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Q&A: John Hodgman on fame and why he’s not faking it anymore

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John Hodgman says he’s returning to his roots with “Medallion Status.”
(John Hodgman)

Whether you first saw him on “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” or as the rumpled personification of a PC in a series of computer commercials, John Hodgman is not quite who you think.

He still specializes in an oddball brand of comedy on display in his list-driven books of invented facts, starting with 2005’s “The Areas of My Expertise.” But his career began in a much quieter way at a New York literary agency, where he worked as an assistant and an agent before pursuing showbiz dreams that came true in ways he never imagined.

Now, returning to his roots with the essay collection “Medallion Status,” Hodgman looks back on the VIP access, exclusive parties and the inner insecurities of the last decade. The dryly absurd, self-effacing delivery remains. But here it’s paired with a wistful acceptance of himself and the fleeting nature of so-called success.

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(Viking)
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“Once my life was kidnapped by television ... the adventure was on, and the anxiety I felt was: ‘When will they figure out that I’m not qualified to do this?’” Hodgman says. “It is classic impostor syndrome, except I truly was faking it. I had never been on television before; my work on television was an imitation of all of the television that I ever watched.”

In a recent conversation during a stop on his book tour, Hodgman talks more about his brush with fame and why he’s not faking it anymore.

“Medallion Status” feels like a continuation of “Vacationland,” which was your first venture into personal essays from your more character-driven comedy of the past. Was that a daunting transition?

There’s a terror that I think most people feel when they confront a blank page. There is the need for an idea, there is a need for the almost sociopathic confidence that if you have an idea, that people need to hear that idea. And, having written three books of very arch humor and fake facts and invented trivia that really informed my character on “The Daily Show” as the resident expert and deranged millionaire, when those were done and I had to think of what else to do, it was very terrifying. I didn’t feel like inventing a false history. I felt like telling the truth.

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I’ve seen “Medallion Status” described as a “farewell to fame,” which somehow feels like a backhanded compliment.

Well, there’s definitely an element of the book that is “You can’t fire me. I quit.” The book chronicles the more recent years of my extremely unlikely on-camera career, and all of the secret rooms and first-class lounges that even the minor-est of fame grants you admittance to. And then what it feels like to slowly lose access to those rooms and be kicked out one by one — not meanly, but just because culture has moved on to a degree. I moved on as well to priorities that were not necessarily television-friendly, such as seeing my children before they disappear into adulthood.

Your book includes some well-phrased career advice where you talk about the worst job you’ve ever had. Did television start to feel like that as well?

The problem with the literary agency where I worked was that it was a very nice place to work. There’s great comfort in going to an office, especially one as beautiful as Writers House. It used to be the private bank of the Astor family, so it’s got this huge walk-in vault, overstuffed leather chairs, ferns and dark corners where I could take naps. And a very supportive and collegial environment that I came to love as a family and feel loved by. That’s when you get trapped. When you confuse work with family and in your heart you know, “I don’t belong here. There’s something I want to do.” That led to that feeling of where the worst job is not the hardest job, it’s the job that you know isn’t for you but you stay in it anyway because you’re afraid.

When [Stewart] ended “The Daily Show” in its incarnation and handed it to Trevor Noah ... by that time, I had realized that show was a very new kind of family for me, and a very close one. And I loved my work family on [the FX sitcom] “Married” as well, but that was in Los Angeles, and flying across the country as often as I did was growing very painful for the children I share with my wife. So when “Married” wasn’t renewed by FX, I met that with an enormous amount of disappointment but also a certain amount of relief.

You said you felt like an impostor when you became famous on TV. Now, you’re an author. Is there any sense of feeling like an impostor now?

No. The thing about these two books is there is no faking it. I can’t be an impostor while writing these books, because I’m not playing a role the way I was playing on “The Daily Show.” This is a completely unexaggerated weirdo who is me. And the stakes for me are much higher.

Barton is a former Times staff writer who is based in Portland, Ore.


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