The PC in the Mac ads, the Daily Show's "resident expert" — him. After a star turn in autumn's State by State film, John Hodgman returns to Powell's with More Information than You Require, his second volume of complete(ly made-up) world knowledge.
"Hodgman is funny, clever, and has the face of a giant baby," says Ricky Gervais, a man who would know. More Information is easily the best almanac of fake facts ever published with a brown and maize, text-laden cover; I'd swear by it. Choosing a favorite passage or line is a fool's game, but for some reason this factoid (one of 365 daily notes in the new book) cracks me up every time.
1967, PITTSBURGH: Mel Torme first markets balloons filled with his own breath. Unopened balloons of "Velvet Fog" today fetch thousands of dollars on eBay, though they are very hard to find. During the '60s, it was believed that inhaling the breath of Mel Torme produced a cheap psychedelic high — this was the source of Donovan's pop song "Foggin'."
At our Burnside Street store one recent Saturday, Hodgman talked about mole-men and hobos, of course, but also Battlestar Galactica, Mall of America food stands, and life as a famous minor television personality.
Dave: First, what do you say to all the people who read The Areas of My Expertise and have been awaiting the follow-up you promised about Hodgmina, your daughter?
John Hodgman: I forgot to write that book.
I don't know what to say. My life changed very dramatically after the first book. I went on television and became a famous minor television personality and was distracted by all the glitter and glamour of being on television commercials and the Daily Show, and being able to afford more than one pair of shoes.
For a brief while, I forgot I had a family. I thought I might never be forced to do something so pedestrian as write a book again. Then I realized that I had a contract.
More to the point, I was roused from my celebrity stupor by the fierce urgency of now, which I also call "Dick Van Patten's Hobo Chile for Dogs," an actual product that was brought to my attention, so implausibly ridiculous and yet so hideously true, that I realized I had to get back into the game and restock the pond of fact with fiction.
Dave: Hobo chile.
Hodgman: Dick Van Patten, in making this crazy dog food, was getting into my game. He was taking food out of my children's mouths and feeding it to dogs. At that point, the urgency to write a new book of complete world knowledge was quite clear.
I may indeed write about Hodgmina at some point, but as I mention in More Information, now that I have a son, I sort of hope that he will write that book.
Dave: In The Areas of My Expertise, we learned about hobos. Not the homeless, it should be noted, but hobos.
Hodgman: This came up in Seattle two nights ago. A guy said that he'd got into a fight with his boss because he was a fan of the hobo section of the book. The boss said that hobo is a politically incorrect term to describe a contemporary, urban homeless person. The preferred term is transient. That's fair. But once again I had to clarify: The hobos that I refer to in my book are specifically the hobos of the Great Depression, a self-identified subculture of proud, homeless vagrants, who took to the rails out of desperation but quickly built a culture around that.
Dave: Have you run into similar misunderstandings about mole-men?
Hodgman: The mole-men, meaning the advanced civilization living in tunnels and caverns deep beneath the earth, and in great underground cities like Molemansylvania, are hideous, spindly creatures, near-blind, with long tusks, who secrete a luminous mucous and spit drool. They also wear powdered wigs, write declarations of independence, and think beautiful thoughts.
They were in fact designed in opposition to hobos. The hobos in my first book were agents of pure chaos. Like the actual hobos of the Great Depression, they rejected middle class American values, including such things as homes, and wearing different pants occasionally, and not being drunk all the time. They were an unknowable, other culture within America; it was my riff on Tolkien's elves, basically — you think you might understand them, but you have no idea what's going on inside their brains.
The mole-men, in my new book, are agents of reason. They reject chaos. They are savage-looking creatures with the most refined and enlightened ideals — and indeed, from the darkness would develop the commitment to science, reason, and objectivity that we would come to think of as Enlightenment ideals. They influence Voltaire, they influence Jefferson, they influence Rousseau, with these ideas.
I did think, At least no one is going to accuse me of maligning the urban poor this time. No one can confuse a hideous, half-blind creature with a transient. But then people said, "Are you talking about the mole-men that live in the subways beneath New York City? That's what they're called: mole-men."
Dave: Colum McCann wrote a very good novel, This Side of Brightness, in part about them. It describes people building the first subway tunnel between Manhattan and Brooklyn. The novel jumps between its construction and life in the tunnels now.
Hodgman: I guess I had internalized the many different iterations that have emerged in popular culture, all these civilizations under the earth, from the Mole Man and his army of weird creatures in Fantastic Four to Journey to the Center of the Earth to Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Later, I found a book called Hollow Earth that outlined the cultural evolution of this idea, this fantasy that the earth is hollow in one way or another and possibly populated by an intelligent race. The book offers a really interesting exploration of a meme that had currency well into the 20th century. Oftentimes, it has been speculated that this race is much smarter, or more pure, or taller than we are, for some reason; and that we are the wretched remnants of true humanity that crawled out from the earth, withering on its surface ever since.
This is a late 18th century idea, that inside the earth is paradise. It came about at the dawn of the Age of Reason, when to some degree Western culture rejected the idea of god and heaven. Suddenly, the underworld, a place of utter damnation, became a paradise. Once we got rid of heaven up there, we started thinking about it underneath.
It was Edmond Halley who first postulated that inside the earth is another earth. He was trying to rationalize why magnetic north fluctuates. He said that inside the earth was another earth; and inside that earth was another; and on the surface of each of those earths there could possibly be life.
In the 19th century, it was a guy named Symmes, a self-made theorist, or giant crackpot, who postulated that the earth itself was completely hollow and there were giant holes at either Pole. You could go up there, go inside, and find a race of perfect men. His idea gained some currency because it dovetailed with a huge scientific movement to explore the Poles. At the time, they were completely unexplored; they were as remote as the moon. The idea of launching an exploration to the Pole in the 19th century was as tantalizing as launching an expedition to the moon in the 1960s. It was a major feat of national imagination that had to be undertaken.
Unfortunately, unless you believe the conspiracy theories, only the most plausible explanation is true. It's just cold and ice up there.
Dave: So then you do subscribe to these so-called "theories" about an ice-covered Pole?
Hodgman: I do. It marks me as something of a crackpot these days.
I had read about hollow earth theory when I was writing the first book. Even now, people are still attempting to mount expeditions to find the holes at the Poles.
Dave: You've been hanging out with these people?
Hodgman: I read their web sites. In 2004, when I was writing The Areas of My Expertise, a group of people were trying to hire a Russian ice-breaking boat to take them up there and find the hole. When I was writing More Information, I checked back in and discovered that they had rescheduled. They explained that their 2005 expedition hadn't quite come together, but they were still working on it.
Hodgman: Jefferson was quite surprised to find them on his property. Virginia had been the seat of a very brief surface empire that the mole-men attempted to found. A colony, as it were. When they disappeared, they left behind only their mole-man palace at Monticello.
Jefferson, as you know, discovered within the palace a small parlor of mole-men working on a new declaration of independence. He developed a close friendship with them, in particular one mole-man, Genuine Hissfurther, who helped him in writing America's Declaration of Independence.
The mole-men are very fine writers of declarations of independence. They're probably the finest in and on the world at it. It is estimated that between one and two million mole-men live beneath the earth at this moment, and there are probably twice as many independent republics down there because mole-men are constantly declaring independence on one another, they believe so strongly in the rights of man.
Obviously, we would not have an America as we know it today had Jefferson not been taught how to write a declaration of independence.
Hodgman: Whether you ascribe it to mole-manic influence or not — and I think that's the only rational explanation — the reality is that we don't know why Jefferson went from being a rather prosperous Virginia slave owner and attorney, who had lots invested in the Colonial system, to a radical who would risk the very likely outcome of being branded a traitor and killed. That has not been effectively explained by actual scholarship to date.
Jefferson was moved by his belief in Enlightenment ideals, we know that. Most people believe those ideals came from France. I believe they came from underground. The influence of mole-manic thought upon Jefferson is as plausible as any other non-explanation that is out there. It is a legitimate mystery that invites fiction to burrow within it, as it were.
Dave: Going back to Areas of My Expertise, I was wondering: Do you persist, at this later date, in believing that children are better than monkeys?
Hodgman: There's no question. I believe I pointed out that at least children are not talking in sign language all the time, like the chimps do. That can be very distracting. And children, they're much better at getting termites out of mounds with long sticks than monkeys are.
Dave: Have you ever lived with a monkey, though?
Hodgman: No, but I recently read a post on Boing-Boing.net where somebody was recounting his personal experience buying a monkey out of an ad in the back of a comic book in the '70s. Do you remember those ads — "Buy a monkey, cage included"?
Dave: I don't.
Hodgman: You don't remember? Not sea monkeys, but the selling point was that the monkey was very tiny. It seemed too monstrous to believe, even as a child. According to this first-person narration on Boing-Boing, the man sent his money and got himself a monkey in a box. That was the cage: a cardboard box with a couple of breathing holes in it.
The moment he let the monkey out, it began to bite him furiously up and down his arm until he almost fainted from blood loss. And I would say, now that I am a father, that happens very rarely with children. The biting doesn't happen in earnest until they're teenagers.
Dave: How did you land the Apple gig?
Hodgman: I had gone on the Daily Show to promote the first book. They asked me to come back and do comedy on the show. I thought that would be the strangest thing that ever happened to me.
I started doing comedy on the show in January of '06, and then I got the call in March of '06 asking if I would audition for the commercials. It all happened very quickly. I said yes because I like Apple products and I like their advertising. It sounded fun. I never thought I'd get the job, but it would be a fun experience. I was also curious to find out why they had asked me to audition. They don't let you know these things.
There are a lot of benefits to being what they call "talent" in the film and entertainment world, but one of the weird things is that they do not consider you to be a human being. Things like explanations or other courtesies as to why... no, they have designed the system so you feel like you're in a Kafka story at all times. You don't know why anything is happening to you, you don't know why you need to be anywhere, no one gives you any explanations. It is presumed that you will not care or you're too stupid to understand it or you simply are not human enough to deserve such information.
I showed up to the audition hoping that someone would say, "We liked you on the Daily Show," or something perfectly reasonable like that. But it took place at a casting agency, and when I walked in — almost every person that I'd ever met in New York comedy circles was there: people I hadn't seen for years, people I'd seen the day before, people I had only read about. "Hi. You're here for this thing, too?"
I did my first read. It was the first time I had ever done such a thing. I don't think I did a particularly good job, but the concept was instantly graspable, which carried me to some degree. I was put on videotape. The casting agency had a guy whose job was to press the button; my job was to read the lines. Whoever knows how those jobs were connected was somewhere else because afterward he was like, "Who are you?" So I left, and I thought that would be the end. This will be a fun story to tell Dave at Powell's.
Dave: Did Justin Long exist at that point, or were they still casting for the part of the Mac?
Hodgman: He was human. He did exist. I know he was chosen before me, but I don't know when in the process. And he was at a level already in his career where he wasn't going in to audition. They just talked to him and perhaps some other people, but they picked him.
So I got a second call. They wanted me to come in and read again. I was like, Look, I already got a story out of it. I don't have time to go in and read again. I have a magazine article to work on this afternoon and I'm not going to get this job. I felt like they were wasting my time, and I felt kind of guilty because I thought I was wasting theirs. This would never happen. But I decided to go in.
At that point, the director of the ads, Phil Morrison, and some of the folks from the agency were in the audition. It had got to that level. That level. And Phil sort of explained it to me. I'm a huge admirer of his, and we've become friendly. He was very kind. He gave me the context. He said, "I've seen you on the Daily Show. I know your book. That's why we wanted you to come in." Once I had that context, it made things a lot easier to understand.
I know that I gave a very good audition because when I left I thought, Damn. Now I want that job. And worse, I might even get it and my whole life is going to change dramatically if I do. And I'm going to be very disappointed if I don't. It was just a big mess.
Finally, they called and asked, "Will you come out and do the job?" After I hung up the phone, it was maybe thirty-six hours before I was on the plane to L.A. for a fitting. I met Justin for the first time that day, and the next day we were filming.
Dave: Do the commercials take long to make? The beauty is that they're so simple.
Hodgman: No, they don't. Some of them are technically complex — for example, when they have to miniaturize me to put me in a pizza box — but for the most part it's just Justin and I standing in a great big white room, talking. We'll do several takes, but we can usually do quite a few in a day.
Dave: A while back, you wrote an essay about Battlestar Galactica. Now I hear that you're going to appear on the show.
Hodgman: That is correct. On one of the final ten episodes that will air after the first of the year.
Dave: I'm friends with a number of people who are addicted to the show —
Dave: — but I've never seen it. So, please, explain to me why it's such a phenomenon. I only know the other, earlier Battlestar Galactica.
Hodgman: Which has its charms.
Dave: Sure, charms. But it's hard to connect the dots to the level of enthusiasm, among people I actually like, for the new one.
Hodgman: I can only speak to my experience and not for any number of friends you claim to have. It's one of the best-written and best-acted shows on t.v.
As somebody who leans toward the geek spectrum anyway, it is very welcome to see a science fiction show set in a kind of reality, a fantasy show that establishes some ground rules about how the world works and then deals with humans in that world. From the very first three-episode miniseries they produced, back before they knew it was going to become a series, that was clear.
I remember hearing about it and saying, "Why would anyone want to do this?" A lot of original series Battlestar Galactica fans were very upset that it wasn't a Galactica: The Next Generation. There was controversy online.
But I was immediately blown away by the new show's commitment to the concept of the original: Humanity is pretty much wiped out in a surprise attack, by an old foe that had gone underground for a while. Now the foe has come back with an almost genocidal attack, on a clear day, with a beautiful blue sky.
That obviously meant something different in 2003, when the miniseries came out, than it did in 1978, when the original was made. There was a new resonance.
In the original series, as co-creator Ron Moore has pointed out, most of humanity has been wiped out, and within the pilot already they're already going to a casino! Do you know what I mean? And it didn't feel weird at the time. You never thought to question it. It was, Here's the premise. Let's get on with the rollicking adventure.
But the beauty of science fiction, when it operates at its height, is when you ask the question, "What if this actually happened?" and you stay true to the concept. What if there were only 50,000 humans left, in spaceships? How would that play out? What conflicts would arise? How would people deal with it emotionally?
Ron Moore had worked on Deep Space Nine and Voyager. He'd become disillusioned with Voyager precisely because in science fiction television shows, and really most episodic t.v. fiction, police procedurals and whatnot, maybe you'd get a little character development now and then, but basically, at the end of the episode, everything reboots, they start over. The ship never takes on any damage. Things don't wear down. Relationships don't fall apart and stay fallen apart.
In that very first miniseries, when you see the human race wiped out, you really see the human race wiped out. It's not gory, but it's written so that you understand. And Mary McDonnell, who plays the president — she is like ninth in line for succession but happens to be in outer space when it happens and therefore becomes president — she's faced with a choice.
They're going to be attacked again. They get all the ships together that survived the destruction of the home world. They're facing imminent attack from the bad guys, the Cylons, the robots. And there's a problem: Half of the ships or so that have survived are able to travel at light speed and half of them can't. They can't get all of the people onto the faster-than-light ships, and the ones that can't go faster than light are going to be toast; they can't escape the Cylons. So she has to decide whether they're going to stand and fight or whether they're going to abandon the men, women, and children on those ships.
She's trying to make that decision and she's talking to a little girl on one of the doomed ships. Every part of you knows on this science fiction program that the little girl is going to survive. There are two impossible situations here, and what happens in science fiction is they find a third way. Nope. Not in this one. She makes the call. This is the last of humanity. I can't sacrifice everybody for this minority.
So this little girl dies. And that's in the first episode.
Just thinking about it now, it was really rough. But that was announcing that they were playing by real rules that speak to a much more interesting strain of science fiction. We might begin with a fantastical premise but we're going to deal with it in a realistic manner.
Dave: Before you became a famous minor television personality, you held what some people would consider real jobs, like writing for magazines.
Hodgman: I became a freelance magazine writer for the same reason I became a professional literary agent: I wanted an excuse to talk to people that I thought were interesting, and to work with them.
When I was a literary agent, it was Darin Strauss or Bruce Campbell, people I thought were incredibly talented. Once I became a freelance magazine writer, it was the same; if something became really interesting to me, I wanted to learn about it, I wanted to meet the people who were doing it. So I would pitch a story.
Dave: And that's how you wound up writing about Battlestar Galactica.
Hodgman: For me, Battlestar was perfect. I was a big fan, but I was also very interested. I got to go to the set; I weaseled my way in. That's my career, to some degree: weaseling my way into things I find interesting. Once I went on t.v., I found new ways to weasel myself into new things, in even more surreal situations.
When I heard that Battlestar was going to end with its fourth season, that's when I called up my new Hollywood agents, and I just said, "I would like to do anything at all in there. Please make it happen." And I weaseled my way in again.
It seemed like a very fun idea at the time. Until I actually showed up in Vancouver on that set. That step from behind the camera as a journalist onto the set as talent, was a farther and more vomitous trip than going into outer space in reality.
Dave: But you're on the Daily Show. What's the difference? Stepping out of your familiar role?
Hodgman: I was also a big fan of the Daily Show. What added to the Battlestar experience was that I had already conned my way onto the set once, as a writer. Going back, as a pretend actor, I felt like a stalker. I suddenly realized, This is very weird, isn't it, what I've just done? It's a little creepy.
I didn't expect the people who worked on the show to remember me, but I certainly remembered interviewing them and talking to them, and I couldn't pretend that I hadn't because what if they did remember me? So I was constantly going around, saying, "You won't remember this but I actually visited the set once before as a journalist..." "Huh? That was you?"
"What are you doing here? What's wrong with you?"
I don't think they really felt that way, but I did. I worried that I was becoming a real distraction for that reason. What I didn't realize is that I was a distraction because there were a lot of people on set who like the Mac ads a lot.
From my point of view, I'm a geek who won a sweepstakes; I'm trying just to keep it together and stay out of everybody's way. Meanwhile people are coming up to me with their laptops, asking, "Can you sign this? It's so great that you're here." And I'm saying, "You have no idea."
It was fun, the nexus of all these different worlds. It was very exciting but also vertiginous, I guess.
Dave: Your public life has changed so dramatically in the last three years. Do you ever get used to the vertiginous feeling?
Hodgman: I write about this transition in More Information. When you're young, you sort of think, I'll be on t.v. I'll be a famous person. That's the narcissism of youth. Of course I'll be an astronaut. And then I'll be the president. Or whatever. But you move on with your life and eventually you realize, No, this is what I am, whatever you are, whether it's the result of carefully planned life choices or whether you've been buffeted along by events. Usually it's some combination of the two, but you know by then that you don't have to be an astronaut. You have your own life.
Then someone knocks on your door and says, "C'mon. You're going into outer space. Go pack." You think, But I don't want to do that anymore. "No, you have to come."
In that piece, which I originally wrote for This American Life, I say that you go up into space, you're floating around, you eat the dehydrated food, but you don't ever feel comfortable. You don't get used to it.
Well, that's a lie. You get used to it right away.
That was written under the extremely careful and inspiring editorial eye of Ira Glass. I don't mind saying that it was something of an Ira Glass contribution. He helped me to humanize myself instead of revealing that I am a monster.
It makes you a monster immediately. You get used to it right away and you don't want to ever go back. It's why people in Hollywood are such monsters. This will be a distant memory fairly soon, I think; the tendency is to hang on as tight as you can.
When I first flew out to do the Mac ads, it was the first time I'd ever flown first class. It was really nice.
Hodgman: Really nice. I went out for a week to shoot the ads, and I kind of understood very quickly how the process worked. Then they were going to fly me back to a different location so I could meet my family for a vacation, which had been planned long before. I got the itinerary a couple days before leaving, and I saw that it was business class. No, no, no, no.
It had been a week! And I'm going up to the person, saying, "I'm really sorry, but my contract is pretty clear about this. It's for first class." And the guy was like, "I really don't know what I can do about it." And I say [whispering], "Could you look into it, please?" Sure enough, the next day, I got the itinerary back and it said first class.
Only later, once I was on the plane, did I realize that the flight only had two classes of service: coach and business class. It's the only plane that flies to this destination. There was no first class to put me on. The person might have even explained that to me at some point, but I refused to accept it, so he eventually just reprinted the itinerary with "first" instead of "business," and I learned a valuable lesson about how monstrous "talent" can be and how they are treated back.
That delicate game. That's a long answer to "Do you get used to it?" Yes, you do. The trouble is that you do.
Dave: When we shot the State by State film, we interviewed you and Heidi Julavits very early in the process. About eight hours later we asked Joshua Ferris what he'd learned that day. What did you learn, or what did you take away from the experience?
Hodgman: First, I learned about the American Legion Post in Harlem, which is an amazing place.
This is going to sound very mundane, but because of the wonderful backdrop of license plates that you guys put up behind the riser, I learned that Tennessee, at least twice in its history, has had a license plate that was shaped like the state of Tennessee.
For some reason, that's just one of the most perfect things to know. Using the drabness of your state as a strength. It looks like a license plate. A trapezoidal shape. Why not? And why aren't all states using this fantastic idea? With the exception of Hawaii and Alaska, maybe.
Dave: Or Michigan. Though you could fill in the lake with blue.
Hodgman: I loved that idea, that there was once creativity along those lines to license plates. It reminded me that there is delightful strangeness out there. We worry about the homogenization of American culture. The reality is that regionalism, individuality, neighborhoods, it all clings, it all hangs on.
Five or six years ago, I was writing about the Mall of America. There had been so many stories written about what the Mall of America means: the death of America. Well, you go in with your jaded magazine-writerly, everything sucks, anti-consumerist eyes, and certainly there's enough at the mall to support that interpretation. But there was also a lot more. It had become a meeting place where friendships had been made across classes and racial boundaries.
I was there to write about the food court. I'd come to know and love the Egyptian brothers who ran a food stand devoted to Minnesota State Fair foods. They were Arabs at a time when the Mall of America was perhaps not the happiest place to be an Arab, but they were very much beloved by the senior citizens who used the mall as a place to walk around and get exercise, and the other folks who would hang out there to escape from the winter.
We all say that malls destroy Main Street, but Main Street finds a place to live when the real Main Streets are dead. That isn't to say that I love malls, or that I love the death of Main Streets and mom and pop shops across the United States, but it is profoundly cynical to imagine that malls caused the death of civility in America. It's really there.
That's what was so profound about this election, and what was so moving when I heard Barack Obama talk at the 2004 convention. There's no red America and blue America; there's the United States of America. We worship an awesome god in the blue states and we don't want people poking around in our libraries in the red states. That might have been construed as an attack on red state chauvinism about blue state liberals, but I took it as much if not more as an attack on blue state chauvinism of red state values. And that's not what America is all about.
Strangeness hangs in there, even when everything seems to become homogenized. I'm sure a lot of people in Portland are very upset that the brewery is gone and that those nice new condos are there [Editor's note: He's referring to the blocks adjacent to Powell's City of Books]. But you don't know what great novelist is going to be raised reading books bought here, who wouldn't have ever come into this bookstore, perhaps; what families are going to be living there and what they're going to be teaching their children.
Nostalgia is the most toxic impulse of all. It's what drives terrorism, on either end of the political spectrum, the idea that there is a beautiful past we can recover if we just force everyone to do what we want, through persuasion or bombs. That has been a fantasy since the good old days that never existed.
John Hodgman visited Portland the weekend of November 7-8, 2008. This interview was conducted in the offices above the Burnside Street store on Saturday the 8th, after Friday night's fundraiser (for Community of Writers) and before Hodgman's subsequent Saturday appearances with Jonathan Coulton, at Wordstock and Live Wire Radio, respectively.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State