Interview: Comedian John Hodgman brings ‘Vacationland’ to the Englert Theatre

Comedian John Hodgman

Englert Theatre — Friday, Sept. 25 at 8 p.m.

Illustration by
Illustration by Cheryl Graham

The characters of “John Hodgman” include resident expert, deranged millionaire, and stockpiler of mayonnaise and urine for the impending apocalypse. He has appeared on The Daily Show, Bored to Death, Parks and Rec, Community, Married and a slew of other awesome television shows, all while writing a trilogy of (completely fabricated) trivia books and adjudicating matters on his podcast, Judge John Hodgman. I chatted with Hodgman recently about presidential politics, the Iowa City police log, finding one’s place in the world, and his upcoming one-man show, Vacationland, which features a much closer-to-real John Hodgman than many of the costumed-personas of John Hodgman currently populating our popular culture.

We started with politics because of the intensifying presidential races, especially in Iowa, and the fact that Hodgman famously grilled President Obama on his nerd credentials back in 2009, noting the increasing nerdmanship of the political left (Hodgman began earning his own nerd credentials—and exposure to liberal culture—at a young age by watching far too much Massachusetts public television).

Just because civilization didn’t collapse doesn’t mean I don’t need a stockpile of mayonnaise.

Do you think any of the current Presidential contenders qualify as nerd-candidates?

The thing is that we live in a world now where the trappings of nerdery are much more mainstream. Everyone is a Whovian now. Everyone’s a superhero comic book fan now, but not many people would know what I was talking about when I would ask them about the portrayal of the third stage guild navigator in David Lynch’s Dune. I kind of bet Bobby Jindal has read Dune. I kind of get a Frank Herbet vibe off of him. I bet Bernie Sanders has read some Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey, and I would say a full third of them, or maybe all of them at this point, have read Game of Thrones.

Which house would Hillary Clinton most likely belong to?

Obviously, House Lannister. The words of House Clinton may well be “When you play the game of thrones, you win or die.” Bernie Sanders is Ned Stark about to have his head chopped off. Actually, I don’t know if that’s going to happen. I enjoy him so much. Such ridiculous, constantly moving hair and deep principles. He is the only candidate who is really thinking about American humans over American corporations. And I think that’s he not approaching this—as far as I can tell—with the idea that he is going to be a spoiler, or a king maker, or draw a lot of attention to himself for some other venture that he is going to do. So, I’ll let that Dragonrider in!

Politics and presidential elections always make me think about the apocalypse. Are you still preparing for the apocalypse since The End didn’t happen by the end of Ragnarok (Netflix 2013)? Are you still stocking urine and mayonnaise?

Yes, but for different reasons. Just because civilization didn’t collapse doesn’t mean I don’t need a stockpile of mayonnaise. As far as urine is concerned, that stuff is going to come in handy one of these days, you can disinfect a wound pretty good. Look, I’ve had to take stock with the fact that the world didn’t end in 2012. Instead, the world is ending the same dumb, slow way for me that it does for everyone: as a march day-by-day to middle age, and I hope, elderly age … maybe I’ll become a disembodied consciousness in a robot body, but probably not.

I want you to weigh in on some of the recent Iowa City happenings on our city’s police log, the same way you do every week on your podcast. First scenario: A drunk Iowa City man was recently arrested for breaking into a van and throwing out the contents of said van. He defended his actions by saying that “he is an artist.” To me, this seems like a good defense. I mean, artists need vans, too, but the cops seem to disagree because it wasn’t his van. Who is right? Is that a good defense?

Let me understand this. Did he steal the van? Is his art “occupying other people’s vans”? He clearly didn’t want the van for the van’s sake. He clearly did not hesitate to explain his motives when caught, saying “I’m an artist.” You know, “Sleeping in Other People’s Spaces” is a great title for a grant. Until he does request and receive a grant from a major art institution, he’s just a trespasser. But I think that if he took a few moments in the van to write something up– presumably on a piece of newspaper in his own feces– he would probably get that grant. So, really, he just needs to try a little harder.

Second scenario: There are frequent calls to the police concerning men aggressively reading bible verses at people on the street. Iowa Citians do not seem to appreciate this, and some clearly feel harassed by this. What is the best way to handle being read to by street preachers? What would you do?

I’m not sure if you saw the YouTube video, it got a lot of attention, where a camera crew follows me as I walk through the streets of Iowa City receiving catcall after catcall of bible verses from construction workers. It would open a lot of people’s eyes to learn about what mustachioed Americans go through everyday in Iowa City! If you watch the video, you’ll see how I handle it: a simple salute back and a mighty “Hail Satan!” Those tend to calm things down.

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Tell me about Vacationland.

A lot of my humor is about being a child of the arguable city of Boston, living part time in the really rural parts of Massachusetts, and now, Maine. I think that people from Iowa City might enjoy hearing about the beaches of Maine or the mysterious piles of rocks that emerge out of the waters in the rivers of western Massachusetts (and no one knows who makes them—probably witches!). These are profoundly important places in my life, and where I learned a lot about myself. Vacationland is about finding your place in the world. I think that all humans can appreciate that figuring out where you’re from and where you belong is something we all have to do from time to time. The show is going to be intense. I’m going to look into a lot of souls, and I will be collecting a lot of information that I will later use for blackmail. Then, I’ll wrap it all up with a rousing ukelele number!

Melissa Zimdars agrees with John Hodgman that The Englert most resembles The Muppet Theatre, making it the best theatre. This article originally appeared in Little Village issue 182.