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My partner surprised me last weekend with tickets to the Boston opening night of Vacationland, John Hodgman’s new stand-up comedy tour. Per the title, he told funny, self-effacing stories about summering in the wildernesses of rural Maine and Western Massachusetts, and then he sang a couple of folk-rocksy songs of uncertain provenance while self-accompanying on ukulele. We had a good time, though I found myself managing a distinct feeling of uncanny disconnection during the show.
Like many, I enjoyed the various performances on Apple ads and segments on the Daily Show that gave Hodgman low-level mainstream celebrity in the early twenty-aughts. I really started to appreciate his work when I heard the unconventional, self-read audio-book edition of The Areas of My Expertise, the first of his three drily absurd faux-almanacs. I began to call myself a fan after the launch of Judge John Hodgman, a smart, funny, but entirely sincere relationship-advice podcast enrobed as a parody of TV court shows.
As the seasons and the years pass, this latter work increasingly seems like Hodgman’s true vocation. I have become enough of a fan that I feel comfortable making speculations like that, as if I actually knew John, maybe even on a first-name basis. Of course, I don’t! But still, listening to hundreds of episodes of Judge John Hodgman, where he continues to dole out worldly and thoughtful “internet justice” over every sort of wonderfully mundane dispute between friends or family, has made me feel a closeness and familiarity, however phantasmal, that I haven’t felt towards an audio-visual personality since my long-ago years of David Letterman fandom.
So when on Saturday I found myself much more literally in Hodgman’s presence than I ever had before, I felt a strange dissonance that his show — light-hearted monologues (toting existential-terror baggage) tuned for, and reactive to, a large live audience — made him seem much more distant than I was used to. There stood the man, performing under a spotlight just a few yards away from our balcony seats, and the laughter I added to the big crowd’s throughout the show was entirely genuine. But if I came expecting something like a book reading, a chance to connect with a creator whose work you love on a more intimate level than usual, that’s not what I got.
And that’s OK — I got a stand-up comedy show instead, which, you know, matched what they had printed on the poster outside. If I felt, at the end, more like I had watched an entertaining play than watched a beloved personality practice his familiar craft in person, it speaks to no flaw on Hodgman’s part at all. I suspect that I would have felt a similar missed expectation with any staged, monologued performance after years of personal, conversational comedy. If Letterman’s show had comprised only his opening monologues, it never would have connected with me as it did. Stand-up is its own thing, not a live performance of a normally studio-bound podcast — which, indeed, is also a thing. Just not this.
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