12:50pm

Mon October 31, 2011
Monkey See

John Hodgman And Robert Siegel Consider 'All' Things, Some Of Them Rather Dubious

Originally published on Mon October 31, 2011 3:51 pm

If there's anything guaranteed to lift the heart of an NPR nerd, it's the sound of All Things Considered's Robert Siegel losing his composure. This is a news anchor, after all, who can deliver the song title "Party 'Til You Puke" with all the gravity of a president announcing the death of a hero. (No, really. This happened.)

Rejoice and be glad, therefore, that today's ATC brings you a Siegel interview with John Hodgman, who joins us to share selected tidbits of wisdom from That Is All — the third and last in his trilogy of eccentric almanacs. Unexpected truths, none of them especially self-evident, that are contained therein:

  • On September 18th, 2012, the people of Madison, Wisc., will take a vow of no-cannibalism. It will last seven days.
  • In Korea, it is common to give glass figurines as gifts — especially figurines of Vincent D'Onofrio, the Koreans' favorite actor.
  • When SCUBA does not stand for Self-Contained Underwater Breathing American, it stands for Southern Cuba Un-Communist Business Association.

Strange facts, and unsettling to the conventional wisdom. Also utterly bogus, of course.

As in The Areas of My Expertise and More Information Than You Require — the two earlier trivial pursuits from the Daily Show analyst and former Apple pitchman — the knowledge contained in That Is All is almost entirely fictive. (Oddly entertaining, though.)

In addition to much information about the superstitions surrounding ocean-going vessels — women aboard cruise ships, Hodgman explains, are required to wear special underpants, as "vengeful Poseidon can't see through rayon" — That Is All compiles the names of 700 "ancient and unspeakable gods, known for their wrath, their cosmic indifference to humanity, and their tentacles."

They will soon return to our blue planet, Hodgman predicts, "and will make it their plaything once more."

Hodgman knows of these things, he tells us, due to "some visions that I had at night, under the influence of my albuterol asthma inhaler." And in the pages of That Is All, he chronicles the horrors to come with a series of marginal calendar entries that, as Siegel puts it, "breathes vivid, detailed life into the Mayan forecast of the end of time."

"I saw some difficult things coming down the line," Hodgman says. "The Century Toad, which exists at the center of the earth. ... There's the Blood Wave, the Century Pulse, the collapse of the American book-publishing industry."

Beyond the end of the world and predictions related thereto, Hodgman confides in Siegel — to whom he refers fondly as "my old nemesis" — about the woeful arc of his career, from "magazine writer and literary humorist (you know, your basic nobody) to very famous minor television personality" and back again. And he recounts the "mournful experience" of leaving those iconic Apple commercials behind.

"While I understand that all things must come to an end, whether it's a television advertisement or one's life or the world itself, it doesn't make it any easier to deal with."

There is much more silliness, including an exegesis of The Jock-Nerd Convergence, which alarms Hodgman greatly, and which is better heard about than described. (The interview audio will be available above before too long.)

Oh, and that moment when Robert Siegel briefly loses it? It involves Harry Houdini, and the secret of how he escaped from a can of sardines, who may or may not have been under the influence.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. Here are some truths that are not entirely self-evident. On September 18, 2012, the people of Madison, Wisconsin, will take a vow of no cannibalism. It will last seven days. In Korea, it is common to give glass figurines, especially figurines of Vincent D'onofrio, the Koreans' favorite actor. And when SCUBA does not stand for self-contained underwater breathing American, it stands for Southern Cuba Un-Communist Business Association.

How do I know these strange facts so unsettling to conventional wisdom, and in fact, so completely bogus? I have read them all in John Hodgman's new book, the third and logically the final book in his trilogy of encyclopedic wisdom. The title is "That Is All." John Hodgman, welcome back to the program.

JOHN HODGMAN: Thank you very much. Nice to speak with you, my old nemesis.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: And I should remind listeners that in addition to appearing on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" as a general expert on just about everything, you were also the person in a long-running but now long-gone series of Apple commercials in which you played the competition, the personal computer. I gather this was a life-changing experience for you.

HODGMAN: It was, indeed. People would come up to me and say, hey, personal computer, will you print out this document for me?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HODGMAN: They will say, hey, will you correct the red eye in this photograph of me? And they don't ask me to do that anymore, even though I'm really good at it.

SIEGEL: What has it been like to fall back to Earth from this pinnacle of fame you enjoyed?

HODGMAN: Well, it's a mournful experience, quite honestly. I mean, those ads were not only a lot of fun for me to make, but also, it marked a huge transformation in my life, from basically magazine writer and literary humorist, you know, your basic nobody, to a very famous minor television personality.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HODGMAN: And then - and while I understand that that all things must come to an end, whether it's a television advertisement or one's life or the world itself, it doesn't make it any easier to deal with our own mortality.

SIEGEL: Speaking of the end of the world itself, your book, "That Is All," it's a very unusual book. It begins on page 607 because the trilogy, I gather, is a single work.

HODGMAN: Yes.

SIEGEL: It is amply footnoted, and it also includes, at the top of each page, a day-by-day calendar entry for the coming year that breathes vivid, detailed life into the Mayan forecast of the end of time.

HODGMAN: Well, as you know, this is the year 2011. And if you own a calendar, you'll know that it's just one scant year before 2012. And if you own a Mayan long count calendar, then I suspect your home is very large because those things are big and made of stone. And, of course, the Mayans stopped making calendars because they thought 2012 was going to be the end of the world. And due to some visions that I had at night under the influence of my albuterol asthma inhaler, I saw some difficult things coming down the line.

SIEGEL: I think difficult things is an understatement: giant toads, mole men heading to the center of the Earth.

HODGMAN: Yes, yes. You speak of the Century Toad that exists at the center of the Earth, and, of course, the return of the Ancient Unspeakable Ones, like H.P. Lovecraft predicted. There's the Blood Wave, the Omega Pulse, and also the collapse of the American book publishing industry...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: I don't mean to make light of that.

HODGMAN: ...which for some people is truly the end of the world...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HODGMAN: ...especially those of us who only have books to write.

SIEGEL: Yes. In this book, just as in the first in the trilogy, "The Areas of My Expertise," I believe you had 500 hobo names.

HODGMAN: Seven hundred, actually.

SIEGEL: Seven hundred. But now, you have...

HODGMAN: Please don't understate.

SIEGEL: I'm sorry. I don't mean to deny you credit.

HODGMAN: My writing of 700 ridiculous hobo nicknames.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: And now, you have hundreds of names of the Unspeakable Ones, well...

HODGMAN: Seven hundred ancient and unspeakable gods, the ancient gods who are known for their wrath, their cosmic indifference to humanity, their tentacles and who will soon return to the Earth and make it their plaything once more.

SIEGEL: One of the dimensions of this coming apocalypse is, which you write about, is The Jock-Nerd Convergence.

HODGMAN: Oh, that's very disturbing, isn't it?

SIEGEL: Yes.

HODGMAN: The fight between jock culture and nerd culture is the culture war of our time. I mean, that really - I think almost everything in life can be divided into whether it represents a jockish view of the world, which is to say authoritarian, top-down, privileging gut instinct over rumination and the hatred of anyone who uses the word rumination...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HODGMAN: ...and then the nerd point of view, which is obsessive enthusiasm for increasingly marginal niche cultures and subcultures and a kind of joyful utopian anarchy. And yet, there is some - so much overlap that's happening now. Now, superhero movies are apparently the only movies that are made. I read of an actual baseball player who has named his baseball bat after...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HODGMAN: ...after Orcrist, which is one of the Elven blades in "The Hobbit."

SIEGEL: Among many other surprising facts in your books, such as how Harry Houdini escaped from a can of sardines and how...

HODGMAN: Trapdoor.

SIEGEL: ...the sardines were made - yeah, a trapdoor.

HODGMAN: Spoiler alert, trapdoor.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: The sardines cooperated, though, with this trick.

HODGMAN: Well, as much as sardines can. They were drugged.

SIEGEL: You also offer some useful tips on traveling around the world, which I gather that you've come by in your recent career...

HODGMAN: Oh, yeah.

SIEGEL: ...as a deranged millionaire.

HODGMAN: Yes. Well, now that my commercials are over, presumably, because we sold all the computers...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HODGMAN: ...I lead a simpler life of a humble, deranged millionaire, and I've traveled all over the world to, gosh, I would say three continents, at least four provinces of Canada, most of the United States...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HODGMAN: ...and on cruise ships. And this is the most fascinating thing because a cruise ship is like a fantastic floating city. And when the Blood Wave comes, you'll want to be on one.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: When the Blood Wave comes, yes...

HODGMAN: I don't want...

SIEGEL: ...rather than being on land, you're saying?

HODGMAN: Oh, yes. I would say either when the seas rise or the Blood Wave comes, you will want to be on one of these gigantic cruise ships. It's one of the ways that you can survive for just a few days longer. But let me tell you, traveling on the sea, there's a lot of superstition around it. Did you know that?

SIEGEL: I do now after reading your book, but you should share with the listeners.

HODGMAN: Yes. I was setting myself up for that one, if you don't mind. Did you know that a woman on board is considered to be bad luck? And that's why...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HODGMAN: Obviously, we let...

SIEGEL: There's a lot of bad luck in the world.

HODGMAN: Yeah. We let women on board cruise ships, but they are asked to wear special rayon underwear because it is believed that vengeful Poseidon can't see through rayon, so - and dolphins swimming alongside the ship's bow are considered good luck. So when you're on a cruise ship, please don't free the dolphins that have been lashed to the front of the ship, even if it seems they're just being dragged along. It may look like they're suffering, but they're just lazy. Dolphins are incredibly lazy as you know.

SIEGEL: Well, now, we know...

HODGMAN: Yes.

SIEGEL: ...and you've made sailing that much more user-friendly, I guess, to use a...

HODGMAN: Yes. And I wish to emphasize that while my book does deal with the coming global superapocalypse known as Ragnarok, it's not depressing. And indeed, there's much, much more in this book about travel and sports and wine and magic tricks and ghosts, and anything that might distract a casual reader from the fact that they are mortal, which is everyone.

SIEGEL: Well, John Hodgman, thank you very much for talking with us.

HODGMAN: I could be wrong. I could be wrong, you know?

SIEGEL: Let's hope.

HODGMAN: It may be that that the world will not end on December 21, 2012...

SIEGEL: OK.

HODGMAN: ...in which case, you can buy the paperback.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: John Hodgman's book is called "That Is All." Is it really the last of your encyclopedic works or...

HODGMAN: It certainly is the last of my books of "Complete World Knowledge." This is final "World Knowledge," at last, finally complete.

SIEGEL: Are you saying you're now going to get speculative?

HODGMAN: I think I'm going to take a rest. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.