John Hodgman is a humorist, author and television personality known by many for his standup and appearances on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Hodgman is also the host of Judge John Hodgman, a podcast in which he arbitrates conflicts large and small. He also vacations and lives part time in Brooklin, Maine.
I recently read that Hodgman had put together a comedy tour (specifically, a “one human show”) called Vacationland (which was once Maine’s motto, is presently one of our nicknames, and appears on our license plates). Since this post went live, a Portland, Maine show has been announced for September 13th. I reached out to him to talk with him about Maine, middle age, and the end of Jon Stewart’s reign at The Daily Show.
I was hoping you would tell me about Vacationland.
Well, you should know; you live there.
I know it very well indeed. In fact, I am calling you from the parking lot of an amusement park in Saco.
Well, the motto of the State of Maine is also the title of my new one man comedy show. Since my last standup comedy show, in which I predicted the end of the world… You may have noticed that the world did not end. It was very embarrassing for me. Since then, I’ve been doing more comedy that’s a little bit more straight forward in person than the kind of deranged millionaire resident expert [I’d been portraying]. I have been presenting a little bit less of the persona I had developed on The Daily Show and taking on a little bit more of John Hodgman, who is a 44-year-old man with a wife and two children who—because he is marginally employed—spends quite a bit of time in Maine.
This is a relatively new thing in my life. I am a native of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which—as you know—owned Maine until 1820. I mostly would spend the Summers living in Western Massachusetts with my wife and our children. Rather suddenly last year, because my wife loves the state of Maine more than any other place or human in the world, we rather rashly purchased a home in Brooklin, Maine. It expunged me into terrifying cold waters—almost as terrifying and cold as the waters off of Maine itself—of anxiety. Financial anxiety, but also personal anxiety. The world didn’t end in 2012, but it sure is ending day by day and year by year. Just like everybody, I am facing my own apocalypse and that is realizing that I am entering my middle age in a state that, even in the midst of Summer, can feel beautifully morbid. If you love Autumn, might I recommend visiting Maine in August. [Laughs]
I feel that in Maine, which is an exceptionally old state, you are actually particularly young. This is a state in which you can get an extra ten years out of middle age.
What occurred to me, I think, is in Western Massachusetts—in one of the regions called Pioneer Valley—we had a home very close to five colleges. Well, four colleges and Hampshire College, and I am not sure what you would describe Hampshire College as. [The comedian] Eugene Mirman went to Hampshire College and majored in standup comedy. It’s a wonderful institution of learning that somehow redefines the meaning of college, and we’ll leave it at that. And so in Western Massachusetts we were surrounded by young people. When you’re surrounded by young people, with all of their bicycles and ideas and ill-advised dreadlocks, it’s easy to feel a connection to yourself as a young person. It’s easy to maintain the delusion, “Oh, I’m one of these people.” Once you go to Maine, at least the areas of Maine where we’re traveling, it’s a much older cohort. It’s increasingly harder to maintain that delusion.
Maine was called Vacationland at a time when people didn’t really know what vacation was yet. When vacation was something that was enjoyed only by a very small section of the populace that was wealthy enough to take time off from work. Most people couldn’t, do you know what I mean? And so when the great resorts of Maine were settled, vacation was something that was only enjoyed by wealthy people from Massachusetts, and what it meant was going North to Maine to drink martinis and not talk to anyone and look quietly over waters no one would ever go into because you can’t because they want to kill you.
When you are in a place that is so infused with barren beauty—and it truly is a beautiful place—and vistas of an unforgiving ocean and you are surrounded by older people, it is harder to maintain that illusion that “Yeah, I am a younger person.” It becomes easy to think, “Maybe I vacation here because I realize I am no longer becoming something like those kids in Collegetown, Massachusetts, but I am ending up as something else. Maybe they call Maine Vacationland for those people who don’t actually believe they deserve happiness.”
You recently touched on a similar description of emergent adulthood in your podcast Judge John Hodgman. In it, a couple in their mid-30s was trying to figure out how to deal with trouble they were having with neighborhood children. I’m paraphrasing a bit but you told them, “You are at an interesting time in your life because you no longer have the purse sociopathy of childhood, and nor are you prepared to enter the endless pool of rage and anger that comes with being a little older and becoming a little less concerned with what other people think of you.” It sounds like you were describing to them what you are also going through.
That’s the existential challenge that for me became literalized over the course of last Summer and it is what I am going through this Summer. The show is about going from youth to maturity and leaving home. It is about leaving Massachusetts, where I was really connected to my life as a young only child. As an only child, you know, that makes me an automatic member of this brother and sisterhood of the super-smart-afraid-of-conflict narcissist’s club.
That makes two of us.
I was profoundly interested in knowing what the rules were so that I could follow them perfectly so I could be approved of and loved by all humans on earth, not realizing that was impossible. I’d have to confront the real soul-shattering terror as I would go to the dump in Western Massachusetts to dump my trash in the town where I was not legally allowed to dump, and feeling like breaking this rule was somehow going to… that the guys at the dump were going to sacrifice me to their gods. This would go on for years before I finally realized that the guys at the dump don’t care about where this garbage comes from.
So going to Maine, I realize that I am no longer a 20-something child. I am a 44-year-old grown man and heading in a different direction. One of the pleasures of being a 44-year-old man is learning not to care what other people think. Maine is full of people not caring what other people think, and being mad when other people ask them to.
I don’t want you to feel pressured to comment on politics, but we are led by an executive that feels exactly that way.
Oh, yeah… Eccentric, angry misanthropes who veto dozens of bills out of spite just to burn it all down. I mean, it’s very much the essence of Maine, and I say this with deep affection, please understand. The motto of Maine may be Vacationland, but it should be, “Maine: Putting the spite in hospitality since the Missouri Compromise.”
Looking at your tour dates, none of which include bringing Vacationland to the actual Vacationland, can I please challenge you to bring the show to Maine?
I don’t want to make any promises, but we’re working on it.
[Note from Steed: A Portland show has been announced! I take full responsibility.]
You just flew from Bangor to New York to attend the last taping of The Daily Show With John Stewart tomorrow. The show has been a huge part of your career. Can you talk about what you’re feeling right now?
What I would say is this: I don’t need this in my life. That’s what I’d say. I’m already obsessed constitutionally with the ending of things and what it means. The end-of-the-world in a Mayan-predicted apocalypse, or the slow apocalypse we all face as our life slips away slowly. It’s just where I’m at in my life and I’m trying to stay positive and the last thing I needed was arguably the most important part of my professional life coming to an end. I say that tongue in cheek, of course, but it’s very bitter sweet. Not even bitter sweet. Bitter. Sad. I think even Jon would say so, though I won’t know [until the last show].
It’s a sad thing that the show is coming to a close. It’s a sad thing for those who loved the show. I watched and loved the show before I was on it. To not see Jon when we’ve seen him for 4 nights a week… The almost daily show that it was. But just because it’s sad doesn’t mean that it’s not right. The truth is that it was always Jon’s—just as it is any show’s host—responsibility to make the experience of doing the show interesting and exciting for him or her. For that reason, you’ve seen the show grow and evolve over the years and all in service of following the preoccupations, interests, and curiosities of Jon. That’s why it’s remained so vital because it’s been so flexible and it’s changed.
The truth is Jon has done it for years and years and you know from the movie that he made the other year—Rosewater—that he’s capable of doing so much more and he should have a right to explore opportunities to do that, never mind seeing to his human life. I know that even though I was obviously not consulted in this decision—because I know if I was ever given a say, I’d say don’t ever stop—but I know Jon well enough that he would not be making this transition in his career and bringing the show to a close unless he knew it was the right thing not just for him, but for the show itself.
IMAGE CREDIT: Bex Finch