In ‘Vacationland,’ John Hodgman Writes About The ‘Inner Wry Chuckle’ Of Maine Humor
John Hodgman is known for a variety of things — he was a correspondent on “The Daily Show,” he has written several books of funny fake facts and hosts the podcast “Judge John Hodgman,” as well as writing a Sunday New York Times Magazine column as Judge John Hodgman.
He may be best known as the PC in the Mac and PC commercials that ran in the early 2000s.
His newest effort, “Vacationland: True Stories form Painful Beaches,” deals with his own life and — in Hodgman’s own style — addresses some more serious topics than, say, furry lobsters. Hodgman’s not from Maine, but his wife’s family is, and they now own a house here. Maine Things Considered Host Nora Flaherty asked him how he got to know the state.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Flaherty: So tell us about Maine John Hodgman, who is from Massachusetts and lives in Brooklyn for half the year.
Hodgman: Yeah have you ever heard of that? Someone from Massachusetts coming to your state of Maine during the summer? I think I pioneered this, it’s a new thing that I invented. But I am from Massachusetts originally. I now live in Brooklyn, New York, most of the year, and for two months out of the year, my wife and children and I descend upon you good people looking for driving directions and lobster rolls just like all the other monsters.
Flaherty: So you don’t have a personal connection to Maine, but your wife does. Tell me how you came to spend so much time here.
Hodgman: So my wife has people in Maine. Her grandmother lived year-round on Newbury Neck in Surry for many decades before she passed away some time ago. Her two uncles lived there full time and her father lives there eight months out of the year. All of this is to say they are all from away. They will never ever — my wife will never ever be a Mainer, though she loves Maine more than any other place or person on Earth, including me, and we’ve been together for quite a while before we were married and we’ve been married for now 18 years. Ever since I’ve known her she would take me up to your painful beaches for some period of time every year until it became clear that eventually we would move there full time. That has yet to happen, and I was instructed by her that I would accept my death there, and I am looking forward to it. I’ve come to love Maine quite a bit myself and the past few years I’ve spent more and more time there because we purchased a home in a town that I will not name for fear of my neighbors.
Flaherty: But it’s easy to figure out where it is if you read the book.
Hodgman: Yes — I say for fear of my neighbors. Really, I wish to protect their privacy and I’m afraid of what will happen if I don’t.
Flaherty: So after years of time spent in Maine what do you think of the state and how is it different from what you originally thought, if at all?
Hodgman: My initial contact with Maine was as a kid. My parents would bring me up a couple of times to Kennebunkport to stay at the Colony Hotel, which at the time they still had at a minimum stay of two weeks. It was such an old-line resort, and obviously real humans live in Kennebunk and Kennebunkport. But my experience of it was as this sort of very preppy touristy, from away haven of kitschy souvenir shops. It wasn’t until my wife started bringing me further up the coast and deeper into Maine that I realized there were actual fishermen who were not modeled out of wood. They were out there on the water taking up lobsters from the ocean bottom, and people farming the land, and people building boats and doing other craft and bashing up rock and living there both summers and winters, living in a year-round community. I would never claim to understand the characteristics of true Mainers but I do know what my wife loves about the world, which is it’s an introvert’s paradise. You take pleasure in the quiet and solitude of Maine, the privacy that everyone affords each other. Often it seems like the entire state is set up to mitigate human contact until it becomes dark in the winter. And we have spent wintertime in Maine, and that’s when our neighbors take comfort in each other at dinners in each other’s homes or in the basement pubs of inns, and that’s when you really get to meet your neighbors. I love year-round Maine far more than I enjoyed the pretend Maine that I first experienced as a kid.
Flaherty: You have an entire chapter in this book devoted to Maine humor.
Hodgman: Every year that we would go to Maine, we would stop along the way, specifically at Perry’s Nut House in Belfast, Maine, where like many other souvenir shops and roadside attractions in Maine, they have a space dedicated to Maine humor, and I was fascinated by it from the first time I saw it. Such a very specific subset of arguable comedy, Maine humor. Even the Maine humorists themselves like John McDonald in his CD “Ain’t He Some Funny,” which I bought and enjoyed as research into Maine humor, would say if you’re looking to Maine humor for laughter, think again. Maine storytelling isn’t designed to provoke laughter so much as a low, rumbling, inner wry chuckle that you might not notice for a couple of weeks and my initial thought of that was I was offended, because comedy that abdicates its necessity to be funny a) seems lazy to me and b) I’d always kind of considered it my thing. But here all these guys telling stories about giving people bad directions or escaping from a bear. It took me a long time to appreciate that the storytelling is what’s funny more than any punchlines. I do understand that now, but for many years as I would stop there, no matter what was going on in my career, I would think to myself, ‘Ah, my career might fall apart but at least I’m not that. At least I’m not a Maine humorist. At least I’m not a middle-aged guy on stage telling stories about Maine.’ If you do not sense my irony there let me make it plain for you that is exactly what I am. We always become what we most loathe.
Flaherty: This book isn’t really a memoir, but it kind of is, and it’s also kind of serious. You talk about some real issues like your privilege and like bullying and your mom’s death. Why did you want to talk about these things?
Hodgman: The joke is that I stopped doing fake facts like I used to do on ‘The Daily Show’ and in my books, because everyone is doing it now up to the highest levels of government. It’s not cool anymore. But the reality is that kind of when I turned 40, I just naturally realized I’m not who I was, I’m someone else, and I wanted to be more straightforward and a more straightforward version of John Hodgman. The book is very, very, very funny. I made it that way on purpose and I’m good at it. But it is also about moments in our life when we see ourselves a little bit more clearly. When we realize that our youth is over and what remains of our life is ahead of us. Or when we suffer a loss like I did when my mom passed away. Or for example when you realize, ‘Yes, I am a Maine humorist after all,’ and make peace with that. So I think that though this is a very specific book about John Hodgman I hope that everyone will appreciate that it’s for every human on Earth and they should all buy it.
Flaherty: So clearly you’ll always be from away but is Maine now home for you?
Hodgman: I have been instructed by my wife that we will move there full time as soon as possible and I will stay there until I die. It doesn’t get anymore home than that.