Under the Radar Festival: An interview with John Hodgman
With I Stole Your Dad, the author-comedian tries something radical: being himself.
Tue Jan 7 2014
Photograph: Brantley Gutierrez
After incorrectly predicting the end of the world in 2012—as documented in his comedy special Ragnarok—John Hodgman decided to change his routine. Rather than inhabiting his typical resident-expert-type character, he’s tackling his most personal material yet in his one-man show I Sold Your Dad, touching on his upbringing as an only child, his recent dalliances with marijuana and more.
How did you get involved with Under the Radar?
I was invited to the Public Theater to present my material. They seem to be aware of what I do for a living, so I have to trust that they wouldn’t have made this decision rashly. I think that it will be a very enjoyable show; none of that, however, makes me any less terrified at the prospect of taking one of the most important stages in New York theater.
Do you consider I Stole Your Dad to be stand-up, or is it closer to a one-man show?
Well, I’ve always hesitated to even say that I do stand-up. Stand-up itself is an incredibly refined art form that has rules and ways of its own. I toured with [comedian] Al Madrigal last fall and this spring, and learned a tremendous amount from him: [how] to not present the material you’ve prepared, but to live out the material onstage and create that moment of spontaneity—which is a part of stand-up and acting and theater, but not a part of literary readings, which had been the place where I honed my performance chops.
I only do what I know how to do. I’m fascinated with all kinds of ways and means of performance. I can only be accountable for the ideas that preoccupy me, and I can only present them in the way I best know how. For me, what that has long meant is getting up onstage in a suit and tie and pretending to be an exaggerated version of John Hodgman. Now, the new character is only me, and I get up and tell stories that reflect my preoccupations as best as I can in my own voice.
Is that what makes this experience so terrifying?
No, I had gotten over that part. [Laughs] The world, unfortunately, did not end at the end of 2012 as I had predicted, and I had really not made any plans for what I was going to do next, creatively or professionally. So I went into the basement of Union Hall and booked a bunch of shows [his Secret Society series] that we did not announce or publicize in advance—in effect, to give me an hour two or three times a month that I’d have to fill with something. I began writing specifically to have something to say to the audience at these shows. It was terrifying, and equally therapeutic, because I made a decision to not go in as a character and simply say what was on my mind.
The whole plan was not to wear a costume or uniform of any kind, but to give people exactly what they didn’t want, which is just me, and convince them that’s okay too. But within the first couple of shows I realized I was wearing layer upon layer of swag. I’d unconsciously dressed almost exclusively in clothing that’d been given to me by television or movie productions I’d worked on. I was unconsciously encasing myself in layers of my former relevance, and I realized, Oh, this is a thing! This means something! I start the show now wearing all this stuff—my Bored to Death jacket, my Daily Show jacket, my Delocated sweatshirt, things that represent all the weird and different projects I’ve worked on in the past—and letting go of them. But that terrifying aspect of unburdening myself from the artificial versions of John Hodgman wasn’t terrifying after a while.
Would you say the show is about reinvention?
Reinvention sounds very calculated; I think [it’s just about] starting over. Mostly, this show is about me doing material and telling stories that I find funny and interesting and compelling enough to feel like I have to share them. It’s about not feeling obliged to explain what I do, and just to do it. All I can do is what I do.
Audiences can tell if you’re not being honest with them.
I think so. Even when I lied for a living by reciting fake facts, I would hope that people appreciated that I was being honest that whole time. The jokes that I was making gave me pleasure and reflected ideas that I was preoccupied with. It would’ve been great if Teddy Roosevelt had commissioned a bunch of steam-powered exoskeletons to fight the Spanish-American War, and if any President was going to do it, it was gonna be him. Couldn’t make that joke about Woodrow Wilson; it wouldn’t be funny.
I’ve been to a few of the Secret Society gigs, and what’s remarkable is that you ask your audience to not share what they heard in the show on social media, and everyone respects that.
It’s been very heartening. Initially I asked people not to do it because the material was so unfinished, just like unpainted furniture: rough and raw, and you’d get a splinter if you touched it the wrong way. The first couple of shows were in a light, comedic mode, but as I ran out of things to say, I would just have to say the things I didn’t necessarily feel comfortable saying in front of an audience. Being able to rely on everyone keeping it a secret enabled me to feel comfortable to say it in that room, but very soon after that, I’d feel comfortable saying it in larger and larger rooms. Panic is an incredible creative catalyst—having to fill up time unlocks doors in your mind to rooms you would not have otherwise explored. Being creative out of necessity is so much more invigorating than being creative out of design.
How much of the material in I Stole Your Dad came out of that initial round of Secret Society shows?
One hundred percent. It’s all material that was developed out of panic. I am really good at procrastinating, particularly when it comes to writing and being creative, because it’s hard. It’s not as fun as enjoying something someone else created. To make something out of nothing is terrifying. What’s amazing is how quickly your body adjusts—your brain is a muscle, and the brain needs to be exercised and needs to be trained.
The thing that people really don’t understand, and I’ve only just come to understand myself, is that creative people don’t think of themselves as athletes. It’s a shame, because athletes understand that their bodies change and it’s not their fault. An athlete can’t run or hit or kick a ball with the same proficiency at the age of 40 that they could at the age of 20. It’s understood within the culture of athletics that that is true. And creative people don’t ever think of their brains as physical dumb things within their dumb skulls, but they should, because their brains change! When people get to be my age—which is 42—and they’re still trying to create stuff, one of the profound problems is you can’t think as fast as you used to. You can’t write about love in the same way you did when you were 22. And you think of this as a failing, but it’s not. It is what it is. The benefit that creative people have in this way is that we can train our brain to other skills that are just as vital and compelling, though different from what we did when we were 20.
I wanted to ask about the Ragnarok kits that you recently started selling as a companion of sorts to your Netflix special.
Oh, yeah. That’s a perfect example of, like, I don’t know why I felt the need to do this, I just really wanted to.
You were confident enough that you wouldn’t need a surplus of survival mayonnaise anymore?
Well, I was fairly confident that the world was not going to end, between you and me. But I’m in no way confident that the world requires from me custom survival mayonnaise, a urine flask and a completely nonjokey, nonironic unisex cologne. I just wanted to make those things.
Can you tell me a little bit about the process of assembling the kit?
I had worked with Empire Mayonnaise to do up some mayonnaise for the Ragnarok special, going back now a year, so I had a relationship with them. Their mayonnaise is supreme; I don’t think anyone colloids it better than they do. This is a classic mayonnaise: vinegar, a little bit of mustard, no fancy flavors. The idea for a urine flask… I didn’t have to come up with a custom urinesmith. Everyone makes their own urine to their own specifications. But that design, as was all of the design for the labels and products inside the survival kits, comes from Jessica Hische, who’s an amazing typographical and graphic designer. She did all of the title designs and captions for Moonrise Kingdom. I loved her work, and I thought she’d be a wonderful person to design all this stuff. Particularly her filigrees and curlicues she adds to letters…you didn’t want to see urine written out any other way.
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