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An interview with John Hodgman, deranged millionaire

MORRIS, Minn. - John Hodgman, author, comedian and "resident expert" on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart will be in Morris next week, sharing his thoughts on food, wine and how to make money as a deranged millionaire.

His speech, "That is All, an Evening with John Hodgman," is scheduled for 8 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 11 in Edson Auditorium at the University of Minnesota, Morris.

Hodgman is perhaps best known as the "PC man" from commercials for Apple computers. However, Hodgman is also a bestselling author of three books that consist completely of false facts, and a regular contributor to The Daily Show.

Earlier this week, staff from the Morris Sun Tribune and the University Register sat down for a phone interview with Hodgman, who was taking an break from working on a upcoming sketch for The Daily Show, to talk comedy, politics and his path from literary agent to bestselling author.

The University Register: Recently, Jon Stewart was voted America's number one news source. Do you think that the melding of news and comedy in shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report is a failure on the part of mainstream media, or is this just what the people want?

John Hodgman: I think that, first of all, you have the fact that The Daily Show, where you reach me now, is a comedy show. It's made by people who know a lot about the news and care a lot about the news, to be sure, but the first mission is comedy.

And then you have to get to where comedy comes from. Comedy comes from, traditionally, surprise and the breaking of taboos. The reason that The Daily Show and The Colbert Report - and I say this primarily as a fan, which is what I was long before I came on the show - really became so interesting to people is that they realized that the biggest taboo was simply stating plainly the truth of what was happening in the world.

[This] is not something that the mainstream news really feels comfortable doing because of either a particular political agenda, right or left, or, what I think is even worse, this sort of obsession with balance, even when that balance is artificial. If someone asserts a true fact and a political opponent counters with an invented fact, both are reported as a kind of fact. That's what I think people who turn to The Daily Show for news or claim to get their news from The Daily Show might be missing from mainstream news organizations.

I think, for the most part, people turn to the show because Jon, the correspondents, the writers and the contributors (I dare say) are very, very funny and thoughtful and insightful.

Sun Tribune: How much prep goes into putting together one of your "resident expert" segments on The Daily Show?

John Hodgman: Luckily, you guys are calling me while I'm doing it right now, so now I get to step aside and let all of my co-writers take all of the burden for awhile.

Generally speaking, the idea will be generated from the news, something that's been a topic in the news, particularly nowadays when my 'resident expert' character is focusing on wealth in American culture and wealth in American politics, we have a lot of topics coming up out of these debates all the time.

Jon typically will decide what topic he wants to cover and it will get assigned to a couple of writers on our great staff, and they will put together some initial ideas. I'll put in my two cents, which are worth exactly one cent, then I'll come in a day or two before and we'll work through the draft.

Oftentimes, we'll do some pretty substantial rewrites in the hour or so between the rehearsal at four and the taping at six.

Sun Tribune: How did you make the jump from literary agent to writer and comedian?

John Hodgman: I was a literary agent, but I always wanted to be a writer. I always wanted to write sincere short stories. I appreciated that no one wanted to really buy those things, so I took a job in book publishing in order to work with writers.

As I was working in book publishing and representing people, I got an e-mail from Dave Eggers who was starting a literary journal on a website, McSweeney's. I started to write little missives from the world of book publishing in which I portrayed a completely deranged literary agent who was not very far from the truth. I really enjoyed writing these things because book publishing was and is an extremely bizarre, backward, tie-bound industry with a lot of eccentrics in it, and I got to enjoy being one of them.

I realized these short, funny things I was writing was really something I enjoyed doing. I began writing even more comedy for the McSweeny's website after I left being an agent. That gradually transitioned into writing a book of fake trivia from the standpoint of a deranged expert on all things. That put me on to The Daily Show as a guest and then as a contributor, then my whole life was kidnapped by television, basically.

The University Register: What advice would you have for young authors who are looking at trying to get published?

John Hodgman: I don't know what I would even need to give them. If they want to be published, they can be within 30 seconds. The difference between when I just began in the publishing industry and now is that all of us have access to a world wide publishing network that can reach an audience around the globe for a very small amount of initial investment. That's a revolution in the written word that we haven't seen since Gutenburg.

What you get, and what I learned from writing for the McSweeny's website that I did not learn from working in book publishing is that if you write and cultivate a voice and find a voice that is authentically yours, an audience will respond to that. When an audience responds to that, now more than ever in history, they can let you know.

Now, if you're asking me how you can become a well-paid writer, first of all, I have to remind you that no writer has ever really been well-paid. Second of all, in many ways, it's harder than and easier than ever before, precisely because of the number of people who are out there doing it. But, if you have talent - and you will know pretty soon if you do or do not - you will still be a rare commodity no matter how many people have the Internet.

Sun Tribune: How do you go about developing an authentic voice?

John Hodgman: The thing about all writing is to be honest. That's true whether you're writing fiction or nonfiction or whatever. By honest I mean obviously truthful and truthful to your own experience, but also authentic. When I was writing my super sincere short stories, in the vein of Raymond Carver or whatever, that was an aspiration. I liked his work very much and I aspired to imitate it. But imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it's the most terrible form of writing.

The reality was that when I read those short stories aloud in the opportunities I was given to do so, people would come up to me and say, 'That was really funny.' But I had not intended it to be funny.

It was when I allowed myself to write funny that I realized and came to understand that this is what I have a gift to do and what I enjoy doing. Suddenly, writing wasn't as hard anymore. I was able to approach more serious topics in more meaningful ways because I was speaking more authentically in the way that I knew to speak and guided by my preoccupations with my own interests and my own life experiences.

The University Register: What is your favorite project that you've worked on so far?

John Hodgman: My life has been so unexpected, in that it has offered me a chance to work on so many things that I care about and love, and with so many people that are huge inspirations to me that not only do I hesitate to single out any one of them as a favorite, but also I begin to wonder if the whole thing is not just a big prank.

Of them all, the books, I can say, are the closest to me in the sense that they're almost a completely unfiltered emanation of my addled brain. I think I will always have a special affection for them because they made everything else weirdly possible. I mapped out in them that was as surreal as I could make it, and they then made my world almost exactly that surreal in real life.

Sun Tribune: What can people expect from your show next week?

John Hodgman: They're going to learn a lot about RAGNOROK [the coming global superapocalypse], let's just say. Time is running out and we need to face facts. I'm going to help them figure out what to put in their survival bunker. I'm going to talk them through some of the most plausible scenarios about what's going to happen. And explain why I've come to the determination that time in human history will end on December 21 of this year. Also, some food and wine pairings and how to make money at sports, you know, general stuff.

I think that my book covers something for everybody. You are young people, so you are thinking about wealth, wine and sports. I am an old person, so I'm thinking about wealth, wine, sports and death. I'll give you a little of each.

I will also be taking questions in the performance. There will be lots of time for Q&A to talk, so I can just rap with the students, which I like to do, get down and talk to them on their level.

The University Register: Have you been following the presidential race, and who do you think will come out on top?

John Hodgman: I think you're going to be in for some surprises. I think the winner of the Republican primary is going to be Nick Mangold of the New York Jets. Then he and Barack Obama will agree to put aside their differences and become co-presidents.

Honestly - if that's what you're asking - I think it looks as though Mitt Romney is going to be the Republican nominee, and then I think he's going to have a very hard time winning against the President of the economy continues to slowly improve, especially if [Romney] wakes up every morning and thinks it's a good idea to say he doesn't care about poor people very much. I mean, I appreciate that there was some context of also not caring about rich people and pretending to care about the middle class, but that's not a soundbite you want to put out there. And I say that as professional communicator.

The reality is that with RAGNAROK [the coming global superapocalypse] coming, if there are even any laws still in the land after the blood wave and the omega pulse come this November, it'll be a wide open field at that point. ...

Sun Tribune: At the Radio and TV Correspondents Dinner in 2009, you talked about Barack Obama as being the first possibility of a "nerd president." Do you still think we're living in a triumphant time for nerds?

John Hodgman: Barack Obama, as you know, is someone that I hypothesized would be the first nerd president, but in so many ways he lives between worlds and may not even be from this planet. Until I see complete documentation I'm not going to rule out the possibility that he is a rare kind of alien who is able to fuse the ethos of both intellectual curiosity and love of sports, jock and nerd in one.

That what makes him such a difficult figure to pin down and a difficult figure for his political opponents to characterize. If you were to believe most Republican critics of Obama, he is a jumped up idiot man-child who doesn't know what he's doing and a nefarious Marxist conspirator from Indonesia madrasas at the same time. Which are two possibilities he can't be, unless he's the one who can do it. I don't know, maybe he's the one who can do both.

In any case, I do think that we were at a time of brief nerd, if not ascendancy, then sense of empowerment. But then the Tea Party came and took our lunch money and sent us back to the chess club, basically.