John Hodgman is a gentleman. I've never liked him.
He strides gracefully into a room, takes his position behind lectern or desk and, with a twinkle in his eye, begins to talk. He talks about science, his past, cheese, UFOs and how he spent part of his career as a literary agent, all while peddling a brand of entirely invented "trivia." He does so with the humility, sweetness and subtle smarm of your favorite humanities professor.
Hodgman is funny in an unaggressive way. He has little of Louis C.K.'s self-loathing, and none of Chris Rock's potty mouth or Amy Schumer's grossness. He doesn't do Seinfeldisms. He is in no way "diverse." He transcends all that with a smile that says, "I have too much pedigree. More than you do, in any case." And he tells stories.
Hodgman's bread and butter, his brioche and Brie, is warm irony. It is not extreme; it is not unsettlingly absurd; it is rounded and soft, like his features. Hodgman looks like a cloud that hasn't decided whether it will rain.
We might compare him to a young Mark Twain. Twain began his career as a "platform lecturer," traveling from town to town giving cockeyed speeches on a variety of topics, and that's exactly what Hodgman does. He's patricianly rumpled and absentminded, a look Twain made famous.
But perhaps a more fruitful comparison is Samuel Pepys: overbred, overweening, chronicling his untroubled life in an accidentally winsome way. Pepys as an NPR host; Pepys as a Gen X-er who'd drifted through Yale on Bergman and Fellini marathons and Sally's pizza. Not a real aristocrat, but rather, the symbolic one from The Official Preppy Handbook.
Which is why I say I've never liked him. This cultivated persona, this tweedy, corky, somewhat sheepish but highly articulate character, though it appears to be Hodgman's actual self, is too fey, too fake—too much like me. And we are tired of that.
How often must one glance up from one's breakfast to notice yet another 18th-century-style belletrist-cum-Victorian platform comic whose subject matter is space aliens or the end of the world? And oh, look, now he's guest-hosting a talk show or caricaturing himself in a TV commercial for Apple computers. Wait, McSweeney's AND Paris Review? Sure, my own work has been in one of those. But two seems excessive.
Something other than sensibility and its attendant gentle absurdity (ah, life!) and inevitable whiplash of wistfulness must be at the center of our culture or we are finished as a species. With Hodgman as our vanguard, will we be able to defend ourselves against Russian missiles? How will he reverse our society's trend toward moral decline while wearing an ascot? (Me, I prefer a bow tie.)
In truth, it's more self-doubt than Hodgman doubt of which I speak. I don't like how white and educated I am. I don't appreciate my own professorial persona, though it has been earned through 15 years of teaching. I'm not, so to speak, my No. 1 fan.
I believe it was Socrates who first said "Know thyself." It was Erma Bombeck or Cathy Lee Guisewite who said "Love thyself." Probably Anne Lamott said "At least be okay with thyself—and don't forget snacks."
Though I'm no Lamott fan, that's good advice, and I'll take it with me to Hodgman's show at the Carolina Theatre Oct. 24. Snacks always ease the pain of looking into a mirror, whitely, and maybe coming to terms with something.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Straight man in the mirror"