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Getting Real and Real Painful With John Hodgman

Changing Hands presents John Hodgman in conversation with George RR Martin November 7 at Mesa Arts Center.EXPAND
Changing Hands presents John Hodgman in conversation with George RR Martin November 7 at Mesa Arts Center.
Aaron Draplin

For much of his career, John Hodgman has traded in fakeness.

He’s offered fake news on The Daily Show, fake history in his books The Areas of My Expertise and More Information Than You Require, a fake apocalypse in That Is All, and dispensed "fake internet justice" presiding over his internet courtroom on the podcast, Judge John Hodgman.

But his new book, Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches, is chiefly concerned with the real. In it, Hodgman explores the landscapes of New England, white male privilege, middle age, family life, friendship, and death, shedding his oft-employed personas in favor of the real, actual Hodgman. It’s a funny book, as absurd and wry as his previous work, but rooted in mature kindness and openness. It’s the kind of memoir you might read in one sitting, chuckling often and reciting passages from out loud to your wife in the other room. Hodgman wears honesty well.

“There was never a moment where I said to myself, okay, now it’s time to get honest with everybody — here come my funny stories and my thoughts and my feelings both; the truth is: the truth is all I had left creatively,” Hodgman says over the phone from Raleigh, North Carolina, having just finished a radio interview in WUNC's satellite studio, located in a wing of a natural history museum (an exceptionally on-brand scenario).

On November 7, Changing Hands will bring Hodgman to Mesa Arts Center to discuss the new book and have a Skype conversation with Games of Thrones creator and author George R.R. Martin. In advance of the event, he opened up about light topics such as the inevitability of death and American maleness with Phoenix New Times.

Phoenix New Times: Being a fan of your previous books of fake facts and trivia, I was looking forward to your new book. But I didn’t expect Vacationland to move me in such an emotional way.
John Hodgman:
Oh, I’m sorry.

No, no. I mean: Congratulations on writing such an affecting and remarkably beautiful book. Why get real this go around?
The book grew out of what I thought was a comedy show. Around the time that I finished my third book of fake world knowledge, I just realized on some gut level that I didn’t have any more of those jokes in me anymore. I didn’t think I could have another hobo joke or zeppelin joke — and by that, I mean actual dirigible zeppelin, not a Led Zeppelin joke — that I could honestly tell and still find funny.

I started telling stories and doing comedy in a small performance space in Brooklyn called Union Hall on a weekly basis, using that audience as a terrifying catalyst of creativity. What I found myself talking about was me, in a very plain and straightforward way, without any of the masks and garments of the “Resident Expert” or “Deranged Millionaire.”

For a couple of years, I thought, "This is all just going to exist on stage so I’ll never be held to account for it; let’s just dive in and make these poor humans pay for my therapy." But everyone seemed to be having a good time, and the stories that grew out of that show became two different one-man shows I toured around the country ... I thought it was just a comedy show, [but] I was performing it in Santa Fe with my friend, [songwriter] John Roderick. After I performed, for the first time, some of these stories from Maine, he got up to sing his songs, but first he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, the white privilege comedy of John Hodgman.” I thought, "Whoa. That is absolutely correct. That is the definition of privilege, that I didn’t see how the stories were about not only being a weird, neurotic only child from the city having his adventures in the country, but that fact that I was able to go to the country at all, not just one countryside but two wildernesses, in which I owned homes." I realized, “Well, this has to be confronted." But while John Roderick was almost correct in his painful assessment, the fact is it’s not only the white privilege comedy of John Hodgman, but also the white privilege mortality comedy of John Hodgman, and I hope that is printed on the posters announcing my arrival in Phoenix.

Was confronting your own privilege a daunting prospect for you?
How do you write about the problematics of mansplaining when you are a white man explaining it? [That was hard to write about] along with the other darker and less openly humorous themes of the book: getting older and fearing death and confronting loss. The appreciation that you’re not quite who you thought you were, which is something I think that happens to everyone once they reach a certain part of middle age. You start accepting the fact that they’re getting older, no longer becoming something but ending up as something. All of those themes were scary to deal with, and yet that’s the reason you want to do anything. If it scares you, that’s probably the road you should be going down creatively.

In the book, you write, “Shame, embarrassment, and crippling emotional reticence” are elements your part of the country was founded on. I understand you were talking about you and your buddy, Jonathan Coulton in a specific situation, but nonetheless, I do think there’s something about that which extends to white American maleness in a broader way.
I think we can start with white maleness and work out to some similarities in other areas. But definitely, white dudes are crazy. [Laughs]

Yet I found this book to be so vulnerable and open. Did the process of writing it help loosen some of those bonds for you?
Within my family, within the world of my friends, I’m pretty open and therapized. It’s more speaking in public about the vulnerabilities I expose in the book that feel a little bit shameful. Not because I’m displaying weakness, but because there is a kind of deep Catholic slash New England-y legacy of, “Who cares what you think? We all have dumb feelings and thoughts and emotions, why should you speak?" We’re in a time when we don’t really need the testimony of many white dudes. We’re all pretty much on record historically as saying what’s on our mind. It really might be a time when it’s more appropriate for me to go and hide in the woods of Maine and stay there and be silent. But the fact of the matter is: All stories and truths are worth telling. The more perspectives, the better. For better or worse, I’ve still got things to say and bills to pay. I’m going to say them, put my words out there, hope some people hear and enjoy them, and when it’s time for me to listen, I’ll take my turn listening.

You mentioned earlier how death is one of the themes that hangs over this book. I guess in a grand sense death hangs over every book, every experience…
Yes. That is not something that a lot of people think about when they are young. There are lots of people who live under threat of harm and death every day of their lives, from their birth on. Here is a place to recognize privilege, that I didn’t really have to confront the reality that I’m mortal until I was 40 and my body started to decay. And then suddenly the illusion that I was the hero of this eternal story fell away pretty quickly and starkly. How old are you?

I’m going to be 33.
If not now, you will be confronting soon that death hangs over all of us and you’ll have a fun day thinking about that.

I thought about it reading this book. But one of the things about this book is that you write about death in a way that feels tender — death is never a comforting thing — but you seem to have found sweet language that recognizes is it for what it is.
“Oh sweet summer child, what do you know of winter?” That’s a quote from Game of Thrones. That’s my saying to you, my young friend: You’re still a dummy, but you’ll get there. [Laughs] Only insofar in that there is a section in the book about my mom dying, and I’m not going to lie to you, it’s a great piece of writing. But if I have accidentally made it seem like that was a nice thing to have happened, I have failed in my job. It is the same feeling I had when my mom was dying, which I recounted in the book. I said to her, having never really encountered death that painfully or closely, “Do you feel at peace? Are you ready to die?” And she looked at me and said, “No,” like I was some kind of fucking idiot. And I was. “No, I don’t want to die, I’m not at peace with dying, it’s terrifying.” It was one of the few times my mom ever yelled at me. I realized that everything I knew about death came from stories, not the actual confrontation of the real thing in front of you. And then of course, when you’re that person, and you know that it’s coming, that’s unbearable. We can’t think about it.

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That’s why stories exist. Stories distract us from the horrible unknowing of what death is, and as we get older, the likely suspicion that it is just the beginning of nothing. I may be wrong — I am officially an agnostic, I have a card — but that terror is too terrifying, so we construct stories. Some of them are myths, some of them are world religions, some of them are “John Hodgman made death seem like a kind of a sweet fun thing for a family to go through.” [Laughs]. I don’t mean to upbraid you about it at all. If I want to underline something or maybe change something for the paperback, it’s this: my mom’s death was a trauma as anyone who suffers a death in the family goes through. The other brutal truth of it is, that her death taught me, a dummy at that time, the biggest cliche that we tell each other but we never really listen to, which is that life is short. Once she passed away, I realized I was doing the wrong thing in my creative life. I wasn’t being creative. I quit my job and I started being creative. I don’t want to say that I am thankful for her passing. I wish I had learned the lesson a different way. But I am glad for that hard lesson.

That’s a good way to put it.
Well, it’s not surprising, because I am America’s finest storyteller.

When you’re here in Phoenix, you’ll be speaking with George R.R. Martin via Skype. Can you offer readers on the Phoenix New Times assurance you’ll ask him to spoil the end of Game of Thrones?
Unfortunately, I think it’s been pretty spoiled by the TV show. Or will be soon. It’s unprecedented in literary history, that someone else will finish and official version of the story, before the originator of the story, who’s still alive, will have finished writing it. I don’t think I will bring that up with George because I think he’ll turn off the Skype feed. But I will say that the reason George R.R. Martin is joining me via Skype in Phoenix — he is simulcasting in Santa Fe in the movie theater he co-owns, the Jean Cocteau Cinema, at the same time, I will be Skyping into there — is simple. I am a fan of his. I am beyond amazed he ended up liking the things I do. So I invited him to fly to Phoenix on my dime to have a conversation with me, and he said, “No way.” [Laughs] We’ve all learned, you take as much George R.R. Martin as he offers you and be patient for the rest.

Changing Hands presents John Hodgman and George RR Martin, Vacationland, Tuesday, November 7, at Mesa Arts Center. Tickets range from $32 to $37, and are available online.

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