John Hodgman on Western Mass Culture : Local music, food, and internet

Ian Bauer October 29, 2013 0
John Hodgman on Western Mass Culture : Local music, food, and internet

JohnHodgmanJohn Hodgman would like you to believe he mysteriously fell into being a self-claimed “minor celebrity.”  But after countless TV appearances (including the Daily Show with Jon Stewart), several books, columns in the New York Times, and now a Netflix Special, he’s clearly worked his way into the public eye. You may know him from his role in the classic Apple commercials or maybe you know him from being out and about in Western Mass during the summers. With his slicked over hair, a finely trimmed mustache, and dawning the occasional cravat, he fits nicely into the Northampton scene.  I spoke to him about his affection for the Pioneer Valley, his Netflix special, Tiny Tim, and his upcoming show at the Wilbur Theater in Boston on Nov. 2.

If you attend the Boston show and use the secret phrase John says in the interview, you’ll get an exclusive Western Mass meet up with John in the next few months.

PCP: Tell me about what your live show looks like.

 JH: In 2012 I released a book, and a special based on that book.  The book was called That is All and the special was called Ragnarok. Ragnarok, as you know, is the Norse End time’s mythology that I took their name (because Ragnarok is in the public domain) for my own end time’s mythology which is outlined in That is All.   Coming off of the whole Mayan apocalypse predictions, I wrote about how I envisioned human civilization and how time would end on Dec 21, 2012, including the Omega Pulse, The Blood Tide, Dogstorm, and other terrible calamities.  This is my way of talking about turning forty, and anticipating mortality, and the feeling of “if I have to go, at least I’ll be able to take out the whole world with me.”  So, on December 21, 2012 I did the one man show in Brooklyn on the shores of the Gowanus Canal, which as you know is America’s most apocalyptic water way.  We waited for the world to end and it didn’t.

Consequently, I found myself at the beginning of this year, having discovered after many years of hosting variety shows, hosting readings, doing small amounts of stand up here and there, that I really enjoyed doing this one man show that I had been throughout 2012 and really anticipatorily missing not doing it.  Of course I couldn’t do that material anymore, because the world didn’t end.

The funny thing about predicting the end of the world, even though you might be predicting it as a joke, you tend not to do your homework anyway. It’s like a giant snow day. I had no plans, no professional plans, for what I would do if the world didn’t end. I found myself at the beginning of 2013 with an utterly blank slate, creatively.  Panic is a catalyzing force. In order to force myself to panic into creating something I booked a series of secret, unannounced shows at a bar in Brooklyn and preforming once every week or so. Having no idea what I was going to say until the day, or the day before the show itself.  What I found was that having now written three books of complete world knowledge, and creating the whole word of fake facts, and fake history and fake trivia, and having destroyed that world at the end of my last book, That is All, I was in the place where I could talk a lot more candidly and plainly about myself and my life as it’s actually lived, and the persona of John Hodgman as the former professional literary expert/professional writer/resident expert know-it-all/deranged millionaire/lunatic/monster. While all of those things are incredibly reflective of me, despite that fact that I’m a vowed liar, I never lied about myself.  Someway I felt much more pleasant and interesting to stand on stage and talk about John Hodgman myself.  Acknowledging that I’m a regular human being who lives in Brooklyn, comes from Massachusetts, has a wife and children and a relatively normal life. Although the reality is my life, having been accidently kidnapped by television, came far more surreal than any joke I could make about it.

PCP: Let’s say 100 years from now civilization is nearly wiped out and archeologists dig up your books. Are you worried that it’ll become part of human history?

JH: How would that be any different than the people for whom generations believed that Marco Polo was telling the truth? Or for that matter, the Mayans with their dumb apocalypse theories.  Those guys couldn’t even make smooth pyramids. The reality is that all of history is story.  All stories to some degrees are fabricated or at least synthesized from this disparate experience.  Do I worry that my books will be taken as sincere truth? I don’t know. I’m pretty clear from the get-go on all of them, I pretty open about my lying.  That said, this is after civilization collapses, or after I’m dead. What do I care?

PCP: But what about your legacy for yourself?

JH: Look, all I did was all I could do. I didn’t chose to become a fake ficitoneer any more than now that I’ve written a thousand books of fake fiction, do I feel, I can control the fact that I don’t really want to do that anymore? Like, I still enjoy esoteric trivia and weird history.  It’s still apart of my DNA.  I don’t feel the same compulsion to explore those kind of stories and to write out lists of the nine presidents that had hooks for hands. I feel more of a compulsion to stand on stage and say “this is really who I am, and this is what’s going on in my life and this is what happened yesterday.” And also to a certain degree, to dress up like Ayn Rands in 1980 and read selections from her fake column for Parade Magazine that never occurred.  I guess it’s still part of me that likes fake fiction.  There’s enough of me that just likes being John Hodgman.

 PCP: Do you call yourself a stand up comedian? Or is that a label that you don’t like?

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JH: I’ve always hesitated to call my self a stand up comedian only because I take stand up very seriously. There are people who practice it and only it.  It is as unique an art form as singing, as poetry, as mime.  There. See I’ve made all of comedy, singing, and poetry feel bad because I compared them to mime.

 PCP: But you’ve made mimes feel really good.

JH: It is it what it is. What it is is getting up on stage and making people laugh in the moment either by telling jokes or doing outrageous things or making observations that people understand.  There’s just as many ways to do stand up comedy as there are stand up comedians.  The thread that connects them all is that you are creating the illusion that you are speaking off the cuff.  And lots of times, you are. So, I always hesitated to call myself that because what I was not doing, was speaking off the cuff. Even in the Ragnarok show, which I preformed dozens of times by the end of 2012, and I was not using the book in anyway. I was not holding text. I was still essentially preforming the show that I had memorized with occasional asides to the audience.
The material that I have been working on, that you’ll see on stage if you come to one of my shows, is certainly prepared but it was written specifically for the stage first. By written I mean half-written. I mean sketched out and finished on stage in that white-hot panicky glare of immediacy. Even though I’ve figured out, as all stand up comics do,

the best way to tell the story is where it can change at any moment, based on the audience, based on where you are, based on the new inspiration you have on stage.

I don’t know that there is a final form of most of the material that I’m presenting on stage right now.  There isn’t a script that I could point to and say “That’s what I’m doing.” You add things, you subtract things, you endeavor to go on stage and tell a story that is meaningful to you and ideally funny to an audience that is different every night.  While I wrote those books, and they were an important part of my life. They exist beyond me, as you said. They exist into the future as long as they are in print or as long as someone has a copy, they might show up somewhere down the road.  People will think there actually was a great hobo war in the 1930′s.  This material that I’ve written or created for the stage, I don’t know that I’m going to write it down or record it.  Right now it exists specifically to be alive for the ninety minutes it takes me to get through the material and react to the audience, to enjoy them, and force them to enjoy me. Then it goes away.  I don’t know that it will live beyond the night that you see it.

PCP: It kind of reminds me of a comedian I saw recently, which is Paul F. Tompkins. A comedian you get compared to a lot.

JH: He’s my hero.  I am first to compare me to Paul F. Tompkins, which is an insult to Paul F. Tompkins. I only do it because he is so far beyond me in so many ways as a stand up comedian. I only compare myself to pale in comparison to Paul.  Now that said, I can write the hell out a fake fact.

PCP: Paul does a similar thing that’s very stream of consciousness and in the moment for that particular audience.  I think it’s a good trend in comedy these days.

JH: It just depends on the person.  There are a lot of comics out there that have honed their material in order to tell that story.  Or there’s a particular order in which they’re going to deploy their modular jokes. They might not change it from night to night at all.  That’s a beautiful thing to see, when someone has really crystalized what they want to say and they’re able to create the impression that it’s live and of the moment.  In a way it makes you feel like improvisation is cheating. Because you don’t have anything to say, you have to make it up because you haven’t prepared the material.  I think most stand up comedy is a combination of prepared material and just being alive in the moment of that particular audience.  I think Paul and I do share, aside from our love of cravats and mustache-comedy in general, a real appreciation for playing in the space and creating something that, as you said, will only make sense contextually in that very night.

PCP: Not to keep bringing up other comedians but, Jimmy Pardo has a new album called-

JH: Sprezzatura!

PCP: Yes! The Italian word for “rehearsed to appear improvised.”  That style is very clean and tight yet in the moment. Let’s talk about your connection to Western Mass.

JH: I grew up in Brookline, MA. My mom, who’s no longer alive, was a nurse at Beth Israel Hospital. She had a very close friend, who grew up in Colrain, MA. When I was around 11 or 13, this family friend, Jackie, would invite my Mom and Dad and I out to Colrain for the weekend.  It became a place that we all really loved. My Mom in particular really loved the area. Over the years she started looking for a place to buy as a summerhouse, or country house, or weekend house in Franklin County specifically. It was not till I was away at college that she found a house that she liked well enough to buy and really just to hang onto until she looked for a better house.  When she passed away in 2000, my Father didn’t feel like maintaining the house for himself, he sold it to my Wife and I, for a nominal fee, so long as we would keep up the house, and we have.

It’s become a place that we go to as often as we can, usually for a large part of the summer.  We’ve become close friends with a number of people in the area. We consider it a second home.

A second home sounds like something you write down on tax forms but I mean truly a second hometown. Not just that specific town, which I refer to as “Internetless Hills, Massachusetts”

PCP: That’s very apt.

JH: I say that in part to respect my own privacy, and in part to shame the cable providers of the area to bring meaningful broadband to all of the rural towns of Western Massachusetts. We have DSL now, which is fine, but for many, many years we had nothing. It’s incredible, as I’m sure you know. It has enormous negative economic impacts on these small towns that are struggling to survive, particularly in the hill towns of Franklin County to not be able to offer residents meaningful, high speed internet.  Kids won’t move there.

PCP: Certainly businesses wont come into a town with no high speed internet.

JH: Right. And people won’t start businesses out of their homes. Wired West is an organization that’s trying to essentially develop it’s own broadband service and raise money to lay fiber optic cable for the hill towns of Western Massachusetts.  I think it’s a really valuable thing and I mention it as often as I can. It’s merely indicative of something that’s going on amongst rural and agricultural communities all over the nation. It’s an economic boom that’s going untapped because cable companies and telecoms wont wire, or wait a long, long time to wire less populated areas.

Anyway, we consider the whole region to be semi-home town. You can’t live out there without being ready to spend 40 minutes in the car to get to that place you like.  We spend a lot of time at the Wagon Wheel in Gill, Central Rock Gym in Hadley, the Korean restaurant that people only seem to know as “The Korean Restaurant on Route 9 in Hadley.” It’s the one across from the Pilates center where we go, the Pilates Studio in Hadley. There’s a number of places I’ve developed a deadbeat-hang-around-and-drink-a-cup-of coffee type ethic from back in the time when I had no internet at home.  Specifically Esselon down in Hadley, and most dear to my heart The Book Mill and Lady Killigrew in Montague. That’s a used bookstore and great cafe where I would spend every hour of every day even if they didn’t have Wi-Fi, and they do.

 PCP: You know what their big claim to fame is?

JH: Books you don’t need in a place you can’t find?

 PCP: Well that but it was, I think, the last place Tiny Tim played before he died of a heart attack.

JH: Is that so? I never knew that story. I never knew that Tiny Tim and I were connected in tragic ukulele-dom.

PCP: We’ve talked about the lack of internet not helping culture and economy, but do you feel like Western Mass and Northampton specifically, is a place that cultivates art and comedy and music?

JH: One of the things that is true about Northampton in particular is that it’s beautiful, semi-urban infrastructure. Obviously it’s sort of college town, cosmopoliteness, it’s proximity to New York, it’s beautiful homes, and so forth makes it an extremely attractive place for creative people who increasingly can’t afford to live in New York or Boston for that matter, can come and create a life for themselves.  The not so secret secret is that it’s the hometown now to a number of incredible musicians.  Rock musicians.  It’s an incredibly vibrant music scene to itself.  Comedically, I just don’t know how much comedy is happening around the Valley to be perfectly honest.  In terms of music, it’s one of the most amazing places to go and see national touring bands and the people who live right down the street.  I don’t know if you know Violet Clark who is the collaborator, in both art and family, with Black Francis of The Pixies. She’s doing this show in Northampton. It’s world class, new rock music happening right there.

The food movement is economically empowering for the region.  Foodieism is one of the few liberal, sanctimonious things that actually has direct, grass-roots benefits to the farmers who are growing food!

The other thing that’s exciting that’s going on more than culturally is agriculturally the area has literally blossomed in the past five to ten years.  That farmland of the Connecticut River Valley has ceased being sold off to developers and reclaimed as farmland. Small, dedicated, young farmers, like Red Fire Farms and countless others are raising awareness about the real agricultural bounty of the region.  The foodie culture, which a lot of people turn their noses up at but I don’t, has really began to take root in fertile in ground there, as you have restaurants like Hope and Olive and Magpie in Greenfield. You have restaurants throughout the valley region and the huge “Eat Local” movement that’s on every bumper sticker on every Subaru in the area.  I think it’s tremendously great. I had to explain to someone who saw us eat local stuff. They said “What a bunch of liberal, sanctimonious jerks” Well, maybe.  No one ever accused Northampton or Amherst to not be full of liberal, sanctimonious jerks. I can say that because they’re my people. The food movement is economically empowering for the region.  Foodieism is one of the few liberal, sanctimonious things that actually has direct, grass-roots benefits to the farmers who are growing food! To families who are raising cattle.  Getting people to eat grass-fed beef isn’t just something that’s great to read about in The New York Times, you can also go the Co-op in Greenfield and buy Wheel-View Farm Beef from your neighbors or for that matter blueberries from Spatcher Farm down the road.  That’s great! As long as there’s no internet, any local commerce that can be generated is good commerce.  What follows good food is great restaurants and food people travel and follow places to eat. The dude up at The Farm Table has figured that out. I haven’t eaten there myself but I hear it’s good.  Anything that’s going to bring in visitors, tourism- all that money is going to flow into restaurants and then to farmers and those farmers are going to thrive. That is a traditional economy to the area that is totally great everyone.  I think it’s tremendous.  Who cares about rock and roll, when you’ve got corn?

 PCP: I’ve always said that.

JH: Oh, look at this.  [Begins reading] “In September 1996, Tiny Tim suffered a heart attack just as he began singing at a ukulele festival at the Montague Grange Hall (often confused in accounts of the incident with the nearby Montague Bookmill…”

 PCP: Oh no! I’ve been feeding misinformation to everyone.

JH: [continues reading] “He was hospitalized at the nearby Franklin County Medical Center” where my own daughter had a CT scan “in Greenfield for approximately three weeks, before being discharged with strong admonitions not to perform again because of his health and the dietary needs for his diabetic and heart conditions. Nevertheless, he ignored the advice. While playing at a gala benefit at The Woman’s Club of Minneapolis…had a second heart attack on stage and he later died at the Hennepin County Medical Center.” But that’s amazing. I had no idea. I learn something new every day.  Western Mass is a place that feels touched by a lot of different kinds of history, in particular performer’s history.  Showbiz history.

PCP: Well, there’s another famous comedian that lives not too far from your second home; Bill Cosby. He’s also playing the Wilbur theater soon.

JH: Last time I played the Wilbur I came close to selling out, and I’d like to sell out.  Here’s what I think: If you come to the Boston show and hang out for the meet and greet after, and you’re from Western Massachusetts, use this code phrase: “I am also a pioneer.”  Then give me your email address, at some point I’ll arrange a meet up at a venue to be determined, probably the Lady Killigrew. At the very latest, next summer.

 

Tickets for John Hodgman’s live show at the Wilbur Theater in Boston on November 2nd can be found here. 

More at: www.johnhodgman.com

THAT IS ALL audiobook on iTunes http://bit.ly/PLuDCO
THAT IS ALL paperback available at
 http://amzn.to/QztSii
Complete World Knowledge box set here: http://amzn.to/TiEu9d

Images used under Creative Commons via Flickr courtesy of DavidJLee and Terry Robinson.

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