In Vacationland with John Hodgman

Bestselling author, comedian, and self-proclaimed “minor television personality” John Hodgman is living a life of great privilege. His current standup material has been labeled “white privilege mortality comedy” for good reason. On the day of this interview, we had to reschedule to a later hour because he had to take his family “down to the boatyard so they could learn to sail and jump in the water.” This small event reveals a lot about Hodgman. He’s a family man first, willing to put off promoting his upcoming tour in favor of making sure his wife and children are happy. He’s also a man of refined taste, opting for sailing lessons over, say, a token trip to Chuck E. Cheese’s. Speaking of refined taste, Hodgman spent just as much time talking about the pros and cons of various types of jerky as he did about his upcoming tour. What follows is a fascinating chat with John Hodgman about his life in New England, the Vacationland tour, and yes, jerky.

How are you, John?

I am fantastic. I smell of the ocean and I’m eating beef jerky. Everything is perfect.

Where are you at right now?

I’m in the state of Maine. Which is one of the 50 United States, but the only one that is basically like Canada. I was just swimming in the extremely cold water full of disgusting creatures.

Is this local beef jerky or is it more like a Slim Jim?

I’ll be honest with you. This is Organic Prairie Classic Beef Jerky from LaFarge, Wisconsin. I got it at a cooperative somewhere. It’s pretty good. It’s a premise of my podcast – the Judge John Hodgman podcast – to not market particular brand names, especially if they’re not giving me money to do it. But since it’s between me and Splitsider, I’ll go ahead and reveal the kind of beef jerky that I’m currently eating. I’ll tell you this, the kind of beef jerky that I wish I were eating – once again, this isn’t any kind of local artisanal beef jerky – is Jack Link’s Small Batch No. 11.

Is that the peppered one?

No, no. Normally I love a peppered beef jerky. There are few things that make me happier than smelling of the sea and eating beef jerky and talking on the phone to a website. But driving down the road, eating some peppered beef jerky, and drinking some hot black coffee, that I really like a lot. In this case, the peppered version of the Jack Link’s is gilding the jerky lily. I prefer the plain original version called the No. 11. I discovered that a few weeks back at the Shell station at the intersection of Route 15 and Route 1 here in coastal Maine. I’m now coming up with reasons to go by that Shell station so I can stock up on that beef jerky. The people who work there don’t know me by name yet, but by God by the end of summer they will.

Have you ever ventured into the more exotic jerkies like ostrich, rabbit, salmon, or shark?

I have had some salmon jerky before. There already is a beautiful preserved presentation of salmon. It’s called smoked salmon, or gravlax. Turkey jerky I refuse to eat, mainly out of hatred of rhyming. Though I’ve eaten many different kinds of animals and insects, I feel as though eating ostrich jerky is just… I’ve never been able to eat ostrich because those creatures are humiliated enough by their very bodies. I feel it’s adding jerky insult to injury. I’m going to be getting a lot of letters from the ostrich council.

I think you’re on the right side of this argument. It’s clear that you think about what you eat and the emotions of the animal from which you’re about to partake. It’s noble.

I believe in that very strongly. But then, I can only imagine that Jack Link’s Small Batch No. 11 is probably coming from cattle that has not been grass fed and raised on pasture. They’ve probably eaten a lot of corn before being sent to a commercial slaughterhouse. It’s probably a danger to the people who work there. Thus, not only are you supporting cruelty to the animal itself, but also the ecological and personal devastation that is waged upon our land and community. But that Jack Links No. 11 is really good. I feel like I’m supporting the Shell station, in any case. And I’m supporting one of my many adopted U.S. states, the state of Maine. It’s a state with few people in it and they need some help.

You’re obviously a man of refined taste. Were you like this as a kid? I know you were an only child. Did you find yourself gravitating toward very specific things?

Of course. Specifically, because I was an only child. As I’ve mentioned before, being an only child admits you to a not particularly exclusive worldwide club of afraid-of-conflict narcissists. Those who are only children like me often recognize in each other that often as teenagers they were hopelessly and loathsomely affected and pretentious. As an only child, I had zero training in conflict and confrontation, whether that confrontation is fighting, or something benign like hugging and kissing girls, or men for that matter. It was all profoundly alien to me. I didn’t realize until I was well into my 40s that confrontation isn’t fatal. As a result, I tended to keep to myself and pretended to put on the affectations of a 35-40 year old man so that I could jump over sexual adolescence all together and become the sexless gentleman bachelor that I presumed I would always be my entire life. I dressed like Doctor Who and carried a briefcase. I spent a lot of time watching Public Television cooking programs. As a child, the one for me was The Frugal Gourmet. This is of course before Jeff Smith, The Frugal Gourmet, was accused of pederasty. At the time, he was just an expert at teaching 13 year old weirdos how to season cast iron pans. I ate that stuff up, semi-literally.

I don’t take you as a person who is a big fan of puns, but that one rolled right off the tongue.

I hate it. Sometimes I accidentally make a pun and spend the rest of the evening hating myself. So far this interview has been a real emotional roller coaster.

How do you unwind in the evenings?

So here’s the thing: I’m currently in the state of Maine, which is not the state of Massachusetts, the commonwealth of Massachusetts, which was once my home. Long before I was semi-employed as a comedian and actor, I was a writer for magazines. I could apply my trade wherever I wanted to in my life. For a long time we would go to western Massachusetts, where my mom had a house when she was alive. When she was no longer alive, we had the house. In the past couple of years, due largely to my wife’s passion for the state of Maine, we had been coming here and disappearing. Thus, I had been shooting a huge gunshot through my career to take two months to sit out here in the woods and unwind in the evenings by drinking about a gallon of gin martinis, looking at trees move back and forth, and staring at water that is so cold that it wants to kill you. This has been an unjustifiable luxury as far as my agents and representatives are concerned, but an important part of my taking time in life to be with my family, to get out of the rodent race of entertainment, stare at rocky beaches, and think about my own death. If it weren’t for this time, I wouldn’t be able to come back to the world and ply the unique brand of privileged mortality comedy that has become my standup over the past two years. That’s a long way to answer your question. I could have simply said, “Alcohol.”

I wanted to ask you about that label. I’ve seen it quoted as “white privilege mortality comedy.” Traditionally, especially now, the term white privilege carries such a negative connotation. Do you mind that label?

Well, you know, I started performing the material that I’m going to be performing this fall since my last special for Netflix called, Ragnarok. When the world didn’t end as I had predicted, I started telling much more straightforward jokes and stories from my own life. Part of that involved talking about spending time in New England, which is where I’m from. I was in New Mexico performing some of this material with my friend John Roderick, the musician and until recently, candidate for Position 8 on Seattle City Council. He didn’t make the primary, but I think he’ll come back next time. After I finished telling a story, John went to play some of his independent rock songs and he said, “Well, I hope you all enjoyed the white privilege comedy of John Hodgman.” I have to say it stung. It felt harsh. I said, “That’s not accurate. It’s not just white privilege comedy. It’s white privilege comedy about death.” All the things the young people want to hear about.

When something stings, it doesn’t sting because it’s false. It’s stings because it’s true. I don’t use the term in a bragging sort of way. Once you start telling real stories about yourself and real jokes about your actual life, as opposed to telling phony jokes about your fake life as a resident expert or deranged millionaire, which are the roles I play for the Daily Show and in my books, every now and then you have to own up to who you are in the world and appreciate and take into account the privilege that my being a white dude with a moustache has really afforded me. The purpose of all good storytelling, including jokes, which are the shortest stories you can tell, is that they have to reveal a truth in the audience and yourself. It doesn’t feel great to put it out there as white privilege mortality comedy, but it is truth in advertising. I believe in people knowing what they’re coming to see. Once we can all acknowledge what is true in the room, we can have a good time.

Your upcoming tour is called “Vacationland.” Can you describe where you got the name?

One of the most famous nicknames for the state of Maine is Vacationland. To me it’s the most profound joke, because if you’ve ever been to Maine, you would appreciate that this is a hard place to feel comfortable in. The ocean is extremely cold, hypothermicly so at times. The beaches offer no comfort, because they’re made of sharp rocks and knives. The lakes are full of fish parts, frog poop, and fresh water clams that are literally the size of Nerf footballs. The woods are full of animals that wish to kill you and painful needles. It’s simply a harsh place to consider having a vacation in. The only way I can understand it is to say that they named it Vacationland back in the late 19th to early 20th century when we didn’t know what vacation was yet. We hadn’t done the research to discover the beaches that don’t want to kill you.

Speaking of white privilege, vacation was something that was only enjoyed by a very narrow band of society. Most people couldn’t take time off to go rest during the year. They were working. They weren’t freelance writers and comedians. They worked in factories and built things, except for a very narrow band of society, primarily white people of wealth, usually in Boston or its environs, for whom vacation meant going north to a cold place where they could sit and drink martinis and look at water that they would never go into. I spent a lot of time as a young person believing that I was not that kind of person, only to discover last year when we first came up to this house in Maine that just like all of us, we become that which we most loathe. Whether we’re kids who become our parents, or professional literary agents – which I was – who become writers. We become what we most loathe: this aging Bostonian weirdo with an aging dad moustache, staring off into the ocean with a martini, and beyond the ocean I am death. Kids love this kind of thing. You know that I’m a children’s performer right?

I kind of imagine that this entire tour is based solely around Quinceañeras.

(Laughing) I spent a whole lot of time trying to remember the term Quinceañera the other day. There’s not a very good story for why, but you must be on my wavelength. I believe in telepathy.

Me too.

You didn’t have to tell me that. I already knew it.

Ok, so what’s the next question I’m going to ask?

“Why would anyone think this is funny?” Or maybe that’s the question that I’m asking myself all of the time. I think all comedians are. But a fun part of the process as a creative person is being two months out of the year being in the wilderness, either literal or figurative, outside of the world of entertainment and having some time to ask, “Why am I doing what I’m doing? Where am I? What is happening to me?” The truth is, there is no doubt that the material I’m doing now does not offer the young person what most young people want, which is the promise that they’re going to have sex. Instead, it offers them the same sort of candid assessment of what their future holds that they get from Marc Maron or Louis C.K. It seems strange to me that young frat boys love middle aged men having crises. Maybe it helps them understand their dads better. It does seem that there’s a market out there for a guy with a weird moustache telling young people they’re going to die. And you know what else – I dare say it – even though I’m being pretty morbid right now, it’s a pretty funny show.

John Hodgman’s Vacationland tour is coming to a city near you soon, probably. Check out his website for dates and tickets.

In Vacationland with John Hodgman