John Hodgman has built a lovely career for himself by being both pedantic and incompetent, a know-it-all who doesn't know a damn thing.
To TV audiences, he's known for playing the stiff, malfunctioning PC yin to Justin Long's laid-back, tip-top Mac yang in those popular "Get a Mac" ads, and for dispensing not-so-expert expertise as a correspondent on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
To readers, he's the man behind a trio of almanacs—The Areas of My Expertise (2005), More Information than You Require (2008) and That Is All (2011)—consisting of humorous, remarkably worthless facts he completely made up. (Who can forget the 700 hobo names he listed in Expertise?) Whether onscreen or in print, Hodgman presents himself as a superior raconteur who is unaware that he actually isn't one.
So how did this Massachusetts-born, New York-based former literary agent become the go-to person to play dumb smart guys, ready to take on any imbecilic egghead role, whether it's in an episode of Community or a Tina Fey movie?
"My career is essentially accidental," says Hodgman. "I had some idea that I wanted to write and tell stories very early on, and I've always loved comedy. I thought I was going to write serious short stories, about people having epiphanies in parking lots and so forth. And it wasn't until I would read these things aloud that I realized they were accidentally funny, because everyone would laugh."
Hodgman took his newfound gift for writing in a funny tone to McSweeney's, where he wrote an advice column, "Ask a Former Professional Literary Agent," for the publishing house's website. This is where he worked on a first draft of his inaccurately erudite persona.
"The former literary-agent character I embodied was telling people to find their writerly voice by inserting a man into their head—and paying me money to do it," he recalls. "[My character is] the voice of utter, pedantic authority that is constantly being undermined by derangement and incompetence."
Thanks to influences such as Monty Python, Steve Martin, Peter Cook and Robin Williams, Hodgman acquired a flair for straight-faced yet incessantly tongue-in-cheek, absurdist humor that can be found in his books, his film, TV and radio appearances and even his Judge John Hodgman podcast, where he gives ridiculous rulings on real-life disputes.
It's also all over John Hodgman: Ragnarok, a special released on Netflix last year. In it, Hodgman built a stand-up set around the latest incarnation of his stupid-snob persona—a deranged millionaire who is sure the world is going to end.
While Hodgman doesn't claim to be a true, seasoned stand-up, years of book readings and speaking engagements prepared him to take the plunge. "What I discovered over the years is that once you're in front of an audience and you feel that energy of an audience reacting to something that you think of at the moment, it is much more exciting than sitting down at a desk and writing," he says.
He continues to perform his "authoritative, if incompetent" brand of comedy, which he'll be doing at the Carolina Theatre on Friday. These days, Hodgman says his stand-up is less about taking on a persona and more about being himself onstage—but don't get it too twisted.
"What will be seen in Durham will be me shedding a lot of those costumes—I mean, I literally take off a lot of my clothes—and just speaking as plainly as possible," he says, adding, "and occasionally wearing a dress in the style Ayn Rand would've worn in about 1980."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Comedy of errors."