Nobody likes a smarty-pants or a compulsive liar, but author and humorist John Hodgman has a charming and deadpan way of being both with such authority that his audiences feel like they’re in on an elaborate inside joke. In addition to being The Daily Show’s “resident expert” on niche topics as wide ranging as paint samples’ impact on ethnography and the homoeroticism in martial arts, Hodgman has also penned two farcical almanacs in a planned trilogy that showcases his “total world knowledge”: 2005’s The Areas Of My Expertise (which delves deeply into hobo culture and the non-existence of Chicago) and 2008’s More Information Than You Require (which details how to cook an owl). With Hodgman’s knowledge being probed by Humanities Festival Artistic Director Lawrence Weschler at the Thorne Auditorium on Tuesday, The A.V. Club sought to examine the other end of Hodgman’s prolific intellect: subjects he knows nothing about.
John Hodgman: As you know, the thing that I know the least about is the topic of sports. And this actually came up in my life rather dramatically at the first reading on my book tour. I realized that, because the Philadelphia Philadelphians opted to do the decent thing and be destroyed quickly by the New York Playground Police, there apparently was going to be a bases-ball match for the title the very night that I was giving my first reading on this book tour. I knew what that meant: that many people would not come for that reason.
The A.V. Club: So you knew that much about sports, though.
JH: There are people I know who tried to calm me down, tried to hand me the inhaler as it were, to just stop hyperventilating about it. They were like, “I don’t think your audience really overlaps with the sporting audience.” But what I have learned is that an interest in sports in insidiously pervasive among even seemingly normal people. It’s like an epidemic.
AVC: Do you ever try to feign knowledge in sports if it comes up in conversation, or do you own up to your ignorance?
JH: No. There was a period in my life when I did feel some obligation to feign knowledge and interest in order to be one of the guys, one of the human men. And it’s not that I personally don’t like sports—I don’t know the rules to football. Many people, many girls have tried to teach me the rules to football. And you would think that it would get in my head that way, but I just don’t understand it.
AVC: I don’t understand the rules, either—in public school, we had to do a unit on football, and I still didn’t learn. To this day, I don’t know.
JH: See, that’s the thing. You have just put your finger on the precise thing that stokes my frustration on this point. What grade did you say?
JH: So in seventh grade, you had to do a unit on football, for what, for physical-education class?
AVC: Yeah, for gym class.
JH: Okay, for gym class. I thought you meant that you were asked to do a unit on the history of football. But even so, at no point would there ever be a unit on Dungeons & Dragons. At no point would there ever be a unit on, I don’t know, falconry. There would never be, “I’m so annoyed I have to go down to science-fiction class.” I don’t mind the [gym] itself, but it’s the showers after. I don’t even mind people’s passion for it, but I do tend to get ultimately frustrated by the presumption that I should care deeply.
AVC: People get so loyal to a team, but it’s a team made up of people that are going to be moving to other cities in a year. The players themselves aren’t that loyal.
JH: I sympathize, honestly. I understand. We are in economic hard times, and when we are in economic hard times, people take comfort in watching millionaires hit balls with sticks. And watching millionaires who have no loyalty to you or the city you live in hit balls with sticks for millions of dollars. What could be more comforting? Why isn’t there a ticker-tape parade for the freelance magazine writers? Where’s the ticker-tape parade for the guy whose movie review you read in the alt-weekly every week, and who lives down the block from you, and who gets drunk in the same bar as you, and, like you, will never go anywhere in his life? That guy gives you comfort as much as the millionaire who hits the ball with a stick or kicks it.
So as I say, I’m not against it, it’s just the pervasiveness and the absolute unquestioned sense of its importance that it has about itself that drives me into a kind of nerd rage, as you can tell. It emulates the kind of annoying self-confidence of the jock in general. Like, “Well, of course you love me. I am briefly the most popular person in high school because I am strong, and I was born later in the year than you, so I’m bigger than you and better at the sport than you. Of course I am a good human being. You’re the one who has to justify yourself, nerd. Yes, in four years I will be graduated from high school and the likelihood that I will become a professional athlete is close to nil, and I will go through a huge crisis of identity as I try to define who I am in a world that no longer cares about my sagging body, which is how I’ve defined myself for my whole life. But you, nerd, who’s studying something that you’re passionate about and care about, and that you’re going to do for the rest of your life, you’re the one who has to explain why the fuck you’re at this party.”
AVC: What are some other things that you know nothing about?
JH: Well, obviously, I know nothing about forgiveness. I know nothing about letting go. I haven’t been this mad about this for a long time. For me, it was very liberating in my first book to say, “You know what? I know there’s a lot of really funny, brilliant fake trivia to be written about sports, but I’m not the one to do it. If you want information written about sports, go look at all of the rest of our culture.” So there.