Writer/ comedian John Hodgman claims to be an expert in many things, and it’s this claim, rather than the reality of it, that has garnered attention.
Hodgman appears often on “The Daily Show” and is the author of two popular books, “The Area Of My Expertise” and “More Information Than You Require.” He is also well-known for his portrayal of the PC in the “Get A Mac” ads, which famously misfired because viewers overwhelmingly thought Hodgman cooler than on-screen adversary Justin Long.
He will appear at the Solid Sound Festival this weekend as performer in and curator of the Comedy Cabaret.
Hodgman certainly has the air of being an expert. He turned this into a successful career when he noticed that appearing to be an expert was all it took to be considered one.
“I believe in facts and I believe in knowledge, even though I don’t do a lot to support those concepts in my professional life,” Hodgman said. “I believe in facts, I believe that they exist, and yet what I began to see was — obviously in the media — you put ‘expert’ under somebody’s name, their credentials suddenly become impeccable and they can say whatever they want and it becomes part of a public record.”
“They used to say that history is written by the winners, but now it’s that history is written by the people with the most Twitter followers,” said Hodgman.
Hodgman finds that most politics seem to be informed by the same principle — it’s not what is true, it is what you believe to be true. This has set up a situation in the country where black has become white, right has become left and up has become down — especially in the realm of the Republican Party, who he believes has moved onto embracing the very left wing radicalism he encountered in his day at Yale studying literary theory.
“It was the most leftist, Marxist education, where all concepts of truth are a colonial construction, all history is false, all facts are relative to your position,” he said. “I listened to Billy Bragg and attempted to grow a beard, that’s the kind of liberal I was. I never believed that I would find myself out-post-moderned by right wing conservatives, who fully, openly believe in denying reality exists and creating a reality of their own. I’m not saying this to trash right-wing conservatives, but it surprises me that they find such sympathy in the most leftist of beatnik post-modern ideas as I was taught them at Yale.”
Hodgman figures the reason political facts are malleable to ideologies is that the root of American political thought is seldom formed by critical thought — more often it is either an embrace of or a reaction against childhood authority figures while you are being forced to clean your plate.
“Political things whether they are on the right or on the left are completely situational and largely formed by what they overheard their dad say at the dinner table when they were seven years old,” said Hodgman.
A childhood experience of another kind often inspires commentary from Hodgman, and one of his most celebrated moments involved being able to evoke the topic alongside politics. In his 2009 speech at the Radio and Television Correspondents’ Association dinner in Washington, D.C., Hodgman outed President Barack Obama, who was in attendance, as the first nerd president, a victory that moves far past politics and into the realm of cultural revolution.
Traditionally in America, geeks have always been acceptable to push around, make fun of in public, derided in front of girls. There was an acceptable and hostile cultural prejudice against geeks and nerds that at times bordered on an anti-intellectualism that is still often in play today with Tea Party politics — conservatives still hate a smarty pants.
“Nerds and geeks were always an outsider culture and always a culture that was nurtured by an active but insular fan base out of necessity,” Hodgman said. “People played ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ in the shadows, both because it was more atmospheric and because they feared ridicule by larger people. Nerd culture and geek culture was a retreat for people who liked those sorts of things, and we can define ‘those sorts of things’ pretty broadly — where they could feel like exactly what they are — normal people.”
What changed was the Internet. The children of the 1960s hippie movement — now computer engineers in California — saw their work as a movement forward to a spiritual transformation that dispensed of body and would survive with a group consciousness. The next generation of nerds took that and ran, but it wasn’t through the old hippie stand-bys like psychedelic drugs or Transcendental meditation — it was through science fiction and comic book fandom.
“When computers became connected, I remember the first two things that I did,” said Hodgman. “I didn’t Google my name — I guess you could say I altavista’d my own name — finding nothing of course, and then Bruce Campbell’s name to see a whole new emerging world of nerds, who were finding each other and finding common fellow travelers in their appreciation of these weird, esoteric, marginal things, whether they’re B movies or comic books or fantasy or science fiction or computer science stuff. “
“All of a sudden a culture that has been atomized into little pockets — every city had its convention and its regional nerd pockets — now all those people found themselves in an interconnected national and international community.”
The proof is all around us, especially in the form of superhero movies — normal people go and see them, when 20 years ago, you might have been able to coax them to see a Superman movie, but Green Lantern? Never.
“There was already a culture of incredible vitality and passion, they became a cultural force,” Hodgman said, “and because they are young people who often have pretty good jobs and expendable incomes, they became an economic force, changing the way Hollywood interacted with movie-goers and the entire taste-making apparatus in the United States was completely changed to include a new class of self-appointed tastemakers, most of whom in the 1990s and early 2000s were a self-selected population of nerds, and you see the outcome — which I think is largely a happy one — that nerd culture has much more mainstream acceptance now.”
Hodgman thinks that it’s been a culture shift as momentous as Woodstock for a subculture that is as vital — and maybe even more so — than punk ever was. He acknowledges, though, that part of the breakthrough has involved the buying-up of nerd culture, which he attributes to the fact that it was never in opposition to anything, but a reflection of affection towards the things they loved.
“Consequently, nerds felt not threatened, but sort of flattered and excited when the big corporations started taking a look at them,” he said. “They didn’t feel threatened when DC Comics was no longer the red-headed stepchild of a minor magazine company, but the voracious arm of a huge corporate empire. They didn’t feel threatened, they felt excited. It was like, ‘Oh, the football player wants to take me out!’ It’s hard for me to feel joy.”
Which means that despite the cheering of nerds everywhere, Hodgman isn’t totally sold on the idea that the proof of victory can be measured in such things as a Green Lantern movie, which he sees as just another example of a huge corporation making a gigantic blockbuster movie about a character he loves.
“That’s not what gets me excited, but I do feel excited that nerd-dom is not something that people have to apologize for,” Hodgman said. “I think that’s probably the most important aspect about what’s good about the mainstreaming of this culture — when you have a culture in which people are raised feeling they have to apologize for being smart and we do have that culture, that’s not good for anybody. That culture still exists in a lot of places, but I think it’s easing a little bit.”
Hodgman believes that despite the downsides, the spread of the nerd lifestyle is good for everyone, since he views science fiction and fantasy as imagination-provoking forms for kids — and adults, too — that lead to thoughts and questions and, eventually, innovation, just as they did with the ’60s generation and their lead in the digital revolution.
Hodgman compares this to the idea that sports offers values in its narrative that are incredibly powerful to some people — many people. Geek culture is no different, it’s just a little less pushy.
“I don’t dislike sports, I just dislike the cultural mandate that I have to love sports,” he said. “It would be like me saying, ‘If you don’t love the Legion of Superheroes, and you don’t know all the members of the Legion of Superheroes and who’s dating whom, and which continuity is the best — pre-Crisis continuity Legion of Superheroes — then you’re not an American. No, thanks — but when there are Legion of Superheroes bars where all they do is watch the Legion of Superheroes on flat screen TVs, then we’ll have some parity, I guess.”
In many ways Hodgman has realized the ultimate nerd fantasy — he gets to speak for his people and he gets to do it in front of the president — but he eschews any notion of being an intellectual. He’s just a guy who pretends to know some stuff and he does so on TV.
“I wanted nothing more when I was a kid than to be a public smartypants, a public intellectual, and then I realized there wasn’t a whole lot of fun in that, so I went into book publishing and televisioning,” Hodgman said.
“I am exactly what I claim to be — a fake expert, an imitation intellectual, someone who had a certain amount of basic training in literary theory and general wiseacredom and has enough knowledge still lodged like shrapnel in my brain that I can still spout the occasional comment now and then, but — particularly as I get older — the more I am on television, the less disciplined my brain is. I’ve got to read more books basically.”