Q&A | MAGAZINE
The Brookline native on his first nonfiction book, rage and spite in Massachusetts, and Maine’s “painful beaches.”
Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff
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John Hodgman, 46, is a comedian and the author of three best-selling books of fake facts — The Areas of My Expertise, More Information Than You Require, and That Is All. He graduated from Brookline High School and Yale, worked at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, and gained a measure of fame on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. His first work of nonfiction, Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches, takes its title from Maine’s nickname and its inspiration from the tribulations of middle age.
What did you do at the Coolidge Corner Theatre?
You learned how to tell jokes. That’s where a lot of my sense of humor was honed, stealing sarcastic asides from “the Harrys” [manager Harry Snyder and projectionist Harry Friedman]. Friedman would come down and he would go, “Yeah, well, I guess I’m going to get the butter pump out.” He was an engineer by trade; he designed it using a canister of compressed air from the soda fountain, a long metallic tube, and some hose. Then he would shove diapers into the end of the tube, and pour water down there, and then turn on the compressor, until enough power built up and it would shoot the diapers out over Harvard Street. The aim was to get it over the Brookline Booksmith. The joke was not that we were doing that; the joke was the deadpan of Harry Friedman. He would have a wry smile on his face. He would take no joy in it. The underselling of the weirdness that was happening played very heavily into my deadpan.
Why would you have us meet in a cemetery? Your book’s called “Vacationland.” I say, “Let’s go to Mount Desert Island” and you say, “Let’s go to a cemetery”?
I’m from Massachusetts. As a certified weird nerd, the book is about the time I spent in various wildernesses, uncomfortably, starting with my youth in Western Massachusetts, the hills there — and more recently in the painful beaches of Maine where I will accept my death. Even though I describe Maine in very unflattering terms, saying the oceans of Maine are made of hate and want to kill you, I say that because I love Maine and want to hoard it to myself. I want to go to Maine for the same reason that every native Mainer lives there. They don’t want to see or talk to anyone else at all. So instead, we met in the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, where I live, because it’s much more convenient for me right now.
Is it cathartic to tell the truth?
My first three books were absurd invented trivia and fake facts. And by the end of the third book, I couldn’t come up with another fake fact. It took till the end of 2016 to realize there was no point in it. Everyone was doing fake facts now. It wasn’t a choice to tell these sincere true stories about my life; it was more of a situation of having nothing left.
You call Massachusetts “the birthplace of rage and spite.” Please explain that.
A perfect example is Marty Walsh, the mayor of Boston, before he became mayor, was a legislator in Massachusetts and put forth an idea. The idea was that Massachusetts should have an official rock song, and that rock song should be “Roadrunner,” by Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers. And that assessment is the correct one. I think the third [line] is “I’m in love with Massachusetts.” It looked like it was going to succeed, but then something happened. Some other people in Massachusetts heard that someone wanted something, and in Massachusetts, that could not stand unchallenged. And fights for no reason at all may be the official state fight of the Commonwealth.
You love to follow the rules, but so much of your comedy is not following the rules. So where does that creativity come from?
As an only child who had no interest in sports, I had no rehearsal of conflict. I had no siblings to beat up on me, so I did not understand that even simple confrontations were not fatal. I always wanted to know all the rules so I could follow them perfectly and thereby be beloved by everybody on earth. But when I’m on a stage or writing, I can break the rules because it’s my world.
You say in your book that raccoons are [expletive]. What do you have against masked mammals?
Look, raccoons know that they are [expletive]. If a raccoon poops on your porch, don’t touch it. Get a professional to burn it with fire. That’s what the CDC says you should do, because raccoon poop is toxic and has a parasite that could put you in a coma. That’s why they are pooping on your porch; they want you to go into a coma and die.
You define fudge as “a dark impacted colon blockage that a surgeon has to remove to save your life.” Are you concerned the powerful confectioners lobby will picket your shows?
It looks like something that has been removed from your body. Something dark and terrible that would otherwise kill you. We all know what fudge looks like. We know that pastry chefs are capable of beautiful things. They don’t have to make fudge.
You say you are a minor celebrity. But you’ve got 1.1 million followers on Twitter.
I would imagine that at least 750,000 of them are Russian bots. All I have to say is where is the Viagra I ordered from Kazakhstan? I’m still waiting for it.
And the moral of Vacationland is what in a nutshell?
Don’t eat fudge.
This interview has been edited and condensed. John Hodgman will appear at the Coolidge Corner Theatre on November 1 at 6 p.m., followed by a book signing at Brookline Booksmith.
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