Interview: John Hodgman

By CLEA SIMON  |  November 21, 2008

There are strange echoes and patterns in history.  I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but it serves to remind you that there is incredible delight and tragedy on every day and all of it eventually gets forgotten. That’s one of the harder lessons of Sept. 11. I’m being a laugh riot, I’m sorry. But comedy is such a strange thing. I don’t consider myself a comedian. Stand-up comic is a very particular skill which I do not have. A performance skill and a writing skill that I never took on for myself. I do behind-the-desk comedy.

Do you think of yourself primarily as a writer?
At this point, that’s a big question. My goal in life in 2005 was to be a successful writer of books of fake trivia, having been a magazine writer and humorist for McSweeney’s, I felt I had finally found my calling that wove together my interest in writing stories and enjoying jokes. I do not consider myself so much a joke writer as a joke enjoyer. Occasionally, I write a joke that I can also enjoy.

Going onto The Daily Show was entirely unanticipated and that led to the Apple ads, which put me in a different place. A whole different realm of people who I admired who I could meet and potentially work with, like Ricky Gervais.

Have you seen the new PC ad?

How do you feel about it?
I was surprised that they would reference our ads so directly. But I feel like I understand what that other guy is going through. He went from utter obscurity to sudden minor television celebrity. But the thing that I’m reminded of is in the ads that we’ve done, we play computers. We are anthropomorphic representations of computers, not computer users.

I was much more amazed and brain-exploded by some of the parodies that appeared online. That’s when I began to understand that an ad had really crossed over into a kind of cultural consciousness beyond advertising. My brain really exploded when a comic named Christian Finnegan did an impersonation of me, because I used to work at a literary agent with Chirstian Finnegan. We were both assistants to literary agents. He left before I did to become a stand up comic. I rememebr saying to him, “Why would you leave a great job like this to follow all your dreams and hopes?” He didn’t take my advice and went onto succeed, and later on I didn’t take my own advice.

How did you go from studying clarinet and viola to becoming a literary agent to now?
There was no chance of me becoming a professional musician. I couldn’t even make it to the advanced student orchestra at the New England Conservatory. I don’t play either instrument at all, but I am learning the ukelele. Then I realzied I wanted to write very serious highly conceptual short stories, because that’s where the money is. But I put aside childish things.

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