UCSB Student Appreciation Event Puts the Real John Hodgman Front and Center in Comedy Show I Stole Your Dad
By Leslie Dinaberg
Talking on the phone with John Hodgman while he’s on the set of The Daily Show is a bit surreal. The guy who usually trades witty bon mots with Jon Stewart is now bantering with ME! That same guy who plays the nerdy PC sidekick to Justin Long’s much cooler Mac, the whack-job Deranged Millionaire and the pompously Insane Academic Resident Expert turns out to be every bit as funny when he’s playing himself. He describes it as “doing my John Hodgman impersonation,” which is essentially what he’ll be doing in I Stole Your Dad, his new comedy show that is coming to UCSB Campbell Hall on April 1.
The show is a bit of a departure for Hodgman. “Ever since the world did not come to an end as I predicted it would in my last stand-up comedy special called Ragnarok (an apocalypse-themed stand-up comedy routine and NetFlix special revolving around his interpretation of Ragnarök, the Norse end of the world), I have been doing somewhat more personal kind of comedy, comedy where at least on the page I am not performing as an insane academic resident expert or a deranged millionaire but instead as John Hodgman, a person who has done those things, and other things, and is also just a normal human being with a normal family and two normal human children. So essentially I’m now doing my John Hodgman impersonation,” says Hodgman, who in addition to being a New York Times Magazine columnist, wrote the Complete World Knowledge trilogy: The Areas of My Expertise (2005), More Information Than You Require (2008) and That Is All (2011).
The 42-year-old writer/comedian says he decided to step away from the character concept and do his John Hodgman impersonation “mostly out of desperation.”
“To some degree I felt like I had told every hobo joke and fake history joke that I knew how to make, and to some degree I had made every deranged millionaire slash apocalyptic harbinger joke that I knew how to make. … At the same time I had started doing stand-up comedy, which you know I had been doing an imitation of for some years but usually reading portions of my book and/or performing little bits from it. But by the time I came out with my stand-up special for Netflix I really had given up using any scripts or nets—literal or figurative—and was really just doing comedy. And I felt an interest in speaking a little bit more plainly and just being a little bit more vulnerable onstage,” he says.
“So part of it was, I had to make jokes about something and what else is there … oh yes, my real life,” he continues.
I Stole Your Dad includes Hodgmanesque observations on topics from how to dress like a young and relevant person to fax machines and other obsolete technology, to how to spend your time now that the world hasn’t ended, contrary to the Mayan prophecy. Also on the agenda: Downton Abbey, the state songs of Tennessee and the film criticism of Ayn Rand, done with an Eastern European accent, he promises.
When asked if it’s more or less difficult to be in front of an audience as yourself rather than being a character, Hodgman says, “The characters that I was playing were always exaggerated versions of myself, in the sense that I am someone who loves trivia and had picked up a lot of dumb knowledge along the way and then I loved pretending to be a deranged millionaire. It’s a little bit easier (to play John Hodgman) I suppose in that … characters have to be consistent whereas humans don’t have to be.”
He continues, “At no point when I am just talking on stage and telling stories am I ever forced to say ‘oh my character would never say that or say that in that way’ because it’s just me. And similar to the fact that you know those deranged characters are versions of myself, so it is also true that my real self is often somewhat deranged. Just because I will be telling more or less true stories from my life does not mean that I won’t get dressed up as Ayn Rand as she may or may not have appeared on Phil Donahue’s program in 1980 and rant in a vague Eastern European accent about Charlie’s Angels. That’s me too.”
A prolific writer as well as a performer, Hodgman claims that “my natural state is to avoid writing until the end of time,” but he tricks himself into writing “by booking small secret unannounced shows in a basement in Brooklyn that I call Secret Society, with a challenge to come up with something new to say at each one of these things. I would say that this has been a creative godsend, or if you don’t believe in god, me-send in so far as it allows me to pretend that I am not writing, just sort of sketching and drafting and coming up with things to say until the very last possible second—and the final writing happens on stage.”
Having appeared in guest roles as “the person wearing glasses” in a variety of films and TV shows, including Coraline, The Invention of Lying, Arthur, Baby Mama and Flight of the Conchords, as well as famously giving the Vulcan salute to President Obama at the Radio-Television Correspondents Association Dinner in 2009 (and receiving it back), Hodgman says, ” there’s not much left on the pop cultural bucket list.”
“I’ve pretty well wormed my way and insinuated myself into everything that I’ve ever wanted to be a part of from Battlestar Gallactica to Parks and Recreation and Community and all of my favorite things and projects, including The Daily Show for that matter. In many ways my career is just a series of times that I’ve insinuated myself into things that I love,” he says.
When pressed he does offer, “I was not consulted by J.J. Abrams on the new Star Wars movies, and I think rather than be offended, I think on balance I respect his restraint. If I were to push myself into the Star Wars movies in some way, it would be too much. The world is already struggling enough with the question of whether the new Star Wars movies are necessary. I don’t want to make J.J.’s fascinating task any harder.”
Hodgman has never been to Santa Barbara before and says he looks forward to finding a good gin martini (I gave him some tips) as well as seeing the UCSB campus. When warned about the busy bike lanes and skateboard lanes on campus, a light bulb goes off. He asks, “Is there any way that I could arrange for students to sort of build a skateboard rickshaw to take me on a tour of the campus? … I don’t skateboard myself but it seems like a great way to see the campus. Maybe someone could build a skateboard sidecar for me or a trailer.”
I promise to pass the request on to the folks at UCSB Arts & Lectures, who are presenting the show as a UCSB Student Appreciation Event. By hosting free and low-cost Student Appreciation Events, UCSB Arts & Lectures expresses its gratitude to UCSB students for their ongoing support; including the quarterly student lock-in fees students contribute to help sustain the program. For more information or to purchase tickets to John Hodgman’s I Stole Your Dad on April 1 at 8 p.m., call 805/893-3535 or visit ArtsAndLectures.UCSB.edu.
Originally published in Santa Barbara SEASONS on March 18, 2014.