Illustration by DONKEY HOTEY
EDITOR’S NOTE: To mark the triumphant return of Judge John Hodgman, who performs at The Trocadero on September 20th, we present this reprise edition of our 2014 interview with The Hodger, as we like to call him.*
BY JONATHAN VALANIA John Hodgman is full of shit. Full to the brim and stuffed to the gills with the stuff. And that’s a wonderful thing for you and me — as representative members of the human race that enjoy a good chortle and maybe even a guffaw when circumstances merit — because John Hodgman’s wizardly ability to turn horseshit into pure comedy gold, and to do so with a straight-face, a high-handed loquaciousness never-ending and the kind of ornate, self-aggrandizing syntax usually reserved for the mustachioed stovepipe-hatted men who tie women to railroad tracks in flickering black and white films is his great and generous gift to humanity. So send him a thank you note. To stir up interest in Tuesday’s Judge John Hodgman show Troc show amongst you, the great unwashed, we got the honorable Judge John Hodgman on the horn, asked him some harmless questions and let him carry forth with a Gilded Age grandiloquence not heard since Grover Cleveland was in the White House. DISCUSSED: His late-in-life marijuana experimentation; unwashed folk singers and their threat to humanity; the sadistic psych doctor he plays on Steven Soderbergh’s The Knick (starting Clive Owen); playing the hypersexual and oversharing Bernie on Married; Ayn Rand’s deconstruction of Charlie’s Angels, the Hobby Lobby hullabaloo, and how to sincerely grow an ironic mustache or ironically grow a sincere mustache in a way that does not make you look like a card-carrying member of NAMBLA. Impossible, you say? Well, Impossible is John Hodgman’s middle name. Actually, I lied. His middle name is Kellogg, but that is a discussion for another day.
JOHN HODGMAN: This is John Hodgman speaking. I affirm that I have agreed to this interview, and I’ve agreed to being recorded. The sound of my voice is my signature. Proceed with the first question.
PHAWKER: Before we get into the questions I have, can you tell me what we can expect at the Troc on 9/20?
JOHN HODGMAN: Last time I performed a full show in Philadelphia, I thought the world was going to end, at the end of 2012, according to ancient Mayan prophecies, and the visions I had while bathing in absinthe. You may have noticed that the world did not end, and I found that to be profoundly humiliating, and a little annoying. Because when you get to where I was in my career, in 2012, 41 years old then, now 45. And having published three books of fake facts, and having been on every television show I ever cared to watch. And I met the President of the United States and George R.R. Martin. Truly, what else was there for me to do?
So, I spent 2013, now almost all of 2014, in a basement — not everyday, about once a week — in a basement in Brooklyn where I live, at a venue called Union Hall, where I started telling stories, in order to figure out what I was thinking about now that the world had not ended. Comedy stories, you understand. What I found was extremely liberating. I told these stories, and the secret show that I did in the basement in Brooklyn. It was fine, because you need to tell the kind of arch-weirdo-absurdist jokes that I was known for, but equally fine to shed the persona of the Resident Expert at the Daily Show, or the Deranged Millionaire. I had written those books with fake trivia, and instead talked about John Hodgman, actual person, husband and father of two human children, and professional John Hodgman impersonator. By the end of another year, by the time the year anniversary of the world not ending had passed, I had discovered I had no more than one whole show that I wanted to present again for the people of the United States, and parts of Canada, until I’ve died.
So, over the course of 2014, I keep generating newer and newer material as I go along. The consequence is, I am making stories of a more straightforward and personal nature than perhaps people are used to. I’m shedding, quasi-literally, the disguises that I wore as a performer before, in order to stand before the audience, totally literally quasi-nude, and just speak of myself. When I speak of quasi nudity, that is to say that I do take off all of my old costumes, and then speak, for a long time as myself, John Hodgman, regular person. At the end of it, I do change into a dress, so that I can perform as Ayn Rand in 1981, the year before she died. The change has to occur onstage. I sense that because of the light, they may want to bring sunglasses, because my semi-nude body reflects a lot of light. It doesn’t last long before I am clothed in Ayn Rand’s costume. Essentially, the show is about a lot of things. It is about costume changes, real and imagined. It’s about my late-in-life experimentation with marijuana. My human children, that I refuse to acknowledge, I pretend that I’m telling stories about my cats, and Ayn Rand. Surf shops, and other things. Ultimately, it is about starting over. We all have to start over one way or another. Maybe you lost a job, maybe you’re out of a relationship, or maybe the world doesn’t end the way it was supposed to.
PHAWKER: Late-in-life experiments with marijuana?
JOHN HODGMAN: I am an only child, which is to say “a member of the Creative-Conflict Narcissist Club of the Universe.” So, by definition, I was always a child. I discovered alcohol pleasurably, after I had turned 18, which was the legal drinking age of many Western countries. That’s how I justified it. Breaking the law, which was uncomfortable for me. I always steered away from drugs, because that’s what “bad” kids did. And marijuana is the worst drug of all. I like pills, because they’re science. But marijuana, it’s like witchcraft. Excessively dirty and unseemly to me. Now marijuana is quasi-legal, and quasi-scientific. You no longer burn marijuana, where it can hurt you. You vaporize it at a very specific temperature. Once I turned 40 or so, I began experimenting with the drug that I previously thought was only suitable for airhead hippies like Jonathan Coulton. I don’t know if you know the folk singer Jonathon Coulton.
JOHN HODGMAN: He’s a musician who is plying his trade today, with his horrendous beard. He plays a guitar, and sings thoughtful songs. He is very popular among a certain set of socially-marginal people. What we call “nerds,” and he is also my best friend. So far as that beard is concerned, I cannot abide it.
PHAWKER: Now that marijuana’s become a precision drug, it’s drawn some of your interest. I’m wondering if it’s changed your world view at all. You mentioned Ayn Rand, I’m wondering if it caused you to re-think your agreement with the teachings of Ayn Rand.
JOHN HODGMAN: Oh, Ayn Rand believes strongly that you should put anything into your body that you’d like.
PHAWKER: Sure, just don’t expect the producers to underwrite your parasitic Cheech & Chong lifestyle. My favorite Ayn Rand quote is: Get a job, you dirty fucking hippie! I believe that’s in Atlas Shrugged.
JOHN HODGMAN: Onstage, I dress up as Ayn Rand, and I do a performance of her based on a series of interviews she did with Phil Donahue in 1980. Ayn Rand’s commentary on popular culture at the time—Charlie’s Angels, and Caddyshack and so forth. I imagine a world in which Ayn Rand went to Studio 54. It is obviously a parody, and I am not an objectivist. But I do find Ayn Rand, as someone who grew up in the cultural relativist utopia of Brookline, Massachusetts in the eighties and nineties, Ayn Rand’s beliefs that there is right and there is wrong., there is productivity and there is parasitism, was a gracing and transgressing tonic for me. Economically and socially, she is essentially Libertarian, and I have a lot more in common with Ayn Rand than just the dress, in that regard. To be clear, I believe in the social safety net, I don’t think that everyone who did not run a steel factory is a parasitic leech, but Ayn Rand believed you should put any substance in your body that you want. She certainly did, and so we are at an agreement. And not just in our fashion sense, but in our beliefs about drugs.
PHAWKER: I wasn’t questioning her beliefs about the rights to consume substances, I was curious as to whether the psychoactive affects of marijuana had caused you to maybe reconsider who the parasites are, and who the producers really are.
JOHN HODGMAN: No, the psychoactive affects of marijuana made me stay up until three in the morning listening to dubstep music for hidden messages.
PHAWKER: [laughs] You appear on the FX Network show, Married. You play a recurring character named Bernie. What can you tell me about Bernie? I must apologize, I’ve not seen this show. Is Bernie a Mac or a PC? Or neither?
JOHN HODGMAN: Well, if you’re asking what operating system he uses, I would imagine that Bernie probably has a Windows phone. You know. It is the year 2014. Apparently, none of us have computers anymore, just devices on our bodies. Bernie is a weirdo and a nerd of a kind that I am not unused to playing, but in a show that is about marriage and the trials thereof. Most of the characters are married, trying to make marriage work or suffering through marriages that do not work. But he has an incredibly functional marriage, which may be partly because we never see his wife. He’s always hanging around by himself. What is truly pleasant to me is that Bernie prints banners and signs. It’s a tremendously unglamorous job, but he has an unnervingly healthy sex life with his wife, and…uh, what is the word I’m trying to think of? I apologize, Jonathan.
PHAWKER: That’s OK, you take as long as you need…
JOHN HODGMAN:…tendency to talk about it in great detail. In many ways, he is the most buttoned-down, and least cool of all the characters. I think psychologically, he’s the most healthy. I love that aspect of him. You may know that this show you’ve never seen has been produced for a second season, you better get on the ball, sir. That’s OK. Everyone can watch what they want.
PHAWKER: No, you’re right. I do need to get on the ball.
JOHN HODGMAN: No, I’m just being silly. I’m very excited that I get to hang out with my television friends Nat Faxon and Judy Greer and Brett Gelman and Jenny Slate and Paul Reiser again.
PHAWKER: I regret to inform you that I have not seen Steven Soderbergh’s The Knick, either, which you have recently played a character who is, accordingly to your Twitter stream, a “Man Entrusted with Eleanor.” Is “entrusted” kind of an old-timey euphemism?
JOHN HODGMAN: Here’s a scoop for you: that character has a name, and it is Dr. Henry Cotton. He is based on a real life doctor, who was the head of a New Jersey psychiatric institute with some extremely invasive ideas about how to treat mental illness. Of course, this was the early twentieth century. They have not revealed yet that is who I am, and I was very tickled to see that they had credited me as a “Man Entrusted with Eleanor.” I want to make a t-shirt as soon as possible, or put it on my business card. It’s hard for me to say what exactly my role in The Knick will be. What you saw on the show was really only the essential part of the scene that we shot one year ago here in Brooklyn, all by natural lighting, by the way. It was an astonishing crew. There were table lamps, but there was no positional movie lighting. Soderbergh’s an incredible guy to work with, who has these cameras that can shoot a scene by candlelight, if you wish. Which was astonishing, and gave him the flexibility to move really quickly. He basically edited the scene in-camera, such that we were out of there faster than any filming I’ve ever done. Yet, I felt that we’d all done the best work of our lives. It was very high-end sort of home movies. I feel like we were at someone’s 12th birthday party, and we just made a movie for fun. Yet, there it is on television. It’s incredible. I did film a sequence for the episode that will come out on Friday, when I am in Philadelphia. But I don’t know how much of that sequence will survive [the cutting room floor]. Perhaps, instead of watching my show on Friday, we’ll all just watch The Knick and find out together.
PHAWKER: Hang on. You have or have not been revealed to be based on this real doctor from New Jersey that had curious ideas about how to cure the mentally ill?
JOHN HODGMAN: It has NOT been revealed, and it may as well be that it has been changed, with the exception of the show. You see what I mean? There was a section of the show, where I was introduced as this character that did not make the final cut. Nor did it need to.
PHAWKER: OK. I see. I follow you now.
JOHN HODGMAN: It may never be revealed, or it may be changed. It may be that I am now portrayed as some fictional doctor that has been inspired by Dr. Cotton. But anyway, such is television. I have confidence that if I do make it into the next episode, if my scene does stay in that episode, that I will largely in the background and blurry, so as to better feature the incredible performance of the woman who’s playing Eleanor. I’m blanking on her name, so I’m just gonna look it up.
JOHN HODGMAN: Maya Kazan! That wasn’t just an exclamation of excitement. “Maya Kazan!” So, that’s her name.
PHAWKER: I have a question for Judge John Hodgman. Is it possible that you could put him on the phone, and I could ask him this question?
JOHN HODGMAN: Yes, because you’re speaking to him. Judge John Hodgman, in many ways, we’re nearing our fourth anniversary of doing the podcast. It has only become more and more of a pleasurable and important part of my creative life. It was designed from the start to give people, perhaps who’ve never asked for it, a taste of what just regular old John Hodgman sounds like talking into a microphone, as opposed to the extremely arched characters that I had played as John Hodgman in the other parts of The Daily Show. The John Hodgman you hear on Judge John Hodgman is just me in all my judgy, crabby, but I hope ultimately kind, fullness of humanity.
PHAWKER: And wise. Don’t forget wise.
JOHN HODGMAN: Well, I was gonna leave that for you to say, and I’m glad you did.
PHAWKER: Here’s my question: I am the Christian owner of a closely held corporation that retails arts and crafts. As per the dictates of Jesus H. Christ, it bothers me that women who take birth control pills can control whether or not they get pregnant, which Jesus clearly stated in The Bible, and I don’t remember exactly where, but somewhere in there, that that is a man’s job. So if I don’t want to pay for my female employee’s birth control on our company healthcare plan, even though the Affordable Muslim Care Act requires it, if I say I’m a Christian, I can get out of that, right?
JOHN HODGMAN: Well, first of all, I didn’t realize that when we were speaking that the Jonathan I am talking to from Phawker is actually none other than Jonathan Hobby Lobby himself. How do you do, Mr. Lobby?
PHAWKER: Hobby is my middle name, yes.
JOHN HODGMAN: Well, in some ways, this would be an inappropriate question for Judge John Hodgman, because it is funny. You are not any of those things, and on the podcast, I only deal with, as best as I can tell, legitimate disputes between humans that are actually having this dispute. The only time I’ve ever questioned it was when these two guys called up to fight about whether or not a robot was a machine gun. I thought it might be a put on, but they went on about it in such detail for so long, that I think that was right. But as for you, Jonathan Hobby Lobby, if I were to take your thought experiment, and put my wisdom to the test, my feeling is that perhaps you’d feel more comfortable if you had no female employees at all, because you certainly don’t get them. Then, you’d be sued out of existence for discrimination but everyone would be a lot calmer.
PHAWKER: Ok, that seems like a good place to end. John, thanks for taking the time to do this, I think you are hilarious and it is always a pleasure to speak with you. Good luck and break a leg.
JOHN HODGMAN: I look forward to performing in Philadelphia where the comedy audience is invariably drunker than any other I have encountered and there is always a prevailing air of mystery and impending violence.
*This is a total lie, we never refer to John Hodgman as The Hodger, for obvious reasons.