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John Hodgman Saying Funny Things About Twitter, Michael Cera, the Mac Ads and Sentinel

Writer, actor, and comedian John Hodgman has had a wild ride since publishing his first book, a collection of fake facts and "Complete World Knowledge" titled The Areas of My Expertise, in 2005. In that time, he's become the resident expert on "The Daily Show," co-starred in numerous films, and portrayed the "PC" in Apple's ongoing series of "Get a Mac" commercials. He's also written a sequel, More Information Than You Require, recently released in paperback. The More Information audiobook, also just released, features celebrity guests ranging from Sarah Vowell to Zach Galifianakis. Hodgman will appear in San Francisco at City Arts & Lectures this weekend.

You and Stephen Colbert are in this unique situation where you play characters that have your names. Most of the time, people are in on the joke, but not always.

Well, Stephen really perfected something that I can only aspire to. The pleasure is not only in playing a character whose name is John Hodgman, but helping people to understand that this character is an exaggeration of some things about myself, some perhaps very unflattering things about myself. It's true that I'm a legitimately annoying know-it-all in regular conversation. So the character of "John Hodgman" is a mere exaggeration of that aspect. Also, I and the character of "John Hodgman" share a disinterest in sports and a love of asthma.

I feel like you've become the poster child for the asthmatic man.

I only wish. I mean, I guess that's sort of public service work, so I can't cash in on that, can I? Maybe I can get some free inhalers.

You have maybe the most interesting group of friends of anyone I can think of-- comedians like Tompkins, political people like Rachel Maddow, musicians like John Flansburgh and John Roderick. What is your secret to winning friends and influencing people?

I don't know how much influence I had over these people-- they all seemed to do exactly what they wanted and none of it involved mounting a massive new movie version of Dune with me. Which I find very annoying.

That said, my acquaintanceships-- I dare not call them friendships, because in most cases these people are my heroes and I'm a fanboy for the work they create--have always been "interesting." And I think that's not a terrible way to go through life: find the people who really inspire you and make you want to make great things, and try to get near them in non-creepy ways.

There's something about each of those people who appear on the audiobook. Every time I hear what they do, it makes me want to go do something. And you have to understand that by nature, I'm an extremely lazy person who doesn't want to do anything. So I owe a greater debt to these people for inspiring me to actually write or create something. It's truly unfair for me to then ask more of them, such as appearing on this book or even hanging out with me. I cannot help it, though: I will continue to ask. And for some reason, they keep saying yes.

You were the first celebrity I saw on Twitter [@hodgman] when I joined it last spring, and I think you were one of the first people of at least some fame to be on it.

An important qualifier.

Well, it was you and Wil Wheaton out there. Us nerds were very happy to see you, but the rest of the world was waiting for Oprah.

And they got her! All of us in the Internet demi-monde sort of faded away instantly. When she and Ashton Kutcher came in, it was like, bye-bye Wil Wheaton, bye-bye Stephen Fry, bye-bye Leo LaPorte. Now the real celebrities are here. Although Steven Johnson's still hanging in there. He's still got close to a million, I think. And Stephen Fry, of course, because he's incredibly skilled with Twitter.

What keeps you going back to it? Is it more or less useful to you now that it's blown up?

I don't think I ever turned to it because it was particularly useful, although it does have some very compelling uses. For example, if you don't know where you are in a city, or want to remember who said what on a TV show, or if you want to know the nearest place to go that does not have a TV showing sports, Twitter is very useful for that. Particularly if you have a certain number of subscribers, you suddenly have this global hive mind that you can call on for information-- and you can provide information for others in the hive as well.

The true reason that I gravitated to Twitter, once I tried it out, was that it's fun. There are all sorts of fun games you can play with the people who are subscribed to your feed, with the people you're following in Twitter. It's very amusing to come up with ways to use this basic, modular, tiny little low-impact service. I like that a lot. I had a rule for myself when I started with Twitter. I promised myself I would never feel an obligation to do it. I would only do it if I felt like it, and I would never feel obligated to tweet a lot, or less. I would only do exactly what I wanted, and if that meant a lot, or not a lot, or one or another kind of Twittering, it wouldn't matter. And it was very rare for me to be able to carve out a space in my life in which I would not be constantly apologizing. My whole life, I don't think I've had a space like Twitter for living confidently that way. It plays a therapeutic role, I think.

I read an interview with Michael Cera recently, where he talked about how "Arrested Development" fans who approached him were usually quiet and polite, but once Superbad came out, he would be approached by increasingly obnoxious people. Is there a difference between people who recognize you for your books and TV work, versus those who recognize "that guy from the Mac commercial"?

Well, unlike Michael Cera, I am not a monster. I happen to find it charming when someone comes up to me and says, "I like what you do." Call me crazy, but when I walk through an airport or whatever and receive random praise, that makes me feel good! Maybe the people approaching Michael Cera are punching him in the stomach, which I could see as being inopportune.

I think that the only strange thing is that people have seen the ads more than anything else I've done or ever will do. It feels as though I'm the old high school friend of everyone on Earth. People will say, "How do I know you?" or "Are you that guy?"  My favorite one is, "You really look like that guy from the ads, does anyone ever tell you that?"  So, I don't know if that's the sort of thing that gives Michael Cera a bad day, but for me, it's better than...well, I've said enough totally funny, mean things about Michael Cera. I'll leave it at that.

Now that the campaign is mature, do you and Justin Long ["Mac"] get any creative freedom in the content of the ads? You're both naturally funny people, so I wonder if they're scripted or not.

We've always been encouraged to improvise and have fun. Occasionally, ad-libs will work their way into the ads, but more often, what makes it into the ads is the tone that we build up through improvising. For understandable reasons, the ads are very carefully written and for very gratifying reasons they're also well-written, and so it's our pleasure to perform them as they're written and find new things in the corners: in looks, in gestures, in reactions, and occasionally, there's a line that we can add to it.

You've had a number of small acting roles lately: The Invention of Lying, Coraline, [HBO's] "Bored to Death." Will we ever see a John Hodgman vehicle, that is to say, a movie starring you?

Well, first of all, there is a John Hodgman vehicle. I'm having it made right now, and it's going to be like the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile. It's going to be in the shape of me, sitting in a leather-backed wing chair. I'll drive around to car conventions and home shows, and that's more or less how I see the next phase of my career: taking people on tours in my giant, mobile, John Hodgman-mobile.

Will you sit on top of the giant chair, or will you ride inside the chair, having it built around the bed of a truck?

I'm not sure you understand. The wing-backed chair is the automobile, do you understand? It's a gigantic, leather wing chair, with a statue of me sitting in it. And then the head, through the eyes, that's the cockpit, and I'll drive that.

So you'll be inside of you, driving a giant you around.

Right.

And everyone will sit inside of your head, and learn what it's like in there.

This is all just until we perfect the technology for the giant walking John Hodgman Voltron-like robot, in which case we won't have the wheels anymore. I'll just walk around in the giant robot. We're still a ways away from that, that won't be until 2011, but that'll be perfect. And then every famous minor television personality will have one.

Will you transform into the wing-backed chair?


No, I don't transform. Isn't it enough that it's a giant robot? It doesn't have to turn into a Camaro to be cool. People are going to show up for Giant Robot John Hodgman versus Giant Robot Jonathan Galecki fights no matter what.

Is there any place in the Bay Area that you try to go to while you're here? I seem to remember that you're fond of House of Prime Rib.

That is a wonderful place, indeed. But I would be remiss if I didn't mention the two places that I always try to go to when I'm there, which are restaurants owned by my dear friend Dennis Leary. Not the comedian, but the chef.

Oh, you mean The Sentinel! I love The Sentinel. And...


Canteen.

Oops, Canteen. Sorry.

See, I told you that I was a real annoying know-it-all. But the Sentinel has the greatest egg-salad sandwich I've ever had.

I just read the other day that a food writer here had the best egg-salad sandwich they'd ever had at Il Cane Rosso in the Ferry Building.


Well, I'll tell you something: as a former professional food writer, I know that food journalism is incredibly subjective. And I am right.

John Hodgman will appear in a City Arts & Lectures conversation with blogger/comedian Merlin Mann on Saturday, November 7, at 8 pm. City Arts is located at the Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave., Civic Center. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased at their website.