Birmingham nerds everywhere rejoiced when the news came down that humorist, resident expert on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and former professional literary agent John Hodgman would be bringing his singular brand of comedy to the Bottletree Café on the evening of Sept. 7. After starring as the PC in Apple’s series of Mac vs. PC ads, Hodgman has become one of the most beloved figures in American nerd culture, as well as one of Hollywood’s most in-demand character actors for portraying tweedy weirdoes.
Beyond his career in television and film, Hodgman’s greatest achievement may well be his engrossing, hilarious almanacs of fake trivia, which listed the nine presidents who had hooks for hands and the arcane secrets of Yale (an accredited four-year university in New Haven, Connecticut), among other facets of complete world knowledge. The series culminated in 2012 with That is All, which detailed the prophesied end of the world – Ragnarok – as Hodgman assumed the persona of a deranged millionaire.
Since the world has inexplicably continued turning, Hodgman’s post-Ragnarok act is veering in a more personal direction that reflects the witty, trenchant personality he brings to his long-running podcast, Judge John Hodgman. In point of fact, the Bottletree show will see the involvement of one of the most memorable guests on Judge John Hodgman, Huntsville resident and sadness tree gardener Jason Sims.
Hodgman spoke to Weld in advance of his Birmingham performance, discussing the changes in his act since 2012, Jason Sims’ role in the show and the special appeal of Birmingham and the Bottletree.
Weld: Do you recall your performance with The Daily Show tour at Alys Stephens in 2012?
John Hodgman: You must be talking about when I and Adam Lowitt and Al Madrigal came and performed in Birmingham. Now, that was an important night in my life, because I had never spent time in Birmingham, and the audience in Birmingham was unbelievably wonderful and gracious.
It was the first night that I had performed with Al Madrigal, and I was incredibly intimidated by it, because Al is a true, classic standup comedian who’s never wanted to do anything else in his life. And I, as you know, am a dilettante; I’m an author, I’m a former professional literary agent, I’m an imitation actor, a public radio personality, a talker onstage and off, but in a specifically standup comedy environment, not knowing what the audience would expect from me…I found a true excitement that made me want to do more unscripted or semi-scripted speaking in front of audiences. The Birmingham audience was so great and gracious and fun to play with. … I’m grateful to Birmingham for that, and as you know, we went to the Bottletree afterward to hang out, and I’ve been trying to figure out a way to get down there ever since.
Weld: You actually tweeted a few weeks later when the tour was in Flagstaff, “What is the Birmingham, AL Bottletree of Flagstaff, AZ?” which I think meant a lot to a lot of people here.
JH: But let’s be clear: we mean a lot to each other. It means a lot to me! We’re gonna go places, Birmingham! This is a great new friendship that we’ve got.
Weld: I also think it’s entirely appropriate that you’re performing at the Bottletree, since it’s the sort of place you might go to in order to see a show themed around Ragnarok, for instance.
JH: Now, this isn’t a show themed around Ragnarok, I’m going to tell you that right now. This is a show themed around what happens when Ragnarok doesn’t happen, when the apocalypse that you predicted in your bestselling series of fake histories of an invented world and then that you predicted in your critically acclaimed Netflix special called Ragnarok does not save you from the middle age that terrifies you. The universe did not do to me and to all of you the favor of ending when I turned 41, and consequently, we all need to figure out what to do next.
This show really emerges very specifically from that question, and for me, what to do next was to start creating material, to start writing for the stage instead of writing another book, so that I could go out there and get that good Birmingham feeling again. Consequently, this show is a lot more straightforward comedy. … It begins with me taking off a lot of disguises that I’ve used in my creative career: as the resident expert, as the Deranged Millionaire – I don’t go totally nude. But I just try to get to the basic core of John Hodgman, human being on Earth, just like you and me, but with better facial hair. I’m telling a lot of stories that just emerge from my regular life, as opposed to the invented ones that I’ve created for myself in the past.
Now, this isn’t to say that I’m not going to dress up as Ayn Rand from 1980 and sing a song in her voice while playing the ukulele. Of course that’s going to happen. I’m John Hodgman. But it is profoundly different from what people saw back [in 2012]…this is not necessarily going to be a lot of current events, political material.
Weld: Will you still be throwing socks?
JH: I will not throw socks, I don’t think. That was an interesting experiment – I used to take off my shoes and perform barefoot and throw my socks into the audience as a gift to them. And it was interesting to see in which venues and in which cities where the socks were not appreciated and rejected. Birmingham was a sock-keeping town; if I remember correctly, Flagstaff was a sock-throwing-back town. … A lot of people didn’t take it as a kind offer; some people just took it as, A guy just threw his socks at me.You find your people in this world, do you know what I mean? You find your people.
Weld: What is Jason Sims’ involvement in this performance?
JH: The truth is, you do find your people. Part of my mission with the Judge John Hodgman podcast was to be able to just be myself. … I wanted to be myself in all of my thorny prickliness, and also to interact with regular humans out there in the world, since I enjoy it so much.
One of the people I met via the podcast was Jason Sims of Huntsville, Alabama, and I came to know him better over the past couple of years since he was also a regular caller to The Best Show on WFMU with Tom Scharpling – which shall return – and there, and on my podcast, and on his Twitter feed and everything else he reveals himself to be this great, wonderful, wise and witty dude. I’m so grateful to the Internet for allowing me to find my people in the world, like Jason, and for everyone to find their own people in the world. If it weren’t for this incredible, interactive web that connects us, how many of us would be out there alone in the world, in our own personal Huntsville, Alabamas, feeling like, I’m crazy because I think differently than everyone here, and who else is out there for me?
So when I set up the Bottletree [show], I knew that I wanted Jason to come and do something with me. I know that he’s been doing some standup, so I hope that he will do some, but beyond that I’m not entirely sure what – I have the feeling that Jason and I could fill up the entire hour just talking to each other. And I think the reality is that Bottletree is going to see the emergence of an incredible new star in the person of Jason Sims from Huntsville, Alabama.
Weld: That idea of finding your people really does strike me as the story for a lot of folks in Birmingham, who maybe don’t find themselves fitting in with the rest of the state.
JH: The Bottletree really struck me as a place where people find each other, and that is very much what all writing and performing is all about: it’s reminding people that they’re not alone. And that’s why I wanted to come.
John Hodgman will perform at Bottletree Cafe at 9 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 7. Tickets are $18 and may be purchased at thebottletree.com.