Not the Nerd Table

The dapper literary humorist and comedian reflects on writing, the biology of laughter and high school

Mustachioed Renaissance man John Hodgman has accomplished pretty much everything a nerd-dandy could ever want: doling out advice for McSweeney’s, serving as humor editor for The New York Times Magazine, contributing to This American Life, appearing on The Daily Show, Battlestar Gallactica and Community, and writing a trilogy of deliciously fictional almanacs. Now, he takes on stand-up comedy, or his own esoteric, foppish version of it. EW caught up with him before his “upcoming physical manifestation” at the McDonald Theatre March 8.

Have you been to Eugene before?

I’ve never been to Eugene, and I’ve always wanted to go. I’ve been to Portland like all other humans. But I’ve been hearing about Eugene, Ore., for years and years and years … Everyone I know has an ex-girlfriend that still lives there.

You must fit right into Portland.

I do have a mustache and I think that that helps. And I do enjoying eating food and drinking alcohol. I do not enjoy it so much while watching neo-burlesque strippers, which is, I think, the other thing that happens in Portland. I’m not against it — it’s just not in my skill set as of yet.

What about beer?

I like beer quite a bit. So drinking of alcohols of all kinds, that I’ve got covered. But the one thing that is not in my skill set is either watching or performing neo-burlesque, so that may be the one thing that marks me as an outsider.

Marc Maron’s show got canceled, and Eugene was pretty bummed, but now you’re coming. I heard you on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast recently and you guys were talking about how you define yourself as a literary humorist rather than a comedian?

That’s what I say, but the way I really define myself is as a guy that does not blow Oregon off, unlike Marc Maron, apparently.

Thank you.

[Laughs.] No, I’m sure that Marc had pressing circumstances … The way I think I described it on Marc Maron was “wry chuckles for the arched eyebrows set,” as opposed to audible laughter for regular humans. And that really had to change dramatically once I started performing on The Daily Show and then live. I began to realize that producing laughter is more pleasurable for everyone than producing self-congratulatory smirks.

What’s harder? Being funny in print or while performing?

Being funny on stage is harder. That’s the much bigger challenge, because being funny in print, you are not there to hear yourself bomb. It was a really interesting transition from being a writer to being a live performer because you can construct a joke and it might not produce audible laughter, and, how often, honestly, are you laughing out loud regularly at, you know, a newspaper column? Unless you’re schizophrenic, you don’t laugh out loud often on the subway while reading. So you can construct a joke that might not produce audible laughter but at least the person reading it might appreciate it: “That’s a well-constructed joke, I see what he’s saying there.” You know what I mean?

Whereas when you are in a room with other humans — your job if you are a comedian — you might be speaking some of the finest crafted sentences in the world and performing them with incredible skill, but you have a job, which is to produce a single, mysterious human emotion or, I should say, a single mysterious human reaction, which is audible laughter. That’s something that one becomes quickly obsessed with because we really don’t understand laughter.

There are those who try to explain why jokes work, but those people are the least funny people in the world and they make everyone feel bad. The thing that produces laughter — we have no biological reason to laugh more than we have a biological reason to scream, and the two are kind of connected to each other. I guess what I’m saying is that if you people aren’t laughing when I see you in Eugene, I will make you scream.

I was recently talking to friends about the origin of laughter being rooted in fear, the kind of release once you realize there’s no threat, the laughter became a biological way to relieve that fear.

I’ve heard that as well and I think it was Jimmy Carr, the British comedian, was the person I heard it from in an interview one time. That you know the screaming happens while something that is going to kill you, say a saber tooth tiger, is bearing down upon you and then the laughter starts when the saber tooth tiger runs into a tree. That break, as you put it, from terror to relief is pretty common in jokes. Someone creates a tension in the premise of a joke and then things go in a direction that you do not expect and the tension is relieved. But, you know, just talking about it makes me sad. Must we tear apart everything that gives us pleasure in life, whether it is jokes or kittens? No. Let’s enjoy the jokes and enjoy the kittens and not tear them apart with our hands.

Do you prefer performing now to writing or do you like wearing many hats?

I’ve always worn many hats, and also many cloaks for some reason. [Laughs.] And I have a very large collection of silver-tipped canes. So I am something of a dandy, it is true. In some ways I do prefer performing to writing because performing is over faster and it is more socially acceptable to drink at the end. The writing is a longer process because no one is waiting for what you are doing, no one is waiting for what you have to say and when you finish it, and you have a glass of whiskey by yourself, it is sad.

Either way, it’s all something I sadly will never escape, which is the impulse to tell stories and construct reality into beginnings, middles and ends — whether that’s writing on the page for laughter or for not, or telling a story on stage for laughter or for not, that’s the curse. Once you start seeing the world that way you can’t stop…

In the high school cafeteria of your life, would you sit at the writer’s table or would you sit at the comedian’s table?

Why is high school so awful? [Laughs.] Why do I have to choose? I’m not in high school anymore. You know what I mean?

Yep, you’re not in high school any more. It’s over.

The pleasure of not being in high school is you get to sit wherever you want … You get to create your own table. That got profound quick. The reality was really in high school, those were not the divisions, you might be surprised to learn; we did not have a table for comedians and then a table for short story writers. We had tables for the sort of super popular, attractive people — I won’t even say the jocks — like the really attractive people. Then we had the table for, in this case I will say the nerds, and I sat at neither table. I sat in the neurotic middle. The people who were not terribly athletic or attractive or beautiful, but too full of themselves to align with those kids sitting playing weird card games and wearing leather vests at the nerd table. We were the lonely ones. Because you would look over at the attractive people, you know they were making out every weekend, and then you look over at the nerds, and they were practically doing it in the cafeteria and we were sort of chastely holding hands not knowing where we belonged — I’m not speaking figuratively, the nerds were sexually active. Have you ever been to a Ren Fair? It is a white-hot golden goblet of mead and hormones. It is serious stuff. There is a lot of jousting going on.

You’re kind of a Renaissance man — you’ve been editing, you’ve been a columnist, a freelance journalist, you’ve even presented on TED — why do you think you’ve been so successful doing so many different things?

Oh, I don’t know. I’m the coyote in the middle of the canyon running on thin air and not wanting to look down because I know what will happen.

I am a person who has a lot of different interests in a lot of different worlds and a certain facility with insinuating myself into the worlds that interest me. I don’t know why my interests are what they are, but I always loved This American Life, for example, so I methodically plotted my way into that show. [Laughs.] By identifying a producer of the show at the wedding that I attended in 1999 and staying in touch and eventually he asked me if I had any ideas for a show and I said “yes” and I pushed my way in that way.

Then I started writing for magazines, largely because I liked to insinuate myself into the worlds that interested me. I was really interested in food and non-wine alcohol and writing for Men’s Journal on those subjects allowed me to meet all these people that I thought were interesting in the food world. Then writing for The New York Times Magazine, I was able to meet the creative people that inspired me the most, like Alexander Payne, and I could sneak my way on to the set of Battlestar Gallactica, a show that I love to watch, to write about it.

Once I started writing my books of fake fiction, my humor books, much to my surprise I was able to … My powers exceeded my understanding of them because I was somehow able to insinuate myself on to my favorite television show, The Daily Show. Then, almost even villainishly, used my new status as a minor television personality to insinuate myself back on Battlestar Gallactica as a cast member. I guess what I’m saying is that I’m a sociopath, which I do think helps in the creative arts in the sense that you have to have an almost sociopathic confidence that what you are doing is worthwhile and be willing to follow the paths of your own interests no matter where they lead.

Then I would also say that I don’t know how to really draw a line between all my different interests, comedic and non-comedic performing and non-performing, other than I’m interested in them. I can say something that is true, which is I just go ahead and do them. I follow those interests and try to do so in a way that I both get to enjoy the world that I’m invading and also get to create and add to it. Those are things that led to the millions of different weird jobs and gigs and adventures and opportunities that finally will culminate in my visit to Eugene, Ore. Just think, if I had not written about deep fried White Castle hamburgers for Men’s Journal in 2003, I might never be visiting Eugene, Ore., this week.

Thank God for that. So, what’s next for you? Where do you want to insinuate yourself next?

That, I honestly do not know. One project that was not an insinuation was my series of books of trivia, books of fascinating trivia and amazing historical true facts, all of which were made up by me. That was a project I started writing in 2004 and the final publication of the third and final book in that trilogy, the [An] Almanac of Complete World Knowledge, ended at the end of 2012. And in my final book of Complete World Knowledge, I predicted that along with my trilogy of Complete World Knowledge, the world would also end. But much to my surprise, and I guess a little bit to my relief, that didn’t happen that way. So now I’m really without a singular project that belongs to nobody else but me — that is not collaborative, that is not part of anything else, that is just me engaging with my weirdest obsessions or fascinations, whether they’re hobos or the secret lives of the Mole Men or the 700 Ancient and Unspeakable Gods, are all the things that I talked about in my books.

So, there really is kind of a blank page in my life going forward about what, I would say, that thing that isn’t in collaboration with anyone else, that is just me. The way I’m going to try to fill it is going on stage by myself and attempting to speak to people and do comedy on stage.

Do you tailor your show at all by city?

I really started touring my imitation of stand-up comedy a year ago. I had been performing on the road for five years — performing materials from my books and other kind of gigs. But, truly not even having a book in hand, even if I never looked at it, throwing the book away and just going on stage and talking, that I have been doing pretty regularly for a year. And I’m learning. Part of the reason it’s exciting for me is that I’m learning a lot, I’m learning about how to craft a story on stage, how to change a story on stage. I’m learning how not to shove a story down an audience’s throat when it’s clearly not quite for them. I wouldn’t say I tailor my material because, ultimately, any good story teller, whether that person is a comedian or not, has a story to tell; they are bringing it to the town so that they can tell it. You don’t want to see a comedian who’s just coming to tell you jokes that he thinks are going to go over in that town.

I guess what I’m asking more is, do you try to insert any of the local color into your act? I’ve seen some comedians, like Paula Poundstone was here a couple months ago and she talked about Eugene for a while and I’m always interested to see if that’s …

Well do me a favor, find out what she said and fax it to me and I will do that same material.

I can tell you what she said. They play classical music at the bus stations here in Eugene to keep away the loiterers, and/or homeless kids, so she made a joke about that …

I’m really looking forward to coming to Eugene, I’ve heard lots about it over the years, and when I arrive in Eugene, at the bus station, I will listen to the classical music and my senses will be very alert to what’s going on because, like anybody who tells stories for a living, travel is an opportunity to gain more stories to tell. I really love going out into the world, and seeing other parts of the world, and seeing all the similarities and all the differences. So, if a story emerges, then I will tell it, yes. But I’m not going to make a bunch of dumb Beaver State jokes just because I want people to go woo.


Now, I know to cross off my Beaver State material. Glad that I was able to try that out on you. [Laughs.]

You were recently at the San Francisco SketchFest. You must have been hanging out with a bunch of comedians. Who really tickles you right now? 

Paul F. Tompkins. Paul F. Tompkins is a good friend but I had the pleasure to work with in a more concentrated way at SketchFest this past January then ever before, though I’ve known him for years. I’ve always loved his comedy, but I don’t think that there’s any comedic performer who is so deft and so at the top of his game as Paul F. Tompkins right now.

What’s special about what he does?

Paul’s humor is the humor I’m most terrified of accidentally plagiarizing because he’s most attuned to the things that make me laugh. So, weird esoteric bits of history, a completely comprehensive understanding of movie and pop culture trivia, the guy rocks an amazing mustache and in general is just an incredibly genial presence on stage. Unconsciously, when I hear Paul’s voice in my own, I try to stop myself. What I like about what Paul is doing now is that he does all this stuff, and he’s an impeccable dresser — he’s the only guy I know who owns a red and white candy-striped suit and will wear it. But there’s absolutely nothing arch or twee or precious about the comedy that he’s doing. Especially now all he’s doing is telling really funny human stories from his life and he’s completely unapologetic.

I think that there’s a movement afoot now — like, another genius of comedy that’s absolutely at the top of his game right now is Louis CK, and Louis is a genius. And part of Louis’ act that he defines is this really honest self-deprecation and an incredibly raw take on his own life, which Louis does really astonishingly well, and which I notice in comedy circles lots and lots and lots of people are imitating right now in a way that it feels like, “You know what? Louis has been around for a long time and he has kids and been through some difficult times. You’re 23 years old! I can’t feel sorry for you as a self-abusing middle-aged man; you’re 23 years old, and you look great.” [Laughs.]

What I appreciate in any comic, is a comic who is honest unto himself or herself and Paul in his candy-striped suit just belting Skyfall at the end of his show because he has a beautiful voice and just wants to sing Skyfall is a total delight on stage, paradoxically in the exact same way that Louis C.K. talking about his masturbation habits is a total delight on stage, because they are both unquestioningly, utterly honestly themselves.

That’s what makes not just comedy work, but any storytelling work, even when it’s me going up and talking very authoritatively about the nine U.S. Presidents who had hooks for hands; that joke, which is a lie, is an attempt to be an honest expression of things that fascinate and preoccupy me. That’s why when you said, “Are you going to tailor your material at all to Eugene,” or any place, I kind of froze up because I would never want to tailor what I’m doing to a particular audience in some transactional way to get more laughs. All I can do is bring myself to the stage and be as honest as I can with you and hope that you guys dig it. But honestly, if I hear classical music in that bus station, I’m going to say something about it.

Well, John Hodgman, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you for taking the time to chat with me.

Thank you! And let me tell you, next year you should go to SketchFest. It is the best, and I think most important comedy festival in the U.S. right now.

I would love to. I’m a big fan of stand-up comedy and we don’t get enough of it in Eugene.

Well you won’t be getting any of it with me, but I’ll do a pretty good imitation.

So, I’ll write this up that you’re just going to give a lecture at the McDonald?

[Laughs.] I’m going to give a lecture. Meet me at the bus station. I’ll be giving a lecture on Mozart.

John Hodgman performs 7 pm Friday, March 8, at McDonald Theatre; $27-$32. Students who present their student ID at the McDonald ticket window can purchase two tickets for the price of one.