by Patricia Grandjean
May 1, 2013
11:09 AMBox Office
Front Row Q&A: John Hodgman
(page 4 of 6)
You did attend Yale in the 1990s.
I was in the class of 1993. Our 20th anniversary is coming up.
How did Yale shape what you do?
Oh, almost completely. I came to Yale from Brookline, Mass., and the very fine Brookline public school system, pretty well-formed in my intentions to be perpetually curious and to try to avoid work at all costs. Having curiosity but a deep aversion to the discipline required to study a single passion, I had the vague idea I wanted to be a writer , in part because it seemed like the laziest possible way to be creative. You didn't need a lot of equipment and you did it totally alone, so no one would be looking over your shoulder to make sure you were doing it correctly. it's a craft practiced outside of scrutiny.
Yale enhanced that impulse dramatically, because I suddenly had access to one of the greatest libraries in the world. It was an incredible resource, before there was the Internet, to really track down everything in a very lazy, follow my nose, undisciplined kind of way.
And obviously, there were amazing instructors who really changed the way I thought about the world. The other students there were intensely inspiring, challenging and exciting to be around. And angrifying, because they were so talented that they made me jealous enough that I pushed myself hard, really for the first time in my life. My closest friends still date back to Yale and high school. I'm married to someone I knew in high school. My best friend is Jonathan Coulton, who is someone I've known since I was 18 at Yale; he's a Connecticutian who's now become a very popular, fully independent singer-songwriter on the Internet.
Who were your faculty mentors at Yale? I know that in one interview you mentioned Harold Bloom, the formidable literary critic . . .
Harold Bloom was probably the most terrifying professor I ever had at Yale. I would hardly call him a mentor. He mentored a number of people that I knew, but the closest I ever got to him was being told precisely how wrong I was on an interpretation of Macbeth, I think it was. That was the only time he ever spoke to me. Later, we stood next to each other in the men's bathroom and urinated at the same time. But I consider even that to be a tremendous honor, just to be in that room with one of the highest functioning literary brains in history—incredibly stimulating and amazing. His being willing to tell me that my subjective take on something in Shakespeare was simply wrong, was an incorrect interpretation, was really startling to a person who had not only grown up in the good liberal public schools of Brookline, but in the alternative portion of Brookline High School where everyone was right all the time. It really got to me, and became a continuing comedic influence, because it was hilarious. And the lilting way he would deliver his put-downs—"Oh, my dear, I'm afraid you are simply incorrect"—was just great.
I interviewed him once for five minutes, and I think in that five minutes he made me believe everything I was thinking was wrong.
It's good to meet those people who really make you question hard. Because maybe it really isn't right for you, or maybe you'll redouble your efforts and work out your blind spots.
So, was there anyone else on the Yale faculty who was important in your development?
Oh, sure! Don Faulkner taught me how to write short stories—he's not at Yale anymore—and Michael Levine taught me how to do literary criticism, which is what I thought I was going to do with my life, literary theory. I became enamored of literary theory because it was so theoretical. Literature just seemed too practical. If I was going to go into literary theory, I was truly going to go into the upper atmosphere of making it all up. But I got brought back down to earth when I came to New York City and realized no one was hiring literary theorists here.
But you did become a literary agent for a time.
Yes, I went in the exact opposite direction—instead of treating of treating literature as a means to impress people at cocktail parties, and to transcend my earthly body and move into a world of pure intellectual leisure, I instead started selling it. Which was an equally valuable thing to do.
And you represented Bruce Campbell, which is majorly cool.
Are you a Buce Campbell fan?
I am. I'm probably not as well-acquainted with his work as others are. Or that of Sam Raimi, whose work I only know in the most commercial sense.
Well, I think that's all there is. Sam Raimi was never interested in making art films. And to be well-versed in Bruce Campbell—there's not a lot of verses. But I love Bruce; he's an amazing, amazing guy and an amazing figure, but I think even he would say, "What is there?" There's the Evil Dead movies, and then a happy and productive string of supporting roles in a million weird B-movies and TV shows.
I think I best know the supporting-role Bruce, is what I should have said. I've seen only one Evil Dead movie.
You should see all the Evil Dead movies. Bruces's best acting is in a movie called Bubba Ho-tep, in which he plays an elderly Elvis Presley—who has not died because he faked his own death—fighting a mummy in a nursing home. Without joking, his performance is tremendous in that. I'm thrilled that he now has a very popular recurring role on the TV series "Burn Notice," where they really "get" him and he is really able to be Bruce Campbell and have fun. One of my great regreats is when I first transitioned from writing to performing, and I was offered a chance to act opposite him on that show, I couldn't because of a prior commitment. I wish I had not gone on vacation with my family, as I had been planning. Because I've gone on a lot of vacations with my family. They're all starting to be the same.