Column: John Hodgman on rich white men, his book ‘Vacationland’ and how he’s basically the new John Dos Passos
If the idea takes you a little getting used to, think of how it feels to John Hodgman, coming to terms with his bearded and middle-aging self, and writing it all down in a book. For many years now, Hodgman has been his characters, a “Daily Show” fixture as a “resident expert” and “deranged millionaire.” He wrote a trilogy of factlets, irrelevancies, elevated claptrap and intimidating charts, and as Judge John Hodgman, dispenses deadpan justice by print and by podcast.
His new book is the nonfiction “Vacationland.” That’s the one-word pitch that Maine puts on its license plates, and Hodgman, who spends part of his year there, begs to differ. The state’s motto is “Dirigo,” I guide, and in the book, he is a tour guide to his own life, urban and rural, past and present. And in our conversation at the Los Angeles Times Ideas Exchange, Hodgman’s friend Nick Offerman, actor, author, and mighty woodsman, put in a cameo appearance.
The last time you and I talked was about the last book in your trilogy, “That Is All.” This book is truer — I’ll say truer if not true?
It is absolutely true.
OK, absolutely true. But was the competition just too much in the fake facts department, and you had to leave it?
The joke is I wanted to stop doing fake facts because now everyone’s doing it. I need to do something cooler.
I had written three books of invented trivia and false history that, even though it was fake, it was a true and honest expression of my preoccupation with weird history and forgotten history. But by the time the third one came out, I sort of knew that I didn’t have any more of those jokes to make.
What do I do next? And I started performing at a small venue called Union Hall in Brooklyn, just to find out what was on my mind. And what came out were more and more of these very true and sincere stories that I had previously hidden away about my own life as a real human being, with a wife and two human children, as a white male monster staring down the second half of his life.
Doing the onstage prep work for “Vacationland” sounds like therapy standing up.
The best part about it was that I didn’t pay for it — I was paid for it. It was unfair that I asked these audiences to pay for my therapy. And also probably anti-therapeutic that I was drinking through most of it.
But it was a deadline, and especially the very hard deadline of an audience showing up at a certain time. Panic is a great catalyst for creativity, and when you don’t think that you have anything left creatively, setting a hard deadline for yourself, your brain will produce for you what it is thinking about.
In that sense it is very similar to therapy. When you’re sitting in front of a silent person who’s waiting for you to speak what is on your mind, you have to come up with something.
Your trilogy was a major contribution to American culture, which thrives on —
Whoa, whoa, whoa — hang on, you guys. I appreciate the laugh, but you covered up something very important that Patt Morrison was saying. Say that thing again about what a great contribution I am.
The contribution of your trilogy is not unlike, say, John Dos Passos’ to American culture — you got that part OK?
Yeah, I got that part, the John Dos Passos reference, basically we’re the same.
… about how important fake facts are to American culture.
The whole joke of them was born out of the fact that in the middle of the last decade, I was watching lots of people on television. The cable news had to fill up hours and hours and hours of empty time, so people were showing up and presenting themselves as experts in something, and there was no vetting of their expertise at all.
I had previously hidden away my own life as a real human being, with a wife and two human children, as a white male monster staring down [life's] second half.
So all of a sudden, between cable television and the internet, expertise was a very debased coin. I don’t ever try to do something for the sake of social commentary but that’s what I was reacting to at the time.
Now, that was a much earlier time in our history. There was still a sense that there was some baseline truth that we could all adhere to. That now has been completely eroded, which is so upsetting to me that I felt like I don’t even want to trade on an imitation of fake facts anymore.
I feel like this is a time where we all have to just look at each other sincerely and say, This is who I am, this is who you are. Let’s just try to understand each other and get rid of all this garbage.
After 9/11 we talked about the death of irony. Now we have the death of satire, because it’s so hard to satirize anything, isn’t it?
Well, I’m glad it’s not my job to go on a daily show anymore to make fun of the political climate because every day I wake up in despair. It’s not fun. Now, Trevor [Noah] and the team of “The Daily Show,” Stephen [Colbert] over at “The Late Show” and Seth [Meyers], they’re rising to the demands of the job in an inspiring way. But I’m glad I don’t have to do it.
The Deranged Millionaire character created for “The Daily Show” by me in 2011 was a direct response to Donald Trump. Donald Trump at that time was going on all the cable news channels peddling a conspiracy that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States. The fact that this guy could essentially wander onto a news set to spill garbage because he was a brand, because he was a rich white man whose brand was being a rich white man — to me this was a laughable, satirizable thing.
And that’s how the Deranged Millionaire got started. What I didn’t appreciate was that … this was going to be bad for me, because it would lock me into essentially financial comedy, two things which don’t really go together. And I don’t know how to do subtraction.
But then also my style of humor, such as it is, would be to take reality and then extrapolate it to its most absurd extreme. Well, Donald Trump doesn’t need my help in that regard. No comedy I could come up with could compete with the weird long-form improv that Donald Trump did and continues to do.
So I got out as soon as I could and started talking about real life, such as I experience it.
In “Vacationland,” we meet you as “a romantic loner in adolescence with a manual typewriter and a fern, someone who went to the cinema in the middle of the day and discovered Tim Burton.”
I was a 13-year-old weird only child who was so terrified of sexual adolescence that I decided I was going to skip it and become the 39-year-old sexless bachelor that I felt I was destined to become. So I wore a “Dr. Who” scarf and a fedora, and I would go out to art movies in the middle of the day by myself.
I watched a short movie called “Vincent” by a young director named Tim Burton, and I said, That guy is going somewhere. And no one heard me because I was alone.
In our 20s, we spend a lot of time and energy convincing ourselves and hopefully others that we are interesting and unprecedented in our lives and our thoughts. And we do this largely by buying things and stealing things. We buy clothes and music and attitudes, and we steal poses and ideas and gestures to create an adornment for ourselves, which is a kind of costume.
And then, by our 30s, that gets tiresome and we let a little of that fall away, but our 30s are usually spent pretending we’re still in our 20s. In our 40s, at least for me, it was in my early 40s that I realized I cannot pretend anymore that I am connected to that person I once was. This is who I am now.
And that’s when I found myself at a cocktail party in Maine with a bunch of retirees drinking a jelly jar full of gin that someone called a martini. And I was like, you know what? I like this! This is who I am now!
We reach a point where we feel done. There seems a moment where we can’t go on further. And yet there is time left to us, and how do we fill it? That’s the white privilege mortality comedy of John Hodgman in a nutshell. And that’s what “Vacationland” is about, to some degree.
Facial hair was also a way of manifesting these transitions. You never went full Rutherford B. Hayes, but —
I could never do a full Rutherford B. Hayes. What you’re seeing is the greatest expression of the follicular talent that I have. It’s a terrible, ugly beard. For those of you listening on Patt Morrison’s podcast, let me describe it for you: It comes to a sort of sharp, villainous point on my chin, but my mustache refuses to meet my beard out of spite. There are weird bald patches on either side. My sideburns look like salt and pepper ants crawling up and down my face. None of it is symmetrical in any way.
But I felt compelled to grow it because men feel — well, men who can grow beards, and even those who can’t — feel compelled to try because they want to see what comes out of their face.
They want to know what secret man lives inside of them that they didn’t know before, especially as they’re getting older. They want to know, who is this bearded sage who’s going to lead me into this new chapter in my life?
Talk a little more about how you inhabit two worlds, the world of Park Slope in Brooklyn, where, as you write, you can get in trouble for asking for the wrong kind of hummus —
Hummus is highly politicized.
But you also live in Maine, in a place that has pond scum and raccoons and septic tanks that run your life. Yet you don’t seem entirely of either one.
No, I’ve never been comfortable in any world that I inhabit. The book is essentially premised on the idea that these are my wanderings as a weird, asthmatic, nerdy, citified only child grown larger into parts of rural New England where I don’t exactly belong and don’t really know how to handle myself. And all kinds of hilarious hijinks ensue.
But it’s also about coming to terms with changes in my life. The first half of the book is talking about rural western Massachusetts, where I deployed a lot of my youth, and now more recently I’ve transitioned to the painful beaches of coastal Maine, which is not my world at all. It’s my wife’s world, and that’s the place where she has told me I will accept my death and I accept that fate, and I spend a lot of time in Maine with her now.
Maine is called Vacationland, which is a cruel joke. It’s Vacationland, but its motto should really be, “Putting the spite in hospitality since 1820.” Anyone who seeks vacation might accidentally go to Maine not knowing that the oceans are made of hate and want to kill you, and the beaches are made of rocks and knives.
Now here is our friend, Nick Offerman.
Offerman: Good evening.
John said you hand-pulped all of the paper for his book. Is that true?
Offerman: “All” might be a generous estimation.
Hodgman: You’ve destroyed some trees in your time
Offerman: I have, yeah I pulp by foot.
Offerman: Like grapes.
Hodgman: I personally am very upset that Nick has not come to visit me in Maine, because I think it is a landscape that would suit you.
Offerman: It has everything. I can put up no argument: It’s the land of woodworking and boat-building and painful beaches.
Hodgman: That’s right, at least on the coasts. In the interior it’s more the land of drinking coffee brandy and going to sleep early.
Offerman: That happens to be my bag.
Hodgman: Then all of Maine is for you.
Here’s John Hodgman, who did not know what a septic tank or a propane tank was, and you are the master of the adze and the awl.
Hodgman: Master of the adze! That’s fantastic, Patt Morrison!
Offerman: That is.
He knows what an adze is.
Hodgman: Oh, I know, too, but I only know because of Scrabble! It’s a hot Scrabble word, adze.
Offerman: “This looks like a job for the master of the adze.”
Hodgman: Adze Master? Nick, you actually do need to go. Thank you very much.
Offerman: [To the audience] You’re in for a treat.
And now, the musical stylings of Mr. John Hodgman.
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