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John Hodgman gets real with Monte Belmonte

  • John Hodgman. Illustration by Aaron Draplin

  • Photo by Bex Finch

  • Monte Belmonte and John Hodgman (also shown in photo at left) in Portland, Maine. Photo by Melissa Moody Belmonte

  • The Montague Bookmill is one of Hodgman’s favorite hangouts. RECORDER STAFF/DAN LITTLE

  • The Shea Theater in Turners Falls. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz



For the Gazette
Friday, November 10, 2017

 

When I started my morning radio show on 93.9 The River back in 2006, the first interview I turned down was with a Massachusetts author and This American Life contributor who had written a book of fake facts. Among other things, it included a list of U.S. Presidents who had hooks for hands, 700 hobo names, and the complete description of all 51 U.S. states. It was an almanac of malarkey. The fact that he had written large swaths of it at one of my favorite places on Earth, the Montague Bookmill, still wasn’t enough for me to agree to have him on my brand-new show.

What a fool I was. That book, “The Areas of My Expertise: An Almanac of Complete World Knowledge Compiled with Instructive Annotation and Arranged in Useful Order,” and his two subsequent books of fake facts, would propel John Hodgman into the limelight as a contributor on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, as the PC in Apple Computers’ Mac vs. PC ads, as an actor on several mold-breaking television shows (“Parks and Recreation,” “Battlestar Galactica”), and as a stand-up comedian. I have since made up for my misgivings and have had the honor of calling Hodgman my friend for almost a decade. I’ve also acted as the Summertime Funtime Guest Bailiff on his Judge John Hodgman weekly podcast, in which he dispenses internet justice in regard to minor household disputes. And tonight at The Shea Theater in Turners Falls, I’ll be joining  Hodgman on stage to talk about his new book, “Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches.”

With “Vacationland,” Hodgman has, for the first time as an author, left fake facts by the wayside. At 46, he has written a personal memoir that has as much heart as humor. In the book, Hodgman largely focuses on the death of his mother, the onset of middle-age and his decision to leave his vacation home here in the “Internetless Hills” of western Massachusetts for a new vacation home in Maine. Which begs the question… 

 

Monte Belmonte: Why are you leaving us?

John Hodgman: I arrived in the Pioneer Valley as a child, towed by my mom and dad, people of the eastern commonwealth, who love/loved the region. The past tense part is due to my mom, who passed away in 2000, leaving behind a small house in a town I will not name that my dad could not bear to visit, due to sadness. My wife and I inherited it, consequently, and because she is a teacher and I am semi-employed, we began spending long stretches of time there. That’s how we met you, Monte. We love you. And that is why I say, I am not leaving you. I will remain a Franklin County taxpayer until I die. But two things conspire to make my time with you less frequent: my wife’s obsession with the state of Maine, where we now own a house (two summer homes! This is normal!), and the fact that time has passed, my dad is now happily remarried, and he is using our Massachusetts house again. He is taking it back, which is right and good, though we will still visit quite a bit. My dad’s name is also John Hodgman. You’ll like him. 

MB: First, the smooth and cherubic face of a PC in the Apple Computer ads, then the dastardly mustache of The Deranged Millionaire on The Daily Show — what should we know about your current incarnation of facial hair and what it portends?

JH: As per my book “Vacationland,” now probably  available in used editions at the Montague Bookmill, my beard is inexplicable. Once I reached my middle 40s, it just came out of my face. I felt compelled to grow it the way most men are compelled to grow a beard at least once to see the secret man who lives inside them. In my case, my secret man looks like the part-time bookkeeper at the Church of Satan. 

MB: I now consider you a freshman Maine humorist. “Vacationland” is very funny, but it is your first book where your writing is also deeply personal. How hard was that transition from writing made-up trivia to sharing personal anecdotes?

JH: It was neither easy nor difficult. Even when writing jokes, the shortest story, the job is to be aware of the world, what’s in your own mind (the latter is harder), and to be honest. Even the fake facts reflected my honest preoccupation with weird and hidden history. But then my brain stopped giving me those jokes. I thought I might be done: I didn’t know I had anything left in my brain. But on stage and now on the page, I realized that what my brain wanted to do was tell the plainer, mere, awful truth of my life. It wasn’t a decision. It was what I had left. 

MB: You thank Susan Shilliday from The Montague Bookmill in your acknowledgements. Can you talk about what that place has meant to you as a person and as a writer?

JH: I have written a portion of every book, and frankly every good thing I’ve ever done, in that old, picturesque, totally-not-collapsing former mill full of books and coffee and good people/feelings. It’s also where I first felt the deep, nauseating foreboding that my youth was over and all that waited for me was death.

MB: You were memorably unkind to Greenfield in a previous book. You called it a s**t-hole. But your depictions of Maine and its beaches in “Vacationland” are also unflattering. Where would you actually enjoy vacationing?

JH: First, I have apologized to Greenfield for my slanders. It has its struggles, like a lot of towns in western MA and throughout the countryside, facing real economic and cultural change. We, from Brookline, don’t understand that struggle, and it was wrong of me to make fun of it. And the good news is that, in Greenfield, the struggle is bearing fruit with amazing cultural events, restaurants and new vibrancy. As for Maine, it is called “Vacationland” almost as cruel joke. Its beaches are made of rocks and knives, and its ocean is made of hate and wants to kill you with cold. It is not a relaxing place, but your question about “enjoyment” is faulty to begin with. If you are like me, and you never really believed you deserve enjoyment or happiness in the first place, Maine is there to confirm that feeling. 

MB: In a previous interview in The Daily Hampshire Gazette, Pixies frontman Black Francis said that you and he attended a country fair in our Hilltowns together. Can you share another piece of parochial western Mass celebrity gossip that only we, in the 413, would care about? 

JH: Hanging out with my cultural hero Black Francis and his family at the Heath Fair was one of the greatest moment of my life. I also saw The Sweetback Sisters there. It was an amazing day at an amazing fair. But that is not gossip. That is just me saying hi to my Valley neighbors Charles and Violet. I miss you. 

MB: You have written about how, as a teenager, you used to make a point to rush home and listen to Fresh Air on NPR. You were just on Fresh Air for the first time. What was that experience like for you, talking to host Terry Gross?

JH: Have you listened to it? It was incredibly intense! I was in Portland, Maine, when I spoke with her. I am such an enormous fan of hers — just hearing her voice on the other side of the ISDN line almost moved me to tears. I held it together for a while. But we got talking about death and prayer and my mom, and I lost it. Go listen to it if you want to hear me honestly losing it. Then we hung up, and I posed for a photo with Maine Public Media and then went and did a fun book event with you, and then you and I ate oysters. Time moves on. 

Monte’s driveway moment

I did hear Hodgman on Fresh Air. Fittingly enough, I had a “driveway moment” listening to his interview in the parking lot of the Bookmill. I got teary eyed along with the pre-taped Hodgman as he recounted to Terry Gross how important the Lord’s Prayer was to his atheist mother during her final days. And it’s true that I did interview Hodgman on stage, right after he recorded with Gross. We were in Portland, Maine, at the Port City Music Hall. His only actual Vacationland event promoting “Vacationland.”

En route to Portland, my wife, Melissa, and I blew a tire. And after a harrowing series of events — I couldn’t get the tire off, had the car up on a jack and was poorly attempting to put the spare on in the rain, while standing in what I thought was mud but was actually poop — we arrived in Portland to find that Hodgman had heard of our car troubles and had graciously traded rooms in the hotel where we were staying, giving us his penthouse suite. 

It was a much welcome act of kindness after our particularly trying journey on his big day, and we appreciated such generosity from this only child and self-described member of the “Super Smart Afraid of Conflict Narcissists” club. Maybe that is Hodgman’s final fake fact. Hodgman the person in Vacationland, just like Hodgman the author of “Vacationland,” is a thoughtful, decent human being. He’s dealing with his white privilege, with getting older, and with his inevitable mortality, and after reading his book, I’m dealing with all that, too.

I’m honored to share the stage with Hodgman again tonight, near his home in the Internetless Hills, in the Turners Falls Village of the Town of Montague, where much of Hodgman’s journey began.

 

John Hodgman’s “Vacationland” tour comes to The Shea Theater in Turners Falls tonight, Friday Nov. 10th, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $35 and come with a copy of the book.