John Hodgman Is Flying High in Memoir, 'Medallion Status'

TV star/writer/podcast host -- just don't call him a standup comic -- John Hodgman tackles class aspiration and other inconveniences in his memoir, Medallion Status.

Medallion Status: True Stories from Secret Rooms
John Hodgman


October 2019


One of the highlights of John Hodgman's long-running popular Maximum Fun podcast, Judge John Hodgman, comes within the first few minutes. The premise of the show cannot be simpler. Two parties come before Hodgman and his trusty bailiff Jessie Thorn (founder of Maximum Fun and podcasting pioneer in his own right.) Episode titles are always puns on the subject matter: ("Tried Green Tomatoes", "You've Got Bail", "Daylight Savings Crime", among the nearly 450 recorded through 2019.) The plaintiff and defendant are introduced, cases presented, and then Hodgman presents what he calls "an obscure literary or pop culture reference" that somehow ties into the episode's subject matter.

Whichever party is first to identify the reference automatically wins the case. A winner rarely surfaces within those first few minutes, but that's not the point. Clever wordplay and cultural references (more often than not of the fantasy role-playing or H.P. Lovecraft world) always introduces the podcast and the strange, obscure, but somehow omnipresent (if not omnipotent) staying power of John Hodgman.

Hodgman understands his target audience. They're usually white hipster Williamsburg Brooklyn cisgender heterosexuals who have risen from that understood privilege to embrace the rainbow of humanity in the 21st century. Call them leftists, progressives, intellectuals, NPR-listening artists or precious snowflakes, the audience for a John Hodgman product is one that can pick him out from the cast list of his many TV credits. From his breakout role as the stuffy Apple computer consumer in the long-running "Get a Mac" ad campaign, through his many appearances as the "Resident Expert" or "Deranged Billionaire" on Comedy Central's The Daily Show to the quirky, dangerous roles in HBO's Bored to Death and Cinemax's The Knick, Hodgman has always seemed to understand the only way to make a viable career with his physical appearance (pasty, doughy, mustachioed) and droll world view would be to not run away from the obvious. He knows who he is and he knows how to reach his audience.

Medallion Status: True Stories from Secret Rooms is a worthy follow-up memoir to his 2017 book Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches. Where the latter's tone tends to lean toward a semi-somber tone about home ownership and other elements of adulthood, the focus of this new book is more about what Hodgman seems to see as an improbable success in show business. It's also about, as the title might suggest, the implied higher status that comes from accumulating so many flying miles that the dreamed privilege of floating above it all becomes a reality. He begins by reflecting on his screen status at the moment:

I played a variety of mustache creeps: a scheming literary rival; a deranged fan who claims he legally owns an actress whom he has been stalking…a psychiatrist who pulls his patients' teeth…because he thinks insanity lives in their gums.

Hodgman recognizes the benefits of playing a creep on TV. There's swag, gifts from all the productions like jackets or sweatshirts. More important, he comes to understand his truth about acting. "It's about surrendering the habits and poses that protect you and becoming vulnerable: to the moment, your emotions, and unpleasant truths." Later in the chapter "Nude Rider" Hodgman owns what his readers and fans have known all along: "Privilege comedy is my beat."

He comments on the hipster audiences of Portland ("They all ride bicycles and scooters and make hand signals before they turn"), the different crowd in Philadelphia ("…there is a lot of angry energy there…"), and more observations from his travels. There are many stories to tell here, and Hodgman risks losing a less forgiving audience who might think he's rambling. On the other hand, it works because we understand he's roaming. These are the observations of a man on tour.

He digresses into preoccupations about extinct hockey teams, but even here it's difficult to not be drawn into Hodgman's interests. Whether it's the artisanal pencil sharpening of David Rees or the logo of the Hartford Whalers, it's all about the peculiar particularities. Here he is on the "…visual language of a perfect logo."

The whale's tail nestles into the W, completing the center rise of the W, but not quite completing it, leaving a little bar of…nothingness that you would miss until someone shows you that it's in the shape of an empty H.

In "Secret Society" about (among other things) his alma mater Yale, Hodgman comes to terms with both his Medallion Status and white privilege. The reader might be best served to think of the latter as a permanent subtitle through all of Hodgman's work. What separates him from other "woke" storytellers and monologists (too many to mention) is that he is less permanently apologetic for who he is and rather refreshingly aware:

It takes a long time for white guys to appreciate they are breakable…Their bodies are not constant targets of power. Their bodies are power, so they throw those bodies up and down mountains and stairs and out of airplanes and into pointless online yelling matches for fun.

In "Career Advice for Children", Hodgman details the types of jobs he's had on the road to where he's perceived to be now: Traffic Counter, Cheese Shop Employee, Literary Agency Receptionist, and Young Adult Author. Here he is talking to today's disgruntled teen, unwilling to even get a job, let alone commit to anything else:

…I will only say that the worst jobs are not the hardest jobs. The worst job is the one you know is wrong for you, but you stay in it anyway.

Patience is helpful to fully appreciate this book, and that's not meant to be a harsh criticism. Hodgman's style is sardonic and witty, focused on the arcane and mundane, looking inward. He pays more attention to his precious fans of like-minded artists and artisans than the happenings of the wider world. There are times here when the narrative lags, but staying with it will reward. Consider this reflection, as he circles back and lands in his primary theme, the status-seeking class struggles of a frequent flyer and the airport experience:

And of course they denude you and degrade you…if only to remind you that we do not live in a society of laws, but a society of power.

Another theme is about falling into opportunities by chance. "Television was always an accident in my life," he writes. "I never expected it to last, at least not until it lasted just long enough that I got tricked into thinking it was never going to end."

Politics enter the narrative in the chapter "All I Do Is Win", and the reader patient enough to wander through the digressions with Hodgman will be rewarded. "We all saw Trump callously shape his campaign into a metaphorical cudgel that would cause actual pain and terror, and not one of us managed to stop it. We all thought we were so smart." He follows this chapter with a digression to Florida and Scientology and Trump's Mar-a Lago resort that could have better served the book had it been expanded.

Medallion Status is an enjoyable, if rambling examination of status, implied white privilege, and the world of a TV and voice-over actor whose career was once decidedly bigger than it is now. There are true stories from secret rooms here, and one gets the impression Hodgman will eventually write a more focused memoir of a utility player TV star. Life and circumstances change, but Hodgman remains the type of writer/performer whose informed if somewhat myopic humor and commentary makes him a cultural treasure.





The 60 Best Albums of 2007

From tech house to Radiohead and Americana to indie and everything in between, the 60 best albums of 2007 included many of the 2000s' best albums.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Solitude Stands in the Window: Thoreau's 'Walden'

Henry David Thoreau's Walden as a 19th century model for 21st century COVID-19 quarantine.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Will COVID-19 Kill Movie Theaters?

Streaming services and large TV screens have really hurt movie theaters and now the coronavirus pandemic has shuttered multiplexes and arthouses. The author of The Perils of Moviegoing in America, however, is optimistic.

Gary D. Rhodes, Ph.D

Fleabag's Hot Priest and Love as Longing

In season two of Fleabag, The Priest's inaccessibility turns him into a sort of god, powerful enough for Fleabag to suddenly find herself spending hours in church with no religious motivation.


Annabelle's Curse's 'Vast Oceans' Meditates on a Groundswell of Human Emotions (premiere)

Inspired by love and life, and of persistent present-day issues, indie folk band Annabelle's Curse expand their sound while keeping the emotive core of their work with Vast Oceans.


Americana's Sarah Peacock Finds Beauty Beneath Surface With "Mojave" (premiere + interview)

Born from personal pain, "Mojave" is evidence of Sarah Peacock's perseverance and resilience. "When we go through some of the dry seasons in our life, when we do the most growing, is often when we're in pain. It's a reminder of how alive you really are", she says.


Power Struggle in Beauty Pageants: On 'Mrs. America' and 'Miss Americana'

Television min-series Mrs. America and Taylor Swift documentary Miss Americana make vivid how beauty pageants are more multi-dimensional than many assume, offering a platform to some (attractive) women to pursue higher education, politics, and more.

Hilary Levey Friedman

Pere Ubu 'Comes Alive' on Their New, Live Album

David Thomas guides another version of Pere Ubu through a selection of material from their early years, dusting off the "hits" and throwing new light on some forgotten gems.


Woods Explore Darkness on 'Strange to Explain'

Folk rock's Woods create a superb new album, Strange to Explain, that mines the subconscious in search of answers to life's unsettling realities.


The 1975's 'Notes on a Conditional Form' Is Laudably Thought-Provoking and Thrilling

The 1975 follow A Brief Inquiry... with an even more intriguing, sprawling, and chameleonic song suite. Notes on a Conditional Form shows a level of unquenchable ambition, creativity, and outspoken curiosity that's rarely felt in popular music today.


Dustbowl Revival's "Queen Quarantine (A Home Recording)" Is a Cheeky Reproach of COVID-19 (premiere)

Inspired by John Prine, Dustbowl Revival's latest single, "Queen Quarantine (A Home Recording)", approaches the COVID-19 pandemic with wit and good humor.


The 2020 US Presidential Election Is Going to Be Wild but We've Seen Wild Before

Americans are approaching a historical US presidential election in unprecedented times. Or are they? Chris Barsanti's The Ballot Box: 10 Presidential Elections That Changed American History gives us a brief historical perspective.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.