Carolina Theatre, Durham
Saturday, Oct. 24, 2015
You got me: I was being a little cheeky about my dislike of John Hodgman in my preview for the INDY. I’m a fan. Yes, he’s something of an epicure and clothes horse, a blue-blooded New Englander. Yes, he plays ukulele and sings in a lovely tenor voice. And yes, he has a permanent twinkle in his eye. But he’s also a huge nerd, and this is where my affection for him begins.
In his Carolina Theatre show, Vacationland, Hodgman revealed that he grew up watching Doctor Who. He admitted a dad-like “love of terrible puns.” No one would admit to these uncool penchants unless they were true. The best a person can do is make the most of them—and of their attendant inward focus, incessant pondering and inexplicable fixations. The most generous thing one can do with them is to be an artist, and that’s what Hodgman has done.
If last week’s show is an indication, Hodgman is already among the nation’s foremost storytellers, and he has potential to eclipse Garrison Keillor as the very best. He’s our (well, my) Gen X storyteller, where Keillor is so ridiculously boomer. Hodgman regaled a fairly packed house with tales from his family summer home in Western Massachusetts, his Brooklyn years (during which he volunteered to receive “discount therapy” at NYU), his recent move to Maine and many visits to Perry’s Nut House along the way.
Hey, his material is a little bit homey! And sweet. That’s what makes it good. Clearly Hodgman isn’t pandering to the hipster crowd, though he isn’t disavowing it, either. He doesn’t mind allowing himself to seem ridiculous and calling attention to his privilege: “We now have two summer homes. Are you enjoying this evening of relatable comedy?”
The most telling aspect of the evening was Hodgman’s occasional transcendence from narrative to epiphany. “And then I had a moment of clarity,” he said late in the show. “I am a middle-aged man on a stage telling stories about Maine.” It sounded a lot like Spalding Gray’s signature move, which goes something like this: “I had an inkling. I had a flash” (from Swimming to Cambodia). With Gray and Hodgman both being upper-class-ish New England monologists, I felt there had to be direct influence.
When I mentioned Gray in the green room after the show, Hodgman geeked out with me. “Oh yeah, of course,” he said, and we talked a bit about the monologist we admire, bonded over how monumental Swimming was for both of us and lamented Gray’s tragic suicide. In the end, this dude was real. Behind last Saturday night’s plaid shirt and similarly plaid but differently oriented tie (power clash!) was a man at peace with himself. Hodgman is aware of his whiteness and the natural limit it imposes. He’s faced down the complacency that often results from intellectual over-giftedness, and he’s turned it into tales. He’s emerged from a career of this and that into a strong central suit of storytelling, and that’s an area of expertise worth noting.