John Hodgman: How Much Does The Know-It-All Know?
Ask Me Another host Ophira Eisenberg sits down for an enlightening chat with renaissance man and self-proclaimed know-it-all John Hodgman. The comedian, actor and author discusses some unusual past jobs, and describes his new book, That Is All, a satirical guide to the upcoming end of the world. Speaking of the final countdown, Hodgman claims to be an expert in eschatology, the study of endings and destiny, so his Ask Me Another Challenge tests his knowledge of mythological and historical apocalyptic scenarios. Plus, this week's grand prize winner walks away with the promise of a personalized ruling, held over Skype, by one Judge John Hodgman.
About John Hodgman
John Hodgman is a humorist and the author of a trilogy of satirical almanacs: The Areas of My Expertise, More Information Than You Require, and the latest, That Is All. His Judge John Hodgman advice column appears in the New York Times Magazine, for which he is the humor editor. His writing has also appeared in McSweeney's, The Paris Review, and Wired.
Hodgman contributes as a "resident expert" to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. He played the role of "The PC" in the Apple "Get a Mac" advertising campaign, and has appeared in the HBO series Flight of the Conchords and Bored to Death. He has told stories on This American Life and CBS Radio One's Wiretap.
In 2009, Hodgman was the headlining speaker at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner, and in 2008, he gave a presentation for the TED conference entitled "Aliens, Love—Where Are They?"
You can watch John Hodgman with Ask Me Another's resident musician, Jonathan Coulton, sing a duet below.
This story originally ran on May 4, 2012.
OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:
Welcome back to ASK ME ANOTHER, NPR's show for those of us who speak puzzle. I'm your host, Ophira Eisenberg and joining me is this week's mystery guest, John Hodgman.
JOHN HODGMAN: How do you do?
EISENBERG: Welcome to ASK ME ANOTHER.
HODGMAN: That's very kind.
EISENBERG: So, you know, we teased this idea that you have all these jobs. That you're a renaissance man, the cheese monger, we talked about traffic counter.
HODGMAN: Yes. I was a traffic counter in New Haven, Connecticut, home of a accredited institution that I attended for four years.
HODGMAN: And it was a insane job. I only had it for a month, and standing out from 7 to 9 a.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday, different intersections on the streets of New Haven and I would count how many cars went straight, how many cars turned right.
HODGMAN: If there was another turn, I would count that one as - I'd count all the turns, obviously. I was a professional.
EISENBERG: Of course you were. Obviously, you've done incredible things.
HODGMAN: Nothing that compares to traffic counting.
EISENBERG: True, true enough.
EISENBERG: You were a literary agent.
HODGMAN: I did my imitation of literary agent, yeah. It was my first job when I came to New York City. I wanted to write very sincere short stories and I was wise enough to know that no one would ever buy such a thing. So I decided to work in publishing.
HODGMAN: And I did that for a while, largely trying to avoid actually having to write.
HODGMAN: And then I wrote a book of fake trivia.
HODGMAN: Called "The Areas Of My Expertise."
EISENBERG: And then you wrote two more books of fake trivia.
HODGMAN: That's true and that's all I will ever write.
HODGMAN: All books should be trilogies; I mean I think we all agree on that.
HODGMAN: No, I wrote the first book, "the areas of my expertise," you know, which was a book of lists, much in the style of "The Book of Lists," which I had loved when I was a kid, which was a book of fascinating true historical trivia, except in my book, instead of like the nine U.S. presidents who smoked cigars, it would be the nine U.S. presidents who had hooks for hands.
HODGMAN: You know. I mean, like, you know, Thomas Jefferson designed his own hook, because he was an inventor. And no one knew that FDR had a hook for a hand, 'cause it was shaped like a wheelchair.
HODGMAN: It was so amazing, you know, the guy had a hook for a hand and no one noticed, because they would only film him from the wrist up. They hid it so well.
HODGMAN: But it was my dream to write more books of fake trivia and ideally to write a trilogy. But I didn't know that fate would allow me to do it. And the thing that changed was that I went on "The Daily Show" to promote the first book and suddenly people started buying that book. And that's when my publisher said, okay, we'll let you do two more and I said good and that's what I did.
EISENBERG: And somewhere in between that too, obviously, you were cast in a very famous Macintosh ad campaign.
HODGMAN: Yes, in which I played the personal computer.
EISENBERG: And those were obviously really fun, I think everyone looked forward to seeing them because they were - it was such a funny...
HODGMAN: Now, see you can hear the murmur of people going, "oh, it's that guy."
HODGMAN: People used to come up to me all the time and go, "oh, personal computer."
HODGMAN: Print out this document for me.
EISENBERG: Well did they think you knew things? Would they be like, let me ask you a question about PCs. Would they ever actually blur the lines?
HODGMAN: People would be very excited when they saw me using an iPhone.
HODGMAN: They did not know that I had used Apple products since, you know, I was a child and liked them very much, right?
HODGMAN: But it's all over now. So they don't recognize me in much, because the commercials are over and I wear a moustache now.
EISENBERG: Yes, I know.
HODGMAN: So, and people don't know what to make of that, they just avert their eyes.
EISENBERG: So your final book in the trilogy, "That Is All."
HODGMAN: Yes, it is called "That Is All" and I was really like trying to figure out how I could justify ending even a fictitious book of complete world knowledge, because knowledge will never be complete, so long as there is a world.
EISENBERG: Right, there always can be more world.
HODGMAN: Luckily, we don't have to worry about that for much longer, because I realized, my book would come out in 2012 and if you know, that from the Mayan long count calendar, that's when the world ends in fire, flood and famine, leaving only John Cusack alive.
EISENBERG: Let's talk about that for a second, because throughout your books, you talk about someone on our show called Jonathan Coulton.
HODGMAN: Oh yes, my old friend Jonathan Coulton.
EISENBERG: Yeah. And...
HODGMAN: Who also went to the same accredited university as I did in New Haven, Connecticut. I have known him since...
EISENBERG: And he was feral.
HODGMAN: Yes, I discovered him in the woods outside of New Haven.
HODGMAN: And he was playing a very rudimentary guitar in the woods, but he didn't call it a guitar, he called it a guitenglang.
HODGMAN: Jonathan Coulton, despite the fact that he looks like Grizzly Adams, is actually a completely civilized person and one of my dearest and oldest friends.
EISENBERG: And in the end of "That Is All" you do mention that he is the only person that will know what happened during the apocalypse.
HODGMAN: Spoiler alert.
HODGMAN: I think it's possible that the world might not end on December 21st, 2012.
HODGMAN: I know it's crazy but it's possible that the world is not going to perish.
HODGMAN: I have laid out my predictions for how it is going to end. But I suppose it's possible that I could be wrong. And the only one who will have any memory of that terrible alternate timeline will be Jonathan Coulton. This I predict is true.
EISENBERG: Well, you know, talking about the apocalypse, that's sort of a bit of a hint as to what kind of trivia game we would like to play with you. Are you ready to take on an ASK ME ANOTHER trivia challenge?
HODGMAN: Yes, but please, celebrity trivia only please.
EISENBERG: Your wish is my command.
HODGMAN: I don't want any of the hard questions that I heard backstage. I want the nice softballs that I enjoy.
EISENBERG: I think we might be able to arrange something you'll be comfortable with.
HODGMAN: Very well.
EISENBERG: Let's give a hand to John Hodgman everybody.
HODGMAN: Oh, thank you so much.
EISENBERG: And you will take your place behind said podium?
HODGMAN: Oh, I have to stand up?
EISENBERG: Yeah, you've got to go to a bell.
HODGMAN: Will I be playing against anyone?
EISENBERG: Here's the thing John, we wanted to have someone play against you.
HODGMAN: Oh, dear.
EISENBERG: But no one was willing to go against your encyclopedic knowledge.
HODGMAN: That's absurd.
EISENBERG: Well, you know what? We found someone in the audience that you are going to play for, so we found Christian Harrington-Cologne.
HODGMAN: Christian Harrington-Cologne.
EISENBERG: That is his name; clap it up for him. Where is he?
HODGMAN: I thought that was my new fragrance brand.
EISENBERG: So depending on how you do...
HODGMAN: Well Monsieur Cologne, I shall - I hope I shall do you well.
EISENBERG: Yeah, depending on how you do, he will just get a prize.
EISENBERG: So, let me ask you this John, as a know-it-all, do you know the word eschatology?
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
EISENBERG: Okay. It is?
HODGMAN: The study of the endings of things.
HODGMAN: Very slightly similar to scatology.
EISENBERG: Loosely based.
HODGMAN: Slightly related.
EISENBERG: So we're going to test, how much you know about our future demise and I'm going to pass it along to your frequent partner in crime, Jonathan Coulton.
HODGMAN: Oh, no.
JONATHAN COULTON: That's right John.
HODGMAN: At last you shall have your revenge, aye?
COULTON: That's right; finally the student has become the quizmaster.
HODGMAN: Go on.
COULTON: As we all know, sometime in 2012, a giant planet will either crash into the earth or yank the earth off its axis. Either way, a bad time for all of us. What is the name of that planet?
HODGMAN: Is it Nibiru?
COULTON: It is.
COULTON: In chapter ten of the "Book of Revelation."
HODGMAN: Oh, no.
COULTON: The Prophet John tells of being visited by a mighty angel, who has a rainbow on his head and a face like the sun. This angel gives John a little book or scroll. What does John do with it?
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
COULTON: Yes, a tentative ding.
HODGMAN: Does he read it?
COULTON: He eats it.
HODGMAN: I was going to say he eats it. That would have been the greatest wild guess of all time.
COULTON: That is the right answer and the thing is, he eats it, because he is high as a kite, probably.
HODGMAN: You're speaking of St. John of Patmos. I just want to say...
HODGMAN: ...so you know that I know what I'm talking about.
COULTON: I know you know what you're talking about.
HODGMAN: I did not know that he eats it. Remember, celebrity trivia questions only please.
COULTON: Sure, no these are all softballs.
HODGMAN: All right.
EISENBERG: Especially this one.
COULTON: In Zoroastrianism...
COULTON: ...frashokereti is the final renovation of the universe, when evil will be destroyed and everything else will be in perfect unity with the ultimate creator. What is that creator's name, which is also the name of a Japanese auto company? Zoom, zoom.
HODGMAN: What? Mazda?
COULTON: Mazda is correct, Azura Mazda, yeah.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
COULTON: In order to prevent the events of the Norse end-of-days, known as Ragnarok, the gods chained Loki to three stones using the entrails of his son Narfi. They also dripped poisonous venom on his face. Doesn't seem necessary.
COULTON: And according to the Norse, Loki's painful convulsions are the cause behind what?
COULTON: That's correct.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
COULTON: Alas, Ragnarok is still fated to happen. At that time, what will happen to Odin, the all-father of the gods?
HODGMAN: Oh, this is something I should know. Next question please.
HODGMAN: Well, I know that all of the gods will die in Ragnarok, so he will die?
COULTON: Sure, obviously. He will die, yes.
HODGMAN: Okay and what else?
COULTON: More specifically, he will be swallowed whole by the wolf Fenrir.
HODGMAN: Oh Fenrir the wolf, of course, the namesake of the Harry Potter character.
COULTON: Yes, of course.
HODGMAN: Oh Fenrir.
EISENBERG: A bunch of women just fell asleep, by the way, in the audience.
HODGMAN: I've seen it a million times.
COULTON: You ready?
HODGMAN: I suppose so.
COULTON: This is your final question.
HODGMAN: This is my end times question?
COULTON: In the Marvel Comics' universe...
HODGMAN: Oh okay, now I'm back on track.
COULTON: ...without the brave efforts of the Fantastic Four and the Silver Surfer, a giant purple and blue alien with a pointy hat would have devoured the earth, much like the many other planets he has eaten around the universe. What is this alien's name?
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
EISENBERG: You have done it, John Hodgman. You have saved the world and you have also given a perfume creator a dream, his dream come true. He, first of all...
EISENBERG: Christian Harrington-Cologne will receive a copy of John Hodgman's book, "That Is All."
HODGMAN: That is true.
EISENBERG: A signed copy, I believe.
HODGMAN: I shall sign it, to him.
EISENBERG: Yes, we're upping it.
EISENBERG: And you, of course, get a one of a kind, limited edition, end of the world NPR ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cube.
HODGMAN: Thank you very much.
EISENBERG: One more hand for John Hodgman everybody.
(APPLAUSE) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.