John Hodgman, part two: geeks vs. jocks in all walks of life
- Sarah Polley on laying her family history bare in the new documentary Stories We Tell
- Noah Baumbach on how Frances Ha helped him see New York City with new eyes
- Amy Schumer had to be talked into making the show of her dreams
- Joe Hill on his new novel, Locke & Key’s end, and why ideas are just glue
- Kristin Scott Thomas has no time for nonsense
Yesterday, we talked to author, podcaster, and TV personality John Hodgman about his new book, That Is All, and thoughts on the end of the world. That sprawling conversation continued into many more topics, from settling disputes on Judge John Hodgman to the care and handling of celebrities, and particularly how the nerd/jock divide affects us all daily.
The A.V. Club: Was it difficult to maintain a sense of continuity and balance in your three books? They’re a collection of complete world knowledge, but it’s your story as well, and they reflect the way culture has evolved. Has it become like one of those Byzantine TV series where you have to figure out where the plot can go? Was that tough part of writing the book?
John Hodgman: The toughest part was figuring out what the subject matter [of That Is All] could possibly be. One can always come up with funny lists and jokes. You know what? I take it back. Not everyone can always come up with funny lists and some jokes. I’m very lucky to have a gift where I can do that pretty ably. But then as a writer, you also find out what it is you have to say, and how to say it as authentically as possible, and the way you have to say it, the big boring stuff that no one else cares about, because they just want to hear some funny jokes about hobos. But for me to take the time to foist this on someone else, I had to know what it was. So figuring that out was the first hard part. And then just having the courage to follow the material through.
[Cormac McCarthy’s novel] The Road really was a big breakthrough for me, because it went everywhere it needed to go. So I couldn’t half-measure it and simply make jokes about the apocalypse. I had to convince myself to some degree that this was the way it was going to happen, and saying it plainly eventually became the joke. And I don’t want to overstate this: The book is all directed toward an end—an end of the book, an end of the series, the end of the world. I knew I was on the right track when I settled on talking about the end of the world, to some degree, because I literally had envisioned it in the very first parts of the very first book, where I did this table of omens and portents. I think a full third of all the possible outcomes based on various omens and portents you could observe in life were Ragnarok. So this is the appropriate end. This has been set up coincidently in the first book, and now I can finish it up.
But then, of course, you have a job to do, which is not necessarily tying everything together—which would take forever, and be impossible, and not enjoyable—but to tell compelling jokes in this one book as though no one had ever read any of the other stuff. And that means telling good, funny jokes. And if you can’t do that, just good, funny stories, or good little narratives that justify their own existence in this book. So there were times when it didn’t quite track. For example, I did give a very distinct definition of what Ragnarok was in the first book, as defined by the actuaries, but I really wanted to use that term, and I wanted to use it to describe everything else, so I just gave myself permission. I also retconned some of the details of Benjamin Franklin’s life, because I wanted to talk about how Benjamin Franklin, like all wealthy people, tried to cheat death, and in his case, he did it by putting his brain in an electric jar, and it was still alive until the early ’90s, when his brain-jar was purchased by Jerry Lewis as a trophy, and Jerry Lewis accidentally left the jar on top of his SUV as he drove off to get human stem-cell injections into his eyeballs to make him younger. So that was something that didn’t connect with some of the history I had laid out in the book. I just allowed myself to not care.
AVC: You’ll face a backlash at whatever conventions you go to. People will catch you on that continuity.
JH: [Whispers.] I don’t think anyone cares. [Laughs.] Continuity is such a… It’s really interesting. I was talking with a friend of mine today about how nerd culture, both broadly and narrowly defined, has become… I wouldn’t say the mainstream of culture now, but it’s much more mainstream than even five years ago, when I wrote the first book. When I wrote the first book, if I was making a Doctor Who joke, I was making a Doctor Who joke for a pretty marginal section of society who remembered this famous British television program that had been off the air for decades. That was a secret code to a special club of people who liked Tom Baker. And now, of course, if I make a Doctor Who joke, I am part of a very large mainstream of Internet culture, at the very least. And Internet culture is very rapidly becoming part of mainstream culture, and culture as a whole. Not as many people watch Doctor Who as watch the Super Bowl, obviously, but the tropes that attract nerds are no longer a secret cult. It’s a much larger culture, in the specific sense. Nerds have banded together on the Internet to make economically viable things like superhero movies, and science-fiction TV shows are much bigger now on television than they were in the ’80s and ’90s, and ’70s, arguably. Science fiction and fantasy and comic books and superheroes and technology—that kind of geekdom is much more mainstream now than it was five years ago.
In the larger sense, there’s a passionate preoccupation with very specific niche cultural things, and a fascination with continuity. This idea of continuity is not something I think a lot of storytellers thought about or cared about outside the nerd/pulp genre—particularly Marvel and DC Comics, where they created a universe where all the characters are interacting. A great idea, a great innovation, and an energizing idea at the time in the ’60s and ’70s where this was first being put forward. But now it’s potentially intensely limiting. Like, “I can’t tell the Wonder Woman story I want to tell, because it goes against three decades in other stories, and she’s supposed to appear in the crossover event.” And similarly in TV and book series, and that sort of thing. It’s an amazing thing to build a world, but George R.R. Martin is yelled at by his fans for misidentifying the gender of a horse. [Laughs.] George R.R. Martin is yelled at his fans for a lot of things.
The nerdy pleasure of connecting the dots and immersing yourself in the world and having the illusion that this is an entire world that you could possibly escape to, that’s a great pleasure. But it’s not always the best—and I understand why when the creator of that world changes something, you get really mad, because that messed up the holodeck they have carefully constructed for you to live in, and you get passionate and angry about it. But on the other hand, the creator has to be able to be in charge of this story, and to do what he or she needs to do in order to tell the best possible story. Sometimes continuity becomes a real drag. But here’s the thing: I don’t think anybody remembers. [Laughs.] There might be one person in the world who might say, “You had Ben Franklin saying XYZ in this year, and now you have him in a brain-jar? Fail!” And that one person is probably mentally ill, so it’s not something I need to worry about so much.
AVC: One of the surprising things about your podcast Judge John Hodgman is that beyond the tomfoolery, your actual decisions are thoroughly considered. Was that part of your conception of it?
JH: Jesse [Thorn] had the idea for Judge John Hodgman as a segment for Jordan, Jesse Go!, one of his podcasts. I was very into it, because I had started really writing in the voice that would become the book’s by doing an advice column for McSweeney’s called “Ask a Former Professional Literary Agent.” And that was so much fun for me, because I had participation from people writing in questions that I could then answer. For me, creatively, it was a lot of fun, because it allowed me to, first of all, give people all kinds of deranged advice about what kind of beret they should wear if they wanted to be a serious author, and also hangover cures, and cures for knee pain, and heartache, and all of those things. But also, [the questions] would stir in me ideas that I wouldn’t have been able to find myself. If someone asked a question out of the blue, I would think, “Oh, I have something to say about this,” which, as a writer, is a wonderful way to feel, because most of the time, you’re sitting around saying, “I don’t have anything to say about anything.” So I really enjoyed talking to people, I love doing Q&A at the readings and book events and other appearances that I do. It’s fun. I love to yell at people and tell them they’re wrong. So I thought it would be fun to do a podcast where I had more common interaction with people. For this book, for example, the original proposal, not just out of laziness, was for it to just be a Q&A book where people would write in questions and I would answer them. It’s very fertile, for me, creatively, and also, it’s a lot of fun to tell people that they’re wrong about things.
Tonally, there was no discussion; I just don’t know any other way to do it. I don’t want to make people feel bad, and I don’t want to make their problems into a joke. I do love telling people when they’re right and wrong, but for the most part, it was always going to be about real fights where people have a real difference of opinion and a real dispute. I want to make jokes, but I also want to make a decision that is fair. I think for the most part, I have succeeded, except for the case of the Awesome Cone awning, the food truck Awesome Cone in Portland, Oregon. This is a business where a guy with a beard sells meat in waffle cones. It’s not an ice-cream truck. Cones are not just for ice cream anymore. He’s putting curried chicken in a cone, because this is Portland, Oregon, and this is what you do. Because it is also Portland, Oregon, he had a friend, an amateur seamstress, create an awning for his food truck. There was some dispute over how much money he should pay her, and I resolved it by demanding he give her $150 or some amount of money in free savory food cones, and also that they each have to give each other a completely sincere hug, because I felt they were pouring on the irony and sarcasm very thickly. I’ve never heard from them again. [Laughs]. I’ve retweeted his Awesome Cone Twitter feed many a time, but I really have the distinct feeling that there is still bad blood between the owner of the food cart, and me. When I go to Portland, maybe I’ll go by the Awesome Cone shop and make some peace.
AVC: Do you think it was the $150 in free cones, or the hug that bothered him?
JH: I don’t know. I think that he really went to some trouble to create a photo essay. Basically, he was saying, “I don’t owe her money because I offered her the use of my basement as a workshop and as a private studio, which she can continue to use.” My opinion was pretty strongly that letting someone hang around in your basement is not compensation, that is a punishment, and potentially something you could be arrested for. He has sent in this whole photo essay of him doing fun things in the basement—like giving a lecture to his dog, and riding a ’70s-era pedal cycle, and reading my book—that all felt very insincere, and like he was nerdbaiting me into liking him. And I was like, “This is terrible. You know this is a basement. Stop pretending this is something else, and stop fooling around, and stop being ironic. This is your real friend, and you can give her a real hug before this is done.” Maybe I overstepped my bounds, maybe I touched on something I shouldn’t have touched on, but I think that there was some bad blood. So listen, food-cone guy, if you’re out there: I’m going to be there November 6th, maybe we can share a peace cone.
AVC: There was a case where you were asked if it was okay for someone to go up to Stephen Colbert at a promotional party and ask that he appear in a photo. You gave a pretty nuanced response on how a celebrity might like to be approached. Did your experience as a celebrity—or a famous minor TV personality—figure into that response?
JH: First of all, I reserve the right to completely contradict whatever advice or whatever my ruling was: a) because I have a terrible memory, and b) because I’m changing my mind all the time about these things. But if memory serves, I basically said that it is perfectly reasonable in a public appearance to approach a celebrity and talk to that person, and even ask to have a photograph taken. However, it was my advice that if you really like someone, just spend a few moments talking to someone and saying you like what they do and listening to what they have to say, instead of forcing them to give a grinning rictus into a camera so that you can put it on Facebook. Because there’s something unseemly where photographs have replaced the autograph as a kind of currency, and especially on Facebook. One of the petitioners said, “If I had a picture with Stephen Colbert, I’d be the King or Queen of the Internet.” That’s not something you want in life. These are human beings that are doing something that you presumably like. Isn’t it a better use of your time and theirs to simply convey that, and have an actual experience with them that you will remember forever, rather than forcing them into a weird photographic slavery on your Facebook page, where forever after they will be giving you cred? There’s something a little gross to that.
But that said, I’m happy to take photographs with people. The few people who ask to have their photographs with me, I almost always say yes, except for a few circumstances, like when my family is around. Generally speaking, I, like anyone else who does anything publicly, like it when people like what I do, and would like to hear as much. I can’t speak for Stephen Colbert, but if you come up to me and you say, “I like what you do,” I’m very happy. If you come up to me and say, “Can I take your picture so that I can put it on my Facebook page?” or “Will you sign this thing so I can sell it?”, that’s not as fun an interaction for me.
AVC: You made a fairly controversial ruling in a case where you told a husband he must abide by a promise he made to his wife, rather than pursue his dream of running the Ironman Triathlon. Has the reaction to that decision made you shy about accepting cases of large real-life consequence?
JH: No. Usually, the rulings I make, someone ends up getting bragging rights that I agree with him that a machine gun is not a robot. The Awesome Cone one was one that had financial consequences, and the triathlon one was one that would have clear familial consequences. I got a lot of negative response to that—and by “a lot,” I mean six or seven comments on the Internet saying that I was wrong not to let this guy pursue his dream of training for a triathlon, even though he had said he was not going to do it to his wife. And his wife had, I think, reasonable concerns. He had trained for a marathon. He said he was going to run one marathon. He did it, he liked it, he did a half-Ironman, and now he wanted to go for the full one. But she was a doctor, and she knew that there were potential medical consequences, and she knew that training for an Ironman was more than a full-time job. It requires an intense amount of constant training for a year to do it. And she didn’t want him to. If it was just that she didn’t want him to, even weighing the medical considerations, I would have said, “Just let him do it.”
But his whole argument—and sometimes it comes down to the argument the people bring to the table—was, “I should be able to do it in order to be an inspiration to my children.” My point of view is, if you’re someone who breaks your promises, you are not someone who is an inspiration to your children. That is suggesting that your individual and all-consuming passion is not only to some degree more important than the time you spend with your family as a whole, but also more important than honoring a promise that you made to your life partner. I think if he hadn’t raised the issue of him being an inspiration to his children, I might not have felt as strongly that there’s another message you are sending your children if you decide that this is more important than a promise you made. And I knew that it was a dream of his. I also know you get addicted to this stuff, and you want to go further and further and further, and I thought for the sake of general peace and happiness, that he should unclench and let go of this thing and find a way to have a fulfilling life without destroying his body. [Laughs.] Without biking for 35 miles and then swimming in the ocean and then climbing a hill and then zip-lining down a sheer face.
I really did feel that this spoke to the fissure between jock culture and nerd culture, jock culture being the dominant feeling that if it has something to do with sports, then it’s okay. If this guy had said, “I really want to move to Antarctica and spend my time perfectly rebuilding the set from John Carpenter’s The Thing,” and he wasn’t being paid by a motion-picture studio to do it as a so-called “prequel,” he’s just doing it for his own sake… If he wanted to spend his blood and treasure to live apart from his family for months to build a perfect TARDIS and I said no, I think all those people who told me, “You’re keeping this man from living his dreams!” would have said, “Nice work for telling that nerd to shut up for once.” But that’s the thing about sports. No matter how mainstream nerd culture may get, sports are still the one thing more people watch live on television than anything else. It is the remnant of the monoculture. Sports will mean more to people than Doctor Who will ever mean, for a lot of different reasons, good and bad. Sports gets what it wants in culture.
AVC: My original thought was that some people consider individual dreams paramount, and they supersede anything else.
JH: You raise a good point. It’s sports-related. This is something that I bring up in the book as well. This isn’t a sport. The Ironman Triathlon is an incredible physical challenge, but it’s not a sport. There’s no teamwork, there’s no competition other than with yourself. If anything, it is one of those sports of solitary and personal perfection that I can get behind, like weightlifting and cycling and rock-climbing. This is as nerdy as it gets for a sport, because no one has to see you naked, and you don’t have to talk to anybody. [Laughs.] It’s completely antisocial, and you never have to take your shirt off. There’s very little difference between running an Ironman Triathlon and painting the perfect lead miniature: It’s physically an incredible challenge. I think athletes are amazing. I don’t know what else to call them, other than athletes. They are incredibly skilled human beings who work very hard to do what it is they do, whether they do it in a competitive sport or a weird obsession.
But don’t sit there and tell me that your desire to climb Mount Everest is more transcendent or less selfish than collecting first editions of every Will Eisner’s Spirit newspaper strip. Climbing Mount Everest or another mountain is putting lives in danger so you can get a better view. I think that because it is somehow attached to physicality, attached to the physical world in a way, it gets passed by a lot of people as an automatic good thing. Whereas the collecting and the sorting and the continuity-mongering and the myth-churning of the nerd still seems vaguely unseemly for some people. That’s why I got a lot of hate mail for that.
AVC: You toured Wilt Chamberlain’s house.
JH: Yes, that’s a true story. [Laughs.]
AVC: The specific detail I enjoyed was that he had “10 dedicated fondue stations.”
JH: That may be the one part that isn’t true. Everything else I describe in that house is true. Almost every room is in the shape of a triangle. There was a gigantic, mirrored, triangular retractable roof above the bed in the master bedroom. The whole thing was surrounded by a moat, and there was access to the moat via a trap door in the living room, in case you ever wanted to have moat-sex one afternoon and didn’t want to have to go outside to do it. And the owners, who don’t own that house anymore, but did at the time, when they bought it, covered up a 10-person hot tub that was sunk into the floor of the master bedroom, and was plated in gold. It was there lurking underneath the floor, like a tell-tale heart. You could almost feel it. You could almost feel the sexual energy. For a nerd and a writer like me, it was unbearable, and I had to get out of there as quickly as possible.
AVC: Did you get a sense that the house corroborated his claims in terms of the number of women he claimed to have been with?
JH: Look, Wilt Chamberlain was a peerless athlete and a sexy athlete, but he was not a mathematician. [Laughs.] I think we can agree that if he did some simple math, he could see that he did not have sex with that many women in his life. But because he wasn’t poring over a lot of spreadsheets in his life, he was having more sex with women. It gave him more time to have more sex with more women. I take lessons from athletes in that sense, which is to say that I could probably crunch some numbers and call Wilt Chamberlain a liar, but I’m not living in a triangular house with a retractable, mirrored roof. Maybe I’m the one doing something wrong.
AVC: In instances like that, you’ve found a way of addressing sports by doing an end-around—which is a sports term. When you get around to describing what constitutes Nick Mangold’s “best game ever,” it involves him “putting the ball repeatedly through his legs and then pushing other men.”
JH: Oh, yeah. Nick Mangold. He’s my friend. He’s my Twitter friend. I interviewed Nick Mangold for a filmed project that did not find fruition, but we were discussing the jock-vs.-nerd duality in our culture. When I was talking to Nick, I realized he’s a great athlete. He’s big fella—a happy, smiling, untroubled Sasquatch of a man, the epitome of a jock—but he also is about 10 or 12 years younger than me, maybe little bit more, and he’s grown up in a world where the division is much more fluid between the jock world and nerd world than ever. He’s completely conversant in every videogame I’ve ever heard of, and he’s got a complete fondness for nerd culture, and he was extremely tolerant of me. We played some football together, and it was humiliating and fun for me, and I think fun for him.
The thing is, he’s on Twitter, and he’s interacting with his fans directly in the same way that comic-book artists used to nurture an audience when they’d go to conventions. He’s having that one-to-one conversation via technology with the people who are interested in him. The fact is that he and I—we’re not best friends, we met that one time—but we’ve stayed in touch through Twitter. I think that says a lot. When I am direct-messaging with Nick Mangold, we are achieving a kind of nerd-jock convergence, just as was predicted in Revelations.
AVC: And that nerd-jock convergence is embodied by our president, too. He’s a part of both worlds.
JH: Yes. He remains a complete mystery, where it’s really not clear whether he’s a jock or a nerd or maybe an alien. He is a mystery unto this day.
AVC: He says as much in his first book, Dreams From My Father, about feeling that way.
JH: Yeah, he’s a person between so many different worlds. We haven’t talked about politics, that much, not like last time, but there’s part of me that feels that after I spoke with the President Of The United States on the issue of jockdom vs. nerd-dom, that the ascendancy of nerd-dom that seemed to be happening with him coming into office had been wholly and completely swirlied and wedgied by the Tea Party movement in the following year, and that the Revenge Of The Nerds was facing the Revenge Of The Jocks. They’re going to take our house of representatives and they’re going to take our lunch money all over again. I don’t mean to say that all nerds are liberal, or all jocks are conservative, but this idea of privileging the group over the one; of tradition, of authoritative direction from a yelling, angry, coach-like leader; the suspicion of the external, the tribalness of sports like, “We are the best team because we are the best team and no other team can be as good even though they’re having the exact same thought we’re having about our team,” that’s all embodied in the… I don’t want to put it on the Tea Party or the conservatives, but that’s a strain of thinking that seems to be more comfortable—be a uniform that is better to fit into—by someone who is more on the right wing on the political perspective as it’s defined today.
One of the things that marked the political movement surrounding Obama was that it was pretty youthful, pretty technologically savvy, pretty utopian and idealist. And these are nerd qualities, to be sure. One thing that nerds are not very good at is winning. [Laughs.] I think we all wonder, “What is going on in that administration?” Because they can be so inspiring, and then sometimes they seem to be so tone-deaf to the pushback that they’re getting from the country. Another thing about those of us leaning left on the political spectrum is: We didn’t know what to do when we won. And even within the administration, there seemed to be no instinctive understanding of pressing one’s advantage, of being triumphant. Maybe because it seemed unseemly, but it’s the way that jockish politicians cement their win. They consolidate their power by being triumphal, by saying, “I’m right and you’re wrong! I beat you!” It’s like our side didn’t want to say that. Our side didn’t want to say, “We beat you, so shut up. Shut up, losers.”
AVC: To extend the sports metaphor further, it seems like the other side isn’t even playing on the same court. If there’s not an interest from both sides in good government, how can you do anything? How can you have a good government?
JH: Yeah, right. They’re playing different games, I guess you could say. Not everything has to have a sports metaphor, right? They’ve so infected our culture that I think we’ll really have moved forward when, rather than saying, “We’ve really spiked the ball,” in victory we say, “I’ve really lanced the Harkonnen boil.” And so yes, to some degree they’re playing on a different field, and to some degree, they’re completely playing a different game, because you feel it’s pretty clear that the Republicans are playing to win. They’re playing the game like it is a sport, and they have a strategy for marginalizing the president and boxing him into a corner, which I think—that’s clearly a sports metaphor, right? Cornering him, and giving him no room to maneuver, because they’re just not going to give him any chance to land a punch. From their point of view, they’re in a boxing match, and the president says, “Okay, I’ll let you hit me. Would you let me hit you?” “No!” Punch. “No, I’m not going to.”
I am, I hate to say it, a total armchair quarterback on this one, or I guess I should say I’m a total poster-to-the-Lost-message-boards on this one. I am a total outside observer, and I don’t know what it takes to govern a nation. I am the first to say as much. But it does seem that part of the problem in the president’s administration is not only unwillingness to play the game the other side is playing, but a contempt for gamesmanship of any kind. And gamesmanship includes storytelling. I am certainly not the first to suggest the messaging—the stories that the administration is telling, how it’s explaining why what it’s doing is important and correct—that those stories not only are terrible, they don’t exist. I think it’s because either the president or the people around him—their game plan, so to speak, their bible for this science-fiction series—is that they’re going to be grown up, and they’re not going to care about that kind of halftime show. [Pounds table.] Ugh! I can’t get away from it! Boy, oh boy!
I’d rather believe that they have a contempt for storytelling than the other alternative—which is they can’t do it, and don’t know how to make their case. I feel like there is something that’s shifted in the past couple of months, where it’s like, “You know what? At this point, obviously, I’m trying to deal with you in good faith. You’re not. I can’t play this way anymore. I’m going to start creating the narrative where I simply say what’s happening. The Republican Congress is just not letting anything happen in order to sink this country and sink me with it and then win the game.” I think they appreciate now—in the seventh inning, or as the clock is ticking down in this game [Laughs.]—that they’ve got to change the tone and change the message, and that not winning the game on principle is a lot worse then winning the game.
I think a lot of the nerdsmanship of the left wing has been the self-destructive impulse that comes from the trauma of having not competed in sports, which is, “I would rather refuse to play a barbaric game on principle then compromise myself and win.” I think that’s where our contempt—and indeed my contempt for sports at times—has been a disservice to the things that we care about. I think it’s horrible to think of politics and governing a nation as a sporting event, and I think there are a ton of problems with the media covering it as a horse race or another kind of sport. But that said, we have a competitive system where people are competing for votes, and competition is a valuable thing. To be able to face someone and collect yourself and not be scared off of a position and to fight for it and to win, that’s a valuable thing. And you do learn it from sports. That is something I agree with when people are advocating taking our children and forcing them into violent confrontations with each other like gladiators. [Laughs.] They do learn that competition doesn’t kill you, and that confronting another person in a ritualistic way doesn’t destroy you. It actually lets you realize that confrontation is easy and fun, and you can do it, and you can argue your point and get it across, and you don’t have to shy away into your room to paint a miniature or role a die. Real confrontation is possible. If you really want to train kids to be competitive, cutthroat-competitive, you can put them into a youth symphony orchestra. Then you’re really going to see some tough kids. We don’t need a nation of quarterbacks. We need a fucking viola section. Then you’re going to see some scrappers.