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Before his life-altering appearance on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart on November 16, 2005, author and humorist John Hodgman logged time as a literary agent (for Bruce Campbell, among others) and as a freelance writer, editor, and/or reviewer for publications as diverse as McSweeney's (for which he wrote the absurdist column "Ask A Former Professional Literary Agent"), The Paris Review, Wired, Time Out New York, and The New York Times Magazine. But after he was invited to appear on The Daily Show to promote his first book The Areas Of My Expertise, his eccentric and hilarious almanac of fake trivia, he quickly became, in his words, "a famous minor television personality." For the two years running, Hodgman has been a semi-regular correspondent on the show, turning his super-elite "Resident Expert" persona on topics such as net neutrality, art authentication, the "staycation" (or "holistay"), the plague of diseased immigrants, and mixed martial arts. He's also gained recognition as the PC in the "Get A Mac" commercial series with co-star Justin Long, contributed frequently to This American Life, and scored bit roles in the film Baby Mama and the upcoming season of Battlestar Galactica.
Hodgman's new book, More Information Than You Require—the second in a planned trilogy—picks up right where The Areas Of My Expertise left off, issuing bogus information on U.S. Presidents, gambling tips, predicting the future with a pig's spleen, dealing with common (and uncommon) infestations, and a definitive list of mole-men names and occupations. Hodgman recently spoke to The A.V. Club about hobos, Sarah Palin, and why appearing on The Daily Show makes him want to vomit.
A.V. Club: Was the idea of writing history with lies as you do in The Areas Of My Expertise and the new book inspired in some part by the current era of "truthiness"?
John Hodgman: My heart was hurt and lifted when Stephen Colbert coined that term, because it describes far better in a single word what I attempted to describe in 250 pages. The idea that something that feels true is more important than it being true, and the delights and the dangers that go along with that. And I would certainly say my primary goal with The Areas Of My Expertise was to entertain and to write a book of trivia, in that order. But certainly as someone who had been a freelance magazine writer who was forced on a monthly or weekly basis to become an expert in any given subject that might be thrown your way, from hot dogs to hangover cures, the cellular process of aging, and to present yourself as such an authority with utter fraudulency and a completely straight face. And then to dump all that information out of your brain and start again, that was the erosion of the concept of expertise that both amused me and was what I wanted to explore. As I wrote my advice column for McSweeney's, "Ask A Former Professional Literary Agent," I was often asked questions to which I did not know the answer, such as, "What is the cause of my chronic knee pain?" I realized that even in a world of proliferating media venues, online and in print, and on TV and on countless cable channels, the idea that I could be considered an expert on chronic knee pain was I think troubling for society, but very exciting for me.
AVC: The new book picks up where you left off with the previous book. You even have the pages start with 237. Do you have a grand plan for all three of them and the way they might kind of interact?
JH: My hope when I wrote the first book was that I would get to do it again. But it was not entirely clear that that would happen. Indeed, it was never made more clear that it might not happen than in the great city of Chicago, where I found a small audience of people who really enjoyed the book, and were dedicated, and may I also point out very small. Not physically small—they were normal-sized humans. It seemed very possible the book would reach an extremely niche market composed of me, the people that I know, and the very few people in the world that I was able to convince to listen to me. And so we had a lot of fun at those early Chicago readings. [Hodgman's admission that Chicago exists is a reversal of a stance taken in an earlier interview. —ed.] I knew from the beginning that the possibility of this catching on could go either way. My hope was only that I would get to write another book of fake trivia. And that hope was realized only because Jon Stewart put me on television and sort of said, "It's okay, he's not completely deranged. It's okay to like this." And apparently a lot of people watch television, and those who watch The Daily Show actually go out and buy books, which had been a rumor in book publishing for some time, but not something I was necessarily prepared to believe until I saw it in action. And that's unique to The Daily Show. Not only is it one of the only shows that has book coverage these days in any sort of meaningful way, on the sort of late-night comedy circuit, but it actually has authors on the show. And the audience goes out and buys those books and reads them.
So that enabled me to then start thinking, "Well, what can I do next?" And very quickly the proposal for the second book crystallized in my mind. And that proposal was basically more of the same but twice as long. And that's where I got with the second book. It's not quite twice as long, but it is considerably and needlessly longer, and that is something I really like. But for the third book, which will be called That Is All, I am somewhat less locked in as to what it will contain. I feel that obviously the idea from the beginning is that it would not be three distinct books but, like The Lord of The Rings, one complete work of fiction that's published in three books. So the third book will obviously follow the same format with the page numbering, but I want to afford myself a little freedom to push and explore the format a little bit and find things to do within it in a way that might be refreshing to the reader as opposed to just sort of numbing. [Laughs.]
I think to some degree—and I'm sort of speaking sadly sincerely now—I'd written a lot of new fake trivia for the second book before I realized I had to adjust the voice of the book dramatically to accommodate and to take into account what had happened in my life since I wrote the first one. I mean, they were never designed to be autobiographies in any sense, but I do refer to myself. And most of the references to myself are, if not precisely true… I never lived in a gigantic observatory on the Upper West Side, but that's closer to the truth than you might think. And by the time I was writing the second book, my life had changed rather dramatically, thanks to the intervention of television, and I needed to find a way to discuss that. Otherwise the big, fake book would not be true on some level. So it veers to some degree. There's certainly plenty of lists on how to get rid of common household pests like mice and Scottie dogs. But there are also longer, listy sections of sort of more essay-like derangement. So what will happen in the third book is something of a question mark, but one I find intriguing and I suspect the answer will present itself once I really begin to fight with it.
I think that by the time I start writing the third book, of course, I will be President Of The United States, and that also will have something to do with it. I'll probably have to acknowledge that somehow.
AVC: Your star will rise exponentially. Each book will make you more and more famous.
JH: It is no less likely that that will happen than what actually happened to me after the first book.
AVC: How did that first appearance on The Daily Show come together? How did you get that slot?
JH: Well, I have to give a lot of credit to friend and colleague Sarah Vowell, who is a friend of that show and who brought my work to their attention. But I also have to give some credit to I think Jake Gyllenhaal, who the rumor I heard cancelled at the last minute.
AVC: I thought you were going say he loved your work.
JH: No. I don't know if this is true. This is a rumor I'm too fearful to confirm and I don't even remember where I heard it. But there was a sudden opening that only Hodgman could fill. At the time, I was in Chicago and sort of thinking, "What if this is the only book of fake trivia I get to write?" The audiences here are passionate but small and that was certainly one possibility that I expected could happen: it would reach a small group of fellow travelers and that would be it, and sort of coming to terms with that. And when I landed in Boston, I had a voicemail saying The Daily Show wants to know if I can go on in November and I said, "Okay." And that changed everything. It's very rare to have something actually change overnight that dramatically, for that to actually happen.
AVC: Did you think that was going to be a possibility? Did you know the stakes were going be pretty high for you, this was going to be a very important moment for you?
JH: I looked at it as an amazingly fun and plausible opportunity because I was a big fan of the show. I thought it could not get stranger than to be able to be a guest on one of your very favorite TV shows. If you're asking me if I freaked out, absolutely. But I don't think even I anticipated how dramatic the fortunes of the book would change and veer towards my absolute best imaginings for it until after the show was done and I was back on the road to Seattle getting texts from my publisher saying, "People are buying your book." Because I did feel that what I was writing had kind of a wave particle duality. It was so personal and weird and esoteric that I could just see a situation where it was reaching me and my friends and that small group of similar lunatics I had yet to meet out there in the world. Or it could just hop over and become a wave. It could become a particle or it could simultaneously hop over and become a wave. And enough people would talk about it and get into it that they would eventually… even if they did not automatically share my derangement, they would find it appealing. My hope from the beginning was for that to happen. Anyone of conscience could come look at my book and see it as an esoteric oddity or be intrigued by it. It could happen either way on a thousand different little decisions each individual might make. And I think that Jon Stewart essentially saying, "This is not a particle, but a wave," helped that to happen. And it would not have happened otherwise. It completely transformed my life. Literally overnight. And that was just the beginning of a bunch of success clichés that sort of occurred to me, to my embarrassment, exactly as literally as the cliché says it. Do you know what I mean? Plucked from obscurity. Literally overnight. It's been a surreal experience.
AVC: Do you think your appearance that night and your subsequent appearances on the show helps people get a better handle on the tone of the book itself and how it should be read?
JH: Yes, absolutely. It's like a letter of introduction. It's like I came to America's doorstep wearing a cheap blazer spouting a bunch of lies and looking crazy, but I had a letter with me that said, "Let this man in. He's not just crazy. It is all just an act. Signed, Jon Stewart."
AVC: The Book Of Lists is obviously a pretty big influence on this enterprise. Are there any other lists books or almanacs that have served as your guideposts through this project?
JH: The short answer is yes. The Book of Lists was a big influence on me as a kid. There are other influences that I was conscious of when I started writing, including William Poundstone's trilogy Big Secrets, Bigger Secrets and Biggest Secrets. Cecil Adams' column The Straight Dope was a big inspiration. I'd discovered him long after I'd actually stopped writing the "Ask a Former Professional Literary Agent" column. I read it and felt an immediate kinship and sadness that I didn't know about it earlier, that sort of thing. That intense, polymathic expertise on all things plus a weird contempt/affection for the readership was definitely inspired by Cecil Adams in the Straight Dope. And then there were references that I had that were really important to me but I had forgotten about them until after I'd written the book and sort of rediscovered things, like the book Gnomes. Do you remember the book Gnomes? In 1977 or so, a couple of Dutch dudes [Wil Huygen and Rien Poortvliet] came out with a lavishly illustrated coffee table book on the life and habits of the gnome. And there were these little dudes in red hats that had been garden decorations forever, and they basically imagined this whole cosmology of the gnome life cycle, and their culture, and the way they built their houses. And you know, what they do all day, and what they use for medicine. It's really pretty exhaustive and it really invaded, at least in New England, everybody's mind for a while. There was even a Gnomes TV special. It was a big deal, a couple of sequels. And it sold lots and lots of copies.
It was one of these creations that kids found fascinating, but it was written for adults, very strange adults. And kids liked it, but it wasn't for them, because there's an awful lot of gnome boobage in the book. It has a European sensibility towards the body that would probably not make sense as a kids' book.
AVC: It would get pulled from the Wasilla library then?
JH: Yeah, for example. There are also some reprints of old, probably 19th century books for boys and girls like The American Boy's Handybook and The American Girl's Handybook, which were really the precursors of The Dangerous Book For Boys. And they told boys how to create kites that had razors on them that could destroy other kites. [Laughs.] Then I looked at The Lord Of The Rings as being a gigantic reference book to an imagined world, so [it] was a big influence. And then coming full-circle around to The Book of Lists. You know, The Book of Lists was a side project of what that family considered to be their main project, which was the People's Almanac—an updating of the American almanac tradition. Which was something I didn't know about when I was a kid reading The Book Of Lists, but they were books of trivia and little articles about history and sort of catch-all lay reference books. They were the staple of the American almanac publishing tradition. So you would have books like The North American Almanac or The World Almanac that had information about moons and tides, but also were just sort of little handy lay reference books that you would keep in the room that houses your bathtub, to speak politely. And The People's Almanac was designed as a reinvention of that tradition for the modern 1970s. My friend David Rees introduced me to one of these really old almanacs from 1949 called The World Of Wisdom, which is a perfect example of the same thing—it had everything from the lives of the Presidents to diseases of the horse to how to address a letter. And while it was only about 190 pages long, it very boldly claimed to have all world knowledge in it. Valuable and indispensable information for everybody. It was The World Of Wisdom Encyclopedia. Their motto was, "Look what's in. You will find it." This is an amazing book.
AVC: This is a very broad question, but what is your view of the role of the list in popular culture?
JH: It's a handy way to organize information in numerical order that allows magazines to not have to hire writers.
AVC: The new book has a large section on Presidents. Is there any one President that captures your imagination the most? If you were to write a Presidential biography, is there one you would really want to focus on?
JH: When I first approached this book, I wanted to write about the mole-men. It was clear I was going to write a list of 700 mole-men names—that was one of the very first jokes I thought of for the book. Like, let's take it to the next level of unnecessary strangeness. And so it seemed almost immediately inevitable that people would say, "Oh, the new hobos in this book are the mole-men." But then as I was working on the Presidents and the section on Presidential history and the little table of all the Presidents, I came to think these guys are the new hobos. They're all crazy, you know. They're all insane personalities that are so outsized and strange. To want to become the President is, I think, such a bizarre ambition that it is automatically deranging. But I found myself newly fond of and fascinated by Thomas Jefferson. Of the first three Presidents, I always liked him the best because he was an eccentric. He was an amateur paleontologist, who collected ancient mammoth bones and spread them out on the White House carpet, and wore slippers to dinner, and invented macaroni and cheese. You know, he was one of the great polymaths of our time. But it wasn't until I had to justify this joke that I had made in the first book about how the mole-men had initially settled Virginia and build their mole-manic palace in Monticello that I had to find the connection somehow between Thomas Jefferson and the mole-men that I discovered that Thomas Jefferson really needed the influence of the mole-men in order to exist in real life, This was a guy who—much like the other founding fathers—but I think especially in Jefferson's case, was a man of means, an accomplished attorney, a landowner, a slave-owner who had zero reason in his economic or even for a long time political profile to become a radical. And yet, he was so profoundly influenced by certain ideas that he risked treason in order to break with England and form a new nation. And that change in him has never been, I don't believe, sufficiently explained by actual scholarship. Obviously, he was influenced by the French Enlightenment thinkers, but to the degree that he would risk his life, it's hard to see that. It is an essential mystery of his character. So how much different is it to suggest that he was actually influenced by a group of mole-men that he discovered on his land, writing a declaration of independence and learning the skill from them?
As Voltaire says, "If the mole-men didn't exist, man would have to invent them."
AVC: The hobo section of the last book really sparked the imaginations of many, including various Internet and comics artists, who devoted themselves to rendering them. Could you talk about that phenomenon? Do you have any particular favorites?
JH: That was a very gratifying thing to have happen. I and [musician] Jonathan Coulton, my good friend with whom I went to college, used to talk about the hobo culture and hobo signs and their weird hieroglyphics and everything else in sort of a very vague way for years. And I had written a little bit about the hobos back in 2001 for a comedy show and that sort of grew into the hobo piece. But I was not aware that anybody else but Jonathan and I necessarily shared that fascination. I think that there must've been some mysterious primary source, [like] an article in Highlights magazine, or some television special, something that a generation of guys from ages 25 to 40 all saw some time in the late '70s or something. Then they just sat there waiting for someone to say the word "hobo" again and like The Manchurian Candidate, it turned them on and they just started maniacally sketching hobos.
So that was one of those moments where I felt like, I'm putting this out there and it could echo against nothing or it could be this rushing, massive echo back of interest. I was also particularly humbled by it, because I am not Jonathan Coulton. I am not an Internet superstar. I am, ironically perhaps, the most old media superstar of all time. My fame is due to broadcast television. But I was always fascinated with the way that things pop on the Internet—the ways you build communities and create little stories and ideas that people play around with and send back to you. And you put out ideas and they come back. I had an idea that I wanted to play with that in some way. And so, at one point I had decided to create an Internet meme. Anytime you try to create an Internet meme, automatic fail. That's like the worst thing you can do. But I was going to put it out there and see what happened. And it was to take one of the hobo symbols that I invented—the "H" surrounded by sunrays—that the original book described that was the symbol that appeared when it was time for hobos to take over the United States government. And I was just going to start chalking those places, taking pictures, and putting them up on Flickr. My hope was that people would pick up on it and do the same thing. And we bought a whole bunch of railroad chalk and put it in a special Areas Of My Expertise box and sent it out to bookstores to give away to people with instructions on what to do. And the hope was that you'd get this great collaborative art project with people taking pictures of the "H" and sunrays in all these different places that would sort of reify this idea that suddenly there are hobos who are signaling to each other that it's time to take over the world. Which is a very lovely idea, except no one did it. No one cared. And, you know, I deserved that. [Laughs.]
And then one day Mark Frauenfelder of the blog BoingBoing.net—of which I was a reader but had no connection—heard the recording that Jonathan and I had made of the 700 hobo nicknames and put it online, just for fun. He didn't even know there was a book. But he had the idea that it would be funny to see if there were any cartoonists out there who would draw each of the hobos, and it just happened on its own the way it's supposed to on the Internet. I had nothing to do with it and I enjoyed so much of that fact. It was so wonderful to see people creating stuff based on the work, but even more wonderful was the fact that I had zero to do with it. It was not my thing at all. It was just something that was happening on its own. Since then, I've been in touch with those guys and they are predominantly guys because we are talking about cartoonists. [Laughs.] But I've been in touch with some of those guys and met a few of them. They're amazing. Some of them are really talented and I would be remiss if I didn't mention Adam Koford, also known as "Ape Lad," who I think is an amazingly talented cartoonist and illustrator, who had now created one of the greatest single panel comics of all time, the Laugh-Out-Loud Cats, which you may find at his blog Hobotopia.com.
AVC: We keep seeing hobos surfacing more and more now, like on the first season of Mad Men and the film Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, which was all about hobos.
JH: I haven't seen that episode of Mad Men yet, but it's in my queue. I am a little nervous about it, but I certainly got a lot of e-mails when it came out. But can imagine my great surprise and wonderment, sitting in the movie theater with my daughter watching Kit Kittredge and realizing the whole B-story of that movie is the rescue of the hobo king. With quite a bit well-researched information about hobo life and hobo symbology. A lot more research than I did, that's for sure. But then again, I credit only that it's an idea whose time has come at that moment and especially now that we're in the next Great Depression.
AVC: So you think we're not even getting there, we are there?
JH: I do not know if people are going to be driven to riding the rails, but I think they will certainly start exploring bedrooms 19 and 20 in their gigantic houses that they have to leave. [Laughs.] In desperation. They may start wandering their McMansions and singing songs about that.
AVC: There was an editorial in The New York Times yesterday by David Brooks ["The Class War Before Palin," 10/9/08], a conservative columnist, about how the Republican Party has rejected intellectualism and devoted itself to sort of ruling from the gut and painting the other side as a bunch of pointy-headed elitists.
JH: Yes, anti-expertise.
AVC: Exactly. And I couldn't help but think of your "resident expert" persona as the comedic personification of that. Is this the right time to be you, in a way?
JH: It's a lot better time to be me now than it was in 1948, because I wasn't born then. That would have made it more challenging.
As I've said, I am someone who values knowledge, actual knowledge. I also value stories and fiction a whole lot, and that's where the fake knowledge comes in. I am someone who values truth—actual truth as opposed to "truthiness." I am also someone who has been trained in deconstruction in the literary theory department of Yale University, so I am someone who is tempted to believe that no absolute truth is possible. And in a very weird way, my leftist postmodern leanings and relativism has put me directly in line with the contemporary Republican Party. The very idea that there is no truth, but only the filter of narrative through which truth is invented is something I learned at the feet of the most leftist professors at Yale and am learning again from Sarah Palin during the Vice Presidential debate, and I find that very disorienting. [Laughs.]
That said, I think that it was inevitable that in the proliferation of media and media channels and the natural debasing of authority that comes when you make an expert of someone who knows a few things and can be on television and you put the word "expert" underneath them, that is to say me, then eventually the very concept of expertise itself would become meaningless. And therefore very easily scapegoated. But I don't know what's going to happen, because the reality is that there is an enormous value to gut-check instinctive decision-making in the world that is not hampered by reams and reams of research and complexity. But on the other hand, our world is complex system. And we cannot wholly rely, as though it were Medieval times, [on the notion that] the only reality is what we see in front of us. There are germs. There are changes that are happening in our planet's ecology that are happening over such a long period of time that we cannot see the changes. Just because you see an iceberg does not mean that there isn't global warming, for example. There is a need for expertise, for real expertise. I'm not doing much to help that cause, but I think we can find the healthy balance between intellectualism and anti-intellectualism. Jocks and nerds may come together, I believe it. I believe it is so. But only the nerds will save the earth.
AVC: The last eight years have been not very good for the country but very good for comedy. Jon Stewart, for one, has made it clear that he's never relished having Bush around simply because he was a ripe satirical target. But have you thought about where shows like The Daily Show or comedy in general might go once Bush is out of office?
JH: Well the satire of The Daily Show has been founded on simply explaining honestly and truthfully what's actually happening. And letting that natural horrific humor come through. There are jokes, but the kinds of jokes that I make on The Daily Show where I construct bizarre alternate realities is kind of unusual to The Daily Show, which largely just looks at the news and say, "Yes, this is actually happening, and what you think about it is correct. It's not okay." I suspect that when the truth ceases to be heartbreakingly funny, we will be in a better place and a happier society over all. And then The Daily Show will have to adapt at that point. But I think for the foreseeable future, the truth is going to be awful and funny all at the same time.
AVC: What is the process like on The Daily Show? How do ideas get developed and refined into a bit?
JH: I can only speak to my own experience, which is not unique but specific to the contributors, such as me and Larry Wilmore and Kristen Schaal. We're not there every day. We come in twice a month and do our bits. The most common iteration is they provide me a topic and I'll think about that topic for awhile and write up a first draft a couple days before. Then I'll come in and work with David Javerbaum, the former Onion writer and now executive producer of the show, as well as Jon and some of the other executive producers of the show, to refine the idea. It will often change dramatically and we'll often all write it from scratch together, basically to fit Jon's vision of what he wants to do with the piece. And then we'll go down and rehearse it that day, and then more often than not we'll all get together in a room right after rehearsal, about an hour or two before the show, and rewrite it again, along with the rest of the show. Jon takes a very active role in shaping every word. We project the script on a wall and he goes through it line by line, makes adjustments, and makes every script sing as a result. It's really kind of an astonishing process to watch. But for someone who had been primarily used to sitting in his underwear, working on a 2000-word magazine article for a month before anyone else ever read it, that seat-of-pants writing is very nerve-wracking. Very exciting, but I did want to vomit quite a bit.
AVC: It's been a while since you were on the show. Will you make your return soon? Perhaps before the election?
JH: The plan right now is that I will go on October 21st to give my expert take on how to promote a book. Then I will be on tour a lot. Unfortunately, a lot of my time lately was consumed by finishing the book and on their part by the strike and by the election coverage and the convention. So then I will go on the book tour, but I have a couple of appearances scheduled and I hope to get back on that twice month schedule with more regularity. I hope to get back to that once life calms down relatively speaking again soon.
AVC: Lately you've been blogging and Tweeting very earnestly about the election in support of Barack Obama's campaign. What has made this election so compelling to you? Is it just the desire to have someone new in office or is it the particular dynamic of this race?
JH: The thing that I find so compelling is that right now Obama's whole campaign strategy is simply [to] speak to people as though they were adults and trust that the truth of the world situation will be evident to them. For him to be attacked as a friend of a terrorist, for "palling" around with terrorists and to simply go back and say, "No, I'm not"? That was such a refreshing political moment. It's like he's saying, "Oh, you know that's not true. You know what's happening here." So much of the past eight years in politics, whether you're a Democrat or a Republican, you have to acknowledge is based on what the Bush people to themselves have described outside the reality-based community. That the words they were speaking had no basis in reality and they felt no compulsion to exist in a real world. They were creating a world of their own imagining. They were writing their own book of fake trivia and that's a fine way to make a living, but I don't know that it's a very productive way to run a country. And I think we are seeing the results of that right now. So from a very selfish point of view, I'm enchanted by the idea that a politician can come along and speak simply and clearly and truthfully to an electorate as though they are grown-ups and to feel the electorate respond to that. I've found that to be astonishing and especially now that we are in the end game and you see basically the McCain campaign has nothing left but conspiracy theories to throw at Obama. It really has become a fight between fantasy and reality, and although I don't make my living off of it, I endorse reality.
AVC: It seems that the truth is really what's at stake in the election, in a way.
JH: McCain had a reality-based argument for why he should be President. It did not rely on magical thinking in any way. It was simply that Barack Obama was too young and inexperienced to be President and McCain is old enough, certainly, and experienced enough to be President. You may not agree, but that's what we need. You may not like McCain, but that's reasonable. That makes sense. In choosing Sarah Palin for whatever benefit you might get from it politically, he's throwing out his whole argument about experience. He negated his only reasonable argument to make and instead put him on what we now see is a disastrous path—potentially disastrous, at least, of pure magical thinking. That is I think exactly what people are tired of with regard to the Bush Administration. This idea that the Bush Administration… That if I say black is white, then that makes it so. If I say Sarah Palin is tried, tested, and ready to take the national stage and is going to save my campaign on the sheer energy of her enthusiasm and rhetoric, then it will happen, but not really.
I have nothing against Sarah Palin. If anything, I think it's sort of tragic. She was clearly a Republican up-and-comer who, if they lose the election, her career has been dealt a very severe blow. We might think that's a good thing, but I'm just saying she was called up too early. She simply had no experience. Never mind whatever her thinking might have been on national issues, but she had never taken a position on a national stage before and she had no experience with the national media and that's what ultimately did her in. She didn't have the training. She's a quick study, obviously, but she's doesn't have the experience to talk to national reporters over and over and over again in a way that could make her seem confident and I think it really undid her. And just because John McCain wants her to be great in his campaign that doesn't make it so, anymore than just because John McCain wants to believe that if he suspends his campaign and makes serious faces in Washington that the economic crisis will be averted. That's magical thinking. It doesn't make it so just because you want something. Just because John McCain wants to be President does not mean that it must happen. That's the same magical thinking that really undid Hillary Clinton. It was like, "I don't need to put forward a compelling argument for my candidacy. My candidacy is a compelling argument for my candidacy. I want to be President. Obviously, you all know it's time. Let's get this over with." That wasn't good enough to go against somebody who I think really has looked at the reality of election, saw all the opportunities where he could make gains, saw that she was totally neglecting the caucus states, saw that that was a place where he could take an advantage, planned for it, took the advantage, and won. That's science. Do you know what I mean? That's reality triumphing over magical thinking.
Do I like Obama, personally? I do. Do I think he's got good policies? Look, I'm like everyone else, I hope so. They sound good. They sound like something I believe in, so I think based on his performance and the way that he has run his campaign, I feel that it is reasonable to feel confident that he is going to take the same discipline and smarts and lack of drama and apply them to the very serious issues today and I think that makes him a good choice for President. Do I think that his candidacy is historic? Sure, that's exciting too, but what I think it's really amazing that he exists in the same world that I also inhabit and no other political candidate lives in that world right now. They live in a made-up world that is not reality. I think that that's why you see Obama surging right now. It's that the people like the fact that Obama lives in the world that they live in.
AVC: One thing that's interesting about him is that he is so very cool, disciplined, thoughtful, and, as you say, a reality-based candidate. What is it about him that has so infuriated both Clinton and McCain?
JH: Because they earned it. I have misgivings now about McCain that I never had before. I was never going to support him for President, because even though in 2000 he was the kind of Republican that Democrats liked and he can be real nice when he wants to be and, certainly, he has been a great friend to The Daily Show. People there love him and they are people that I love so I trust there's something lovable there. But would I pal around with him? I bet he's probably a great guy to have a round of beer with or whatever the latest folksy kind of way of putting is. I would like to IM with him, you know, but I was never going to vote for him. Now his judgment seems so off and dangerous that I would never entertain that idea, but it's no question that he put in the time. And maybe in 2000, when he was eight years younger and little bit more on top of his game, I could have said he's certainly qualified to be President even though I wouldn't support him. Hillary Clinton is absolutely qualified to be President and had she won I would have definitely voted for her. I think it's hard for people who have put that much time into public service, who have worked very hard for an ambition that I think they both share to be President, an ambition that they nurse far more than I think it even matters to them what being President really means. To have that taken away, to have to confront someone who is the political phenomenon of our times. That isn't easy.
The experience issue is a reality-based argument to make as to why you would not want to vote for [Obama] and they both made that argument until John McCain decided to bring Sarah Palin onto the ticket and then bizarrely still made the argument and looked two-faced and weird. Hillary Clinton, I think, made that argument as compellingly as she could, but the problem is that he's just a phenomenon. He's an incredibly talented speaker, thinker, organizer, strategist, and manager who outclassed them both. Even if, by chance, he does not win the election, which is always a possibility, he certainly outclassed them. And he outclassed Hillary Clinton to the point of beating her in a primary that by rights she feels as though she should have won. And that's hard. That's confronting your own mortality. John McCain isn't going to get to run for President again and if Barack Obama wins, then it's going to be a long time for Hillary Clinton, too. I'm not surprised Clinton's support has been underwhelming, unfortunately, but that's the way it has to be. If Barack Obama didn't make it on his own, it would undermine his Presidency and that's what I don't want. If John McCain completely self-destructed, like if he vomited on stage and it was all over, that wouldn't be any good, too. It'd make a lot of Democrats feel more comfortable because they feel like they want a lock. They want a lock more than they want to breathe. They don't want to have to worry anymore, but you know what? It's better that Barack Obama grind out the votes, build the support, build the alliances, and get the victory cleanly on his own because you don't want him being in a position where he's got to. People will say that he owes the Clintons favors or he only won because John McCain went nuts or Sarah Palin imploded. Right now, he's already got the problem of the economy, which I think is not causing McCain to drop in the polls. I think that was going to happen anyway, but it certainly refocused the public's imagination, understandably, on a topic that does not favor McCain at all. If he wins because of the economy, there's a certain justice to that, too, because there's a reason the economy's the way it is. So there you go. Those are my five cents.
AVC: If McCain does not win, you have to think that some interesting things are going to come to light about the inner workings of that campaign. It doesn't seem like the kind of campaign that McCain had in mind. Or, on the other hand, maybe this is a reflection of who he is after all.
JH: I feel like look at the end of the day the buck stops there. You know what I mean? I think that part of the tragedy is that either he's allowed the worser devils of his nature to take hold or he has put aside some of his better angels to let some devils run the show, but at the end of the day he's approving it. He's doing it. He is responsible for how things turn out.
AVC: What does that say about how he would run things or how good of a President he would be?
JH: Well, it doesn't say a lot because to some degree you can imagine that if he's saying, "Look, I hate to do this, but I just need to get to be President and everything will be OK." It's not wrong. He could go back to old McCain and that is a storyline that doesn't seem impossible, but I just don't trust that it's going to happen. The reality is that even if he were to win, we're looking at a Democratic majority in the Senate and the House. I think don't think he can successfully govern after saying what he's said and doing what he's done. I don't think it's a smart choice to vote for McCain if that's what you were thinking.
AVC: It just seems like the Palin thing was such a shotgun marriage, and it's not a comfortable or compatible relationship at all. He must have felt that that it wasn't going to be feasible for him to pick [Sen. Joseph] Lieberman, so he went completely in the other direction.
JH: Yeah, that's the story that you hear, but on the other hand, whoever was pushing Palin, that was a big mistake. I don't care what Pat Buchanan says on The Rachel Maddows Show. It was a bit of smoke and mirrors that worked for 72 hours, but there was no way that she was going to… First of all, there was no she was going to win over disaffected Hillary voters. That was an absurd fantasy.
AVC: And media-promoted fantasy as well. The whole story about legions of embittered female voters that were not going to vote for Obama no matter what was totally overblown. And the Republicans kind of bought into it, right?
JH: I think she was going to win over the Republican base that John McCain hadn't won over, but that is not really a measure of success. If you can't get the Republicans to vote for you or be enthusiastic, then just write them out. I don't consider that to be a masterful political move. I think that women were not going to go to her. They say there's great value in gut instinct decision-making. A lot of decisions become very bad if you completely divorce them from your gut instinct of what is right and wrong. You can justify just about anything if you have enough research to support it. It's a balance, but you can't conjure a national stature for someone who has just been governor for two years. It's not anything against her. It's just isn't true that she has any national, political, or policy experience, period. If you pretend that it's not true, then you look foolish and she sure did and they did, too. That was an inevitable disaster. Science predicted that. It was like weather. You could see it coming. There was no way that it couldn't come.
The only reason Democrats worried about it was because, a) they like to worry, and b) because they're traumatized by eight years of George Bush. It's like they're thinking, [in disaffected voice], "The whole country voted for him two times. The whole country's stupid." Well, no, no. There are a lot of reasons that George Bush is in office, but, at least in the two national elections he has faced, half of those he won not because a lot of people voted for him. First of all, we didn't vote for him the first time. The second time, he won by an incredibly small margin and bizarre and unique historical times facing a candidate that was not compelling to the American people. So please don't tell me that the American people are stupid, because if that's what your point of view is as a Democrat then we don't deserve to govern as a party. It's not right. It's not okay. The reality is that if you want to be in a reality-based community, you've got to respect reality and that means calling it bad when you see the past ahead and it doesn't look good and acknowledging when it's going to work. The reality is Sarah Palin, for all of her good points, she just did not have a lot of political experience. No national media experience to speak of. No serious thinking of national or international policy. And no experience working on a national stage. How good would you have [to be]? You would have to be a wizard. You would have to be a magical creature to transform that aptly into a candidate of national stature almost overnight. I don't go out there claiming I'm an actor. I'm an older, wall-eyed, overweight, tweedy writer who has been lucky enough to be asked to play various iterations of himself in a certain realm of popular cultutre. That gives me great joy and excitement, but I don't go to the media saying, "And I'm also the world's greatest actor."
AVC: You're not going to play Jake LaMotta.
JH: Actually, I am. It's funny that you would bring that up. Zack Snyder is remaking Raging Bull and I'm going to be Jake LaMotta in it. It's going to be amazing. It's going to be almost all CGI.