John Hodgman and the infinite mediocrity
I have been ruminating on the continued existence of John Hodgman and the role he plays in contemporary pop culture. I have been able to sum up my impression of him in the following way.
At any point in time, the comfortable middle class with a smattering of liberal arts education look to satisfies their urge to be edified, either for legitimate reasons or as a class reinforcing exercise of their leisure time. They will put up with an amazing amount of boredom in the name of edification. This stems from the belief that unmitigated emotion is crass or base, and that pleasure in particular is a dish best served cold. Thus feelings like anger, embarrassment, and sadness are distrusted and must be intellectualized (see This American Life). While this level of staid introspection suits emotional experiences like anger which are well-served by deep thinking, it is ill-suited to comedy. The result is a dry, almost puritanical version of comedy, usually referred to as ‘humor’, in which attempts at easy laughs are eschewed as below the ‘humorist, and are replaced by more gentle humorous observations or humorous conceits embedded in intellectual subject matter. The humor is received with chuckles and knowing groans. These are responses, rather than reactions, a way to show solidarity with the uniformly middle- and upper middle-class and overwhelmingly white audience or simply a means of giving the needy-seeming humorist what he or she seems to want. The latter is a very typical reason for the laughter, since the audience typically respects the humorist rather than genuinely being entertained by him or her, and wants to win their respect by ‘getting it’. Humor as such is essentially a social signalling device, and the sad, hollow laughter of recognition that it evokes are like the nocturnal ululations of bullfrogs: ephemeral, annoying, and ultimately pointless.
Notable practitioners of ‘humor’ are The Firesign Theater, Lily Tomlin, and especially Garrison Keillor (born, wouldn’t you know it, Gary Keillor). In our own time the hottest star on the rise on the Chortlin‘ Circuit (I coined this term in this here blog post, by the way; feel free to use it but do credit me) is John Hodgman. Like Dave Eggers (whom I have never read) and others involved in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern (of which I know nearly nothing), John Hodgman’s stock in trade is old-timey phraseology. It would appear that we have the Simpsons to blame for this unbelievably restricted subgenre of humor. His aggressively uncharismatic persona and wry, obscure comedic bailiwick flatters his fans by acknowledging their specialness and broad frame of reference. Hodgman’s book, The Areas of my Expertise, features the following subtitle
An Almanac of Complete World Knowledge Compiled with Instructive Annotation and Arranged in Useful Order by Me, John Hodgman, a Professional Writer, in the Areas of My Expertise, which Include: Matters Historical; Matters Literary; Matters Cryptozoological; Hobo Matters; Food, Drink, & Cheese (a Kind of Food); Squirrels & Lobsters & Eels; Haircuts; Utopia; What Will Happen in the Future; and Most Other Subjects; Illustrated with a Reasonable Number of Tables and Figures, and Featuring the Best of “Were You Aware of It?”, John Hodgman’s Long-Running Newspaper Novelty Column of Strange Facts and Oddities of the Bizarre
Now given what I’ve said above about humor, it is clear from the book title that, old-timeyness aside, Hodgman’s book is relatively wacky and jokey compared to the work of the typical humorist. I submit that this is because, just as the majority of low-brow people gravitate towards the lowest of the low, so does the vast majority of middle-brow people gravitate toward the lowest of the middle. Hodgman represents the cachet of a McSweeney’s without any of the challenging fonts, the feeling of superiority over belly-laughers that accompanies Garrison Keillor without the droning boredom. Hodgman’s book is essentially the most respectable possible knockoff of Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader.