tv Overheard With Evan Smith PBS April 11, 2018 12:30am-1:01am PDT
- [announcer] funding for overheard with evan smith is provided in part by hillco partners, a texas government affairs consultancy, and by claire and carl stuart. - i'm evan smith. he's a comedian, actor, podcaster and best-selling author who made facts up before making facts up was cool. his latest book, not made up, is vacationland: true stories from painful beaches. he's john hodgman, this is overheard.
john hodgman, welcome. - thank you so much, it's wonderful to be here. - good to see you and welcome back, and congratulations on this. - thank you, this is my book, vacationland. - it's a lovely book. you know that, we're gonna talk almost exclusively about this - we can talk about whatever you like. - the cover is one of the great book covers of the year. it's a great design. i think the design is fantastic. - and may i credit the genius of aaron draplin of portland, oregon, an amazing designer who works in this kind of '70s, what he calls "thick line" style. he designs logos and corporate identities. he also created field notes, those little notebooks you can get at bookstores. so he's an amazing guy. he's got a book called pretty much everything, which is a beautiful collection of his designs. - are you doing his cover? - oh sure, i'll do his cover. it'll just be called "good job draplin." but i love him and i'm so thrilled that he was able to do it. - i love this book but i just wanna say, i loved your previous books, all of which, as we said, were made up facts.
- they were designed by sam potts. - oh we're talking about the design now. i mean, you were in the made up facts business for ages. - yeah, my first book, the areas of my expertise, a publisher came to me, they said, you should do a trivia book. and i loved that idea, because i grew up on those trivia books that you would keep in the bathroom, the people's almanac, the book of lists, big secrets. and i was like, i'd love to do a book of trivia and hidden history and forgotten facts, but those books exist, so what can i bring to the world of fact? how about fake fact? - fake fact. - and so, my books were sort of absurdist humor where instead of doing a list of the nine u.s. presidents who had an addiction to cigars, it would be the nine u.s. presidents who secretly had hooks for hands. - the hooks for hands was one of my favorite things in that book. - i'd write about how no one talked about how fdr had a hook for a hand,
and no one knew it because it was shaped like a wheelchair. - still funny. - well, only because there was a conspiracy of silence around the fact that fdr was disabled and had polio. he wasn't photographed from the waist up, or in my universe he wasn't photographed from the wrist up. - but the point of this is that these books were successful at a time when making stuff up wasn't reality. and what i think is remarkable is that the road has written to meet you since then, hasn't it? - i think it's dropped. - the road has lowered to meet you. - the road and the bar and everything else has lowered. - i kind of thought about this book being real or true as a response to the fact that it's no longer interesting to make things up, 'cause now the president's doing it, and now people in politics are doing it and the world is doing it. - well you know, my first book put me onto the daily show,
and there i was the resident expert. and it was very much the same act, absurdist humor where you take what's really happening in the world, talk about it truthfully, and then, in my case, extrapolate it out to the most absurd extent. well reality doesn't need my help to do that anymore. - no no no no no. - and the character that i ended up doing on that show, the deranged millionaire, was specifically based, in 2011, when donald trump was just dropping in on cable news studios to spin some birther conspiracies about then-president barack obama. remember him? not sure you do. and i was like, we need that on the daily show. we need just a rich white guy who feels like he can just drop in and say a bunch of nonsense because he's a rich white guy. and that's how the deranged millionaire character began, and then by, a couple years later i realized, i can't compete, there's nothing i can do comedically - with reality. - to compete with the long-form improv that donald trump is doing. - it is improv, that's right.
- he is lost in that character. the andy kaufman of politics. - a good reference, an excellent reference. so this book is called vacationland. vacationland is the motto - that is the nickname of the state of maine, which is a state in the united states. - it is. and this book is really about two states, it's about massachusetts and it's about maine, to the degree that it's about something geographical. - it's about three states, i would dare say. and three different wildernesses. one, the rural part of western massachusetts, where i was not born but i spent a lot of my time growing up. two, the painful coastal beaches of maine, where my wife has instructed me i will accept my death. and then the third state, the third wilderness is the metaphoric haunted forest of middle age that connects those two parts of my life. and they are all true stories rather than absurd fake stories. - i love the part that's about you.
i wanna do the part that's about maine and massachusetts first, and then come to the you part. i love the story that you have told in this book and have told elsewhere about how maine became a state. - oh right. - to understand this book and to understand the perspective of this book, it's helpful for you to tell the story of maine. - it's interesting to think about in terms of current events as we reevaluate what the confederacy was. - weirdly, it's connected back. - maine, which is called vacationland, was invented in 1820. prior to that it was part of massachusetts, which makes no sense, if you know - they're not connected. - they don't share a border at all. and they didn't like each other. in 1820, missouri wanted to become a state, and the white dudes who ran the government at that time were like, great, we're trying to get to 50, come on board. but missouri said no, well we wanna be a slave state. and in 1820, there was some handwringing about whether it was okay for a human to own another human. still some question about that.
and they said, well, no i'm sorry, you can't become a slave state, this is a horrible crime against humanity, we don't want it to spread. just kidding, that's not what they said. they said sure. sure, but we'll resolve the moral conundrum of slavery by admitting missouri as a slave state, and then we'll find another state to admit as a free state, and that will make it okay. - balance. - yeah, that's right, balance. that makes owning another human okay. so the federal government called around to all the states, and they were like, hey listen, we gotta have a new state, do you have any garbage land you're not using? and most states were like, no, we want our land. but massachusetts was like, oh yes we do. we have this huge hump of half-canada up there that no one wants. you can have that. and that became the state of maine, vacationland itself. weirdly, that's when massachusetts started getting interested in maine. because prior to that they didn't wanna have anything to do with it. but as soon as it was another state, it became a destination for wealthy bostonians. and that's how vacation was invented,
because prior to the middle of the last century, vacation was a concept that most people didn't understand. you worked all the time. if you worked on a farm, you had that farm to tend to all year round. if you worked in a city, you couldn't take two weeks or three weeks off to go on vacation, you were too busy dying in a shirtwaist factory fire or something. vacation as a concept prior to world war two was only understood and invented by weird wealthy new yorkers and bostonians, at least in the east coast where i'm from, and their warped idea of vacation was to go north to a cold dark place called maine to clutch a martini in their hands, not talk to their families, and stare out over oceans that you would never swim it because the waters of maine are made of hate and they want to kill you. you get in the ocean in maine and every cell in your body screams the first half of the word hypothermia before it dies. - and that's really the point. i mean this description of maine as having had painful beaches, the use of painful as an adjective
is a literal rendering, right? it is painful. - the beaches are made of rocks and knives. the knife part, that's an exaggeration. let's call it poetic license. but the rocks are really there. and there's one, what i love is that there's one beach, as far as i can tell, in the state of maine, that is sandy. and it's in acadia national park. it is not a very big beach. and everyone flocks there, and it is called sand beach. because that's what it is. that's the one you can go to. - truth in advertising. you said that the third state is basically the state of wandering through middle age. really i wanna take that out to the logical conclusion and say that this is sort of a book about death. - yes. - about the finality of it all. in fact there's a terrific line in here - it's a very funny book about death. - right, it's hilarious. that stuck with me, that was, "everything ends, nothing lasts, not even john hodgman." - i know, the day i realized that
was not a happy day in my life. - but it is actually, as funny as you are in the book and not, it is actually a reasonably sober understanding of the finality of it all. - well, you know, i turned 40, and i didn't feel like doing fake facts anymore. and i had this moment out in western massachusetts in a beautiful used bookstore where i would go and hang out and write, and i had this moment where mortality really gripped me for the first time, not as an abstract but as a reality. now i'm very lucky. there are lots of people in much more vulnerable populations who live with death hanging over their shoulder from a much earlier age. i'm lucky that i'm a white dude who lives in the united states, of relative affluence, who didn't have to think about death until most white dudes have their midlife crisis, into their '40s, you know what i mean? - and by the way, that is also something that you acknowledge pretty directly in this book, that you have it extremely good, you're a lucky person, you're a fortunate person. - that's right, i bill it as
the white privilege mortality comedy of john hodgman. again, truth in advertising. i have a lot of privilege. i check my privilege, i make an effort to check my privilege every day. - but you're self-aware enough about it to say, for instance, in this book, the reality is that i have some economic security which makes everything a lot easier, that most people don't necessarily enjoy, and i should consider myself blessed, whatever it is that i might deal with in the course of the day. - don't put your stuff on me. i've worked for every goddamn penny. no, absolutely. it's true. - but i thought that was a pretty nicely said thing - well you know, for a book that grew out of a comedy show, once i sat down to write it out further and could delve a little bit further into it, i realized that it was also about, well it's a very specific john hodgmany book, it's my personal stories, i realized that it touches upon
a lot of moments that we all share when we reach a turning point and we're not sure what's next. and usually this comes around getting older, reaching a middle stage in life where you feel like your best work might be behind you and you don't know what's next. or your children getting older and your role as a parent going away, and you wonder if i'm done, if i've done everything i can. - or the generation ahead of you, your parents, and their contemporaries, beginning to pass on. - for example too. - i must say, of the two things in this book that i take away as my favorites, one of them is the chapter about your mother's death. - right, thank you. - which is extraordinarily moving. it's a short chapter, and the telling of it is not necessarily intended to provoke this kind of reaction. it's a very moving and very human bit. - oh no, i did that on purpose. oh yeah. - you're pushing my buttons and everybody else's buttons? no, but i thought it was great and it was actually - no, thank you.
so, my mom passed away when i was 29. i had just gotten married. she and my dad had this little house in western massachusetts, which is really, not the berkshires, not a resort area, like a real, in the middle of dairy farms and sheep ranches, that they would go to out of brookline, massachusetts, where i grew up, in the east. and my dad couldn't bear to keep it anymore, so my mom left it to us. and that's sort of the first half of the book is our time as young parents in our 30s, for the first time dealing with a free standing home, which, as people how had always lived in cities, we had no idea. like i didn't know what a septic system was. and you know, now i owned one. - call the super, right? - if something went wrong in your apartment, even if you owned your apartment, you're a homeowner and a taxpayer, you never had to clean a gutter or fix a plumbing? is that a thing? all i had to do was call, you know, some surrogate dad, like the super or the landlord,
and just be like, take care of that, i'll be at the bar, goodbye, i'm still young. but being in a house, we had to grow up quite a bit and learn that, you know, propane is not delivered by magic. you had to call the propane man. if he doesn't come, it doesn't show up. and that's how the propane man comes. that's how you show up in your house, first of all, in a cold dark november night that's freezing and your baby is crying and you don't know what happened to the heat, and your whole house smells like garbage and it doesn't smell like garbage because of the five bags of rotting garbage you left in the garage 'cause you're afraid to go to the dump 'cause the guys there scare you. it smells like garbage, you realize, 'cause the propane man tells you that's what propane smells like. we give it that smell in order to warn you that you're running out of propane. the propane smells like garbage as a way of telling you that you're garbage. you're garbage people who don't deserve a house. - you are really selling the hell out of this book, let me tell you. - but, you know
- but i do think that the reality of your life and of this experience that you have, which includes but is not limited to getting older, is part of the appeal here. - yeah, i mean that's the thing. there is a moment, there are moments of clarity in our lives, when the ideas and stories that we tell to ourselves about ourselves fall away. we create an identity for ourselves, as students, as professionals, as parents, as children, and over time, due to simple time passing, parents pass away, student life ends, children move out. you hold on to those old identities until you realize, this isn't me anymore. - now this is, we're talking seriously about this, but i do want people to know, kind of, per the john hodgman canon, this is a very funny book. - yeah, i wrote it that way on purpose. - this was intended, right? that was the point. - right. - right.
this is also a book about facial hair. on some levels. - it begins with an apology for my facial hair. - it attempts to explain. would you please explain, in short form, what you're talking about. - what you find people benefit from, that the readers of the book might not, is that this is a visual medium. arguably. so you can really see the travesty that is my beard. this is a terrible beard. there are big bald patches over here. you get close up, it's very scraggly. it is disgusting in texture. there are weird outlying dark wiry hairs that if i don't take care of them they just stick straight out this way. many people have asked me, why did you grow that beard? most of those people are my wife. the answer is not obvious. i had a mustache for a while, that was obvious.
- you had a variety of mustaches. - but you know, a mustache is emotionally transparent. i grew my mustache for the same reason all weird dads grow their mustaches when they hit their 40s. it's an evolutionary signal to say, no thank you, i'm done. i no longer serve any evolutionary purpose, i have children, they're out there in the world, i don't deserve physical intimacy anymore. time for me to focus on my weird dad hobbies like puns and researching world wars and bridges and stuff. but the weird was more of a mysterious compulsion. i just wanted to see what would come out of my face when i stopped taking care of myself. i think all people who can grow beards want to, 'cause they wanna see what secret bearded man lives inside of them. - what would it look like, right. - who's that guy with a beard who's inside me? and maybe that guy is smarter than i am. as i'm getting older, maybe that elder sage or woodsy mountain man can guide me through this wilderness that terrifies me.
i did not know that the secret man living inside of me apparently is, i consider him to be the part-time bookkeeper for the church of satan. but when it really grows out and gets bushy i realize even that's a lie. the fact is, i'm more like the hated liberal cousin who does it for the duck dynasty. - okay. i'm glad we went down this path, that was a good path. - but you know, that's part of the book as well because, you know, the beard grew at a turning point when my career was turning, my family was changing, my life was changing. i didn't know what was going to happen next. - so your kids factor into this book to some degree, although as you say, you don't name them. - yeah, more than in the past. - hodgmina. - that's my daughter. - you won't refer to her by her actual name, you refer to her as hodgmina. - yeah no, i didn't really name my daughter hodgmina. - and your son is? - hodgmanilo. - so hodgmina and hodgmanilo do factor in
to some degree in this book, right? - well i had mentioned in my earlier books that i could not hide the fact that i was a parent. and i would refer to them sparingly, because comedy about kids, to me it always struck me as a little easy. - it's kind of a throwback. - you know how kids are dumb? they don't know as much as you do? and they don't speak too good, so they're always saying funny things all the time? it's easy to just say - i've seen that bit before. - it's easy to just say what they said. - but you know, of all the stuff in here that relates to your kids, the absolute best thing, again, this is the second thing that i took away, is the story of going with your daughter to the cemetery. - yeah, we had a lot of graveyard fun. - that anecdote is really the real takeaway from this book. - right, so even though i was hesitant to talk about my kids in my previous book, ostensibly to protect their privacy, also because i felt it was comedically kind of rote,
but really ultimately i was just trying to hide the fact that i was an aging dad. my daughter is now 15. she's really smart and wonderful. she's got this very vibrant social media presence. she would love to be named in this book, but i still refuse to name her out of spite. - you're denying her instagram followers. - absolutely, 'cause i'm still in this, i'm still relevant. i don't need to help her outpace me in fame. she'll get that eventually. but one of the stories in the book is about how my daughter and i would go to greenwood cemetery in brooklyn, new york. this is the only section that takes place in brooklyn, where we live in our normal lives. and we discovered at the end of this road the secret entrance to the cemetery, and it was so exciting for me to learn that our neighborhood had a secret door to this necropolis. and i said to my daughter, never forget what your father has given you. let's go into this cemetery.
and it was a rainy day and she was wearing her raincoat, her red raincoat, and i was wearing, i only had a mustache then, and i was wearing my gray raincoat with my hood up and for some reason i had sunglasses on. and as we were going in, the guard at the cemetery gate said, wait a minute, are you sure you wanna go in this cemetery? and i said, oh yes i am sir. and he said, i was not talking to you. and he turned to my daughter, and he said, this is a very large cemetery, there are lots of places you could go where if you needed help, no one could hear you. are you sure you want to go into this cemetery with this mustache man? and she said, unfortunately this is my father. and so we went into this cemetery and we had a very good time on that rainy day dancing all over the graves and peering into tombs and so forth. but there were some people who were coming into the cemetery even though it was rainy. they came in in cars. it's a big cemetery and there are a lot of - mourners. - yeah, mourners, right.
i call them cars, you can call them mourners. it's not a term i've heard, maybe that's a texas thing. other people, mourners. - folks. - well let's just say they were there on purpose to mourn their dead rather than dance on their graves like me and my daughter. and because they were sane and it was raining, they drove into the cemetery. and several cars would pass, and as they would pass, my daughter and i would wave to them and we would wave to them kinda like this. and every time a car saw us, the car would come to a stop. and i could almost hear the dialogue in the car between the people, going like, should we get out and save that little girl? from that obvious malign creep? or should we drive away as quickly as possible from those obvious ghosts who are trying to lure us to our doom? - this could not have gone any better for you. - this happened five or six times, it was the same every time.
and i said to my daughter, this is fantastic, we should come here every weekend. we'll come and we'll stand here and we'll wave to the cars, and then as they go around the corner, we'll run over the hill and get them coming around the other way and do it again, like the haunted hitchhikers from the twilight zone. - so, so great. - and that way we will become legend, and even long past the time when we stop coming here, when you go to college, and i'm too sad to come here myself, people will still be talking about whether or not they saw the little girl and the mustache man who killed her, and that way we will live forever. - that's like the greatest story. so that's basically the book. - i just want you all to hear, he said it under his breath, "that's like the greatest story." - that is the greatest story, i did say that. it is like the greatest story. - it is similar to the greatest story. - it is not the greatest story but it is similar to the greatest story. so we have two minutes remaining here. you mentioned jon stewart and the experience you had. that was really the door - that was the secret door to the cemetery of my new career.
- you had been a literary agent before that. and you wrote your first book, and went on the show as a guest. - correct. - and they liked you enough, they said come back. - that's exactly right, as i am hoping you will do here. can i please have a job? - i'm kind of a cemetery door of sorts. but i know that you were recently back on the show to talk about this book with trevor noah. - with trevor noah, yeah. - i mean it's got to be, from your perspective, wonderful to have that. start as a guest, become a regular, become well-known, and the career you have now is in some measure because of the time on the daily show. - by all measures. - but now you're back to the point of being able to, i thought that was a nice little, bringing you back around. - it was, you know, i was quite misty as i walked back in. 'cause i hadn't been on the show. trevor is incredible. and i think right now he's doing some of the best work the daily show's ever done. and obviously i love jon. trevor said, do you wanna continue on the show? and initially i was like, yes i do,
but what i realized around that time was i can't do that kind of comedy anymore. i'm doing something else. i'm not even sure that it's comedy entirely. so i kinda was like, let's, i was so grateful that he wanted to have me back on as a guest, and to come back around to the other side of the desk, and just be myself as opposed to a character was very meaningful to me. but mostly, the show has tremendous continuity with jon's show. most of the people working behind the scenes, or i would say a great number of them, go back before i even got there. so it was like seeing family. and there's a whole new bunch of incredibly creative writers there. - well how good for you to be able to do that. and again, i'm as happy as i can be to talk about this book with you. thanks for coming back, continued success. - thank you, the book is called vacationland: true stories from painful beaches. always show the cover. available now in all your bookstores. - john hodgman, thank you. - thank you evan. - [announcer] we'd love to have you join us in the studio.
visit our website at klru.org/overheard to find invitations to interviews, q&as with our audience and guests, and an archive of past episodes. - i had a degree in literary theory from yale, because literature was too practical. i didn't wanna study books. i wanted to study the ideas of books. and when i moved to new york, to my surprise, there was not grant money and a garret in the west village set aside for me. - [announcer] funding for overheard with evan smith is provided in part by hillco partners, a texas government affairs consultancy, and by claire and carl stuart.
a texas government affa[blues music]cy, - (male narrator) memphis, tennessee. it has been written if music were religion, then memphis would be jerusalem, and sun studio, its most sacred shrine. you are here with the delta blues experience! ♪ sleepin' four to a bed, y'all, we eat whatever we can ♪ hello, my name is james johnson, now known as james "super chikan" johnson. born and raised around the clarksdale area. i moved from farm to farm. i didn't say city to city. i said farm to farm, working the fields. ♪ and mr. charlie raised hell where we come from, if you are big enough to walk, you've got chores.