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In Conversation with... John Hodgman

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John Hodgman has lived several lives.

"The overall contour of my career makes sense to me, but when I say it out loud, it's confusing," he admits. Before the author/comedian began his career as "a famous minor TV character" -- namely as The Daily Show's "resident expert" -- Hodgman, 42, was a literary agent, a freelance magazine writer, an advice columnist for McSweeney's, a comic book reviewer for the New York Times Book Review and humour editor for the New York Times Magazine.

Then, in 2005, he published a satirical book of fake trivia called The Areas of My Expertise that caught the attention of The Daily Show. He's since played "the person wearing glasses" in a host of films and TV shows, including Community, Battlestar Galactica and, most recently, Parks and Recreation. He was also a full cast-member alongside Jason Schwartzman, Zack Galifianakis and Ted Danson on HBO's cult hit Bored to Death. (You may also know the bespectacled funnyman as the nerdy "PC" from those Apple ads.)

Now, Hodgman's career has taken him to the stage as a standup comedian. That wasn't necessarily the plan; his 2012 apocalyptic show Ragnarok -- which was performed at midnight on Dec. 21, 2012 and taped for a Netflix comedy special -- was supposed to be his last, but the world kept turning and Hodgman had to figure out what came next.

Hodgman will be in town for Art Matters, an artist talk hosted by the Winnipeg Arts Council at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre Warehouse Theatre at 8 p.m. tonight. Tickets are $25. He'll be discussing his career(s), but the Free Press's Jen Zoratti called him up with a few questions of her own.

FP: So this is your first time to Winnipeg.

JH: Not only is it my first time to Winnipeg, but my first time to Manitoba. I've wanted to go to Winnipeg for a long time. There's a music scene there and an arts scene that I think, unfortunately, have been described to me by people who have left because it's too cold. I'm friends with the artist Marcel Dzama, and I'm a fan of the band the Weakerthans. I'm also a fan of the provinces of Canada. I've been to almost every province -- the only one I'll be missing is Alberta. Then I can retire. If you visit every province and one of the territories, you get health care. That's how it works, right? I have a lot of friends on Twitter who are from Winnipeg and I've been very curious. To be quite blunt, when the Winnipeg Arts Council called me and asked me to come up and say hello, I was thrilled to do it.

FP: Let's go back a couple years to 2012. Ragnarok dovetailed with the publication of the also-apocalyptic book, That Is All, the third and final instalment in your Complete World Knowledge trilogy. You were really banking on the world ending -- and then it didn't. Did you have a plan?

JH: Well, it was very rude of the world not to end. I mostly didn't know what I was going to do next. It was actually sort of comforting to think the world would end. I still had The Daily Show, but I had to figure out what I was doing -- not just in terms of my career, but I had to think about what my core creative life would be about. And my creative life was about standing onstage and talking to people without a script. You could call it my imitation of standup.

 

FP: Why do you call it your imitation of standup?

JH: Well, I used to call it that because what I was doing -- going on book tours and performing words I had written down -- wasn't standup. Frankly, I have so much respect for standup that I didn't want to call that standup comedy. But Eugene Mirmin, a comedy genius who majored in standup comedy at Hampshire College, said very plainly to me, 'When you get onstage, do you make people laugh? That's standup comedy.' When I did Ragnarok, that seemed like an appropriate time to review what I was doing and what I was doing was standup comedy. In the arts, you're always imitating until what you're doing becomes indistinguishable from the actual thing. I'm much more comfortable being a fraud. What I'm doing is standup comedy. So there.

FP: I've read that your new show, I Stole Your Dad, is more personal. What's it been like to be yourself onstage and find comedy in your own life?

JH: It's been really energizing and exciting for me -- and, I hope, for the audience. When the world failed to end and I had to figure out what was next, it was a matter of personal interest and creative desperation. I feel that it was a fun and liberating thing to do. If I were still out there writing hobo jokes, there might be a small group of people that was still amused -- but I wouldn't be progressing as an artist, for lack of a better term. I can only go where my brain takes me, and right now it's leading me to speak as plainly as possible.

FP: Are you still touring I Stole Your Dad or are you currently working on something new?

JH: I'm doing both. There are a few places where I've not had a chance to perform. That show was developed in secret in a basement in Brooklyn, and I'm interested in returning to that basement.

jen.zoratti@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 15, 2014 D3

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