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:
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.”
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:
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:
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:
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.