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One On 1: John Hodgman Bends The Truth With Skill

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From serious writers and B movie actors, John Hodgman has had a lot of influences along the way as he continues to build an unconventional career in comedy. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following "One On 1" report.

When you're interviewing a man whose speciality is fake trivia, you never really know. But not telling the truth has been very good to John Hodgman, a one time literary agent who is now an author, actor, self proclaimed resident expert on "The Daily Show," the PC in those Apple ads and a performer at comedy festivals.

"Most people appreciate that I am usually telling the truth. (pause) That’s not true," says Hodgman.

You can usually find Hodgman at work, or Twittering, in his Park Slope apartment which he shares with his wife and two children.
He refers to himself as "a famous minor television personality," but at heart he is a writer.

"Writing is not a job that attracts sane people," Hodgman says. "A lot of it is in little rooms wearing corduroy suits, talking to themselves most of the time. And having to believe that every, that what they’re writing is worth someone else reading."

Hodgman used to write a column for the online literary journal McSweeneys called "Ask a Former Professional Literary Agent."

It led to two books of fake trivia with items like Internet Rumors That Will Never Die.

"Richard Gere’s teeth never stop growing. Like a rabbit needs to gnaw on trees to keep them short enough or else they’ll grow back into his head and kill him," Hodgman says.

But there is actually a serious element to Hodgman's passion for fake trivia. It stems in part from his love of pieces of history that are, in his words, "hidden in plain sight."

"To me, when I write fake trivia, it’s the same fascination," Hodgman says. "Nine presidents to have hooks for hands is absurd, of course, but it grows to some degree out of the idea that FDR was in a wheelchair, and yet in popular imagination, we don’t see it."

During the tour for his first book "the areas of my expertise," Hodgman appeared on one of his favorite shows, "The Daily Show."

"I remember feeling nauseated," recalls Hodgman. "Because that is not a place where humans are supposed to be. We are not supposed to be able to be on the magic screen."

Hodgman later became a regular contributor on the Comedy Central show.

"Walking in the first day and Robb Corddry was all the way down the other end of the hallway and he was walking towards me and I thought 'This is it. Everything you ever heard about comedy writing and performing is true. Everyone hates each other, they stab each other in the back. I'm going to be the one punched in the neck,'" Hodgman recalls. "But he didn't punch me in the neck. He said, 'It's so great to see you, I'm so glad you're here.' I couldn't believe it."

Hodgman is perhaps best known now as the PC in the Apple ads.

"Mac people are happy to see me because the ads are fun and PC people are happy to see me too because they somehow think I'm their champion," Hodgman says. "People come up and say I'm a PC too and so thank you for what you do. I'm not sure you understand how this works."

Hodgman's status in the comedy world was further cemented last spring when he was asked to speak at the annual Radio and Television Correspondents Dinner in Washington, D.C. with the president in attendance.

"I wanted to take some time off and now I have to do the most stressful thing I could ever possibly imagine," Hodgman says. "You can't say no. They said 'Please keep it a secret' and I said 'Fine, that'll help me to pretend that it is not happening.'"

Hodgman hit on the theme of the president as a nerd who knows his way around Star Trek.

"The next morning I got up and came home and there were emails to answer, and everything got very normal. President didn't call, it's all been normal since. So it may be that I dreamed it or was a mass hallucination," Hodgman says.

Many comedians draw on painful childhoods for their comedy. John Hodgman, a current Brooklynite, grew up in Brookline near Boston, surrounded by a loving family, nice houses and a good school system.

"I draw on the painful experience of watching Masterpiece Theater on WGBH with my parents. Watching Nicolas Nickelby and Dr. Who in the late 70's and going to school and being well liked by all my friends and peers," Hodgman says.

Hodgman connects his sense of humor to an old Peter Cook and Dudley Moore bit about a one legged man auditioning for the part of Tarzan.

"The line that got me from the Tarzan sketch was always 'How do I explain this?' recalls Hodgman. "The problem is you are deficient in the leg department to the tune of one."

Perhaps he should have known that writing fake trivia was in his future. At Yale, Hodgman studied the writer Jorge Luis Borges.

"Sometimes he would write short stories that masqueraded as literary essays about an author that didn't exist. Sometimes he wrote encyclopedias for worlds that didn't exist. So there is really no inspiration there whatsoever," Hodgman says.

After college he moved to New York because most of his friends were here, and not because the city was going to inspire him as a writer.

"I didn’t like actually writing sentences and paragraphs and then short stories -- that was as far as I could ever get," Hodgman says. "The idea of writing a novel which was the only thing conceivable that you might sell as a book and make a living doing was just not for me and still is not."

Hodgman took a job as a literary agent at around the same time the Internet was coming into vogue. He used the new invention to contact and work with one of his movie heroes, horror movie actor Bruce Campbell.

"Bruce emailed me back the next day and then called me and this was like the biggest moment in my life," recalls Hodgman. "This invention had allowed me not only to connect with people who shared my weird, esoteric enthusiasms, as it continues to do for everyone in the world, but also that I could reach this amazing, little known, B movie actor."

Hodgman says this invention saved his life in a number of ways.
He started writing a column called "Ask a Former Professional Literary Agent" for the McSweeneys Journal website.

"It made it clear that there was a market for paragraphs as opposed to novels," Hodgman says. "Not even short stories, because there’s never been a market for those, who are we kidding? But you know, paragraphs, short things."

Hodgman's first book of fake trivia followed and then television, comedy festivals and speaking in front of the president.

Hodgman says he made some unusually smart decisions by accident.
But it's no accident that he ended up working on three shows he loved from afar -- public radio's "This American Life," "Battlestar Galactica" and "The Daily Show."

His calm demeanor belies a passion for the work.

"You'll be far more likely to achieve success if what you're driven to do and to attract attention from people and an audience and to cultivate an audience if you do what you're driven to do, what you can't help but do, than if you do what you think you should be doing in whatever field you're doing it in," Hodgman says. "That said, if anyone out there wants to write fake trivia you should stop right away cause I don't need the competition."

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