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John Hodgman on the end of the world and ‘That Is All’

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John Hodgman has an odd résumé. He’s not quite a stand-up comedian, though he will be performing comedy onstage Saturday at the Wilbur Theatre with his musical friend Jonathan Coulton. He has written three books of “facts” — “The Areas of My Expertise” (2005), “More Information Than You Require” (2008), and “That Is All” (2011) — but almost nothing in them is true. That particular brand of mastery landed him a job on “The Daily Show,” which is fake news. And though he is a devoted Mac user, he played the part of a PC in a series of TV commercials for Apple. At the Wilbur, the Brookline native will be presenting a show based on “That Is All,” including information about sports and wine, how to become a deranged millionaire, and the apocalypse that he, borrowing from Norse mythology, calls Ragnarok. The Globe caught up with him by phone as he was stuck in Seattle after Hurricane Sandy, trying to make it home to New York.

Q. I was going to ask if you took your own advice and prepared for Ragnarok. Am I pronouncing that correctly?

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A. Yes. You’re pronouncing it perfectly. I would say that in all seriousness, the entirety of my preparations for Ragnarok involved learning to pronounce Ragnarok. Despite my own advice, I did not have a “go bag,” nor do I have a survival brownstone in Park Slope, just my own regular house. I have not begun hoarding my urine, nor have I been hoarding more than the usual amount of mayonnaise. All things I advise others to do in my book. I don’t know how to explain it because I know that it’s coming. Certainly the storm is but one reminder that our time here is very fragile. We still have a few weeks before December 21, 2012, which is of course when the Mayans predicted that civilization would collapse and human time would end. What happens after that is anyone’s guess.

Q. For people who only know you from the books, what can they expect from the live show?

A. First of all, people who only know me from the books number about 30 people in the world. Let’s be honest. People know me from the books, but also and primarily from “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” a series of television advertisements I made for Apple computer, my role as Louis Greene on [the HBO series] “Bored to Death,” and of course my star turn as intergalactic brain surgeon Dr. Gerard on the fourth season of “Battlestar Gallactica.” And I’d like to think that I bring all of that experience to bear in my live show. I’ve been presenting material from my books for many years. But it was only with this last book that I began to perform without ever touching the book. And I found myself doing more and more what constitutes a pretty plausible imitation of stand-up comedy. And I began to feel very comfortable onstage, largely because I take my shoes and socks off. And really enjoying the experiences of getting out there and telling people what they need to know about wine, wealth, sports, and, of course, the end of the world. And I’ve had such a good time performing the material that it makes it very sad for me that I can only do it until December 21. And then I will never do it again. Because I will be too embarrassed.

Q. Because the end of the world didn’t happen?

A. Yeah. I’ll either be embarrassed because the end of the world didn’t happen or because it did happen. One way or another, I will never perform this material again. And of course it’s extra comforting to have my friend Jonathan Coulton along, with whom I used to perform quite a bit and haven’t lately because he’s far too busy for me. Just as Frodo had Sam at the end of all things, it is comforting to have Jonathan Coulton haul my body over the jagged black stones the last mile into the volcano.

Q. What is it about your friendship that allows you to work so well together?

A. Jonathan has been a friend since we were both 18 years old, and a constant inspiration to me creatively that entire time. And he’s one of the smartest and funniest people I know. And whenever I feel lazy and complacent, Jonathan creates something new, whether it is an amazing song or a cruise or some other completely new business model that makes me extremely angry and makes me feel like I have to better him in some way.

Q. Now that you’ve stopped writing the books, how will humans get knowledge?

A. I’ve written now a thousand pages of fake facts illuminating a version of America and the world that would exist if I had my way, and then destroying that world in flame and fire — which is the same as flame, by the way — in the claws of the 700 ancient and unspeakable gods. I think it’s time to move into a new thing. And so if the world does not end, there is a tremendous amount of dubious scholarship called the Internet that people can still enjoy.

Q. How much of your public persona is you and how much is a character?

A. Well, the important thing in all creativity is honesty. Even if you are being utterly fake. Even if you are writing a book of fabricated history and fake trivia, you have to be honest, in the same way that an actor who is pretending to be someone else has to be emotionally honest, given the situation. So the John Hodgman who was a professional writer in the first book, and then suddenly an accidentally famous minor television personality in the second book, and by the third a deranged millionaire whose fame had dwindled and instead was filling his time as all deranged millionaires do, with visions of wine and narcissism and apocalypse, all of those things reflect, through something of a funhouse mirror, where I was at the time I wrote those books. And they are all named John Hodgman for a reason. They are all me with certain slight exaggerations.

Interview has been condensed and edited. Nick A. Zaino III can be reached at nick@nickzaino.com.
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