Humorist John Hodgman revisits New England summers for quirky tales on life

Special to the Union Leader
May 30. 2018 12:39PM
John Hodgman has been an expert in fake news and invented facts for “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” but now he's an author who explores some odd truths. 
If you go...
WHO: John Hodgman -- Writers in the Loft

WHERE: The Music Hall Loft, 131 Congress St., Portsmouth

WHEN: 7 p.m. Thursday

TICKETS: $30 ($28 for members, which includes a copy of "Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches," author presentation, a Q&A and book-signing meet-and-greet

John Hodgman was a bloodhound for the obscure.

He’d sniff out peculiar nuggets of information or advice and weave anecdotes so absurd it was hard to tell what was real and what was not.

Often none of it was real. Hodgman’s own wild imagination was the source material, making the New England humorist the world’s most well-known purveyor of fake facts.

But suddenly the business of slinging fake facts became an awfully crowded market.

“The joke is I spent three books and 3,000 pages writing fake news and alternative facts and now everyone is doing it, all the way up to the highest office in the country,” Hodgman said. “Fake facts aren’t fun. They’re terrifying. If I could’ve continued to write fake histories of zeppelin wars in the mid-Atlantic states, I would’ve done it. Sometime after my last and only Netflix comedy special, which was the culmination of that weird, absurd, nerdy, fake-fact humor, I just wasn’t feeling it anymore.”

With his new book “Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches,” Hodgman not only examines the real, but also the personal. The book details his life and times growing up at his parents’ vacation home in Massachusetts, and his many summers as an adult spent on the beaches of Maine.

“I had to follow where my own brain was leading me, to true stories with the hope that human beings would respond to them, and I’m thankful that’s true,” he said. “Whatever kind of story teller you are, you only get what your brain gives you, and that’s what you have to explore. In this case my brain gave me an opportunity to reflect on my life living in New England and particularly in a part of Maine where I was certain my neighbors were going to sacrifice me to some sort of a lobster god. I still sleep with one eye open and a lobster pot under my bed.”

Throughout “Vacationland,” Hodgman takes readers on his personal journey but not without offering his wry perspective on the state of his surroundings.

“‘Vacationland’ is a very straightforward book. It speaks to some very universal themes,” Hodgman said. “(It’s about) giving up some illusions of who you think you are and who you think you’ll become and (coming) to peace with who you are.

“The stories of summers in Maine and largely New England in general really become a metaphor for enduring hardship,” he said. “People don’t go to the beaches of Maine in order to experience pleasure. They do it to be tested. Experiencing the pain and humidity and bugs and discomfort and enduring it and gaining a greater appreciation of the sheer beauty of coastal New England — that’s a transition we go through.”

Hodgman may be best known not as an author, but for his work on TV. He embodied the hapless PC in a popular series of Mac computer ads. As a regular contributor to “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” Hodgman played “The Deranged Millionaire” and appeared as a “resident expert” on a number of segments.

“I can’t overestimate how much ‘The Daily Show’ transformed my life,” Hodgman said. “Obviously being on TV afforded me a bunch of professional opportunities I’d have never otherwise had and also allowed me to make money I wouldn’t have made. More importantly, I’ve known since I was conscious that I’m a weirdo — that I’m a strange weirdo who follows his nose through a few esoteric obsessions.”

He considers himself fortunate.

“I’m lucky I’ve found my people,” he said. “I definitely understand as I went on ‘The Daily Show’ (that) while I found a list of hobo nicknames to be a hilarious literary sight gag, a lot of people in the world might say, ‘I don’t get it.’ I’m most lucky Jon Stewart got it and went on TV to say ‘Don’t worry, he’s not crazy.’ Being on TV exposed my strangeness on a much greater level, and allowed my fellow weird travelers to find me.”

Much like he needles Maine in his book, Hodgman is likely to do some gentle prodding of New Hampshire during his appearance. On his website, he refers to the state’s “novelty coastline.”

“I love the state of New Hampshire, but most of it is inland,” he said. “The coastline of New Hampshire is something that lasts for about seven minutes as you make your way from my home commonwealth of Massachusetts into Maine.”

But Hodgman grew up believing the state to be a place of intrigue where he could practice some light-duty delinquency.

“New Hampshire was the wild older brother who lives off the grid and did whatever he pleased to Massachusetts’ nerdy younger brother who protected himself in Dr. Who scarves and didn’t take risks,” he said.

One of the most memorable excursions of his teenage years was to Portsmouth, which he called “the site of one of my great transgressions.”

“I got a tattoo on my shoulder. I’ll only say it’s a visual reference to Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges. I was extremely pretentious and hadn’t figured out how to make a living off it,” he said, adding “I am still extremely pretentious but realize if I was able to get tattoos in Massachusetts as a teenager, I might have gotten many more. People will see it when they come to the Writers in the Loft event. I will reveal it. It cost $20, and I might have been ripped off.”

Hodgman is in the midst of hosting his second popular podcast, “Judge John Hodgman,” where he adjudicates a new personal dispute each show. And with another book in the works and a plethora of other voice work and acting opportunities, Hodgman is continuing to inhabit a working space that perfectly fits his eccentricities.

“I might not be the most popular flavor at the New Hampshire frozen custard stand, but there may still might be a market for John Hodgman,” he said. “There are some people that want a scoop of John Hodgman ... maybe not two scoops.”

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