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Web Wonder: Judge John Hodgeman

by Titus Gee on December 3, 2015

in Featured, Web Wonders

Podcasting hit RedFence’s radar about 15 minutes after it came into existence. Since then, the art of the digitally downloadable audio show has exploded in prevalence, quality and cultural penetration. Minds have been tickled. Funny bones have been blown. Fortunes have been . . . Well, some people are making a living.

A few have worked extremely hard and turned this free medium into small empires, or boosted otherwise faltering careers. And yet, we still sometimes get funny looks in response to the question, “What podcasts do you listen to?”  (In person, we sometimes end a sentence with a preposition — just to fit in.) Or worse, we discover that some of the best shows have gone unheard. We find this unconscionable.

So, here, RedFence Editor Titus Gee continues a series — in no particular order — of podcasts any artist or art lover should be streaming during their next workout and/or late night dash to the drive thru.

Required Listening #2
The Judge John Hodgman Podcast
by Titus Gee

Let’s start with The New Sincerity.

No. We have to go back further.

Let us start with that one friend. We all know the one.

At a Frat party, he would be invisible . . . because he would probably never go to a Frat party.

So, ok, at a regular party he would be the guy who stands at the side and smiles at all the jokes. And yet we love to stand next to him because his quiet asides are the best part of our night.

He’s the guy we wish everyone could get to know, but when we introduce him he goes all stiff and silent.

But we know that he’s not always like that. Over coffee at an obscure café-slash-old-book-emporium, the conversation never lags. It’s a constant, two-sided stream of hilarity mixed with insight and unexpected esotery.

He is not flashy, chic or self-aggrandizing.

He’s just grand – in the old meaning of the word. (And also, he understands the old meaning of the word.)

And at that party we were imagining a moment ago, he shines there, too, but not until the end – or really, right after the end.

When all the cool kids have bounced on to the next big thing, he’s one of the few, the true, who hang out until the bottles have all been gathered into recycling bins and the dishes have been stacked for the morning. When the core group of intimates flop on the couch with one last drink, to bask in the afterglow, and the inside jokes flow hot and thick, then he comes to life. Then the room is his, and he holds court, sometimes into the wee hours – not by hogging the spotlight, but by calling thoughts and feelings out of each companion, running the room without overshadowing anyone.

He probably doesn’t look like Brad Pitt, or dress out of the pages of Vogue. But in those moments, he is as magnetic and charismatic as any movie star.

Because he’s not shy. Not exactly.

Some people think he’s shy, but it’s not true. He’s just . . . selective. He knows his true audience, and the settings where a little quirkiness and earnestness and unabashed delight can come together in that perfect moment. Check your self-consciousness at the door. No posing allowed. Only belly laughter and genuine mirth. In those settings he is the very antithesis of shyness. He is a bird in flight, a dolphin surfing a 30-foot wave, a mountain goat at 10,000 feet with all four tiny hooves on a 4-inch ledge of stone.

He might be our favorite gamemaster, the creator of our most loved subreddit, or just a guy with a job who always shows up a little early for Potluck Tuesday with a smile as big as the casserole he’s made from a recipe he read about in Wired Magazine.

If we are honest, many of the readers (and writers) of RedFence are this friend to our friends.


If we could gather all of those friends from all of those circles – and perhaps from all the other circles of vibrant and interesting friends who meet in artists lofts and writers’ warrens all over the country (and, yea, the world) – into one super-circle of distilled “that-friend-ness,” and if we were very, very lucky, then John Hodgman might be that friend for us.

Or we could all just listen to his podcast.

John Hodgman started as a writer, and worked early-on as a literary agent. He got his first real on-screen attention from Jon Stewart, who fell in love with a dry-witted almanac of humor that Hodgman authored and invited him to talk about it on the Daily Show. That led to a series of Daily Show appearances, interviews on the G4 channel, and eventually to Hodgman’s character opposite Justin Long in the iconic “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” commercials for Apple.

But in those early interviews, you can see that he is really one of us – “that friend” thrust into the spotlight with the “pretty people,” getting his bearings and refusing to take it all too seriously – especially when the faux-hawk next to him fails to keep up with his wit.

Since then, Hodgman has become a polished performer, comfortable in his skin on camera and in his particular brand of wry jocularity. His career has continued to build steam with TV and film appearances, as well as stage shows, Netflix specials and, of course, his podcast.

The Judge John Hodgman Podcast is ostensibly a send-up of the TV courtroom shows where single-named judges like Wapner and Judy have harangued at petty people and their pettier squabbles since before “reality TV” was a thing.

Each week, more or less, Hodgman and his producer/”bailiff” Jesse Thorn invite a pair of “disputants” to bring a conflict before the “fake internet judge” for resolution.

They call in via video chat to request adjudication on matters that make The People’s Court seem grave and somber by comparison:

Whether a hard-sleeping teenager should stop asking his early-bird younger brother to wake him, and then refusing to get up. (Yes.)

Whether a dad who buys a pizza should always have the right to choose toppings his family members don’t like. (No.)

Or – most famously – whether a hotdog is, in fact, a sandwich. (Absolutely Not!)

Judge John Hodgman (the character) was born, so far as we can tell, as a segment on Jordan, Jesse Go!, a podcast co-hosted by Jesse Thorn and produced by his company Maximum Fun. The fake internet judge also appears, from time to time, as a column in the New York Times Magazine.

In theory, the judge’s primary goals are comedy and conflict, but in reality he achieves so much more.

The show is funny, of course – sometimes uproarious in its own way – and Hodgman does offer a ruling at the end that disputants promise will be binding. But the real charm and magnetism comes from another quarter.

Because the real John Hodgman clearly loves people – in all their odd and unpredictable uniqueness – he uses his jurist’s bench as an excuse to quiz them about their lives and loves and ways of being, peppering them with revealing questions that sometimes take the whole show down unforeseen rabbit trails into their individual lives. Hodgman seems unable to help himself. He is “that friend” and this is his perfect moment, called into existence each week with a new set of interesting people. What else could he do?

Likewise in his rulings, Hodgman tends to drop out of the supposed shtick and satire of the show’s conceit in order to offer his guests genuine advice that he certainly seems to hope will actually help them to live and to love one another better.

This is where the New Sincerity comes in.

It’s a concept promulgated by Hodgman’s podcast coconspirator, Jesse Thorn, but certainly typified by the Judge John Hodgman Podcast.

New Sincerity, as we understand it, may be best described as enthusiasm that is self-aware without being self-conscious. It is open-faced and open-handed. It refuses to be cool, because being cool eventually means posing or playing a part – self-censoring.

It is not the artlessness of the homeschooler on his first day of college, trying desperately to fit in while clueless about how to do that. Nor is it the jaded self-deprecation of the terminally ironic. Rather it is the homeschooler on graduation day – the valedictorian who has given up the games and charades to embrace the people and interests that actually set his mind and heart awhirl. He does not care that the things he might find “Awesome” are not mainstream or hip or blessed by the current gods and arbiters of cool. He knows, in fact, that they are sometimes quite ridiculous, but he refuses to keep his head down and skulk along in the shadows. He wears his weirdness on his sleeve, overtly – Sincerely. He is free of affectation not through ignorance but through triumph. He is not cool, because he has embraced something much better, and found that, with a certain group of his peers, that thing can be cooler than cool. It can be real.

This is the heart and aspiration of what some have called “Nerd Culture,” and that has driven droves of hot-bodied ex-homecoming queens and heartbreakers to insist they were “kind of a nerd in high school,” despite all evidence to the contrary.

It is the holiest of grails. It is clear-eyed Authenticity-with-a-capital-A. And once experienced in can be deeply addictive, even inspiring.

Which is why we can’t stop listening.

And why you really ought to start.


Header image by liezlwashere, used under Creative Commons.

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