two upcoming films and a role on Battlestar Galactica.

Below is a recent phone conversation with Hodgman about his upcoming visit.

Q: I have been reading Hodgman interviews this morning and all seem to slightly define you differently, as a writer, a comedian, an actor, a journalist, a radio personality. What is your definition of John Hodgman?

A: Yes. (long pause).

All of those things are true. I’ve given up figuring it out. I think that the best description is the most accurate description because it is obviously truthful and that is the most important. I am the author of fake trivia who also happens to be on television and is a former literary agent and is a radio personality.

Q: How has the book tour gone so far?

A: Good.

Q: The tour ends with us or do you have a few more stops?

A: Have one last mini-week, going to Atlanta and of course Oxford and then back to New York for a strange and fun homecoming at the Apple store in Soho where I am going to be talking. Its a homecoming, one, because its Apple, and two, because it will be a conversation with my old friend Elizabeth Gilbert who herself is going through a career transformation.

Q: What will the format be for the Apple reading?

A: A reading and then we will sit down and have a talk. We’ve known each other for many years and I’ve known her as a writer of short stories, but is now a novelist and a journalist and a leader of woman. You know her book, “Eat Pray and Love?”

Q: During a recent interview you said that Oxford is one of the greatest cities that you did a reading. You also called it the strangest city with its football inclinations and yet gracious hosting abilities.

A: Oxford is the closest thing to an alternate dimension.

Q: This is your second trip to Oxford?

A: This is my third trip. I was and am always using my career to introduce myself to people that are interesting to me. I used to write about food for Men’s Journal, so we would do these road trip packages where you bring along a famous food personality. Alton Brown (Iron Chef) is from Atlanta and he had never been to Oxford. I had heard only about the bookstore from my literary agent days, so we went there and just had the most astonishing time. We arrived when Los Lobos was playing at a music festival.

Q: Double Decker?

A: Yes, that must have been it. It is a small town, so even for a southerner like Alton Brown who lives in the south but in a big city, it took some adjustment. We went to visit with John T. Edge on a Sunday and we didn’t know that everything is closed on Sundays.

But, it’s not a north-south thing, or a big city-small town thing. Oxford has a very unique sense of place.

So when my paperback tour came around, I wanted to go back to Oxford. My publicist had me booked for a hotel room in Memphis and I called her and said why? I don’t want to be near Oxford, I want to be there. So I called Edge and he said that he didn’t think anyone’s going to come to your reading anyway but come on down. And he was right. But, within an hour I had three offers of places to stay in Oxford and I got to stay with the Mayor and his wife. It was a welcome change from hotel to hotel.

Q: During your first trip, about 20 people came out to the reading. What are your expectations for this trip?

A: I have zero expectations. Unlike Seattle where I knew we would have a very big crowd and unlike L.A. where I hoped we would have a big crowd and then did, for Oxford, I have done well visiting with no expectations.

Oh wait. I do hope the mayor and his wife vacuum the rug in their son’s room.

Q: With your two books, you have this idea of a made up truth. Where do you begin with your humorist factoids? Is it from a place of fact or fiction?

A: I just recently learned that factoid has two meanings. Norman Mailer coined the term meaning that it is a fact that sounds like truth but isn’t. But like any coinage, the term got worn down to where it now means just a little fact. So you have a little fact that isn’t true and a little fact that is true. That fact itself has two factoids to it.

The definition is based on something someone told me and that is really the inspiration. Before I learned the etymology of the word factoid, I took advantage of the truths to be self-evident. Like an urban legend that we take as true. Example, George Washington never told a lie but he was a terrible liar. He used go to around saying his name was Thomas Jefferson. It is a big part of American mythology, it was a lie on its face as it was written.

Q: But isn’t that where great fiction comes from, something bigger than the truth but grasps the idea of truth?

A: The point of fiction is that truth is stranger than the fiction but never as strange as lies that are not true. It is in part inspired by the feeling one has when you have been lied to and discover it. The lie is always much more elaborate and the motives are often completely understandable.

For example, I used to sub-let my apartment in New Haven after I moved to New York. And when I would run into the guy he would say everything was great. But it wasn’t. He wasn’t paying rent and he was a monster, like that movie Pacific Heights. The landlord turned over the letters that the deadbeat would leave as excuses for why he couldn’t pay rent. The letters were more than apologetic. He had every right to be a monster and just not pay the rent, I mean, that happens. But he wanted to maintain the idea that he was a good person so he began to lie.

The flip side of that worn coin is that fiction is a kind of lie that does illuminate a certain truth. Truth does not have human motivation, it just is. But a lie reveals something about the teller and the world they live in.

Q: When did you begin Twittering? (Twitter.com is an online social network that lets friends send one-line messages to each other.)

A: April 10 at 1:10 a.m.

Q: Where do you see Twitter going? Do you feel it is a fad or will began to catch on outside of the tech and film community?

A: I think its certainly caught on outside the tech community. Any profession that has something to gossip about has a thirst for twitter but is a question of an awareness of twitter. People who work in the tech world or bloggers, film, publishing and writing, not just back biting smarty pants but anyone that has the use of a computer, twitter will thrive.

Q: Do you believe Twitter, facebook, myspace are changing the way we interact with each other or just providing another venue?

A: I don’t think they are changing the way we interact with each other. I think what’s happening is that people are taking the comments they take off hand to their friends close by to their friends who happen to be anywhere. It is emulating 3-D worlds of the past – mail, gossip, bulletin boards. I see Twitter’s primary advantage over a blog or facebook is that it is single purpose, very simple, indulges those like me. It speaks to my own failing of my architecture of my own brain.

Q: How so?

A: In my checkered history as a writer and why I became a literary agent is that what I wanted to write, each thing needed its own little shape and form. While that may work for Jorge Luis Borges it didn’t work for a 25 year old just starting out that wanted to make a living. But now, the Internet in general and then very specially McSweeneys really saved me. It provided an outlet and a potential audience for self-published works that can define their own form. I happen to think that way. When I was asked to do an advice column for McSweeneys suddenly telling little stories and audacious lies, funny I hope for some – but meaningful and useful also even if I tell them to do something ridiculous.

Q: On Oct. 29 you twitted “I don’t even know what to say anymore. Does the world need me to make crazy stuff up anymore? Has the world gone POST HODGMAN?” What would a post-Hodgman world be?

A: I honestly don’t see the world as pre-and-post Hodgman. I can’t remember why I wrote that but there are things happening that are so delightfully improbable at this point. There are three major things that have happened. Dick Van Patton is now making a line of dog food which includes hobo chili for dogs which is so arbitrary and good. Dan Akroyd is selling vodka in a crystal skull because he believes in his paranormal powers. That would have been something I would have liked to have written if Dan Akroyd hadn’t beaten me to it. And then Obama winning the Presidency. Even once it became a mathematical certainty, it was hard to hold on to without any certainty.

Q: I agree. I was actually at a Democrat viewing party the night of the election and everyone was just holding their breath even once it became obvious he would win.

A: I felt a matter of discipline and loyalty that it was going to happen, a reliance on factuality. I was really rooting for reality – as much as for Obama. In the real world I tend to support an objective acknowledgment of what is true.

Q: But the non-facts do pay the bills?

A: (Hodgman laughs). That is true. I will always have fake trivia. It’s my retirement plan.

Q: What have the Mac commercials done for your career? Positive and negative?

A: Well, for one positive, I get to be on Conan O’brien tomorrow night and this is the show calling, so I can’t finish answering your question. (called back 3 hours later for rest of Q&A)

Q: Thanks for calling back. I will just throw out some more random questions now. First up, you bought your first Mac in 1984? How does it feel to be the personification of a PC?

A: It feels pretty good. It feels like a suit I wear pretty well now; I’m pretty comfortable in it. I enjoy doing it so much that I always think when I do it will be the last time. But I suspect you’ll see a few more of those ads.

Q: Do you miss being a literary agent?

A: No, I’m glad that my clients have actual literary agents rather than a drunken dilettante like me that may be fun but is not professionally recommended. What I miss is the opportunity that it gave me to find people that I found really exciting and draw attention to them, and also getting a chance to know them and work with them.

Q: You represented Darin Strauss who wrote “Chang and Eng.” The rights were bought by Disney and Gary Oldman. Any chance you’ll get a role?

A: I represented Darrin and he and Gary Oldman have been working to make something. If it goes forward I’d love to dress up in period costume on behalf of my old friend Darin Strauss. My main concern though is that it gets to go forward.

Q: What has your experience been like being the Resident Expert for the Daily Show?

A: Obviously completely life changing. I was a big fan of the show and when I went on the show to promote my book, I thought this is the most amazing thing that will ever happen for me. When they asked I thought they were joking.

Q: You are the only one that has been a guest first and then been taken onto the cast, correct?

A: I wouldn’t want to say so definitely as they have not given me the role of the show’s historian. However, it speaks well of Jon’s temperament and as well as David J that they are very open to new talent wherever they may find it.

Q: Speaking of talent, you have a role in the upcoming “This Side of the Truth.”

A: a very small role.

Q: What is the role?

A: I am a wedding overseer, which is essentially a priest who conducts a wedding in a society in which there has been no religion. There was no religion because up until then there had been no lies, no fiction until Ricky Gervais tells the first lie.

Q: Perfect role for you?

A: Exactly.

Q: What was Gervais like?

A: He is the nicest guy in the world. I had wanted to interview him when I wrote for the New Yorker but he was not really that interested. Then during one of our Sunday with the Times sections they asked if I would interview Ricky and I said yes. Now, what you expect from those interviews is for them to be your best friend but that doesn’t normally happen because most people are sane. But he is someone who emails me from time to time.

I don’t like to draw too many because he is an actual genius, but he was a performer and television personality late in life and I think that the way he handled that and the choices he made after becoming visible are inspiring to me. I am not surprised that he would be a decent guy. He has fun with friends that he likes and admires and is not a monster as you would think based on both his personality and looks.

Q: Any long term plans to remain with Stewart or perhaps move into another realm of television?

A: Everything continues I’m glad to say. I will continue to be the expert for as long as they have me. The same goes for Apple. Plus, I do have a third book to wrote, sometime, in the future. And I want to see what other adventures are out there.

Q: In 2008 you starred as a fertility doctor in Baby Mama. How was working with Tina Fey?

A: Fantastic. It was an incredible opportunity that she gave. She could not have been nicer and she and Amy Poehler together. Well, there is a scene with the three of us that was cut out of the movie but it was a thrill to be in the same room with two like that and then how fucking desperately scared to be asked to just do comedy with them. But the outtakes are on the DVD.

Q: Did you know Salman Rushdie also played one in Helen Hunt’s new film, “Then She Found Me,” this year?

A: I have not seen it yet, but the cinematographer Peter Donahue does alot of our Apple stuff. But, I think that he and I should make our own movie: two ob/gyns that solve crime!

Q: In the upcoming “Coraline” you are the voice of the father for Dakota Fanning. What is the movie about?

A: The plot of the movie is this girl moves into a creepy old house and her parents are workaholics. She is not happy so she goes exploring and discovers a small door in the wall and crawls through. She ends up in a replica of house and find the perfect copy of her parents. I play the father and the other father who is much happier and fun. But the most difficult and exciting part in acting was how you have to bend in self consciousness. There are those that are born without crippling self awareness and they tend to be assholes and actors.

Q: And the soundtrack is from They Might Be Giants – you have worked with them before in 2005? Can you tell us a little more about the Deranged millionaire character?

A: They have been my great patrons. I’d been their big fan in high school and college. Then they began doing work with McSweeneys around the same time as I began hosting for them. I had the amazing opportunity to simply say “ladies and gentlemen they might be giants” before performances. We became friendly and they asked me out of the blue if I would do this introduction to the Venue Songs. I was the deranged millionaire the arch enemy of They Might Be Giants. It was the first time I was ever really put on camera. After I was on the Daily Show I was asked to do the father’s voice in Coraline and was told I might have to do a song. As soon as I heard it I knew immediately it was Giants song. The idea that I would have to sing a John Linnell song really made me very nervous. But I laid down the track. Last cut I saw they had his voice instead of mine, and I think it would only be appropriate.

Q: Plans to move into any other art realms, like painting?

A: Do you think I’m not doing enough?

Q: Not really, you need to pick up the pace and do more.

A: I’m doing plenty.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Mr. David M. Beyer permalink
    November 22, 2008 1:57 pm

    Great interview. Hodgman is one of those people that you feel like is getting away with something — he gets to be himself in the public spotlight. Few people can pull that off. I always enjoy it wherever he pops up.

  2. November 20, 2008 12:06 pm

    Haha, thanks. I am looking forward to his two upcoming films. I mean, any man who gets to say to Tina Fey “I just don’t like your uterus,” will likely have a long and hilarious career in film. Or not. We shall see in 2009.

  3. November 20, 2008 11:30 am

    Oh my god, I’m so jealous of you. I heart John Hodgeman. What a great interview!!!

  4. November 20, 2008 8:46 am

    Haha, that is delightful. I am hoping to get my book signed and my Oxford Town article. I know, demanding.

    I will give you an update on what random things he does this time!

  5. November 20, 2008 12:19 am

    I was at hist first reading. I braved a football weekend downtown to get a book for me and for Michelle (she was out of town) for her birthday. Mr Hodgman was nice enough to sign hers “Happy Arbor Day.” Hodgman passed out bourbon or some sort of liquor, too. And his wife called during the reading. All really awesome. Enjoy Thacker Mountain tomorrow night.

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