In 11 Questions, The A.V. Club asks interesting people 11 interesting questions—and then asks them to suggest one for our next interviewee.
Though John Hodgman has answered The A.V. Club’s 11 Questions before, when he announced his upcoming tour, Vacationland, we jumped at the chance to have him back. (The questions are also different each year, though 2015’s list actually includes a question Hodgman himself suggested in his first go-around.) Both a comedian and an author, Hodgman has the kind of personality that lends itself to intricate detail, memorable storytelling, and out-of-the box thinking, characteristics that generally lead to a fascinating chat. His wry observations and lockbox of a brain never really fail to disappoint, and we’re happy to keep asking him these dumb questions for as long as he’s willing to give us surprisingly smart answers. After all, if anyone has an evil supervillain plan, wouldn’t it be John Hodgman?
The Vacationland tour kicks off Saturday, September 12 in Boston. Tickets for most stops are still available, and Hodgman will be in the lobby after every show, signing items and saying hello to fans.
The A.V. Club: The only catch to us repeating this feature is that the first question is the same as last year.
John Hodgman: Well, I don’t remember last year.
AVC: It’s “what’s the worst job you’ve ever had?”
JH: Traffic counting.
AVC: So it’s still traffic counting? You also said literary agent.
JH: But did I say anything more about being a literary agent?
AVC: You did. You said, “It was a wonderful job except for how I knew it wasn’t the job that I wanted in my life.”
JH: That’s the first and only time I have ever said that.
I said traffic counting because it was very boring and cold to sit out on the streets of New Haven in five pairs of pants—well, that’s an exaggeration; it was three pairs of pants—in November for hours and hours clicking buttons counting which cars go left, right, and forward. That was torturous, but I had the pleasure of listening to Rickie Lee Jones’ Flying Cowboys album on audio cassette, which had just come out at that time because I am an elderly man. I was just remembering how much I loved that record the other day, so that’s good.
When the double-A batteries from the Walkman that I stole from my college roommate—or borrowed without his permission—wore out after about seven minutes, I could then switch over and get a couple of hours of AM radio and that was the first time I ever listened to Rush Limbaugh, which was a fascinating experience. You don’t understand Rush Limbaugh’s appeal to listeners until you are standing alone on a street corner, freezing and angry. Then, even though he might be saying things that are completely anathema to your social and political point of view, when you are that angry, his voice comes upon you like a bomb. You just want to keep listening to him being angry, because it reflects how angry you are. So for people who feel alienated in the world because of changing cultural demographics or because they lose their jobs or whatever, I could understand why you want to listen to this monster because it’s a comfort and a solace to you.
Even the worst job has its benefits and so does being a professional literary agent, and—I know I said this at the time but I still believe it—the worst job is the one that you know is wrong for you, but you still do it. You’re afraid to quit.
At the same time, I had some very, very fond memories of the people I worked with and the authors I worked with—and I won’t mention any names—but as I have been traveling through rural Maine over the past few weeks, one of my favorite things to do is to go into bookstores on the side of rural routes and paw through the old copies of Tom Clancy and Trevanian books they have in there for weird old 1970s thrillers that I haven’t read yet. What I’ve discovered more recently is copies of books that I didn’t represent, but that my boss represented when I assisted her on the dollar pile. I won’t mention any names, but it is this profoundly bittersweet time of realizing, “Oh, I had a wonderful time working on this book and now it is a dollar relic on the side of the road.” Everything we make in life, eventually, is sold for a dollar or a penny or given away; it’s not simply given away. And remember books? Weren’t they funny?
My memories of literary agenting are of a very happy time and there are surprising reminders of it coming back now. But have I had a worse job since we last spoke that would even be worse than those? Do you remember the precise date we last spoke, Marah?
AVC: The piece ran October 20, 2014, so sometime right before then.
JH: No, I’ve only had good jobs since then. I’ve been on Married for the second season on FX and that was wonderful. I got to, of course, be in Pitch Perfect 2 which was, perhaps short of [getting a Mac ad], the most popular thing I’ve ever had something to do with. I’ll tell you that singing and dancing while wearing a hilarious cardigan all night long three nights in a row in Baton Rouge when it’s 100 degrees at night, that was not so much fun. But being in Pitch Perfect 2 was a delight.
So I guess the two answers still stand with the added information that there is compensation even for the worst jobs because you get a story to tell out of it afterward.
The A.V. Club: This one’s a bit of a presumptive question.
JH: Exactly; I’m sure it’ll happen some day.
I mean, how do you define success? Is it personal satisfaction, is it money? The answer is money!
That’s the dark, honest truth. I would say 70 percent of people who are in therapy are in therapy not because of their upbringing, not because of their mean sister or obsessions, but because of anxiety brought about by lack of financial security. I didn’t understand that until I had a measure of financial security which, by rights, I should have because I am trained as a literary theoretician that worked in book publishing, then worked in magazine publishing as a freelance writer. By rights, I should be dead in a gutter right now.
So while I felt a tremendous amount of pride and happiness in mounting live comedy variety shows in a former mayonnaise factory in Brooklyn in the beginning of the 2000s, publishing a short story in The Paris Review, being edited by George Plimpton, and being on This American Life, for example—life goals that I’m still amazed I got to do and that I achieved through hard work that I’m still very proud of—I never stopped feeling abject terror until I got on television and went on a national ad campaign and realized, “I will be able to feed my children. I have somehow averted the destiny that awaited me, which is endless, crippling debt forever.” As petty as it feels to say, it truly is the moment I felt successful because I knew I wasn’t going to be a burden on others ever again or until such a time where I made an impulse buy of a house in Maine to make my wife happy and now have gone back into debt and it’s all started over for me.
I think that’s important to say because I think in American culture, we put value on economic success but tell people you don’t have to be economically successful to be happy. This is why certain political classes want purposefully to keep Americans in a state of perpetual debt and uncertainty and why certain people don’t want a middle class—because middle class creates a certain happiness. You know what I mean? A certain stability where people stop reacting out of fear and start reacting out of principle? They have the luxury to act and vote out of principle.
I’ve just tied that around to a real noble point there, so make a note.
The A.V. Club: People always have a hard time with this one, but if anyone can answer it, maybe it’s you.
JH: The question has two parts, and this why people have trouble with it. The column is supposed to be “11 Questions,” but you’ve snuck two in. You’re asking me to consider, first of all, what is my villainous goal and, second of all, what is my villainous plan.
I am not a villain. You know what I mean? I’m an only-child narcissist monster, but I wish no ill, nor do I wish for world domination; what a hassle that would be!
The only thing that I feel profoundly fascinated with and the only villainy I’m fascinated with that I feel can be really destructive is cults of personality. Literal cults and totalitarian communes, and those things that are on the bubble of totalitarian isolated cults, like they may be cults or they may be not, such as Scientology or the Democratic Party or the Republican Party. Narcissistic power cults.
I’m not sure I want to be quoted talking about Scientology. The last time I made even the slightest joke about Scientology in GQ, I received dozens of emails from The Church Of Scientology; they were so mad and they scared me. That’s why I’m fascinated by them. So I guess I’d like to form a cult.
AVC: So you’d be a small-scale supervillain.
JH: Yeah. Just a small-scale cult of personality, maybe raise a geodetic dome out in western Massachusetts and make people wear jumpsuits and give all their possessions to me. Even then, I feel like I’d just want to hang around with all my peeps and we’d all just grok each other and enjoy Moxie soda and watch movies that I like. Ultimately, I think it would be boring.
I’m not sure if that answers the question and I have absolutely no problem with any major world religion on Earth.
JH: Well, part of what I discuss in my upcoming tour, Vacationland—that’s a plug, by the way—is my upbringing as an only child, which is to say a super smart, afraid-of-conflict narcissist, a naturally precocious young person who was obsessed with knowing what the rules in life were so I could follow them assiduously so that I could be approved of—and not just approved of but loved by all humans on Earth—and of course my sadness came in realizing that it was impossible for me to be approved of or loved by all humans on Earth. You wouldn’t want to live a life in which you are loved or approved by all people on Earth or even within your own geodetic dome full of your jumpsuited followers.
What I also ended up learning living outside of the street grids of Boston and Brookline, Massachusetts and Brooklyn, New York, and [spending] more time in the winding country roads and sort of lawless lands of rural America—in New England specifically—is that there aren’t a lot of rules. Once you’re out in a place where there’s one sheriff for the county, people have to learn how to get along with each other and that means going to the dump illegally and dumping your garbage and hoping the guys don’t call you on it and being terrified of this to your core until you realize after many years that the guys at the dump don’t really care where your garbage is coming from. You’re learning that not only that there are no rules, you’re learning there may be something else, which is unspoken rules, the worst kind of rules.
That’s myself as a child. I think, as we all learn as a child, you have to learn to tolerate ambiguity better and I’m still terrible at it and I hate it; even the word ambiguity makes me sick to me stomach.
AVC: That reminds me of a bit Paul F. Tompkins has about how every man’s greatest fear is of being yelled at.
JH: Paul is a dear friend and over the course of many months spent filming the TV show Married for FX this past spring, my roommate, my host and, in many ways, my surrogate dad because I was staying with Paul and his wife in California for many, many weeks while I was out there. I have my own family, but it felt very familiar to me because I grew up with a mom and dad in the house—just the three of us—and that was happening again. Even though I have my own family, Paul and his wife became my secret family. It’s not a secret family like I have a beautiful, gorgeous wife in Tokyo; I have another mom and dad. I’m the kid and I have another mom and dad in Atwater Village, Los Angeles; Janie would be cooking dinner and Paul would be ironing shirts and I would be in my room with the door open—you know they don’t let me close the door when I use the internet—and I would be looking at the internet and Janie would say, “All right, it’s dinner time!“ and I would say, “Five seconds, mom, come on! Give me five minutes!” I realized I had become what my own teenage daughter is right now. I’m doing the exact same thing at dinner time—just hiding out in my room on the internet talking to my 45-year-old male friends, just like her.
Paul is the comedian I love so much that I constantly have to—let me put it this way—when he said that, it profoundly resonated with me. It’s true. Being yelled at is very terrifying to me, but it’s beyond that. When I grew up in Brookline, I would take the subway any day of the week—the “T” is what we called it there—but I still do not like to get on a city bus. A train is on tracks; you know where that’s going. But a bus, you get one wrong guy, one mad man behind the wheel, that bus could go anywhere in life. I can’t handle that. That is ambiguity that I don’t like.
AVC: Buses also have the most confusing routes.
JH: Have you ever looked at a bus map? You might as well be looking at Kevin Spacey’s journal from Seven. It’s incomprehensibly dense and full of apocalyptic overtones. Ugh! Bus maps! Gross.
JH: Terry Gross. I would rush home from high school to listen to Terry Gross. And has she ever had me on? No, not interested in me. Terry Gross has never had me on her show and you know, it’s her show; she sets the agenda and that’s not Hodgman. But I’ll still listen to it.
AVC: Maybe getting invited on Fresh Air will be your next mark of success.
JH: I don’t think that pays a lot of money. Now that I know what success really is!
No, I’ll happily do it. I’d do it for free. Guess what? That’s what it pays.
JH: As a live stand-up comedy performer, I have the benefit of choosing real entrance music. So last year, for my last show, my entrance music was a song by a band called Dada Life called “Kick Out The Epic Motherfucker” and that’s still a good one for me. These days, I’m walking out to a remix that I discovered on Soundcloud by a genius somewhere in America that I have not been able to contact who seems to have stopped posting things to Soundcloud four years ago, and I think this was the last thing he or she presumably posted. The handle is “Command With Sound” and he or she mashed together an EDM version of “Bridges And Balloons” by Joanna Newsom with the Beastie Boys, which is the greatest thing in my life and I walk out to that now.
AVC: Do you pick your closing music too?
JH: Unfortunately for humanity, I’ve gotten into the habit of providing my own closing music for shows by singing a song and playing the ukulele. Most recently, my closing music has been a song called “So Much Wine” by The Handsome Family that is a very sad Christmas song that is apropos of nothing in my act. One of those things that happens when you become a real grownup and you hit your 40s and your stride and say, “Yeah I can grow a mustache. Yeah, I don’t deserve physical affection anymore. I’ve made my evolutionary purpose and had children. I don’t care if anybody likes me, I’m going to do what I want to do. I’m going to do a whole comedy show about swimming in the loathsomely cold waters of Maine. I don’t care if I tell that story and John Roderick gets up afterward and yells, ‘I hope you enjoyed the white privilege, mortality comedy of John Hodgman!’ That’s me!” Same deal; I’m going to play a sad Handsome Family song at the end and I guarantee you everyone is going to love it because, sometimes, you need a grown man or woman to tell you what you like.
I also have been playing what should be the official—and there was a campaign to make it the official rock song of the Commonwealth Of Massachusetts but it is, as yet, not the official rock song of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts—“Roadrunner” by Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers. It kills it.
JH: I woke up and drove from one town in Maine to Bangor International Airport. I don’t know why I’m being coy. The town is Brooklin, Maine because I like life to be hilarious. I grew up in Brookline, I moved to Brooklyn, New York and then, as I alluded to earlier, in a mad moment, my family and I purchased a home in Maine because it’s the place in the world that my wife loves better than any other place or any other human, and so I have committed my life and what had once been my economic security that has now returned to insecurity, to a patch of painful, rocky land on the shores of horrible, cold waters to a place where people go in the summer to experience autumn because leaves start falling on August 1.
For years, E.B. White would never reveal where he lived. Even though he lived in north Brooklin, Maine, he would say, “I live in a place on the north East Coast between Halifax, Nova Scotia and Havana, Cuba.” But that was because E.B. White was a very Maine personality which is, “I hate everyone and everyone stay away from me.” Maine’s motto is “Vacationland,” but as far as I’m concerned, it should be, “Maine: Putting the ‘spite’ in hospitality since 1820.”
So I drove from Brooklin, Maine to Bangor, Maine and I flew to LaGuardia International Airport which was great, because they actually decided to make LaGuardia a functional airport today, so my plane landed and then I came home to this apartment in New York—our real home—which I have not been to in several weeks because I am a marginally employed person who can escape with my school teacher wife to the waters of Maine for much of the summer. I’m enduring a fair amount of culture shock as well, but it’s amplified by the fact that I am here so tomorrow I can attend the last taping of the Jon Stewart-led The Daily Show.
JH: I’ve only ever been mistaken for myself. People draw a lot of comparisons to all of the round-faced, mustached men of entertainment that make me cringe and sick to my stomach about how the world really sees me and they’re right. But the only time I’ve ever been mistaken for someone else is—and this arguable still—when a person came up to me on the boardwalk of Ocean City, New Jersey and said, “You look a lot like that guy from computer ads” and I said, “There is a reason because I am that guy,” and the guy looked at me for a minute, laughed and said, “That’s a funny joke, but you really do look like him. Good luck to you!” He thought I was lying. He thought I was not me. I was mistaken for someone who is not me.
But no, what other legitimate celebrity would someone think I was? I mean, let’s face it. I shouldn’t be on television. It’s a mistake that I went on The Daily Show as a guest; I was a writer and then, all of a sudden, this weird man-baby—then in his middle 30s—is on television? Who would allow that to happen with my weak chin and lazy eye? Then I added a mustache on top—well not on top of the lazy eye; that would be a weird, thick eyebrow. But I added a mustache and now other facial-hair configurations?
Do you know why beautiful people in the world become drunks?
AVC: No. Why?
JH: They want to get really drunk to see if when they’re at their most monstrous if you’ll still like them. They make themselves ugly. Let me tell you something: I am not beautiful, so I don’t know why I’m making myself ugly. But the mustache stays.
JH: I have no skills. I mean, I can make jokes, I’m pretty good at talking to people on the Judge John Hodgman podcast. I can figure out what makes a pretty good story, and I can make eggs really well. I can make scrambled eggs really well and I just learned how to kill it with a soft-boiled egg.
I would definitely make eggs for the rest of my life if I could. I came close recently to giving it all up to become a short-order cook, but I decided I would regret that within 13 minutes. But it would be 13 fun minutes.
I don’t know what else I could do other than what it is that I do do. Haha! I just said doo-doo!
JH: Why would he think that? Everyone feels like they would love to be a really cool bartender in a really cool bar, but you’re still surrounded by people who want to destroy themselves with alcohol. When you look at it that way, it’s not that much fun.
JH: I don’t really collect anything.
I mean, if I see a piece of Moxie soda memorabilia, I’ll probably buy it. I’m a sucker for regional soda brands and forgotten histories and that sort of thing.
The truth is, I’m Marie Kondo-ing it mostly in my life these days, if you’re familiar with the everyday magic of getting rid of clutter or whatever that book is by Marie Kondo [The Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying Up.—ed.]. It’s where you’re supposed to touch everything in your house and see if it sparks joy. I’m not into a lot of woo, but that spoke to me, because you hold on to a lot of stuff in your life and when you lay your hands on it, you know whether or not you want that dumb thing or to get rid of it. It’s really great and it’s true about other stuff in your life, too, like feelings and grudges. Lay your hand on it and you’ll know whether you want to hold on to it or throw it away or keep it. But, yeah, I would say aside from Moxie soda bottles and Masonic artifacts, there’s nothing I really collect.
Oh, you know what I collect? Interesting jobs. Always to my thrill and excitement, but ultimately to my exhaustion, I collect interesting jobs. If an interesting job comes along, I take it; that’s why I do so many things. I’m lucky to be able to.
JH: Scrambled eggs.
AVC: That you would make?
JH: Yeah, that I make. I told you I make the best.
AVC: Any sides or drinks?
JH: Why are you killing me? That’s my question. Is this a death-row situation?
AVC: That’s the general idea.
JH: Have I broken the rules of your cult of personality and you’re going to put me in the hurt yurt until I die? By the way, if I have my own cult of personality with my own geodetic dome in western Massachusetts, you know, and I will have a hurt yurt for anyone who crosses me.
But, sure, a side of bacon and a side of sausage from the diner near my house in Brooklyn that I like that I can’t seem to get anywhere else. But the truth is, I’d eat scrambled eggs now, and I’ll eat them an hour for now, I’d eat it for dinner tonight, tomorrow for breakfast and then later for a second breakfast.
AVC: How do you scramble eggs? What’s your secret?
JH: My secret is that I scramble them perfectly. Next year, when we do 11 Questions, we can change the first question from “What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?” to “How do you make the best scrambled eggs?”
Bonus 12th question from Felicia Day: If you could throw a pie in anyone’s face—anyone in history—who would it be? And it can’t be Hitler because that’s too common.
JH: Felicia Day.
AVC: Felicia Day is your answer?
JH: Yeah, for making me answer that question. But I love her.
AVC: What do you want to ask the next person?
JH: Forgiveness from Felicia Day.
No, I would ask if you had to live in only United States or Canadian province for the rest of your life and you could not leave the borders of it, what would it be?
AVC: What’s yours? Maine?
JH: No. That’s what makes it hard. You know, I don’t know. New York is where I live; I work in Los Angeles. Massachusetts is where I live, but I am honor bound to Maine and I love all of the provinces of Canada. I don’t know. But I don’t have to answer the question, I just pose it.