John Hodgman and David Rees have been friends and colleagues for years, even as their careers have taken similarly esoteric arcs across the pop culture sphere: Hodgman, from literary agent, to author, to computer pitchman, to general actor, memoirist, and raconteur; Rees, from the creator of beloved web comic Get Your War On, through his stint as a self-described “artisanal pencil sharpener” (and author of an excellent book about same), up through his delightful, much mourned nonfiction TV series Going Deep.
In 2020, the duo launched (via FXX’s animation anthology series Cake) a new cartoon show, Dicktown, written by and starring themselves, with production duties from Archer’s Matt Thompson. The series centers on fortysomething failed boy detective John Hunchman (Hodgman) and his childhood-bully-turned-chauffeur David Purefoy (Rees), two characters whose dynamic, if not their living circumstances, parallel Hodgman and Rees’ own.
Dicktown comes back for its second season this week, once again charting Hunchman and Purefoy’s efforts to solve extremely minor crimes, have wild houseboat adventures, and, ideally, no longer work exclusively for children. We talked to Rees and Hodgman ahead of the season premiere, which is set to debut on March 3 on FXX.
David Rees: It has something to do with a feeling of being stuck or regressing, the poignancy of what’s considered a big deal or a mystery when you’re a kid, versus what’s considered a big deal or a mystery when you’re an adult, once you’ve been thrown out into the world.
And then I think for us, personally, we were thinking about books we read as kids like Encyclopedia Brown or, for me, books like the Great Brain Series. Which are about precocious kids. Because I was a precocious kid, and now as an adult, I feel like the bloom is off the rose a little, and being a precocious kid doesn’t necessarily carry you through the rest of your life. There’s a lot of humor in that. And then also there’s a lot of deeper stuff too, that’s worth exploring.
John Hodgman: Being a precocious kid in your 40s is not a lot of fun, if you’ve been coasting on that precociousness. I was definitely an only child nerd who had no inkling for sports, but otherwise I’d achieved everything I tried very early on. And to find that that doesn’t carry through to adulthood is very sobering.
AVC: Did either of you try to start your own “detective agency” as kids?
DR: The only business I started as a kid, and this has been alluded to in season one of the show, was a shoplifting and pornography resale ring in middle school, which involved a lot of subterfuge and sneakiness. I wasn’t solving crimes, I was committing crimes. I was on the wrong side of the law.
JH: I always wanted to start a detective agency, but I frankly didn’t have the skills. I was a kid who read a lot of Agatha Christie, like, “Gosh darn, I don’t know how that Hercule Poirot does it. Well, well, off to fourth grade.” What a loathsome creep I was.
When we conceived of this, I had just been reading the Encyclopedia Brown stories to my son, and I found them to be a deep bath of nostalgia, obviously. But also, I found that the solutions were often very frustrating, not because they didn’t make sense, or that they couldn’t be figured out, but because justice was achieved so easily at the end of every one. Encyclopedia Brown proves to a group of people that Bugs Meany must have stolen the trophy because of X, Y and Z, and they always end with Bugs Meany caught by Encyclopedia Brown, apologizing, and giving the trophy back. When, in reality, Bugs Meany would have just shoved Encyclopedia Brown to the ground. Who cares?
So I started ending every one of the stories with “And so Bugs Meany punched Encyclopedia Brown in the mouth. The end. That’s justice, son.” And then I would say good night to him.
David and I originally wanted to do, basically, a pair of Riptide-like detectives living on a houseboat, having adventures in the 1980s action style. And then, because of this Encyclopedia Brown thing that I was going through, we thought, well, what if one of these guys is Encyclopedia Brown grown up? And the other is Bugs Meany grown up. And now they’re each other’s only friends, because the world has moved past them. When we start season two, we opened it with a big 1980s Riptide style action montage, because that is the dream, both of who these guys want to be, and also the dream that we originally had for them. It’s all a fantasy, of course, but it’s a lot of fun. We think.
AVC: Dicktown often contrasts your adult characters with teens who are much more put together. Why make a show centered on the irrelevance of characters loosely based on yourselves?
JH: We wanted to reflect real life.
DR: Yeah, it’s just holding a mirror up to our own lived experience.
JH: Do you have children?
AVC: I do not.
JH: I’m happy to tell you you don’t need to have children to realize that you’re essentially training your replacements on this world. In many ways, having children is a gift that gives you that cold, sharp shock that you are actually creating life that is designed to replace you.
I think there’s a reason that there are midlife crises, you know. When we were younger white men, particularly in the ’90s, the world was organized around reminding us constantly of our importance and our relevancy. I think it is better for the world and for culture that we’re starting to question that automatic relevancy of white maleness. And you combine that with age and ooh boy, you are on.
What’s a good ’90s metaphor, so I’ll sound really out of date? You are Jonathan Silverman in The Single Guy, canceled after two seasons. That’s how you feel. You thought you had two seasons of Must See TV. And it turns out you’re never going to be seen on TV again. And believe me, as someone who’s been on TV and isn’t very much anymore, I know how that feels.
AVC: Is that why the show so often puts John and David in direct conversation with actual kids?
DR: Absolutely, yeah.
JH: Let’s put it into context, it’s a professional relationship. And all of the clients are over 18. That’s in the show description of every character. They all have agency.
Boy, that doesn’t sound as reassuring as I meant it to sound.
DR: This is one of those conversations where bringing up age makes everything sound worse.
JH: It is supposed to be uncomfortable. For the viewer and for John and David, that the only people in this world are much younger than them, and also much better at being grown-ups than they are.
And I think that that’s something that is not uncommon to feel these days. The young people that our characters work for in the first season tend to be much less anxious. Much more comfortable in who they are, much less inclined to use labels or feel that they have to live up to certain labels that they’ve put on themselves, or other people have put on them. That’s a gross generalization, but I think that that’s not untrue among the younger people that I’ve met.
At least, before the pandemic—once the pandemic hit, I think that that changed the anxiety of the millennial and Gen Z generation, it went much higher than mine, let’s put it that way. The pandemic was a situation that was designed for a lethargic, settled midlife person who doesn’t want to go out anyway and doesn’t care about who he hugs and kisses anymore because he’s either got someone in his life or he’s given up. For young, young people, I think it’s very hard.
AVC: The two of you write the show, which has a fairly hefty number of conversations about dicks and balls, together. Are those also part of your non-work relationship?
DR: John, do we talk about penises a lot? I’m trying to remember if we’ve ever made a penis joke to each other.
JH: It makes me uncomfortable to say the name of the TV show we made. Dicktown. It was designed to be provocative for various reasons, and to be Google-able. I swear, but like John Hunchman, I don’t swear with delight or a pleasure in working blue. I swear with a feeling of profound defeat, existential anger, frustration with myself. But the ribaldry, I guess… Well, first of all, I’m the kind of guy who uses the word “ribaldry.”
DR: Yeah, man, that was bad. Cut that. That was not a good look.
JH: I feel like David Purefoy has more of that—and I’ll throw this one out at you—“cock joke brio” in his background. That both disgusts John Hunchman, but is alluring, to go blue from time to time. I think it helps him access parts of his personality that he’s repressed, that desire to say “Fuck my life,” which is the catchphrase of David Purefoy, and something John Hunchman had difficulty saying.
AVC: Is there some wish fulfillment to these characters? They don’t have good lives, but they do have carefree lives, of a sort.
DR: There’s some wish fulfillment, yeah. I think it would be fun to hang out and drink beer on the deck of a houseboat. David Purefoy lives with his parents, and I’m actually headed to North Carolina on Friday to go live with my parents. I mean, just for a week, I’m not going to spend the rest of my life with my parents.
I like driving around Chapel Hill, which is where I grew up, which is what Richardsville, the fake town from the show, is somewhat based on. It kind of does hearken back to the ’90s, this fantasy of being able to somehow skate by with a less-than-40-hour-a-week job. It’s kind of like a series of temp gigs, right? The freelance economy, these guys solving mysteries for kids.
JH: I love my family, and I love my life. But there is that element of hanging out on the back of a houseboat, just talking smack with a friend. I might have used some bad words around that time. I might have made some dick jokes around that time of my life! And these guys are stuck where they were when they were 17 years old, and there is a pleasure and freedom to being stuck like that, to a degree.
But in season two, these guys are making the transition vaguely from their thirties into their forties and wondering, “Oh boy, do I have to grow up? This is not okay, right?” And that sparks what becomes one of the season-long arcs, is that they go on this Operation: Grow Up, where they mark down the benchmarks of being an adult that they haven’t met and try to meet them. And for David, that’s to move out of his parents’ basement and to become financially, not just independent, but dominant, via this internet guru that he’s become enamored of. And for Hunchman, it’s to stop working for teenagers, but also to have a healthy relationship with someone.
DR: A romantic partner.
JH: To stop sharing his houseboat solely with this foul-mouthed man child who is his buddy.
DR: This season, we decided to explicitly address why these guys are stunted, and what it’s like for them to realize that and to want to make a change towards maturity. And that runs throughout the season, with John’s love life and David’s being, you know, kind of hornswoggled by this vaguely Jordan Peterson-type guru. And then there’s also a season long mystery that has to do with what happened to them when they were literally kid detectives, and how stuff that you don’t think about in your adult life might have really affected people decades ago. You know, something might have been traumatic for somebody that you don’t really think about anymore.
JH: In high school, I was an oddball with long hair and a fedora and a briefcase. But I was also well-liked by all my peers, and my teachers, and people saw great things for me in the same way that people saw great things for little John Hunchman in the show. And even though I always considered myself to be a good person, like we all do, I realized many times over the years that I would casually hurt people around me and not know, until years later, the casual harm we do, particularly if you’re someone in a position of high status.
AVC: Do you have a sense of whether you guys would have been friends if you’d met in high school?
JH: Well, I just described myself pretty accurately in high school. David, how would you feel about me? How would you feel about that guy?
DR: I’m trying to remember if there’s anyone at our high school who fit that description, and how I felt about that person. I mean, you sound pretty pretentious, I have to say.
JH: Yes, 100 percent. Would it help if I told you I tried to start a theater troupe?
DR: What’s that mean, like Station 11, you’re traveling around Brookline, putting on Shakespeare plays for everybody?
JH: That was kind of the idea, but not Shakespeare. I think I was focusing on Ionesco.
DR: It’s coming into focus now, John. I’m just glad we’re friends as adults.
Why don’t we just say that? It’s nice.
JH: I mean, I loved Dune, and I know even to this day, you do not care for it, right? If I started talking to you about sandworms in the cafeteria, would we have bonded?
DR: I would have assumed we were having one of those penis conversations that we’re not brave enough to have as adults.
AVC: David, you’ve done a wide variety of projects, but not much in the way of acting. What has the transition into voice acting been like?
DR: It would have been more challenging if I was playing someone who wasn’t kind of just an exaggerated version of myself, do you know what I mean? I feel like I understand the character in a lot of ways. It’s not like I’m voice acting as some 13th century person or something where I just have no idea what their headspace is like.
So much voiceover recording for animation is done remotely, especially when you’re in a global pandemic. But our director and producer, Matt Thompson was smart—and we also wanted this to happen—to make sure that John and I were always in the same room when we recorded our dialog, so that we could riff off each other and do improv and stuff. Being in the same room with John helps a lot, because a lot of those character dynamics are very similar to our real, real-world dynamics as friends and coworkers, you know? One of my favorite parts about making the show is just getting to be in the same recording booth with John and goof off.
JH: The only experience I can bring to this is knowing how unusual it is, to be able to record simultaneously with your co-star in a room. And I think even when we are sticking very close to the script, it is so much more alive because David and I were in in the room together, looking at each other, playing off each other, genuinely annoying each other, on purpose, needling each other, feeling each other. You can hear, in certain conversations, the balance of power between the characters switches, and one undermines the other, and another one begrudgingly agrees that he’s right. And it’s all very real, because we’re there together. So thanks, Matt.
AVC: David, we’re big fans here of your TV show Going Deep. Any chance, even a longshot, of a possible third season?
DR: Oh, I don’t know, when you’ve been canceled by two separate TV networks? This is a long, hard conversation that I had to have with my producers, when I asked the same question after we got canceled the second time. I would love to do it. It was so fun. And it’s hard not to take it personally, because that show really was my sensibility. You know, it was shot in my house. It was about as DIY as an actual TV show can get. It’s kind of like, “Well, I guess people don’t like what I’m selling!”
I was just happy to have helped Jeff Goldblum’s career.
JH: As a superfan of David Rees since the moment My New Fighting Technique Is Unstoppable was handed to me, and just laughing as hard as I’ve ever laughed, and getting to know David and his sensibility, I think that show spoke to a lot of people who maybe didn’t have the Esquire Channel—a channel which, by the way, was also canceled. So who’s right? Who’s wrong?
DR: We killed it. The network assassins over at Going Deep.
JH: I have no doubt that if David had launched Going Deep as a YouTube channel in 2015, rather than as a Nat Geo show a few years earlier, in that alternate timeline, which I think is very plausible, Going Deep is a massive juggernaut. The networks are now begging David to put it on their air. But David is someone who has always found his audiences, and when they connect with them, they really do connect. So I’m going to say: Season three of Going Deep, premiering on YouTube or Vimeo, March the 3rd, 2026. Gives you some time, David.
DR: Thank you. I appreciate building in that extra time.
JH: Because, fingers crossed, we have season three of Dicktown to make before that. When season one came out, we were so, so proud of it, and for various world events and other things, you know, we felt that people had other stuff on their minds than checking out our cartoon. So we’re really, really excited to have had a chance to make more of them. We think season two is really good, if I may say so. And we hope that people will discover it, because really, we’ve poured a lot of ourselves into it.
JH: And that’s not a joke about semen.
See, I can do it!
DR: Wow, look at that ribaldry! Ostentatious ribaldry, I love it.