Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them about.
The actor: John Hodgman loves jobs. He’s had several—literary agent, fabricator of complete world knowledge, imitation magistrate, to name a few—and writes about many more of them in his latest book, Medallion Status. But the professional hat he wears on many of its pages is that of actor and television personality, a vocation he fell sideways into after parlaying an onscreen gig on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart into embodying a haplessly unfashionable Windows PC opposite Justin Long’s cool-guy Mac in dozens of Apple’s “Get A Mac” commercials. Amid an at-turns affecting and hilarious meditation on fame and prestige as seen through the lens of an airline loyalty program, Medallion Status looks back at this period in Hodgman’s life, relating tales from the sets of Married, Blindspot, Mozart In The Jungle, and other productions in which he portrayed his signature type of “mustache creep” (Hodgman’s words). In a phone interview, he filled The A.V. Club in on some of the performances that got him to Medallion Status.
John Hodgman: The idea that I would be onscreen was and still is highly implausible. I was a writer of both journalism and comedic fake facts for the internet and my own book [The Areas Of My Expertise]. And then Jon Stewart came along and very implausibly said, “Let’s put this person on camera”—this person with no training and a big, round, pasty face—“to spout fake facts on our show.” And then very soon after that, because of the prestige of The Daily Show, I was asked to audition for these Apple ads. And that all happened in a period of about four months at the beginning of 2006—before most people were even born. It was a dramatic change in my life, because it was a completely unexpected career.
My hope was that I would get to continue to write absurd fake facts for these weird humor books that I was writing—have the first one be successful enough to do a second. I did not expect to take on this whole new career as a very famous minor television personality. Whenever something as unexpected as that happens, it feels surreal and a little bit like a dream. It is a dream that I feel like I’m waking up from now. [Laughs.] I’m no longer on The Daily Show, and I’ve now returned to writing books—although no longer books of fake facts, but books of real, true-life stories from myself. Both because that’s where I’m at creatively now, and also it feels like everyone’s doing fake facts. It’s not fresh anymore.
The A.V. Club: Did you have conversations with yourself in terms of “I never expected to go down this path—should I ride it as long as it can go?”
JH: The good thing about becoming an accidental TV personality is you don’t feel you belong there. I chose to pursue it in part because I was interested in the creative challenge, and I felt like I was good at it and getting better. And also in part because this is an extremely unusual opportunity to step on the other side of the screen, and I want to have that experience.
But at no point did I feel entitled to it. Creatively and professionally I was always 100% invested, but I had the luxury of having a life’s work on the page such that it was not an all-or-nothing proposition. And fame, however minor, is a very disorienting thing for a human being to go through. I mean specifically on-camera fame. When people recognize you from a book or a podcast—those people are your friends, right? Because books, radio, podcasts, poetry, writing, journalism—it’s all a very one-on-one, intimate medium. You feel a connection to the specific person. But I didn’t get a lot of like, “Hey, it’s John Hodgman!” from the This American Life stories that I did. But once I was on TV, particularly in the Apple ads, when more people had seen me than ever had before, and ever would again, people would see me in an airport or on the street and look scared. Because suddenly this TV ghost had appeared.
No matter how closely you feel attached to a personality on television, there’s still a spectator difference. And when that person from television shows up in your life or at the restaurant or on the subway car with you, it’s very disorienting. I remembered feeling that way when I saw Will Ferrell on the subway, when he was on Saturday Night Live. “How come television is here now?”
So it was totally disorienting and weird for me to be seen out in the world and be treated differently. Just in the way someone would cast their eyes over you— never mind all of the other ways you get treated differently, even when you have the minorest amount of fame. Suddenly doors open to secret rooms that you didn’t know existed, like gifting lounges at the Emmy Awards—where you could walk around and pick up luxury jeans and watches that were just being given away to you if you wanted them, because you happened to be on television. And for that reason, the people who gain fame, even if they’ve been seeking it—and I hadn’t been—unless they are a sociopath, they all feel undeserving and confused. Until that time that they ultimately, if they retain fame for any period of time, become a sociopath. [Laughs.] And like all signifiers of status, when you get it, even by accident, your brain starts to trick itself into thinking that you’ve earned it, and you deserve it. And that’s usually when fame disappears.
AVC: What was the production cycle like with the Apple ads? How often were you meeting up with Justin Long to be PC and Mac?
JH: I’ll answer your question, but just to spin back for a second on this. You sparked a memory: My discomfort with this change of life that happened to me by going on The Daily Show, my inner belief that it was not for me and I could only go so far into this world where I was obviously not qualified to exist, was such that after auditioning for the Apple ads a couple of times, they called me up and asked if I would fly the next day to Los Angeles from New York in order to audition a third time. And it was a real hard moment for me, because my children were very little—I was very torn because I knew I had to pick up my daughter from preschool the next morning. And I had this long conversation with my agent and friend Kassie saying, “This has gone far enough. This was a hilarious ride for me to be on The Daily Show, but I’m in my mid-30s. I have a family. I have a career. And I have responsibilities. I’m not a young actor who is ready, willing, and able to jump on a plane and fly to L.A. for an audition—no matter how much I would enjoy flying first class for no money. So now that we’ve gotten this far, please tell them, ‘Thank you, but no thank you.’” And she called back and said, “What if they just gave you the job?” And I’m like, “Oh, well, they called my bluff. Okay, let’s go.”
To give you a sense of the pace, they wanted me to fly out the next day to re-audition for this. In my one totally accidental instance of negotiating jiu jitsu, I got them to offer me the job instead. And so I didn’t fly out the next day; I flew out the day after that. Thank Cthulhu, or God, or the empty void that I did. I realized then, and very quickly, that I almost tossed aside an opportunity that would be beyond life-altering financially and creatively, but one of the most rewarding and fun jobs I’ve ever had in my life. And I wish I could do it today—even though it meant jumping over to Los Angeles and filming a 14-hour day right off the bat.
We filmed about 300 spots over the course of four years, of which I think between 60 and 70 ultimately made it to some form on air. And that may not count online stuff that we started doing later on, because someone invented the internet around 2007 or ’08. We would shoot them in L.A., or we would shoot them in New York, in chunks of four or five days. And we would just shoot them over and over and over again, because the idea was to create as many of them as possible to give Steve Jobs as many choices as he could handle. I missed my family, but Justin was wonderful. And Phil Morrison, the director of all the ads, remains a very close friend—as does Justin. Everyone who worked on the team from Media Arts Lab were incredible, and we became pals. It truly was as surreal as it could be: I was standing in an empty, white void and meeting all these incredibly talented actors who were coming through to do guest spots on the ads. I met Zach Galifianakis there, in an ad that never aired. Paul F. Tompkins, my good friend and comedic hero, I met in the course of that experience. It became a different kind of family, for a while. And then it ended.
AVC: As someone who was coming into this without any formal training, do you feel like doing so many ads at a time over four years served as your training grounds?
JH: Thank you for pointing out the fact that I was an absolute impostor. [Laughs.]
AVC: Didn’t mean to do so!
JH: No! It’s true! As I talk about in my book, Neil Gaiman has this story about the impostor syndrome: He’s at some exclusive, weird, secret famous-and-renowned-person event. And he’s talking to an older gentleman, and the older gentleman’s like, “Look at all these incredibly accomplished people. I don’t know what I’m doing here.” And Neil Gaiman goes, “Well, what do you mean? I think you belong here.” And [the older gentleman] goes, “Ah, you know, I just went where they sent me.” And Neil Gaiman [says], “I know. But you’re Neil Armstrong. I think that counts for something.”
Unless we are aspiration-less, we do have to step into uncomfortable white voids and pretend to be what we want to be until we are that. Acting is faking, so I guess I was very good at faking faking. But I remember standing on the set that day, and I was like, “What have I gotten myself into? Because I now have to pretend like I know what I’m doing.”
Obviously it was a remarkable training in a specific sense of learning how a film or television set operates, what the different jobs are, what the hierarchies are. From the acting point of view, it mostly taught me to be very big: My facial expressions and performance had to be very big for that kind of acting. It was a very broad, comedic role. But mainly what I learned was you throw yourself into discomfort until it becomes comfort. And sometimes that discomfort is an emotional feeling of phoniness, or sometimes that discomfort is literally getting wrapped up in layers and layers of bubble wrap because the gag was the PC hadn’t been unwrapped, and feeling like you’re going to sweat yourself to death. It’s the small things that I remember: Messing up and then learning, like, if your pants are too tight, say that to the wardrobe person privately. Don’t say it on set, where everyone else can hear, because that’s humiliating to the wardrobe person. That’s a big mistake I made, and I am sorry, Danielle. Once more: I’ve apologized before, but I am sorry I did that.
AVC: The Neil Gaiman anecdote seems like a good segue into Coraline.
JH: As I mentioned, I had worked at a literary agency right out of college, and I had worked there in various, ascending levels of incompetency for seven years. And it happened to be the agency where Neil Gaiman was represented, and it happened to be the time when he was first starting to release his novels in America, and he was making a new name for himself as a novelist in America—where he had previously been known as a comic book writer. And over the years, he’d been very generous to me—continues to be. I got an opportunity to interview him for Time Out New York, which was one of my very first paid writing gigs, and had had an opportunity to meet him once or twice and geek out about the fact that he’s such a nice guy. But [Coraline] was totally a side thing, because Henry Selick, the director of the movie, had seen me on The Daily Show and thought I might make a good voice for the father and the Other Father in the movie. That was an automatic “yes” because it was a Neil Gaiman book, and Henry Selick is an amazing animator. I took the job, and then I had been coincidentally asked to interview Neil on stage right around that time. And I got to tell him that I was cast in this thing, and Neil had no idea.
By the time I went into the recording studio for Coraline, I knew to ask questions. I knew to let myself be guided into the experience—to roll with requests that would take me by surprise. I had arrived in Portland to record when I was informed that they were hoping I could do a very specific Michigan accent. I was like, “I don’t know, but I’ll try!” And I failed. Ultimately they said, “Do your own voice. It’s right.” And Henry Selick was in the very small recording room directing me, one on one. And Henry Selick looks like Jack Skellington—it was like being in a broom closet with this tall, gangly, Slenderman repeating line after line after line. And yet his support for me was so clear that I felt encouraged to take a risk and go to uncomfortable places. And all of the sudden I started doing this weird Dean Martin voice that I didn’t know I was capable of. And that became the voice of the Other Father, because Henry really responded to it.
AVC: What’s a difference between voice acting and acting on camera that someone who hasn’t done it might not realize?
JH: Well, I am one of the rare voice actors who gets full wardrobe and wears makeup, and insists upon hours of lighting tests before I even speak into the microphone. That is a joke, obviously. It is much more comfortable to go in and record a voice, because you can wear whatever you want, and then go home.
You are correct that it is a very specific skill, and that is why most voice acting, when it is not stunt-casting celebrities into major animation, is done by a very small subset of people who are really, really good at it. And it’s not because they’re really, really good at doing voices—although some of them are—it is about creating presence audiophonically and when you have no image to rely on. The real-life father in Coraline sounds not Midwestern flat—I’m not doing an accent—just distant and out-of-there. Not in the room. And you do need to be a little bit bigger on the mic when you’re doing voice-over work, in order to create presence when you don’t have a visual to add onto what you’re saying.
I was using all my tools in the Apple ads and on The Daily Show: My voice and my cadence of voice, but also my withering expressions of disdain. My eyebrow work was really good: I can raise one eyebrow, both eyebrows, either eyebrow—create a lot of asshole character in that. [Laughs.] I’m very good at eye-rolling. And now I’ve got the mustache to work with, which really brings home the “pretentious creep” character that I am most often called upon to play. Without all those eyebrows and eye rolls, it all has to be carried by the voice, but the voice has to get bigger. The performance decisions have to be crisper and more distinct—I’m talking about pronouncing words. The only way I can explain how I got to the level of a-little-bit-more-than-mediocrity that I’ve achieved is I really do envision the words pushing through my teeth and hovering in the air in front of me.
JH: The Other Father character works [because] I found this dumb Dean Martin impression that is bigger than John Hodgman, and more alive than John Hodgman. And since then, it’s something I’ve worked on with great interest and passion. I voice this villain on DuckTales called John D. Rockerduck, and I have to tell you: It’s not merely ’cause I insist upon dressing up as a duck in the recording booth. I am that duck.
AVC: Will you be playing that character again? There’s only one episode listed on IMDB for him.
JH: Well, in the finale of season two, which just aired, it is revealed that John D. Rockerduck is frozen in a block of ice. And that is all I am able to say at this time.
JH: I’m remiss not to mention—or even for a moment remember—that I have my own animated project coming out early next year with my co-creator David Rees. David Rees you probably know as a former artisanal pencil sharpener who then hosted a show on National Geographic called Going Deep With David Rees, where he taught people how to do simple things they already knew how to do, like how to tie your shoes or how to dig a hole. David is a longtime friend of mine and we collaborated on an animated project for FXX, which will come out as part of their Cake late-night-animated-sketch-short-form half-hour that debuted on the 25th of September. Our show is called Dicktown, and it’s about me as a private detective and David as my assistant, in a small town called Richardsville, which everyone calls “Dicktown.” Our animated selves are very close to our real selves, and we’re performing ourselves. It was a really interesting experience figuring out how to be myself as a voice, as opposed to myself as a whole human being.
AVC: It seems like that dynamic might’ve been influenced by the trip to Florida that you write about in Medallion Status, where you fail to gain access to Scientology headquarters, and then Mar-a-Lago.
JH: As I talk about in Medallion Status, I took a job to do some comedic narration to a music piece performed by the Boston Pops. I love weird jobs. Someone said, “Do you want to go on tour with the Boston Pops in Florida?” Who am I to say no? After the traumatic experience of saying no to Apple and almost getting away with it, now my mission is “If someone asks you to do something interesting, say yes no matter what.” Who knows what you’ll find. And of course, then I realized that I was going to be alone in Florida, on a tour bus with a bunch of musicians I didn’t know. So I conned David Rees into coming down there and driving around with me as we went tour stop to tour stop. And not only was it a wild tour of wild interior Florida, it formed very much the dynamic that we play up in this show, where David is basically bullying me into trying to sneak into the headquarters of the Church of Scientology—until we both get scared off by a bunch of Sea Org members.
And then, of course, David the next day attempted to infiltrate Mar-a-Lago. I’m sad to say that we did not succeed, because we now know it’s apparently very easy to succeed at sneaking into Mar-a-Lago. It’s happened several times. David’s theory was “If I either look like a servant or a billionaire asshole, they’ll just let me walk in.” And both of those things has happened. A woman with a purse full of malware and thumb drives infected with viruses walked into Mar-a-Lago because she looked very swank. And then some college dude walked in because he looked like a pool boy. So David went to the Goodwill in Florida and got clothes that made him look like a pool boy, and we drove over there and he was going to try to walk in.
I’m an only child. By nature, I’m a member of the Super Smart Afraid Of Conflict Narcissists Club. I am a rule follower, not a rule breaker. David’s energy—and, frankly, his sense of conscience and moral outrage—is often animating to me. So I went along with him to see where this would go, and to provide him a ride home should he change his mind. But then as it happened, Mar-a-Lago was closed. No one was home. The president had left—I should say, “Donald Trump had left.”
It’s been such a long process, because we truly were coming up with ideas for Dicktown in Florida together, and that was two and a half years ago. It’s easy to forget that we have this project that we’re really proud of and excited for. And of course there are so, so, so many television things out there that it would be very easy to forget that it is happening even as it is happening. I’m excited about that role because it is as close to me as I have ever portrayed myself. I think David did an incredible job portraying himself. I think it’s very funny. The premise of the show is that I am a former child-prodigy detective who used to solve crimes in this town when I was a teenager. And now I am grown up, in my 40s, and I am continuing to work for teenagers, because I have failed to do any better. And David plays my former high school bully and arch nemesis, who has also failed to thrive, and now has become my driver because I had my license taken away.
AVC: This is one in a number of roles that you describe as “mustache creeps” in Medallion Status, but it is unique because it was this nefarious, villain type.
JH: I was the villain in the Apple ads, too. I was the lovable villain, but I was the antagonist. That was how I learned that the villain never thinks they’re the villain. If you want to write a plausible villain character, you have to make sure that the villain believes they’re doing the right thing. And that’s true about villains in real life as well.
I was an internal affairs officer who was coming in to accuse all of the Blindspot good-guy team of being a Russian mole. I was very withering in my contempt for the Blindspot good-guy team—because, if you don’t know, Blindspot is a TV show about a woman who wakes up in a duffel bag in Times Square, covered in tattoos with no memory of who she is or how she got the tattoos. There’s only one tattoo that is intelligible to the people who find her: The name of an FBI agent, on her back. But that FBI agent has no idea who she is, so it’s this big mystery. But because this woman with the tattoos punches and kicks real good, the FBI goes, “Hmm, you know what? Let’s make her an FBI agent.” [Laughs.] “Let’s admit her to our squad and have her help us solve crimes, and admit her to a level of law enforcement that people work very hard to achieve, but don’t have the benefit of waking up in a duffel bag in Times Square with tattoos.” Talk about impostor syndrome.
What I realized as I was thinking about the character, was “If I were a career FBI official, and I learned that there was an office of the FBI in New York that had basically hired an amnesiac for no reason, I would have some questions about their hiring practices.” That was how I was able to connect with why my guy was such an asshole in the first episode. Then creator Martin Gero says to me, “Have you looked at the script for the next episode yet? You’re going to enjoy it. There’ll be a lot of surprises.”
And I was so excited to learn that my villain was even more of a villain than I thought. He wasn’t just an asshole, he was the bad guy. That’s what you want: You want to be a bad guy because you have a lot of fun, you get all the best lines, you get to wear cool stuff. The bad guy roles are the best roles of all. Like Alan Rickman—this is going to be me now. Except not just in a movie—it was going to be this NBC blockbuster television show that shoots at Steiner Studios, a 20-minute drive from my house! I was driving to work, going to work, and then driving home like a straight-up dad. It was the best. And this was going to be my career from now on.
Until I reached the end of the episode and I saw that they shot me in the chest and I died. It was so disappointing. I was so angry. I said, “Do I have to die?” And Martin’s like, “Yeah, you do have to die.” “Is there a way I can come back, like in a flashback? Or as my own un-evil twin? It’d be a first.” That was my pitch: I’d come back as my own twin, but this time I don’t have the mustache—because the mustache is a signifier of evil. And Martin said, “No, not allowed. You’re dead.” Or am I?
AVC: They’re filming the final season now—you’ve still got an opportunity to get in there.
JH: [Beat.] Let’s move on to the next question.
AVC: Before that, let’s touch on dying onscreen, because that’s a privileged experience for an actor.
JH: Metaphorically, I’ve died onscreen many times. Less metaphorically and actually pretending to die, onscreen I’ve done it twice. One time I was not so good at it, and the other time I was pretty good at it. The time I didn’t die very well was on the series finale of Delocated, the comedy that Jon Glaser did for Adult Swim. It’s a long road to explain what happened, but basically I was the host of a sort of Bachelor-reunion-style reality show for all of the people who had been on the show before. And then terrorists stormed the studio, and I got shot and died. And I was supposed to lie on the ground with my dead eyes open, and I could not do it. I have very sensitive eyes. I was blinking my way out of shots all the time. They had to cut around a lot of blinks. It was very embarrassing. Also, there was fake smoke in the air from the fake flash bombs. So it was uncomfortable. And a failure.
But by the time I hit Blindspot, I had determined that I would throw myself into it. In that case, I was not supposed to have my eyes open anyway. I didn’t have to worry about that. But I had to worry about acting like I was hit by a bullet convincingly. And we were shooting in a community college in Long Island that looks a lot like a prison. Very hard floors. We worked through how I was going to fall with the stunt people, and they were like, “We can put down these mats, we can hide this or whatever.” I was like, “Just give me a little pad for where I’m going to land on my hip inside my pants.” Because I did all kinds of crazy pratfalls for the Apple ads, so I knew how to fall, over and over again in the exact same way. And I think it came out pretty well. It’s a GIF. You can see me falling down dead on the internet, and you can judge for yourself. Just search for “gif john hodgman blindspot dead.” I felt reassured that I did an okay job when Sullivan Stapleton, who plays Kurt Weller, the lead FBI agent—who’s this huge, hunky, extra-Australian man—looked down at me with this kind of look of horror in his eyes and said, “That’s a tough nerd.”
Mozart In The Jungle (2014-2018)—“Marlon Guggenheim”
The Knick (2014-2015)—“Dr. Henry Cotton”
Community (2009-2015)—“Dr. Heidi”
AVC: You kind of had the rug pulled out from under you by a second episode’s script on Mozart In The Jungle, too.
JH: I had settled into a solid run of mustache creeps: Evil FBI investigators and psychotic turn-of-the-century psychiatrists who want to remove everybody’s teeth. I had forgotten, even, when I wrote the book, that I had played a psychiatrist on Community who turned out to be a phony. All of my guys were either fakes, phonies, frauds, or just evil. And, finally, in Mozart In the Jungle I was offered this role in which I was not a terrible person! I was a nice guy: I was an eccentric heir to some unknown fortune who was swanning around New York society circles, particularly in the circles the musicians in this philharmonic orchestra would travel in. I befriend Lola Kirke, who plays the main character, this young oboist who herself wrestles with imposter syndrome. She’s not sure if she’s meant to be an orchestral musician, and I give her some solid life advice: When you feel like you’re an impostor, it’s not because you’re a fake or a fraud or a phony, it’s because you’re making a new version of yourself, and that’s a brave thing to do.
And then I got the next episode, and it was like, “Oh, guess what? You’re a total fraud.” My guy is a total creep, he’s a con man, and all of the sage life advice that I had given to Lola Kirke is all my character grooming her to have sex with him. And that’s when she finds me in her bed, nude, with nothing to cover my personhood but a golden oboe. It was a disappointment to say the least, because I really wanted to be a good guy. But sometimes you don’t control how the world sees you. And sometimes they see you as a naked weirdo.
Once I realized that was just how it was, I really embraced it. I really enjoyed my nude scene a lot. As I say in the book, I had to sign a nude rider—which is a wonderful two words I thought I would never hear together—to my contract, in which the very, very specific body parts were discussed, as to what was going to be shown and what was not going to be shown. I got to choose from an array of different Caucasian-flesh-colored Spandex bits and panels and thongs to hide the personal parts of myself from the camera and from the other actors. The director assured me, “This is all for your personal comfort.” And I’m like, “Why do I deserve personal comfort? I know what I look like naked. This is going to traumatize everybody. Why don’t we just dispense with the privacy garment altogether and let the world see me as the white, nude, male monster that I am.” And the director said, “We would rather not see all of it.” I’m like, “Oh yeah, that’s fine. Give me that flesh-colored sock.”