Before I interviewed John Hodgman last week I wondered if he would give the interview in the doomsayer Deranged Millionaire character he takes on in his latest book “That Is All,” or if I would simply be speaking with the author and actor John Hodgman. I thought I would have to change my questions according to which interview I was conducting.
The Deranged Millionaire would field questions about the end of the world and “Dune,” or I could question the latter, more genuine Hodgman about his career path, the Apple commercials and his upcoming guest spot on “Community.”
It turned out I was completely wrong. My hour-long conversation with Hodgman slipped between the surreal and the practical easily, and I begin to see the human side Hodgman sometimes hides behind his irreverent prose.
There was much more of Hodgman in the Deranged Millionaire in John Hodgman and vice-versa. Luckily, everyone at the Varsity Theater last night was able to learn this lesson along with me.
That’s not to say there isn’t an element of performance in what Hodgman does. After all, the first time he appeared on stage last night he was dressed as “Song of Ice and Fire” author George R.R. Martin (“The R.R. stands for ‘railroad’”) and riffed with openers Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy of “MST3K.”
When he finally appeared properly, Hodgman walked slowly down a flight of stairs as his own theme music blared, took a chair from someone in the audience, removed his shoes and socks and threw them into the crowd, tossing the chair aside without returning it to the woman he took it from.
The nearly sold-out crowd, universally bespectacled Hodgman die-hards, ate it up, and remained in the palm Hodgman’s hand for the rest of the night.
Hodgman launched into his prepared monologue, discussing his early fame (“They’ve stopped making those commercials, presumably because we sold all of the computers”), his mustachioed visage (“Someone asked me if I was starring in the film adaptation of Pringles”) and his new book. But before long Hodgman was laughing too, talking with the audience and riffing with improvisational skills that would likely surprise anyone who knew him in his past life as a literary agent.
The best diversion from Hodgman’s prepared remarks came midway through the show when he went completely off the rails to talk about returning Yale, his alma mater. The ad-libbed story was being told by the human John Hodgman, but was as hilarious as any of his monologue, as well as tonally similar, proving that behind the suits and martinis and fake trivia, Hodgman is always being himself.
This paid off at the end of the evening, when Hodgman surprising pulled out a ukulele, and started connecting the dots between the coming apocalypse and his own fears about mortality. “Maybe you find the apocalypse embarrassing,” Hodgeman said, before leading the audience in a cover of Cynthia Hopkins’ “Resist the Tide,” “but a little death happens to everyone once in a while.”
If Hodgman’s books have one weakness (besides their unrepentant inaccessibility) it’s that Hodgman rarely lets his unblinking surrealism slip to reveal the thoughtful man underneath. The ending to last night’s show, bold and probably corny in the wrong hands, let that façade down, and the result was stunning.
So the devoted audience at the Varsity last night got to have their cake and eat it too. They saw Hodgman’s earnest side transcend his wacky lists, while still getting to laugh at esoteric jokes about “Doctor Who” and “Watership Down” while Hodgman threw mayonnaise packets at them.
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