Almost as few of us have been in orbit as have visited an Emmy Award gift lounge. This is a real thing. I first heard of them on Tuesday night at John Hodgman’s “Tonight!” at Second City's Up Comedy Theater. (The show may have been called, “I Stole Your Dad.” It was not clear.) The gift lounge is where already wealthy celebrities receive free luxury items just for being celebrities. Must be nice.
John Hodgman is a humorist working right in the sweet-spot of that vague term. He’s somewhere in between essayist and stand-up. Really, his business is being John Hodgman. And from the sound of it, brother, business is booming. I mean, he’s been to a Gift Lounge and yeah, it’s pretty cool.
“Where is Dennis going with this?” That’s what we audience members were wondering about Hodgman. Though, quite patiently. The show started with a good ten minutes of had-to-be-there but trust-me-hilarious crowd work. So before I go further I should say Hodgman, in the most basic analysis of his comedy, was hilarious. He was charming and cool and fun to watch. He was clearly having a great time and seems like a good guy. I like him. On many levels it was a fun show well worth the $37 ticket. (I include the “convenience fee,” that most odious of oxymorons.) But the show was also self-centered and solipsistic and so narrowly focused that I found it offensive. Great comedy is about what it is like to be alive. Tonight! or I Stole Your Dad or whatever was about what it is like to be John Hodgman, and failed to leave the orbit of his self.
Hodgman soon made his jacket(s) not just a costume but the content of his act. They were layers of schwag that he received, he confessed, for working on various TV shows: the aforementioned Bored to Death jacket; not one but two Daily Show jackets; a pair of hand-made Italian shoes that he received at an Emmy Gift Lounge; and so on. He disrobed down to his (turns out) designer jeans, also free, also from a Gift Lounge, but kept those on, assuring us he would not go that far. He was taking the rest off, he said, as a way of symbolically discarding the trappings of fame.
The promise about his jeans would be broken when he later did an on onstage costume change to impersonate Ayn Rand (the only non-Hodgman part), but the promise of saying goodbye to all that schwag was broken even quicker. What followed was more name-dropping and more proof that life with his (supposedly) unlikely comedy success is going pretty good. A tale of life on the road at a bizarre hotel in Florida, a long story about giving a Mark Twain lecture at “a college in the northern part of the southeast,” of getting dressed down by another comedy writer for being too reference-heavy… Everything was told in a self-deprecating style with Hodgman the ultimate butt, so I can’t exactly call it bragging. For example, Hodgman admits he has never read Twain, not even Huck Finn. Why, then, did they invite poor, unqualified him? This confession was, in fact, part of a larger theme: “Can you believe a doughy guy like me is this famous?”
Yeah. I can. Hodgman is brilliant, exceptionally funny and as fast as they get, so the aw-shucks attitude gets a little tiresome, especially considering that—despite his lack of photogenic traits (more common in comedy than he lets on) and despite his nerdy, over-educated style (which is indeed not as common)—he is in fact one of the most confident performers working today. I can’t see into his soul the moment before he hits the stage, but once he is there he nails it. In his Daily Show appearances, in his books, in his This American Life Essays, you feel it. He belongs.
His tendency to focus on exceptional experiences often infects his more mundane stories. Stories of his childhood were about growing up an only child in a sixteen-room fixer-upper. I doubt you grew up in such a house or know anyone who did. His own kids get a similar treatment. When Louis CK talks about his children, he is talking about children generally. When Hodgman talks about his children, he is talking about those two people. But I laughed. I’m not saying he wasn’t funny. I’m saying I could not relate.
That’s my problem, not his, I admit. So all I can say about a comedian who I like but can’t love is my reason why: John Hodgman is the comedic manifestation of the Memoir. As funny as the story of giving the Mark Twain lecture was, it fit the bad memoir tradition of “It happened to me, therefore it is interesting.” Thanks to his huge talent he was able to make it work, but the content was lacking connection to anything outside of John Hodgman.
“When you are in your 20s,” Hodgman wrote in an essay about fame for This American Life, “It seems inevitable, somehow, that you will be on television, or an astronaut, or the president. It is hard-wired into every gland, this ambition to be known and renowned. And then, of course, you grow older, pudgier, stouter, more portly.
Then, just when you've discarded the last shred of a shred of a shred of the fantasy of, say, being an astronaut, to then have someone knock at your door one day and say, it's time. Suit up. It's time to go into outer space. It's exciting, but also unsettling. You think, why now? And your idea of yourself never really catches up. You put on the space suit and you learn to eat dehydrated food and poop while floating upside down or whatever. You adjust, but you never really feel like you're supposed to be up there, orbiting the earth.
And, he said that in 2007. Seven years on he is still telling us what it is like to be an astronaut, and we in the audience are left gazing up at a star.