This blowhard bit is working out great
There are really two John Hodgmans. One is well known to viewers of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” as the “resident expert” who offers preposterously inaccurate assessments of such things as Alan Greenspan’s retirement and Iran’s atomic aspirations. He’s even more widely familiar to those who have seen Apple Computer’s recent spate of ads, in which he appears as the comically fusty PC, stealing the show from actor Justin Long’s slacker-cool Mac.
The other Hodgman, by all accounts, is a sweet man, devoid of enemies and pretense, a father of two and husband for seven years to a high school teacher, Katherine Fletcher. He worked for a while as a New York literary agent, then, with the aid of literary It Boy Dave Eggers’ McSweeney’s website in the late 1990s, he was able to revive the persona of the egghead humorist. Hodgman contributed offbeat, ridiculous essays that allowed him to shape and tone his approach to comedy; eventually, he was called on to emcee McSweeney’s reading nights. That led to his writing a book of comically fabricated trivia, “The Areas of My Expertise,” and his becoming a contributor to the popular public-radio show “This American Life” and then to “The Daily Show” and the Apple ads.
“My friends and people who know me are as surprised as I am,” Hodgman said of his celebrity persona, before a recent reading at Book Soup in West Hollywood.
“Even though he’s a lovely person, when he’s on stage or in print he can flip on this switch and turn into a slightly hostile, insecure, boastful dunderhead,” noted his friend Sarah Vowell, the author and radio commentator, in an e-mail. “As hostile, insecure, boastful dunderheads more or less run the world these days, it’s cathartic to see such figures skewered.... The character he often plays is that of a pompous windbag.”
That may be true, but the 35-year-old Hodgman said he takes his inspiration from a more likable character. “I’m trying to follow the model established by George Plimpton,” he said, evoking the legacy of the multifaceted late “Paris Review” founder and intellectual man-about-town, who once edited a Hodgman story and, in the 1980s, appeared in commercials pitching the Intellivision videogame system against Atari. “I want to see all of life as an equal opportunity for adventure.”
Hodgman may be an accidental celebrity, but he occupies a familiar position in the entertainment-world hierarchy, that of the archly amusing nerd. It’s a type that’s immediately recognizable to the hypercompetitive East Coast intelligentsia, many of whom, like Yale-grad Hodgman, are products of the Ivy League. But for “alternative” personalities like Hodgman, the move to something beyond twee satire for a relatively insular audience has proven trickier than it looks. To that end, he’s rapidly learning how to transform himself from “a sallow, asthmatic kid who loathed sports,” as he tells it, to a guy on the verge of ... something. Perhaps he’ll be a new Ben Stein, shifting between print and character-actor parts on TV and in films. He’d also work as a Drew Carey-type, a smart yet unglamorous variety-show impresario.
“You could totally see him as a comedy actor in a movie,” said “This American Life” host Ira Glass, who has worked with Hodgman and knows his challenge well, as Glass is attempting to restyle his long-running public-radio show for Showtime.
Hodgman admitted that he’s still learning his new trade, even though he had a certain amount of practice over the last few years, hosting a series of “Little Gray Book Lectures,” in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (now on hiatus). These literary-performance evenings gave him a taste of show biz, but television has upped the ante considerably. “I’m not a trained TV personality,” he said. “I was nervous the first time I went on ‘The Daily Show,’ but I was very comfortable in my skin after I’d done it the third or fourth time.”
With success has come humility. “Afterward, Jon Stewart told me that’s not what they were looking for. I wasn’t being as straight as I was the first few times. So I realized I had made a mistake, that they wanted the stiffness.”
Maintaining stiffness hasn’t been a problem for the PC character he has now portrayed in more than a dozen Apple ads. The setup is simple. Against an iPod-white background, Hodgman and Long (who was in the movie “The Break-Up” and appeared on the TV series “Ed”) introduce themselves: “I’m a Mac,” Long reports. “And I’m a PC,” Hodgman adds. Wardrobe tells all. Long is Wicker Park-Williamsburg-Silver Lake, in jeans, T-shirt, and sneakers, unshaven. Hodgman is exurban Microsoft middle-management, in drab business suits or conservative sport coats.
What follows, through numerous variations, is in Hodgman’s interpretation a “vaudeville comedy duo,” with Long as the straight man to Hodgman’s buffoon. As the campaign, which was created by TBWA/Chiat/Day in Los Angeles, has developed, perceptive viewers have come to pity Long, not least because Hodgman is perfectly cast. “I’m a legitimate buffoon,” he said. In other words, these ads are an inadvertently ideal context for Hodgman’s throwback persona, Jackie Gleason by way of New Yorker founder Harold Ross. Increasingly, the balance of the actual acting has shifted away from Long toward Hodgman, a development that Hodgman downplayed. “I’ve never been interested in playing a character,” he said. “I’m not playing anything other than a version of myself.”
This attitude hasn’t prevented Hodgman from peering, method-style, into PC’s motivation. “He’s well-meaning, if a little arrogant. He believes he’s there to help the Mac.” He’s also sussed out Long’s role. “Justin’s job is to react.”
Before his Book Soup appearance, occasioned by the paperback edition of “The Areas of My Expertise,” Hodgman and his college pal/traveling companion/guitar accompanist Jonathan Coulton dropped by United Talent Agency, which recently started representing Hodgman. There they performed for about 150 staffers.
Then Hodgman and Coulton jumped into a waiting car, courtesy of his publisher, and headed over to the studios of G4, an upstart cable network that focuses on technology culture, where he appeared on “Attack of the Show,” a daily tech-entertainment roundup, broadcast live. It was the best possible setting for his unique fan base, a cadre of cultured geeks. In the green room, the extent of incipient Hodgmania became rapidly evident. Half a dozen writers and producers stopped by to pay homage. The conversation included the new season of “Battlestar Galactica” (Hodgman wrote an early appreciation of the breakout Sci Fi Channel space opera for the New York Times Magazine, where he is a contributing writer) as well as his next book, the second in an envisioned trilogy of fake facts.
The entire time, he was utterly at ease, if rumpled from travel and obviously hungry (he made quick work of a bag of beef jerky and a can of sugar-free Red Bull). When he hit the stage for the live broadcast, opposite co-host Kevin Pereira, the transformation from pasty, nearsighted bookworm was complete. Hodgman was the main event.
“John has an amazing presence on stage,” said Glass. “His head has that weird shape to it, and he doesn’t really seem like he’s of our time. You just want to build a fence around him and protect him from animals that could hurt him.”
For someone whose reputation was as a witty commentator on fanciful, offbeat topics, Hodgman is entering an arena of intensified risk, where the stakes for his career are exponentially higher than they were just a year ago.
“He’s a really good writer and an original thinker,” Glass said. “He told me that one of his fears was that he would become a public figure if he did the Apple ads. A lot of us are crossing our fingers that he doesn’t have to choose.”