John Hodgman is many things, including (but not limited to) a bestselling author, the resident expert and "deranged millionaire" for "The Daily Show," and a judge (at least on his podcast). And now he can add failed doomsday prophet and successful stand-up comedian to that eclectic resume, with his one-hour comedy special called "John Hodgman: Ragnarok," now available only on Netflix.
After developing a host of doomsday theories in his third book "That Is All," Hodgman took his act on the road to warn people about the coming Mayan apocalypse. And on the night of December 21, 2012, he gathered with fans in Brooklyn for one final show to help prepare them for their impending doom, but also to talk about sports and sperm whales.
Luckily though, none of his prophecies came true, and a record of that evening was released as a Netflix Original on June 20. HuffPost TV talked to the comedian about the apocalypse, which TV shows he binge-watched before The End, and how he's been coping with the fact that the world is still here.
HuffPost TV: Is it a spoiler to say that the world doesn't end in your special?
John Hodgman: I think most people of average intelligence will have put together that the special was filmed on December 21, 2012 in Gowanus, Brooklyn, on what I assumed would be the eve of the Mayan apocalypse. But as it is now June 20, 2013, things did not happen exactly as I predicted.
How have you been coping with that?
Well, it has been profoundly depressing to me that the world did not end, obviously. As a former professional expert on all complete world knowledge, I am used to being right, even if I have to invent the knowledge to be right about. But basically, I stared down the universe with my fake predictions for the end of the world, including the omega pulse and the dog storm and blood wave, and the universe did not blink. It just kept staring back. I now know the limits of my power.
What made you start thinking about the end of the world in the first place?
The same reason that everyone starts thinking about the end of the world: I turned 40 years old. And consequently, I began to contemplate in a more real way my own mortality. And anyone who contemplates their mortality realizes the terror is not so much that they are going to die as it is that the world will go on without them, and that, with very rare exceptions, we are entirely inconsequential to history, except within the small boundaries of our own families and loved ones.
So that's when a lot of people start either dreaming about apocalypse for the perverse comfort that it offers, which is to say, if I am going to go, then I will take the rest of the world out with me. Or some very sad and tragically disturbed people start planning for it. And I don't mean hoarding mayonnaise and urine in a bunker, that's a perfectly sane thing to do. But start taking pains to make sure that they are remembered beyond their death. And unfortunately it's much easier to be remembered by doing horrible things in the world than by doing great things.
Had you always planned to turn these feelings into a comedy special?
No, you know, I wrote a book called "That Is All" that was published in 2012, on the Mayan apocalypse and my own deranged take on the doomsday prophesies that were swirling around in the popular consciousness of the time. And I began, in late 2011, presenting material from the book, essentially as I had always done. I began what can be described as my career as a literary humourist and magazine journalist, and so what performing experience I had, I had standing up reading from a page. But since then, I have come in contact with many actual stand-up comedians, and I work with them and count them happily among my colleagues at "The Daily Show" and elsewhere. So I began sort of stepping away from the podium as it were, and by the beginning of 2012, I was standing on the stage and I was doing comedy, but I wasn't touching the book or any prepared material.
After a while, it was sort of the Turing test of comedy for me. My imitation of stand-up comedy become indistinguishable from stand-up comedy. I had no choice but to describe what I was doing as stand-up comedy. And I never hesitated because I don't like stand-up comedy, I love stand-up comedy. I respect it and its practitioners so much that I never wanted to take that mantle for myself before I had earned it. But after a while, what I was doing, it would be disingenuous to describe it as anything but stand-up comedy. And so, over the course of 2012, I performed as much as I could, going from town to town, warning all about the impending doom that awaited them. And also, you know, making jokes about wine and sports and wealth.
And by the end of the year, last year, I realized that I had essentially a one-man show with a beginning, middle and end that I hoped to record for posterity. Certainly if the world was going to end, I wanted to send it into space, so that alien culture could see what we were like. But even if I was wrong, I would want to maintain a record of my wrongness. And that is what my special is, a documentary record of one strange night in Gowanus, Brooklyn, when I waited for the end of the world with some people that I liked and it didn't happen.
How'd you get involved with Netflix then?
I had primarily wanted to make a document of the last show, because I knew so much of the show itself was based around the conceit that the world was going to end on December 21, 2012. And I knew that if perchance I was wrong, I would still face a kind of apocalypse because all of that material would have to go away if I were to continue to perform, because it wouldn't make any sense.
So as December 21 got closer, I realized I wanted to do a show on that night, and to do it at the Bell House in Brooklyn, which is essentially my home venue. It's my favourite venue to perform in, for no small reason that I can walk to it from my home. I spoke to my friend, the great Lance Bangs, who is a director, about directing it and coming in and making a really good document of it with multiple cameras and lighting and everything. And he was on-board, and then my manager Olivia Wingate said, "We should maybe try to let other people see this thing." And I went, "Oh, that's an intriguing idea."
Are you a binge-watcher when it comes to TV? Did you binge-watch anything on Netflix before the 21st, to get caught up in case the world ended?
I watched "House of Cards" and I loved it, and "Arrested Development," obviously. But my big guilty pleasure on Netflix is binge-watching the many, many seasons of a British detective show called "Foyle's War" starring Michael Kitchen. It's a detective series set in England during World War II, with a police inspector who would prefer to be fighting in the war but is instead solving crimes at home. It really is one of the most brilliant jobs of acting I've ever seen.
Starting with your first book "The Areas of My Expertise," you've been working within this fictional world for a long time now. So if not the end of the actual world, this special does seem like an end to a chapter of your world. Is that an exciting prospect for you, or a bittersweet one?
Your perception is absolutely correct. "The Areas of My Expertise," "More Information Than You Require," and then finally "That Is All" were always planned to be a trilogy of complete world knowledge. Obviously they are, taken together, a massive encyclopedia of fake facts and figures and amazing true history that is all made up by me, in a comedic way. But over time, I ended up describing a fairly consistent alternate universe. And it was wonderful to build that world, and strangely cathartic to destroy it throughout the pages of "That Is All." So even though our real world, the one in which we live, still seems to survive, or at least is ending in the same slow, dumb way it always has been, that world that I created in the pages of those books and the performances and the audio books that I did around them is definitely gone, split in half by the Century Toad and forever forgotten.
And that was on purpose because I felt that I had explored that world as much as I possibly could. But the thing is that when you destroy that world, and when you talk about doomsday, you start to believe it. And I kind of made no creative or professional plans for what would happen after, because I thought, "Oh, well, that's the end of that." So it was always bittersweet. I wouldn't say that it was exciting in January when I realized I wanted to continue to perform comedy and I really had no material left that I could perform and that I would have to start all over again. But then, I did start all over again. And as I began to unlock those hidden rooms in my mind and figure out new things to talk about and new ways to talk about them, it has become very exciting. I have weird confidence that even though the world didn't end, it's not the end of the world.
You can watch "John Hodgman: Ragnarok" on Netflix.