Author and performer John Hodgman may have the most unusual curriculum vitae in comedy. A former literary agent, he broke into the humor business with his first book, “The Areas of My Expertise,” a satirical compendium of all world knowledge.
Hodgman’s author events in support of the book were so unexpectedly funny that he was soon in demand as a performer. Jon Stewart hired him as a correspondent (and Resident Expert) on “The Daily Show” and Hodgman found a sideways kind of global fame as “The PC Guy” in Apple’s classic “Get a Mac” ad campaign. He’s since gone on to a busy multimedia career in movies, magazines, TV, podcasts and radio.
Hodgman also released two more books in the “Expertise” series, wrapping up with “That Is All” in 2011, which dealt with themes of mortality and apocalypse. But, you know, in a funny way. That led to last year’s Netflix Original comedy special “John Hodgman: Ragnorok” – now available and highly recommended.
Hodgman returns to the Triangle tonight for an evening of comedy at the Carolina Theatre in Durham. He spoke to the N&O about his gradual metamorphosis from book author to stand-up comic.
Q: So will the show be pretty much straight stand-up comedy?
A: Well, I don’t know if I would call it straight stand-up because everything I do is a little bent and crooked. As I think all good comedy is. You know, they’ve never let me into a theater before, in the Triangle. I’ve always been exiled – very happily, mind you – to the Regulator Bookshop. But now I am no longer an author; I’m a standing-up comedian.
What people who have seen me before may recall is I enjoyed performing material from the books as much as I did reading from the books. It was just a matter of my terrible memory. Once the books were done I had to figure out how to chart my forward creatively, seeing as how the world had not, in fact, ended.
Q: You came into comedy from a strange vector, as a book author. Did you have any background at all in traditional stand-up comedy?
A: No, whatever chops I had developed in performance started when I hosted a kind of variety show, in a bar that used to be a mayonnaise factory, in Brooklyn about 15 years ago. Then I wrote the books and would go on tour and do these presentations that were my best emulation of stand-up comedy – a form that I love.
But it really wasn’t until last year that I began writing specifically for the stage, and actively learning from the stand-up comedy friends that I have. Particularly Al Madrigal, my colleague on “The Daily Show,” with whom I did some touring last year. He really provided – by brilliant example and frequent late-night post-show lectures – an education into what stand-up comedy really means. You have to know your material cold in order to be alive to the room, and alert to the comedy that’s going to emerge in the moment.
Q: How did you go about making that transition, from writing comedy that’s intended to be read – or read aloud – to writing particularly for the stage, for performance?
A: I booked a bunch of secret shows in New York, where I would have nothing written 24 hours before. I would just have to come up with things that I thought were funny. The result is this show, which is a combination of a few things.
It begins with a disrobing of myself. Well, I don’t get nude. It’s a family show. But I take off a lot of the disguises that I’ve worn creatively over the years. The Resident Expert and the Deranged Millionaire and all the versions of John Hodgman I’ve been. And I present to the world the John Hodgman that I am – an accidental minor television personality with a wife and two human children, now in his middle 40s facing a world where apocalypse did not save him from middle age.
With writing, I’ve learned, when it’s working correctly, it feels like you’re taking dictation from an other, better part of the brain. There’s something really magical about storytelling on stage that is similar to that. Both the performer and the audience feel as if they’ve conjured something new in that room that will never exist again. And that’s very exciting for me.
Q: Last time you were in town, you had an intriguing pre-show performance concerning artisanal pencil sharpening.
A: Oh, you’re talking about television star David Rees, from the National Geographic show “Going Deep With David Rees.” Let me connect the dots. Rees is not merely a dear friend and a mad genius at pencil sharpening, he’s now doing a TV show where he gives the artisanal pencil sharpening treatment to all sorts of everyday tasks – like how to tie your shoes, how to dig a hole, how to make ice cubes. And it’s great. He’s a Chapel Hill native, you know. I hope I can drag him down again. It’s no fun playing in the Triangle unless I can stay with David at his parents’ house in Chapel Hill. If I have to stay in a luxurious hotel, I’ll manage.