The Greast Pretender

The Baltimore Sun

John Hodgman is best known - if he is known at all - as the round and bespectacled (and funny) guy who plays the hapless "PC" on those Apple ads. He is not known as an expert on matters historical, matters literary and matters having to do with hobos, squirrels, lobsters, eels and the worst men's haircuts in history.

But he is. (That is a lie.) Hodgman, 35, caught Apple's eye after he appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart to promote his new book of fake trivia, The Areas of My Expertise, during which he spoke - his face a study of serious purpose - of the hobos of the Great Depression and their "boxcar-hopping, no-pants-changing ways, and their brief attempt to take over the United States government."

In addition to being a fake historian, Hodgman is a contributor to public radio's This American Life and now the resident expert on The Daily Show, on which he explains current events with a completely made-up analysis. (Alan Greenspan's retirement as Federal Reserve Board chairman, for instance, means wild dogs will roam the streets, stealing babies.)

Hodgman is a new breed of literary celebrity - the kind with a fervent and growing following (more than 100 people showed up for a performance in Baltimore on Monday night), a twisted (some might say deranged) view of the world and unconventional ideas about what constitutes literature and, indeed, truth.

His book reached No. 15 on The New York Times best-seller list, and two more compendiums of fake trivia are in the works. He also has plans to make more Mac vs. PC ads. Fifteen have aired, and Apple considered them so successful, it ordered more.

It is a strange and unexpected turn for a man who had long hair and dressed like Doctor Who in high school, had a short story published in the Paris Review and spent a night in a London jail (drunken zoo invasion, he says), and who has an unusual - if not unhealthy - obsession with the mythology of the American hobo.

But in the Apple ads, he is merely a pleasant dork. "He has this wonderful, unscripted, sort of English professor quality about him that makes him very attractive," said Lucian James, chief executive officer of Agenda Inc., a San Francisco-based brand consulting firm.

Over coffee at Donna's in Mount Vernon, Hodgman credits the campaign's success to the simple Apple-esque aesthetic of the ads, the clever writing and the chemistry between himself and the actor who plays the Mac, Justin Long. But Hodgman, who graduated from Yale with a degree in literature, never set out to be an actor or a celebrity.

After college, he began work as a receptionist at a literary agency in New York, eventually becoming an agent. If nothing else, this gave him something to write about for the McSweeney's Web site, a literary and cultural journal run by Dave Eggers. Hodgman developed an advice column called "Ask a Former Professional Literary Agent," in which he answered questions such as, "Are three kittens too many and are five enough?"

Hodgman eventually got a book contract for The Areas of My Expertise, "an almanac of complete world knowledge." His years as a book agent gave him another reason to aspire to be a professional writer: Authors' clothes, he noticed, always fit well. "They are not anxiety ridden, badly tailored nervous wrecks like me, for example, or all of you," he writes in the book.

My Expertise contains only two references to sports, both of them dismissive. "If you wish for sports information," Hodgman writes, "might I kindly refer to you to every other aspect of our culture?"

The book does include the 55 dramatic situations in literature, jokes that have never produced laughter, failed palindromes ("Tow a What? Thaw!"), a brief history of the lobster in America, nine presidents who had hooks for hands, 25 Prohibition-era euphemisms for alcohol and 700 hobo names - all of it false.

The hobo names took nearly three weeks to devise, and, at times, Hodgman wondered whether it was worth the effort.

"When you're at hobo name 300 - the Ornamentalist, which I happen to know is the end of a string of hobo names that are in homage of the bad guys in the movie The Dark Crystal," he says, "and you know you have another 400 names to go, you think, how am I going to get this done and is anybody going to care, and why would anyone think this is funny, and that became very much a metaphor for the book."

The book, though, took off after Hodgman's very funny appearance on The Daily Show last year. Hodgman managed the rare feat of making Jon Stewart laugh - and laugh so hard he was slapping his desk with his hand. The unassuming Hodgman says Stewart was just doing his job, which is to laugh, and besides which, "I think he had an intestinal problem, actually."

Hodgman's timing with his book was also fortuitous. It hit stores at a time when truth was hazy - a time epitomized by Stephen Colbert's coining of the term "truthiness" to describe things accepted as truth even when they contradict known facts.

"That the book might intersect with any larger movement in American culture toward accepting lies as truths is something that I note as an observer, not as a critic," Hodgman says. "It is certainly not the point."

The point is to have fun, to be playful, to have a relationship with his audience. To mark the recent publication of the paperback edition of the book, Hodgman is in the middle of a 20-city book tour that brought him to the University of Baltimore on Monday, where he appeared in the Student Center's fifth-floor Multipurpose Room. ("As you know, this room is made possible by a generous grant from the Multipurpose Family," he said.)

He told the standing-room-only audience that his book "is written in the voice of a deranged, know-it-all character who is kind of me, but not entirely me."

He led the crowd in a recitation of the six oaths of the virtuous child, which include "I shall be a faithful child, and I shall make science my enemy, and eels." He spoke of the hobos' demands for bent nails and pieces of string, told of how all great writers have their own theme song (Edgar Allan Poe's was "The Eye of the Tiger") and then entertained questions, but only if they were asked through a walkie-talkie.

Now that he is able to draw modest crowds in midsize cities across the U.S., Hodgman is pleased to report that his clothes fit much better ("It helps now that I can hire a dozen elfin tailors. They really do have the nimblest fingers.") and that after his book tour he will return to the tedious but essential work of making up fake trivia for two more books.

"I love that kind of ephemera," he says, "those genres of writing and literature that were immediately discarded and thought very little of and not read in an academic context or a literary context but in the pure popular entertainment context - if they weren't, in fact, designed to be discarded."

He thinks about that for a moment. "The Old Farmer's Almanac was used as toilet paper," he says. "I'm going to say that's true."

We'll take his word for it.

John Hodgman




Brookline, Mass.




Married with two young children


Yale University, class of 1994, bachelor's in literature


Receptionist, assistant to an agent and literary agent, Writers House, 1994-2000; freelance writer for GQ, The New York Times Magazine and Men's Journal, 2000-present; contributor, This American Life, 2001-present; resident expert, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, 2006


MacBook Pro


Flight or invisibility? "Invisibility, obviously. People who choose flying tend to be very self-confident and often short-sighted people who seek, you know, a sort of immediate gratification. They tend to frequently be skydivers."

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