JOHN HOCKENBERRY for The Takeaway: So, maybe you saw the video clips that have been playing all weekend long: Friday night, Washington, Radio and TV Correspondents Dinner, on the dais, the President of the United States, and some big wig journalists there in the hall. Journalists sitting, eating, listening to the President, listening to their own talk to themselves. Not in the hall were any of the tweeters or citizen journalists that are dominating the headlines, and there was even a joke from the stage that referred to them.
“At this very moment, the fate of Iran is strangely entwined with the sleep schedules of the geeks who maintain the servers at Twitter and YouTube.”
— John Hodgman, speaking at the Washington Radio and Television Correspondents Dinner, June 19, 2009
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Perhaps the first punch line in the history of the universe that ended with Twitter and YouTube, and the man who composed that joke, John Hodgman, writer, actor, comedian, you may know him from the Apple commercials, you may know him from Comedy Central, joins us from Brooklyn, New York. John, good morning.
JOHN HODGMAN: Good morning. Thank you very much for having me.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: It seemed very interesting that in 2009, the idea of a Radio and TV Correspondents Dinner, in one place, it seemed to me there were a lot of reporters and journalists who weren’t invited. I’m wondering if that was your perception as you looked around the hall on Friday evening.
JOHN HODGMAN: Well, I mean, I think the whole hall was connected with the world via Twitter, as journalists sort of shamefacedly twittered from their blackberries and iPhones quietly from the floor. But there wasn’t a lot of that coming into the hall, I don’t think, that’s true.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: I must say, in this time, when the question of the whole profession of journalism is up in the air, and with newspapers on the block or actually going out of business, it must have been a strange event to view both the Obama administration, and the nation’s capital. What are some of your impressions?
JOHN HODGMAN: Well, look, I have an enormous amount of respect for everyone in that room…
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Why?
JOHN HODGMAN: There’s an integral role that professional newsgathering plays in our lives, and by no means is social networking ever going to replace that.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Are you sure?
JOHN HODGMAN: I’m quite certain. Because what we’re experiencing right now with Twitter is the effect of what Andrew Sullivan called “journalistic pointillism.” You have now thousands, if not many, many more, individual voices that are coming over from Iran specifically, via Twitter, or via YouTube, and it’s incredibly important. But each individual voice is confused, perhaps, or not always reliable, not always a perfect picture of what’s going on.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Well, it’s out of context, anyway.
JOHN HODGMAN: Exactly. But you get from the entire cloud of information that’s coming over, a larger, broader, and fascinating picture. What we’ve never seen before, because it’s individuals speaking to individuals.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Sure. Well, John, you know, I’m a big admirer of your comedic work, although listening to you talk right now, I’m thinking there aren’t a lot more jokes that involve Twitter and YouTube in the future.
JOHN HODGMAN: Not at 6:35 in the morning.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: No. I see. So, what did the President refer to you as, when he shook your hand?
JOHN HODGMAN: Did he refer to me?
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Yeh. He called you something, didn’t he?
JOHN HODGMAN: I don’t know what he was saying behind my back, but we were speaking generally about sort of the difference between jocks and nerds on stage.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Oh, really? Is that right? Didn’t he call you “The Guy on T.V.?”
JOHN HODGMAN: He may well have, yes. That’s news to me. See, you’re breaking news to me. I did not read that on the Twitter feeds.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: I don’t have to tweet it. I just have a radio program. It’s terribly inefficient…
JOHN HODGMAN: The idea, I mean, jockism and nerdism, as a philosophy, is something that begins in high school when people first encounter sports and/or math, and they kind of choose a path. And jockism being this idea of conformity—happiness with conformity and authority—and what you can see, touch and feel around you. And nerdism being a group that defines its tribes by passions. And those passions can be technology, or those passions can be ideas that are spread by technology.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: You’re really scaring me now, John. But, you know, I’ll just hang in here. Let’s talk a little bit about how nervous you must have been following Barack Obama. Did your nervousness express itself in any alarming way?
JOHN HODGMAN: Well, no. I mean, it only made sense that I follow Barack Obama. He couldn’t follow me. I’m the most dynamic public speaker of our generation.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Yes, right. Well, thanks for doing the President a favor there. But, I mean, were you nervous?
JOHN HODGMAN: I let him off the hook, didn’t I? Of course I was nervous! It’s the first time that I’ve spoken to that sorta group of people. And I mean, specifically, that group of people, but also a Washington, D.C. crowd. But most important, it’s the first time I’ve ever been in the same room as any president of the United States, and that’s very, very strange when you see someone you know so very well on television right up close.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: How was it hanging with the Secret Service? Did they observe your behaviors?
JOHN HODGMAN: You know, actually, I have a habit of pacing around, sort of when I’m rehearsing, and thinking things through, I’m actually sort of pacing around right now. And as I was doing that to the side of the stage, getting ready for my speech, a guy took me aside, and said, ‘We would prefer that you not do that. Stop moving around so much.’
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Get outta here! The Secret Service? How did they say that?
JOHN HODGMAN: The gentleman came over and said, ‘Excuse me. Would you, uh…we would really like it if you didn’t move around so much.’
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: And he had one of those Secret Service earpieces in and everything?
JOHN HODGMAN: Yes, exactly.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Did you actually stop? Or, are you capable of stopping?
JOHN HODGMAN: Yes, oh, yes. When the Secret Service asks you to stop moving, I think it’s better that you stop moving. I come from the nerdish end of the spectrum. I have no wish to be tackled by anybody.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Right. John, a lot of people know you as one of the stars of the Mac-P.C. commercials, and you play the P.C. character in those commercials. I have to ask you before we go…
JOHN HODGMAN: I can anticipate the question.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: It’s totally obvious to me that you’re a Mac user.
JOHN HODGMAN: That is true, and I have been since 1984.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: And we aren’t making any headlines here. You’ve disclosed that before?
JOHN HODGMAN: It is an open secret for all to know. There’s plenty of pictures of me on the Internet using an iPhone.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: A couple of mole-man names before we go?
JOHN HODGMAN: Oh boy, you catch me up short, sir!
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Man.
JOHN HODGMAN: The mole-men, you mean the race of intelligent creatures who live beneath the earth, and [who were part of writing] our Declaration of Independence?
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: That’s right. There you go.
JOHN HODGMAN: Well, there is, of course, Genuine Hissfurther, who was Thomas Jefferson’s chief collaborator in the Declaration of Independence.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Continuing now with John Hodgman, of course, who starred as the entertainment at the Washington Correspondence Dinner on Friday with Barack Obama. But moving away from that, John…
JOHN HODGMAN: Co-starred. Co-starred, I think, was the term.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Yeh, you can’t upstage the President at something like that, right?
JOHN HODGMAN: No, no, no. We were obviously equals when it came to entertaining that night.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: And, you know, your colleague, Stephen Colbert, really deliberately blurred the line between entertainer and newsmaker when he gave his very controversial speech in front of George W. Bush. Did you have any thoughts about standing on the shoulders of giants, as you were up there?
JOHN HODGMAN: Well, you know, as a member of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report family, obviously I felt very keenly the very high bar that Stephen had set. And it became clear that that was a destructive path to think on. There was no way to try to match it. You just had to do your own thing. So…
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: So, let’s look ahead. I talked a moment ago about this act that you have where you deliver names of mole-men...explain to me. This is so down in the weeds. Help me out here.
JOHN HODGMAN: As I say: Geekism is defined by passions.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: You’ve already defined that.
JOHN HODGMAN: And my books, there is My Expertise , and More Information Than You Require , are essentially books of fake trivia, and fake history, of what happened in the United States. But they’re really just efforts in which I can express my most esoteric passions. And so, for example, I created this idea, this race of hyper-intelligent, but obviously very disgusting, meta-humans who live beneath the earth and influence world affairs. And so I decided, for no particular reason, to list 700 of their names, because no one would tell me ‘No.’
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: The Trilateral Commission just doesn’t ring your chimes.
JOHN HODGMAN: I’ve flown under their radar. They haven’t tried to stop me yet as I reveal the obvious truth about the world around us.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: So you create your own conspiracy of, I imagine, fairly pasty looking individuals who live underground, and have names, and have actually controlled all of world history.
JOHN HODGMAN: Large eyes, fangs, acidic saliva. Obviously, they wear powdered wigs. But they do not aim to control, they aim to help. It’s really the hobos who are trying to control world affairs…
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Hobos?
JOHN HODGMAN: It’s a whole different story.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Do you actually mean the people that ride the trains?
JOHN HODGMAN: From the Great Depression, yes. Exactly so.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: So they’re actually a conspiracy in your view?
JOHN HODGMAN: They attempted to take over the United States government back in 1929. But that’s a long story that didn’t actually happen.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: A long story that didn’t actually happen. We should note that that’s a long story that didn’t actually happen. Now, what do audiences think about this invented conspiracy kind of idea? I would think they would find it attractive in some way?
JOHN HODGMAN: Well, you know, obviously, it’s designed to reflect people’s fears and imaginations of what’s actually going on in the real world. I mean, conspiracy theories are seductive because they make sense of the world that is complex and kind of impersonal. It is nice to imagine that lots of people are actually plotting against you and your life.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: In the last couple of seconds, literally, how do the mole-men stack up to that other conspiracy of people, who sit in dark rooms in front of microphones and control the world?
JOHN HODGMAN: Well, the mole-men are usually shorter in stature, due to their being hunched over. So they have to stack up probably five to one to the average conspirator….
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: [in a falsetto] And they have high-pitched, weird voices that wouldn’t sound good on the air, right, John?
JOHN HODGMAN: They’re not usually radio personalities, no.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Thank you, John Hodgman.