Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

John Hodgman, part one: the global superpocalypse

Illustration for article titled John Hodgman, part one: the global superpocalypse

The publication of John Hodgman’s first book of complete world knowledge, 2005’s The Areas Of My Expertise, led to an appearance on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, which in turn led to regular guest stints on the show (now via a segment called “You’re Welcome”) and a high-profile job as the PC in the long-running Apple “Get A Mac” advertising campaign. From there, the humorist has dabbled in acting, with a minor turn on Battlestar Galactica and a more substantial one on HBO’s Bored To Death, and appearances in movies such as Coraline, The Invention Of Lying, Baby Mama, Arthur, and The Best And The Brightest. His unexpected transformation into “A Famous Minor Television Personality” formed the backbone for 2008’s More Information Than You Require, his follow-up to The Areas Of My Expertise.

In That Is All, the third and final book of the trilogy—indeed, one of the final books to be published before the coming “global superpocalypse”—Hodgman warns darkly (and hilariously) of Ragnarok, the hellish event that will extinguish all life on Earth. He also finally writes about sports, which to him seems hellish in its own right. The book also includes a listing of the 700 Ancient And Unspeakable Ones that accompany Ragnarok, likely unnecessary survival tips, and quick answers to the key questions of the universe. Hodgman recently spoke to The A.V. Club about his new book, the end of the world, and why, as a cyborg, he won’t survive it.

The A.V. Club: How did your screening of Island Of The Lost Souls go?

John Hodgman: It’s probably the best, liveliest screening of that particular movie in New York City this year. It is an annual thing. It went great. I had never seen that movie before. It was hosted by Elliott Kalan, who is a very talented writer for The Daily Show. He is also a personal friend and someone whom I love to bully, because he is even more of a nerd about nerdy things than I am. Some time ago at The Daily Show, I thought it would be funny to bully him in a sort of meta-commentary of nerd-on-nerd bullying. I started walking up to his desk and looking at the Iron Man action figures that he had there and just going, “Nice action figure, nerd, this is mine now,” and then walk away with it. Then I would shove him in the hallways. [Laughs.] He took all with very good humor. Things really turned, though, when I was walking to the studio, and I had changed from my sneakers into my dress shoes in order to do the show, and Elliot walked by and something came over me and I yelled, “Look at that nerd!” and I threw my shoes at him and I hit him square in the back.


That’s when I knew that I had a problem, because it was no longer a meta-commentary on bullying, but just one nerd choosing a nerdier nerd to wedgie and belittle and harass. It became simply a case of bullying. [Laughs.] I did not ever have a problem with people bullying me, though arguably because I grew up dressing up like Dr. Who in high school, carrying a briefcase with me, and wearing a fedora at all times, I deserved it. But it was never a really big problem for me. But certainly I had never been a bully. So I did not appreciate just what an incredibly seductive, awful, euphoric feeling it is to feel confident that you have complete power over another person and can humiliate them without fear of punishment. I mean, that’s what it is, and it was really sort of unseemly. So I tried to dial it back a little bit, but it’s hard now. It’s an addiction. I just love beating up on that nerd.

But at this screening—he hosts this screening series once a month or something, and has a friend come by and watch a weird old film that he likes, and talks about it—I was really taken aback by his knowledge about this film and about all films. I really had to give props to that nerd for knowing so much about The Island Of Lost Souls, and frankly all the versions of The Island Of Dr. Moreau.

AVC: Have you seen John Frankenheimer’s version?

JH: Of course. We got actually got into a fairly heated discussion about it. It seemed to be a given in the room that The Island Of Lost Souls was a better movie than the Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer Island Of Dr. Moreau. To me, that wasn’t a fair presumption at all. Island Of Lost Souls is not a great movie. It’s ridiculous candy-pulp with a sort of gloss of science fiction over it and one distinctly weird performance by Charles Laughton, who plays Dr. Moreau. Everyone was like “Well, Marlon Brando brought out that little, tiny Brando, and that’s so ridiculous, and all of the performances are over the top.” Well, when Charles Laughton sexily leans back wearing his skin-tight white linen on an operating table where he’s been turning panthers into women, and attempts to seduce the main character with his gigantic, linen-clad belly, I mean, that was the Mini-Me of its day. That was as weird as it got. Brando was only able to weird out as much as he did because of what Laughton did then. He had to take it to a new level, because what Laughton had done in that performance was so odd and unnerving and great. So I’m not suggesting they’re both bad films. I’m suggesting they’re equivalently great, weird films.


AVC: In your new book, you cover Ragnarok in great detail. For the benefit of our cheapskate readers, could you explain what your vision of Ragnarok is, and why it’s the superpocalypse we’ve all been waiting for?

JH: Well, as you know from Thor comic books and other sources of Norse mythology, Ragnarok, in Nordic myth, is the giant battle at the end of the world between the gods where no one, man or god or woman or thing, survives. And then the earth lies fallow and eventually gives birth to new life again. Now, I stipulated in my first book, The Areas Of My Expertise, that this is the mythological definition. There’s also an actuarial definition in insurance circles. I’m trying to find it in the book itself. I actually own a copy of my own book; that’s how dedicated I am as an author. [Flips through his book.] Right, in the Norse epics, Ragnarok was the predestined end of the world in which the gods known as the Aesir will meet the legions of evil led by Loki the trickster god in the battlefield of Vigrid, and all participants will perish, and the earth itself will be consumed in fire and will give birth to a new earth. The actuaries of Hartford and Omaha term Ragnarok slightly differently. It is a battle between those gods, but many of the gods will die of natural causes, due to deleterious health habits like smoking.


While my discussions of Ragnarok in my works of complete world knowledge are predestined, going all the way back to page number 34 of my first book, it is not until the end of this third book that I have seen enough in my Albuterol-inhaler-fueled visions that I know precisely what is going to happen day by day during the last year of civilization and human time. And all that which is going to happen—the collapse of the world economies, the substantial changes to our environment, the collapse of all governments, the omega pulse, the blood wave, the return of The Ancient And Unspeakable Ones from their watery slumber beneath the waves to make mankind their plaything—all of that which I have seen, plus my turning 40 years old, all of that terrible stuff, I term generally now under the term Ragnarok. Because as it happens, my original thought was that it was going to be called the coming global superpocalypse, which is a riff on the book Whitley Strieber and Art Bell wrote a few years ago, called The Coming Global Superstorm, which was one of the earlier books of millennial anxiety about how everything was going to end soon. That is, post the millennium. It was one of the early works of ecological catastrophe in the canon. Yet there’s nothing new under the sun, especially now that the sun is dying and is going to consume us. I decided on a lark to do something that I had never done before and will never do again, which was to Google the phrase “coming global superpocalypse.” And of course, those exact words were used by some other human on some message-board somewhere, I think in jest. So I decided that, while I came to that myself in my Albuterol-inhaler visions, it is better to use the term Ragnarok to more specifically describe my vision of the end of human history.

AVC: What’s the level of human involvement in this scenario? A lot of apocalyptic scenarios tend to cite things we’re responsible for.


JH: Well, in the original Norse Ragnarok, we had nothing to do with it. This was a battle between gods, and we were the playthings of the gods. I think that it was appropriately a metaphor for a mortality that came much earlier in our lives and seemed much more implacable and [showed the] powerlessness that humans felt during the time where everyone wore funny Viking helmets. Compared to the merging sense of Christian end times, where what’s happening both in terms of the traditional book of Revelations and then later, interpretations with the Rapture and the Tribulation and all of that, what’s happening is specifically a punishment of us [humans]. It invokes that Christian worldview, that is in some ways is very solipsistic, that everything happening on earth is happening because we are awful or good. So there was an indirect causation, because we are being punished instead of simply being trodden over, like so many nerds under the heels of so many godlike bullies. Now we’re being punished, and offered a last chance to earn the salvation of the father-figure.

Now we are in a new kind of more secular phase of thinking about End Times where we did it completely ourselves, and we have ruined our environment and we are ruining our economies, and certainly [as thought] in the ’70s and ’80s, we are going to use technology to destroy ourselves. Which was inevitable, and we are beyond salvation, and we’re just going to kill ourselves. That’s the increasingly selfish view of how the world ends, because we all think about the way the world will end, or at least how our civilization will end. When you think about it, the end of the world is a little bit like death: We all know it’s going to come eventually, and as we get older, we feel we see the signs more and more distinctly. In order to live our lives without screaming all the time from a day-to-day standpoint, we have to pretend it’s not happening, but we fear constantly that it is, and it is a way to think about the end of our own lives.


That said, I’m not suggesting that the end of the world is a metaphor. If you think it’s the ultimate narcissism to imagine that, in my case, turning 40 is the same as the world ending, well, I am just that supreme a narcissist to imagine that. But it would be even more narcissistic to imagine life on earth is completely indistinguishable and will always go on. It is very possible that what we understand to be civilization or the world itself might end. The reality is that I think the Norse probably had it right, that it’ll end due to forces that either we unleashed or had nothing to do with, but that are well beyond the control of most people on earth, and there will be no chance of salvation. We will just be consumed by an event beyond our control. Just like we’ll be stomped on by the Norse gods as they fight, or, more likely, based on my calculation, we will be eaten by The Ancient And Unspeakable Ones. The timeless gods that came before this earth and will return to it in order to consume it and drown it in blood.

AVC: Like Nick Nolte and Eli Roth, two of the 700 listed in That Is All.

JH: Well Nick Nolte is, obviously, the human avatar of Quetzalcoatl, the ancient Mesoamerican winged serpent. Quetzalcoatl, being of course the ancient Nahuatl word for “feather boa.”


AVC: I think that was made clear in the mug shot.

JH: That’s when people were like, “Oh, wait a minute. That guy looks like he might be an interdimensional being.” And he’s also riding around on a plumed iguana, so that tipped a lot of people off. When he started showing up at red-carpet events with snakes growing out of his beard and riding around on a giant, plumed iguana, that’s when we knew.


AVC: Our worries about the apocalypse have been manifesting perversely into something we fantasize about for our entertainment. Is that happening because 2012 is upon us, or “’Twas ever so”? What do you make of that phenomenon?

JH: I think that obviously, there is a perverse attraction to a fundamentally changed world or the end of the world. There is a death wish, a perverse death wish. Not just for ourselves, not just for the movie Death Wish, but for the end of all human life. I don’t know where it comes from, but I think to some degree it’s a sense of, again, a kind of narcissism. I know that I’m immortal, so my great fantasy that I’m going to explore through film and books and television is a mortality where I take everyone out with me, and the whole world dies screaming. Or the world has ended, or civilization has ended, or there has been a mass extinction event or some great catastrophe, but I imagine myself through The Road Warrior or through Randall Flagg, or through Don Johnson in A Boy And His Dog. I imagine myself as being a survivor of that catastrophe, which is of course the ultimate in self-delusion.


AVC: It also helps that these films and books can frame it in a palatable way. Like 2012, the end of the world is like a bigger disaster movie, and something that is easier to process.

JH: You’re talking about the movie 2012 specifically? Yeah, that was hilarious, right? How everyone on earth died? What a fun rollercoaster that was! [Laughs]


I guess I would feel bad that almost all of humanity died, but at least John Cusack lived, and the other people I followed in this movie. So I guess it’s okay that billions of humans, innocent men, women, and children perished. It’s a weird thing to imagine a story—post-apocalyptic stories are very, very common. Frankly, they talk to a more juvenile mindset, and I don’t mean that in a disparaging way. Young people like to watch The Road Warrior because they know they’re immortal and they’re never going to have to deal with any of this. As far as they’re concerned, they’re Lord Humungus. They’re not the white-clad hippies who are just trying to live life at the end of the world.

But as you get older and you begin to appreciate your mortality a bit more… I realize that I am purely a creature of civilization, but let’s say for the sake of argument that these people who are tying to sell me gold and beef-jerky dollars on midnight television are right, and the world economies collapse, and the governments go away, and we do have to fend for ourselves and nitrogen-enrich the soil with our urine, and wash our hair with mayonnaise. Here’s the thing: I am not only a creature of civilization, I’m an asthmatic person. I will only live so long as I have stockpiled the proper inhalers. I’m effectively a cyborg. You know how in Jurassic Park, they bred those dinosaurs with the lysine deficiencies, so if they ever got off the island, they’d die? That’s me. I’m the dinosaur that’s going to die in the New World. When you think about the post-apocalyptic fantasy, there’s no post for me. If there’s an apocalypse, even if I survive all my friends and outlive my family and my children, I can’t get too happy about that, because I will die gasping for air within two or three months, even if I’m not eaten by cannibals. I think you then go on to the apocalyptic fantasies of a Cormac McCarthy.



AVC: A fantasy is one way of putting it.

JH: Well, right. [McCarthy’s The Road] was the book I knew I had to read, but was afraid to read. I knew from the beginning, once I decided I was going to deal with some of this subject matter, that it legitimately terrifies me, and that’s why I wanted to get into it a little bit. I knew I would have to read and brush up on other apocalyptic stories, and I knew the one I had to tackle was The Road, because that’s the one that speaks most directly to my fear as a parent. Something in my DNA changed when I became a parent and I began to realize how fragile not only children’s lives are, but my own. I could not ever watch any film or entertainment or read any book where a child is in peril. I did not mean to suggest that they are bad works of art. They’re often great works of art, but a revulsion had built up in me where I could not tolerate it.


To the point where I went to see Ang Lee’s Hulk, and it was the only time in my life when I screamed in a movie theater. I hulked-out at Hulk because I did not realize going into it that Ang Lee—and I gather other writers for The Hulk since I was a child—had turned what was a extremely classic and understandable Jekyll-and-Hyde-like story of divided identity into a parable for child abuse, and that the whole story is that Nick Nolte, also known as Quetzalcoatl, had done something to his infant son that made him a monster. I don’t even know if it can be called a metaphor for child abuse, because there was a long scene of infant torture in this film. For children! I saw it in the afternoon, and there were children in the back of the theater crying for long periods of time. I was not upset that they were crying. I understood why. I too was crying inside, like, “I don’t want this! This is not something I need!” And certainly a child does not need to see Nick Nolte poke at his son with needles while his son cries. So I stood up and I screamed. I saw myself outside of myself going, and this is crazy, but… “Get your children out of here! They should not be here!” And people yelled at me, appropriately, and I sat down and shut up, and eventually those kids left. It was just—I went insane. That whole idea of child-in-peril drives me nuts inside.

But I knew I would have to go through The Road and read it, and I knew that this Cormac McCarthy is a pretty good writer. I also knew that as a true writer, he would tell it as true as he felt it, and he would not pull punches, and he would not dramatize to make it fun or exciting or interesting. He would show you exactly—and from the first words of that book—exactly how vulnerable every parent feels when they are charged with protecting their child. It was unbearable. I’m reading this thing on the subway, constant verge-of-tears territory, about to Hulk-out once more, like, “Why would you put yourself through this? Why did you do this to me, Cormac McCarthy?” Because the world he describes, I think, is probably the most realistic world we can imagine if civilization goes away, one in which most people are extremely vulnerable and most people are close to death, and that it would not be a life worth fantasizing about. There will be a lot fewer gyro-copters and cool crossbows and forts and water-worlds then we thought. It’s going to be awful. It’ll be an awful thing to do, like surviving the death of a loved one. Except you’re probably surviving the death of everyone you’ve ever known and cared about if you were to be cursed enough to survive.


AVC: Right. And you’re proceeding to a future that does not exist.

JH: Right, right. Exactly so. At the end of 2012, at the end of these movies, there is always a nice picture of a sunrise or “Here we are on my special boat, and I’m back together with my kids. It was worth the death of humanity for me to put my marriage back together, and we’re gonna repopulate humanity all over again.” It’s a hard one to sell as a happy ending, because if this were to happen, there would be no happy ending for most people, even if there were to be a revival of the human species. But why would there be? It’s not as though there weren’t mass-extinction events on earth before. How could we be so self-important to imagine that we would get a second chance, or that we would build our way out of it? It might just end that way. It was a really hard book to read, because it explored those things, and it was very, very painful. And then, like anything—and this is what makes the book so spectacular—you become callous. You callus over at even the worst, unimaginable things, no matter how perfectly they are drawn by the creator, the artist, whatever. You become used to it to the point where, spoiler alert, you see a human baby on a spit. That’s precisely the point in the book where the characters are like—except for the kid, the kid breaks down at that point, and that’s probably accurate—but even you the reader are like, “Yep, I saw that coming.” And that’s what the book is about as well, is how you learn to tolerate the intolerable. It really was one of the most amazing books I had ever read, and I came through it feeling very, very glad. I felt it was appropriate that I had read it, and glad I was able to make it through it, and felt like I had learned something about things.


And then I was like, “You know what? I ought to find out what’s going on with Cormac McCarthy.” Because he’s a very reclusive dude, and doesn’t give interviews unless Oprah comes calling. I haven’t really checked in on him since I read All The Pretty Horses a thousand years ago. So I checked in and I saw that he had given this one interview for Oprah and looked very uncomfortable, and I felt bad for the poor guy. And then I looked into what makes a guy known primarily for historical fiction and heavily realistically portrayed historical fiction, particularly literary fiction of the highest order—all the acceptable genres, literary fiction and masculine Westerns—turn to, effectively, science fiction. The answer came when he described getting the idea for the book. He was traveling through Ireland with his son, who was 12 years old at the time, the age of the boy in The Road. Then I did a little math, and was like, “Wait a minute, Cormac McCarthy is like 75 years old! And he has a 12-year-old son! No wonder he wrote this book!” I’m like, “Cormac McCarthy, you jerk, you’re not talking about the apocalypse, you’re talking about your personal apocalypse, because you’re an old man who’s not going to get to see his son grow up. That’s what this book is about. And for you, it feels like the end of civilization, and an intolerable world, and you can’t say goodbye to a son that you can’t guide through this awful world that allows you, an old person, to die.” I’m like, “How dare you, Cormac McCarthy, put me through all that when you’re the one going through this personal apocalypse?”

I think that is where the two things overlap. We dream of apocalypse because we know that there is an end of humanity, and it’s harder for us to imagine it happening just to ourselves than to imagine it happening to everyone around us, and that it has something to do with a huge, awful event that affects everyone. That’s weirdly more comforting than simply knowing my time will come and the people who I love and who love me in return will mourn that death, but the world will not come to end. That’s almost intolerable, when you’re considering mortality. It’s like, “If I’m going to go, I’m going to take the rest of the world with me. And even better, I’m going to construct a story where I survive.” [Laughs] “I’m going to kill all those losers! I’m going to survive. I’m going to start wearing a hockey mask with feathers and ride around with feathers on my back on a motorcycle.” Like, what? I think that those are the dark fantasies that entwine. I would imagine that most apocalyptic books or stories or films that have any weight are written by people who have children and know what that loss would mean or could guess better, and I think they’re largely read by people who have not had children or are younger in their mindset or are sociopaths and don’t realize that they’re mortal, and they can enjoy the idea of the deaths of millions.


AVC:  That expression “Your children break your heart every day” is tied to mortality. Every development is precious and heartbreaking because it passes.

JH: There are a lot of clichés you can say about it, but for a reason. It is the universal fear we all share, obviously. But it’s more than just a fear. We’re also afraid of angry dogs. [Laughs.] We’re afraid of a lot of things, and we might share that fear of things that might not happen, like a dog attack, and can gain some comfort knowing that. But this is going to happen to everyone. It’s not a fear of an airplane crashing, which happens to a very unfortunate infinitesimal minority of people compared to those who fly and do not crash. This is something that is going to happen to 100 percent of all humans, and that makes it much more terrifying. We can’t talk our way out of it, we can’t story-tell our way out of it. We can create religions and theologies and philosophies that can promise that it’s not the end, and I hope that’s true, I don’t know. Or can help us come to terms with the idea that it is the end. But it was Steve Jobs who said in that Stanford address that he didn’t really believe in God, but even people who believe in an afterlife don’t want to die. Even people who believe heaven is coming, sincerely, they don’t—well I’m sure there are some who do—but most people don’t want to go through that process of dying, for understandable reasons. And if you have any doubts about an afterlife, it’s a terrible, terrifying thing to deal with. Did I tell you that I just turned 40, by the way?


AVC: You did.

JH: This book was always going to be written. From the first book—I had such an incredible time writing it, because I was just finding a voice for myself, and in-between absurdist humor, and essays, and crazy lists, and jokes, and non-jokes, and finding ways to tell stories in this format that felt completely new and exciting, to me, at least. So all I wanted to do was write more of these books, specifically two more. I knew from the beginning, the second one would be called More Information Than You Require, and then the third one would be called That Is All. And then it’s a question of having to write the books that match those titles. More Information Than You Require was one where my life had been so fundamentally transformed from the first book, I simply was able to comment on my transformation into a famous minor television personality, and what that was like, and also offer some handy information on this hidden culture of the mole men who live beneath the surface of the earth. That was a gimme, right? By this one, the third one, there were two problems. One was that, as anyone who’s ever written a book will tell you after they finish their last book, they have run out of things to say in life. What more do I have to say that is worth hearing, that is worth convincing myself to spend the time to force on other people? And that’s an existential problem that all authors face, particularly when they are under contract to write another one. They have to do it whether they like it or not. And then the other problem was, “Well, where am I now?” That was the key to figuring out what to write about in the second book.


Well here I am, in June of 2010, when I was really starting to dig into this book and start to think about what was going to be in it. I had just turned 39, and the Apple ads had ended, which were—in no way to denigrate The Daily Show and its meaning in my life, and the delight I took and still take in doing it—this incredible journey that I did not expect at all, which kidnapped me out of my life and put me in a new life. I made great friends and had an amazing time doing it, and it was the first time in life where I was having so much fun and being rewarded for it in so many ways, including financially, but that’s the least of it. And as I knew it would from the very first day I started, it came to its natural end. I had no hard feelings about it, but it was a mourning period for this really exciting and transformational time in my life, and wondering what was next. So I very, very deeply felt mortal all of a sudden, and very, very deeply like I had been washed up on a shore and didn’t know where I was, and there was a sound in the jungle, and it was a smoke monster.

And then I remembered two things at that point that helped me make sense of where to go from there. One of which was right before this process started, before Areas Of My Expertise, I had come up with this character for these series of They Might Be Giants videos, the Deranged Millionaire, and I realized I had become that. Not to talk about my bank balance, but I was financially secure for the first time in my life, with some breathing room to boot. Certainly compared to a freelance writer’s bank balance, I was Richie Rich. I was Uncle Pennybags. I loved that idea. I had also encountered a lot of people who were much wealthier than I was in the world of entertainment and at the TED Conference, people who just absolutely embodied the idea of someone whose wealth has separated them from the world and the weird, not particularly sympathetic, ennui they had in their lives as a result. I realized that’s what I am not. My life’s work is basically done. I had the role of a lifetime in the Apple thing. I’ll continue to do occasional stuff, but for the most part, I’m just sitting around letting my fingernails grow, and being injected with drugs by Mormons, and growing a mustache. Cuckoo time. I just felt like, “Oh well, now that I’ve become that guy, let me be that guy.” And since this was going to be published near the end of 2011, right when we got into this 2012 mania—which as any person feels, is a very compelling idea, as ridiculously as it is sometimes portrayed—it should be a book about being a deranged millionaire and the end of the world. So that’s what I then had to do. But it took a long time to figure out how to make the death of everyone on earth hilarious.


Part two: The second half of our John Hodgman interview gets into his podcast Judge John Hodgman, nerd vs. jock culture in sports and politics, and how to treat celebrities.

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