Humorist John Hodgman has had many show business personas. Though initially known to most as “PC” in Apple’s famous Mac vs. PC television commercials, the Brookline native’s career has included three books of fake — and hilarious — world knowledge, a stint as “resident expert” on “The Daily Show,” and a Netflix comedy special entitled “Ragnarok,” in which Hodgman delivered esoteric stand-up while patiently waiting for the Mayan apocalypse.
That the end of days never arrived is something of a sore spot for Hodgman — or, rather, for the “deranged millionaire” version of himself who performed the set.
“It was really a bit of a shock,” he sighs with mock exasperation. He adds, genuinely, it seems, “that it was also a shock to the system to appreciate how much I enjoyed performing that show, to wake up and appreciate that still I wanted to perform my imitation of stand-up comedy.”
JOHN HODGMAN LIVES!
How does an author of meticulously written fake fact books suddenly shift to performing largely off-the-cuff stand-up comedy? Can riffing possibly come naturally to someone as particular about words as Hodgman? He got more accustomed to the idea after booking a weekly stand-up show in New York. “You’d think that I would have figured out by now that when you have a deadline, you tend to create something,” says Hodgman. “But it’s still absolutely a revelation to me that you don’t notice your own life until someone forces you to. Or an external deadline forces you to. And what I discovered filling up that time [every week] was that I still love fake facts and absurd conceptual humor, but after now almost eight years of performing in various guises of John Hodgman, it is nice just to have an opportunity to talk as just me.”
Not that the show, which comes to the Wilbur Theatre Saturday night, is straightforward. Though it is officially titled “John Hodgman Lives!,” his personal preference would have been: “John Hodgman Stars As the Famous American Humorist John Hodgman In The Show: John Hodgman Tonight!” In other words, in characteristically meta fashion, his show features John Hodgman as the Hal Holbrook to his own Mark Twain.
Before adopting his many guises, Hodgman grew up in the Chestnut Hill area of Brookline. His family later moved to a house on Monmouth Street, near Kenmore Square. “From the top floor of our house, I could see the lights of — I don’t know what it was, exactly, some kind of sporting stadium?” he asks slyly. “See what you can find out. It may not be there anymore.”
Brookline and Boston strongly informed Hodgman’s comedic sensibility, though not in predictable ways. “Growing up there in the ’80s and early ’90s, there were massive amounts, not really of comedy, but of public media. As an only child being a member of the super-smart, ultra-shy narcissist club, I spent a lot of time listening to WBUR and watching WGBH.”
It was through those outlets that he discovered Monty Python, public radio humorist Michael Feldman, and, most importantly, “Doctor Who.” “In particular, Tom Baker [who played the Fourth Doctor]. He’s one of the great, not exactly physical comedians, but facial comedians of all time. He’s got a face like Buster Keaton in its deadpan expressivity.”
He also cites working at the Coolidge Corner Theatre as a particularly formative experience, counting his cinema colleagues among his influences. “I learned-slash-stole so much comedic sensibility from them,” says Hodgman. “All comedy emerges from scenes — that is to say, groups of people who are spurring each other on comedically. It’s true of all arts. I happened to be among a cohort of incredibly funny people.”
Becoming a self-proclaimed “very famous minor television personality” took some time. He worked as a literary agent in New York, which led to a friendship with author Dave Eggers, who asked Hodgman to host some McSweeney’s events. Those gigs led to some performances at New York’s alt-comedy room Luna Lounge, where he honed the comic persona he used in his first book, “The Areas of My Expertise,” which led to a promotional, and ultimately recurring, slot on “The Daily Show.” The rest, as they say, is fake world-knowledge-expert history.
“I’ve now very happily, and bizarrely, lived a number of different lives, professionally and creatively speaking,” he says. “This show is to some degree about taking stock of what happened, and where I am now. That isn’t to say that I’m not going to put on a dress and pretend to be Ayn Rand in the year 1980 and recite columns that she may or may not have written for Parade magazine in that year, on the subject of her hatred of moochers and her love of ‘Charlie’s Angels.’ That may also happen.”
Hodgman pauses, and then seems to realize something.
“But that is also me.”