This blowhard bit is working out great

John Hodgman's stuffy shtick is a hit for `Daily' and Apple ads. Now he's thinking out of the box.

October 24, 2006|Matthew DeBord | Special to The Times

There are really two John Hodgmans. One is well known to viewers of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" as the "resident expert" who offers preposterously inaccurate assessments of such things as Alan Greenspan's retirement and Iran's atomic aspirations. He's even more widely familiar to those who have seen Apple Computer's recent spate of ads, in which he appears as the comically fusty PC, stealing the show from actor Justin Long's slacker-cool Mac.

The other Hodgman, by all accounts, is a sweet man, devoid of enemies and pretense, a father of two and husband for seven years to a high school teacher, Katherine Fletcher. He worked for a while as a New York literary agent, then, with the aid of literary It Boy Dave Eggers' McSweeney's website in the late 1990s, he was able to revive the persona of the egghead humorist. Hodgman contributed offbeat, ridiculous essays that allowed him to shape and tone his approach to comedy; eventually, he was called on to emcee McSweeney's reading nights. That led to his writing a book of comically fabricated trivia, "The Areas of My Expertise," and his becoming a contributor to the popular public-radio show "This American Life" and then to "The Daily Show" and the Apple ads.

"My friends and people who know me are as surprised as I am," Hodgman said of his celebrity persona, before a recent reading at Book Soup in West Hollywood.

"Even though he's a lovely person, when he's on stage or in print he can flip on this switch and turn into a slightly hostile, insecure, boastful dunderhead," noted his friend Sarah Vowell, the author and radio commentator, in an e-mail. "As hostile, insecure, boastful dunderheads more or less run the world these days, it's cathartic to see such figures skewered.... The character he often plays is that of a pompous windbag."

That may be true, but the 35-year-old Hodgman said he takes his inspiration from a more likable character. "I'm trying to follow the model established by George Plimpton," he said, evoking the legacy of the multifaceted late "Paris Review" founder and intellectual man-about-town, who once edited a Hodgman story and, in the 1980s, appeared in commercials pitching the Intellivision videogame system against Atari. "I want to see all of life as an equal opportunity for adventure."

Hodgman may be an accidental celebrity, but he occupies a familiar position in the entertainment-world hierarchy, that of the archly amusing nerd. It's a type that's immediately recognizable to the hypercompetitive East Coast intelligentsia, many of whom, like Yale-grad Hodgman, are products of the Ivy League. But for "alternative" personalities like Hodgman, the move to something beyond twee satire for a relatively insular audience has proven trickier than it looks. To that end, he's rapidly learning how to transform himself from "a sallow, asthmatic kid who loathed sports," as he tells it, to a guy on the verge of ... something. Perhaps he'll be a new Ben Stein, shifting between print and character-actor parts on TV and in films. He'd also work as a Drew Carey-type, a smart yet unglamorous variety-show impresario.

"You could totally see him as a comedy actor in a movie," said "This American Life" host Ira Glass, who has worked with Hodgman and knows his challenge well, as Glass is attempting to restyle his long-running public-radio show for Showtime.

Hodgman admitted that he's still learning his new trade, even though he had a certain amount of practice over the last few years, hosting a series of "Little Gray Book Lectures," in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (now on hiatus). These literary-performance evenings gave him a taste of show biz, but television has upped the ante considerably. "I'm not a trained TV personality," he said. "I was nervous the first time I went on 'The Daily Show,' but I was very comfortable in my skin after I'd done it the third or fourth time."

With success has come humility. "Afterward, Jon Stewart told me that's not what they were looking for. I wasn't being as straight as I was the first few times. So I realized I had made a mistake, that they wanted the stiffness."

Maintaining stiffness hasn't been a problem for the PC character he has now portrayed in more than a dozen Apple ads. The setup is simple. Against an iPod-white background, Hodgman and Long (who was in the movie "The Break-Up" and appeared on the TV series "Ed") introduce themselves: "I'm a Mac," Long reports. "And I'm a PC," Hodgman adds. Wardrobe tells all. Long is Wicker Park-Williamsburg-Silver Lake, in jeans, T-shirt, and sneakers, unshaven. Hodgman is exurban Microsoft middle-management, in drab business suits or conservative sport coats.

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