John Hodgman has lived a few places in his life. First, in Massachusetts, where he spent much of his young life. Then, New York—namely Brooklyn, where he grew into adulthood. Now, by virtue of a persuasive wife and the subtle appeal that an unyieldingly rocky coastline provides, he’s somewhere in Maine. All of those moves and phases of life are the subject of the former Daily Show correspondent’s new book, Vacationland. A wry, surprisingly moving book that this very site called “a warm harbor against cold winds,” Vacationland is Hodgman’s look at what it means to move further and further along the timeline of ones life, from pretentious teenage only child to father of not one but two potentially pretentious human children.
The A.V. Club hopped on the phone recently to talk to Hodgman about all sorts of stuff, from what it means to own a boat to whether or not he fears death.
The A.V. Club: Vacationland started as a stage show you were touring. How did you go about turning that production into a book?
John Hodgman: What happened was that after I published my third and final book of fake trivia and made-up facts, I realized a couple of things. I didn’t want to do that anymore—and that was even before everyone was doing it and before it became really popular at every level of government. I just knew that I couldn’t tell those kinds of jokes anymore because I had told them all, and I really felt empty. I had told every joke and every story I had to tell. But I wanted to continue performing, because by the end of the book tours, I was no longer reading—I was performing my imitation of stand-up comedy and really enjoyed it. So I knew that I had to develop some new material.
On the advice of Mike Birbiglia, I organized a weekly show at Union Hall in Brooklyn to just have an artificial deadline every week to figure out what was still inside my head so that I could say it onstage in front of humans. Very quickly, I realized that I didn’t have any fake facts left in me. I only had the awful truth of my life. Sincere stories about me as a real human being absent of any resident expert or deranged millionaire character—a husband and a father to human children living life. That developed into two different stage shows that I toured around the country really happily, the latter being Vacationland, which I finished touring a little more than a year ago.
I enjoyed telling these personal stories onstage because I knew that they weren’t being recorded and no one in the audience would bother to remember them, so it was safe. For someone who had always hidden behind a persona, it was safe to be personal onstage because there would be no record of it. But by the end of the Vacationland tour, I wanted there to be a record of it. I liked the stories that I was telling, and I didn’t hate myself as much as I thought I did. So I went to my book editor, Brian Tart, who had acquired and edited the previous three books and had since moved from Dutton to Viking—but that’s some real inside publishing baseball that you don’t need to memorize. Anyway, I went to my old book editor, and I gave him a recording of the show, and told him what I wanted to do. He said, “This is great. Can you do it in six months?” And I thought, well, that will be easy because it’s already written in a way. I had never written it down. This is the first time I had ever written something for performance rather than for writing, and then adapted to performance. So then I had to retrofit the performance to writing.
I thought it would be easy because I knew all the stories, but I also became gripped with fear—and I think an accurate one—that if I actually transcribed the show Vacationland, it would amount to about 9,000 words, which is not book-length. You know what? Maybe I would have gotten to like 15 to 20 thousand words, but that’s still not book length. So I didn’t do that because I knew that would be too demoralizing. Instead, I treated each day like a day onstage at the Union Hall. I just sat down and started telling a story that I knew, and started quickly discovering more of the story that I had forgotten or now had time to embellish. I also went back and was able to incorporate some elements from the previous show, which was called I Stole Your Dad, which also had never been written down, and realized they were all part of a piece, and that that piece was a testimony of a monster with terrible facial hair staring at the second half of his life, and the gracious metaphor for decline and death that the state of Maine offers those of us who are morbidly inclined.
AVC: Is death something that you’ve come to accept a little more as you’ve aged, or are you still afraid of it?
JH: Well, it’s scary. When you’re a young person, you are biologically driven to believe you are immortal, and that’s why you engage in all kinds of risky behavior you stop once you feel death’s cruel breath on your neck. I think that as a straight white man in particular, I was tempted to believe that I was immortal and eternal because, after all, in this culture, straight white dudes are the heroes of every story that you see or read about with very rare exception. So how could the story go on without the hero, you know? Especially as an only child, which is what I am—a member of the “super smart afraid of conflict narcissists” club—the suggestion that all things come to and end, even John Hodgman, was frankly insulting.
It was hard to come to grips with. The reality, the certainty, the dismissal of illusion. The understanding that we reach a point where we stop becoming something and start ending as something. That comes at different times in different points in different people’s lives, and obviously there are lots of people who experience the presence of death much more keenly and much earlier than I did. But we all come to grips with it eventually.
There is no metaphor for death. All comparisons are odious, but I’ll do one anyway. We all have these moments of harsh clarity where we realize that something is gone, whether that is youth, whether that is someone we care about, whether that is where we literally lose someone we care about to death. Or we end a relationship that we thought would last forever, or have one ended for us. Or even just a job. Or even just you wrote your last book of fake facts and the world didn’t end the way you predicted, and you’re embarrassed and you don’t know what to do next. We all have these moments in life where it seems impossible to fill up the time that we have left for us, and yet we have to do it somehow.
Vacationland bills itself as the white privilege mortality comedy of John Hodgman because I believe in truth in advertising. And as far as the mortality aspect goes, it’s a lot of really funny jokes about how you start over when you think your world has ended. And so that’s what that’s about. And I think for a lot of people, middle age is the time when they realize their world has ended and start thinking about what happens next.
AVC: In the book, you say you’re afraid of breaking rules. Why do you think we’re all so afraid of being scolded?
JH: Well, I don’t think everybody is afraid of breaking the rules. Some people, I think, innately hear about a rule and want to break it. Other people learn early on that the consequences for breaking certain rules are meaningless or endurable, and therefore they feel rules much less keenly. I feel them profoundly keenly.
Right now, I am visiting my friends, the great Paul F. Tompkins and his wife in California, because I’m doing some podcasts as you do, and I’m sitting in their lovely backyard in an unnamed region of Los Angeles. And I realize that have left the backdoor to the guest bedroom where I was staying open. I’m looking at it now wondering, “Have I done something wrong? Is a coyote now going to run in the door and kill my friend, Paul F. Tompkins? Is there some wildfire prevention method that I’m violating by allowing airflow into that guest bedroom?” I’m not making this up. This is how I interpret life. It’s exhausting, and yet it is part of my DNA because I never was a person who learned that one can break the rules and that the consequences were, for the most part, minor and endurable.
I grew up as an only child without siblings to confront me on any of my bull feces, and therefore, I had a lot of bull feces. I had a lot bizarre affectations. I was the kid who brought a briefcase to school in 9th grade. And I also didn’t play sports. Sports is a bloodless rehearsal of confrontation, and everyone shakes hands or high fives or fist bumps at the end to show that everything is okay. So, consequently, I had no basic training—even if I could understand it rationally, I had no basic training—that even the simplest of confrontations, whether that was getting into a fight with someone or hugging and kissing someone, was not fatal. So I navigated the world—I’m glad to use that term in the past tense, because I think it’s changed somewhat—but I navigated the world as a hedge maze of constant fear and worry in which I might take the wrong turn and jeopardize the love of everyone around me and everyone on Earth. That’s what I needed in order to survive.
For many years, people would say, “Only child? Must have been terrible,” and I wanted to say, “You are mentally ill, because it was the greatest.” You got all the attention. You never had to share anything. No one ever ate your food. No one ever took your toys. But the unintended consequence was that I didn’t appreciate that being universally loved was not only not required for happiness, but also not possible.
AVC: Have your kids inherited any of your teenage eccentricities?
JH: Well, I can’t say no. I’m not going to lie and say there wasn’t a time when our son, who is 12, went to school wearing a T-shirt and a clip-on bow tie around his bare neck. That’s a classic John Hodgman move if ever there was one. And I didn’t teach that to him. If I had ever been asked, I would say, “Oh, don’t make the mistakes I did, son. If you have to wear a bow tie, wear a collared shirt and learn to tie a bow tie. Don’t clip something to your bare neck.” So that’s obviously inherited at some deep blood calling within him to be weird in that way.
To be quite honest, he’s a very good looking and symmetrical human being in a way that... I mean, my wife and I are—we’re okay. Neither of us is on the cover of any magazines. The fact that I actually went on camera is itself a gross anomaly in this culture. My son is very handsome and good looking, and I don’t know that either my wife or I are prepared to counsel him as he goes through life with people feeling naturally attracted to him and wanting to do nice things for him because attractive people get perks that even weird, mustachioed former contributors to The Daily Show do not get, if you can believe it.
Our daughter, who is older and is also very attractive… this is now sounding weird. Our daughter who is older and who is hyper-intelligent and wonderful and essentially, at age 15, a perfectly self-sufficient adult who lives in our house and doesn’t pay rent but is nonetheless pleasant to be around. She’s essentially a permanent houseguest in our home, and she treats us as such. She treats us as her AirBnB hosts. But she has very good taste, and feels no need to accessorize in any of the loathsomely eccentric ways I tried to accessorize as a child.
I describe in the book that, for reasons that are still inchoate to me, I grew my hair long and I wore a fedora to school. I wore a long overcoat and a big Doctor Who scarf. The briefcase was always in hand. I would go to school dances having pilfered my dad’s closet for oversized white suits so I could look like David Byrne in Stop Making Sense. I was a pretentious jerk and I went to school that way everyday. It’s a wonder to me that I was not bullied more. I think I offered too many targets for a bully to really hone in on one thing. Like, “Where do I start with this guy? The fedora? The hair? The briefcase? I can’t see him anymore. Oh, well now he’s gone.” That was how I slipped through the world without bullying, I guess.
AVC: You mention a few times in the book that some 13-year-olds are weirdly drawn to your writing. Do you have a sense of why that is?
JH: I think they sense themselves in me, and I don’t think it’s all 13-year-olds. Normal 13-year-olds probably aren’t plowing through a thousand pages of fake facts about the fictitious hobo wars. They’re probably going out in the world and Minecraft-ing and parkour-ing and junk. I don’t know what they do. But I do have a beloved cadre of 13-year-old boys and girls—and a couple of years on either side—who come to my shows and come to my events and stuff.
I think they see in me a reflection of themselves. Or maybe they see me as a reflection of the 13-year-old, sexless bachelor gentleman that I was when I was 13. They recognize that older me inside this now ancient shell that stands before them.
I’m so glad that they come to my comedy shows. But, you know, I do often have to give a disclaimer at the top of the show to those parents who have brought their 13-year-olds that the show Vacationland and the book as well contains adult themes and situations. Very sadly for the 13-year-olds, they’re not any of the fun sexy adult themes and situations. You know, there’s no partial nudity or side nudity. There’s some strong language and light drug references, but mostly it’s the sad, adult themes of feeling irrelevant and coping with the sense of death. So I hope you kids enjoy the show and book!
AVC: Well, there’s some partial nudity. You and Jonathan Coulton are shirtless at one point.
JH: There is described partial nudity.
Here are the disclaimers for the advisory label of the book: There is described partial nudity. There is described use of marijuana in a pre-legal/profoundly melancholic setting. There is, I believe... in enthusiasm, I refer to the show Battlestar Galactica as “goddamn fucking Battlestar Galactica.” And I say “shit” once, and I apologize. There’s no violence, I would say. At one point, I gently stomp on a fence.
I think that’s it. But these are all accompanied by strong moral messages that these behaviors, in my case, are sad and pathetic.
AVC: How much time do you spend in Maine now? And do you think that you will retire there? Do you want to retire at some point?
JH: Maine is a state in the United States that is the place that my wife loves more than any other place or honestly person on Earth. Throughout our relationship, we’ve always spent time there. In recent years, we spent more time there because we bought a house there a couple of years ago. Because my wife teaches high school and I am marginally self-employed, we can spend a good chunk of every summer there and school vacations and that kind of thing.
My favorite season is autumn, and Maine is lovely for that reason. In Maine, autumn begins on July 29. That’s when you start building a fire in the fireplace and the leaves literally start falling from the trees. It is a cold and rugged and a beautiful place that reminds you with its many death traps–its painfully cold oceans, its sharp, jagged beaches, and perilous cliffsides—that nature doesn’t care whether you live or die. It’s a fun place to go on vacation if you’re like me and are someone who has never been entirely sure they deserved happiness or pleasure in the first place.
I would say that as to whether I will retire to Maine, I have been instructed that I will. And I’ve been instructed by my wife that I will accept my death in Maine eventually. I don’t look forward to the ending part, but I do look forward to spending more time there if I can. I enjoy it very, very much. It is an unusual place.
I think that I’m reaching a point in my life and in my career where soon it will be important for me to get out of the way and let younger, hungrier, more interesting people do what it is that I do. Maine is a wonderful place to hide, because no one ever looks for you there. And the goal of every person in Maine, whether native or from away, seems to be to mitigate as possible all human interaction. So it’s a good place to disappear in.
AVC: And you have a boat now. Are you a boat guy?
JH: The first summer that we lived in Maine we fulfilled our Caucasian class-destiny in the most loathsome way, and we bought a boat. It is not a yacht. It is a rowboat, but I can’t lie. It is still a boat. It floats on water, and no one knows how that works, by the way. It’s still a mystery. But it’s a rowboat called a peapod, because it’s pointed at both ends, and it’s a very classic example of Maine wooden boat building. A very functional rowboat that can be rowed in either direction. It’s very stable. It’s used to being used. Prior to the advent of motorization, it was used by lobster fisherman to go out shallow coves and pull up their lobster traps. Lobsters are in the ocean, you know. You don’t catch them in the woods. That’s very unusual.
This peapod came up for auction, and there was a lot of talk about it in town because it was one of the final peapods made by Jim Steele, who sort of made the region famous for building these wooden peapods, and he was not going to make anymore because he was dead. There was a lot of conversation about how much this peapod would auction off for, and it was a charity auction for a church or something. And I don’t want to spoil the story, which is in the book, but rather unexpectedly and mostly accidentally, we ended up taking it home.
Normally, I would say that that is as far into boat ownership as we’d go, that we accidentally bought one peapod and said, “There. This far and no further.” But I would be lying. It’s revealed a year later that a nutshell pram came up for sale at a reasonable price, also wooden, which is what this region of Maine is famous for, the building of wooden boats in the traditional style. A nutshell pram is an even smaller boat. It’s a small, single-person dinghy that you can sail around a harbor with only about a 70 percent chance of capsizing and death. I should say you can sail it around a calm harbor with only a 70 percent chance of capsizing and death.
We also came very close to going in on a 12-and-a-half-foot haven, which is a different kind of boat. The fact that I know these terms is really very troubling to me. That is a much larger sailing boat. I’ll give you three guesses as to how long that 12-and-a-half foot haven is.
AVC: Probably 12-and-a-half feet.
JH: Yeah, you win the prize. Now you have to take care of this boat at great expense every year. Sorry.
Anyway, we did not pull off the hat trick, which in Maine terms is buying one boat every year for three years in a row.
I think it was in one of the Travis McGee novels by John D. MacDonald where Travis says a boat is a hole you pour money into.
AVC: At least these are sailboats and rowboats. You’re not messing around with cigarette boats or something.
JH: I like to row around the rowboat. That’s fun. I understand how that works. But sailing is really a complicated kind of witchcraft of physics and sorcery, and all of my family has learned it to some degree. My son, whom I mentioned before, is pretty adept at it, and he took me around the harbor in the nutshell pram. I don’t know if you’ve ever been shoved into the bow of a nutshell pram, a boat that is very easily almost liftable with one hand, and quite tippy, and is being piloted by a 12-year-old, but it is the true feeling of having your life in someone else’s hands, and it’s very precarious.
AVC: I’ve always thought it weird that you can just buy a boat and start sailing. There’s no licensing process. You don’t have to take classes. If you want, you can just hop on a motorboat and start cruising willy-nilly.
JH: Yeah, but you don’t get very far sailing without classes. That’s not something where you can turn a key and go. Powerboating, though, is a weird—I would say lawless—land, but it’s not land at all. Two feet from shore is international waters when it comes to the registration and regulation of boat use. You can do whatever you want.
One time, I was rowing two friends back from an island. I had rowed to the island solo with extreme ease, not knowing it was because I had both wind and the tide on my side. So I very boastfully said to these two large men, “I will row you back from this island.” They had arrived by other means. They weren’t just men I found on the island. They’re friends of mine. One of them is David Rees, the famous artisanal pencil sharpener and cartoonist. And the other is Jon Kimball, a friend from Chapel Hill with whom he used to do the great podcast Election Profit Makers. Just some name-dropping of some the people who come to Maine. I said, “David and Jon, I will row you back. Back across Eggemoggin Reach to shore in safety. You will see this peapod is truly the Cadillac of the seas. It cannot be tipped, it cannot be tossed. Once it gets going, it’s got momentum. It rows itself.” And I could not have been more wrong.
This time, the wind was directly at my back, and calling up chops in the water that really tested my confidence that this boat was untippable. Jon Kimball, who was nervous to begin with, got a huge splash down his back because he was sitting in the bow of the boat. Water was coming into the boat. And because I had come over there solo, we only had one life jacket among us, and it was reaching the point where I really realized that we were kind of in danger. I didn’t know how I was going to solve this problem. I could see land all around us, but I was rowing and not moving. Rowing hard and not moving and not getting closer to anything. I was just rowing to stay in place. And if I had let the current take me, which would probably would have had to be my option, I knew that over there, there were a lot of rocks, and we might crash up against those rocks and probably need to be rescued.
So there I was, and for the first time in many years of being on or near the water in Maine, I saw one of the fabled Maine harbor patrol boats speeding toward us. And I had always heard about these guys, but I had never seen them. Their job is to patrol and make sure that everything is in good order, and I have heard tales of them stopping you, and if there is not a life jacket for every person on the boat, you will get a hefty fine. Not only did I not have enough life jackets, but also we were in trouble, and I was breaking the rules. I was about to be called to account meaningfully by the law—the law of the sea—but at the same time, I needed that guy because we were in trouble.
He came screaming toward us, did not look at us, and he screamed right by. I don’t know what else could have aroused more suspicion of a Maine harbor patrol person than us three dummies in a boat looking like a children’s nursery rhyme about to tip over with one jacket between us, but he was on a different mission. It was like, wow, even when the rules come for you in Maine, they pass you right by. Luckily, a friend of ours with a powerboat saw us and came in and gave us a tow back to shore, and it was a relief.
I guess the moral of the story is that I didn’t die that day, but I will die someday.