Long before John Hodgman became universally recognized as the systems-challenged PC in Apple’s ads, he was writing fake trivia for such publications as McSweeney’s and the New York Times Magazine. Discussing his new book, More Information Than You Require (Dutton), he explains how a former clarinetist-turned-literary agent could become the face of a reviled computer and, possibly, one of the smarter humorists on the planet.
There’s one phase in your first book, The Areas of My Expertise, that I just love: “the made-up truth.”
I wrote that book and I wrote that phrase, but then Stephen Colbert put it so much better, with the word “truthiness.” When he wrote that, my heart both leapt and sank, which caused me to go to the hospital. It’s such a perfect assessment of the new kind of truth that we are all wrestling with – and that I am profiting by.
Do we live in particularly funny times?
I think these times are possibly hilarious, but it’s a laugh to keep from crying hilarity. But I don’t know if that’s particularly unusual to these times. There have been difficult times throughout history, and that is why there has been humor. There was a lot of great Black Plague humor, for example. I don’t know if that’s true. If they existed, I’d love to read the transcripts of some Black Plague standup comedy.
I think that right now we live in extremely and refreshingly surprising times. I think what made the previous eight years sort of difficult was that they were no longer funny after a while. Unless you were a supporter of the Bush administration, and there are reasonable people who are, you got used to being told that it is raining when many, many people are urinating on you - and no one really questioning that.
For what it’s worth, John McCain is really keeping me guessing with what will happen next.
The New York Times has said he’d provide “a story a day”
Just this idea that he would seek to cancel the debate, or delay the date, that he would suspend his campaign and start it up again, the choice of Sarah Palin as a running mate, extremely risky and exciting for his base. You have to admire a man who is willing to roll the dice that way. Perhaps not admire him for his stable governance but admire him for keeping things interesting.
I know that he is an avid gambler, I have read that. Now there’s also the possibility in either case of an extremely historic and unexpected development in human history, that the next president will either be a man of mixed race, or the next vice president will be a woman. It’s pretty astonishing. So I think these times are neither funny nor grim, but giddy and vertiginous. For the first time in a while, we don’t know what story is being written right now.
Does that affect your material?
The most profound change in how I present my material has not come about through any shift in the political landscape - because I’m not primarily a political humorist to begin with, I am a sort of absurdist humorist who is very seriously interested in politics and was forced to awkwardly fuse those two things to join The Daily Show, a show of which I was a fan for many years but could not possibly consider contributing to. I did not find politics funny, I found them to be ether exciting or enraging or disturbing or sad. But I’ve learned a lot from them.
The research is amazing.
We have access to something called the Internet. That has always been for me personally and for The Daily Show as well, a great source of dubious scholarship.
What The Daily Show has is a team of producers and interns who are scanning all the cable channels and all the news and all the political websites all the time, and creating that dialy database of whats happening in the world that allows the writers and Jon [Stewart] and the producers to create those incredible montages. I think the tour de force of recent memory was their take down of the sudden Republican concern about sexism in the campaign, and the reversals and rank hypocrisy - as Karl Rove trashed TIm Kane as a potential VP for Obama and then accepted Sarah Palin. There is a lot of hypocrsy out there, and there’s a lot of legitimate hypocrisy and because the cable news is such a voracious beast, I htink there’s a lot of unconscious hypocrisy that gets revealed - people say I have to keep talking and they come around and contradict themselves eventually. I think what The Daily Show does so well is find those moments of real, unabashed, not simply gaffes but open hypocrisy. It’s incredibly refreshing, they’re not showing you anything that you can’t see for yourself. They’re putting it into a context. Every time I hear most kids get teir news from The Daily Show, well, there's a reason. The show is largely a news cast.