Interview: John Hodgman

By CLEA SIMON  |  November 21, 2008

I went to Yale and studied literature and continued to dabble in writing fiction and critiquing fiction, because we always try to destroy the things we love. Then went to New York with the full intention of becoming an extremely glamorous, highly paid writer of short stories/literary theorist, but all those jobs were taken. So I decided to get a real job in publishing, so I found my way to the reception desk of this literary agency, and soon after found myself working at the reception desk of this literary agency, the Writers’ House.   It was very fun for me to help other writers who had the wherewithal and the mental problems to sit in a room and write an entire novel, that was very gratifying. Later, sort of by accident, I found Dave Eggers and McSweeney's and I thought that might be an outlet for my very serious, experimental short fiction and he was not interested in it at all. But he did like a letter I had written as a joke to a friend of mine, and he helped me realize it was okay to be funny and I started writing for McSweeney's and online and reallyd iscovering my voice and figuring out that here was the way for me to write experimental short stories: they’re called jokes!

Do you miss the other stuff?
Are you joking?

I have a fondness. I’m still very fond of everyone I worked with at the agency and everyone I helped get published, and I remember enjoying the professional millieu in whcih it was acceptable to take naps. But now I may take naps in my own home..

You have to appreciate that I had a dream job, which was to become a wrtier of fake trivia and then I got jobs that were beyond my dream job.

You’ve done a lot with This American Life. I’m curious if there’s much difference in how you prepare material  between when it’s radio, TV, or written word.
The radio show, This American Life, is the only one I’ve ever worked for. Again, it was a situation where I was just an enormous fan. I was at a wedding and when I found out there was a producer of the show there I cornered him and ended up torturing him with calls and emails for many years, and it was an enormous gift to end up working on that show. But while it is often very funny, its priorities are very diffeent froma comedy show.

One of the adjustments that I had to make when going to perform for The Daily Show is rememebring that the goal is to be funny> Not to be incisive, not to be right - or rigtheous - but to be funny, and the rest will fall into place if you keep that first and foremost. That was an enormously challenging thing to do. And then when the radio show asked me to come back, they were doing a live show in Los Angeles, it was an adjustment to sort of undo the punchline - or to find punchlines that provoke different emotions than just laughter. I had to make a conscious decision to kind of “serious it up.” Then Ira Glass came into my hotel room and said, “Hmm.... why isn’t this funny?” And he reminded me of the most improtant rule, just as The Daily Show did, which is just tell the story. Tell the story in your own voice. Be real and authentic, it doesn’t matter if its funny or not.

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