by Nat Cassidy · January 16, 2014
Playwrights on New Plays #33 Nat Cassidy looks at John Hodgman: I Stole Your Dad part of the Under the Radar Festival Comedian John Hodgman, a featured correspondent on The Daily Show, the embodiment of PCs in Apple’s “Mac vs PC” campaign, and a self-described “Weird Dad Fat Jason Mraz,” has never been what one might call a confessional comedian. His modus operandi often involves something of a caricature of himself, spooling out observations with a laconic, playfully smug delivery – warmer and livelier than, say, a Todd Barry or an Anthony Jeselnik (definitely not as purposefully Edgy-with-a-capital-E as the latter, and certainly not as punchline-based as either), but equally as self-congratulatory to comedic effect. Rarely, however, do we get a glimpse of the man behind the routine.
Hodgman’s last special, Ragnarok, showcased this quite well, with Hodgman assuming the role of Eccentric Billionaire John Hodgman, holed up in his bunker in preparation for the coming Mayan Apocalypse. The special proceeded as a sort of variety show being held to while away the time before the end of the world.
His newest special, I Stole Your Dad, currently running as part of The Public’s Under the Radar festival, picks up where Ragnarok left off (although you absolutely don’t need to have seen it first). Hodgman enters wearing multiple layers of sweatshirts and jackets, and proceeds to tell us how the world, in fact, did not end as the Mayans predicted (in case we hadn’t noticed).
He confesses that even though he was playing a character during the Ragnarok special, he still become rather infatuated with the idea of Apocalypse, and he attributes this to reaching an age (his 40s) when it becomes clear that he is actually going to die. He can’t deny it anymore – he even hurts himself dancing in front of us when he enters. So the Apocalypse, he explains, is a particularly appealing death to the narcissist: it confirms the world actually won’t continue without you.
Hodgman starts to remove his multiple layers of clothing. They were all swag gifts – a Daily Show zip-up, a Bored to Death hoodie, etc. – and he tells us he was bulking up beneath comfortable reminders of previous successes to buffet himself from the failure of the world to end and prove to him that his existence actually was central. But he’s stripping down now, confronting his mortality. He sets the audience up for what sounds like a night of personal revelation.
The line between stand-up comedy and one-person show can be a fine one. While the particularly reductive might think of stand-up as more a random string of bits and observations, there are many comedians who center routines on a theme, even creating an arc towards some cathartic conclusion (comedians like Christopher Titus, or specials like Paul F. Tompkins’ “Driven to Drink” immediately spring to mind). And given the prominence of more storytelling-oriented comedy (often with a confessional bent), the distinction between stand-up and theatrical monologist is essentially trivial.
I Stole Your Dad gets close to this, and I think is striving for it, but never really finds the cohesion needed to be a truly satisfying monologue. It is an evening replete with dissections of shifting identity—children become cats, Ayn Rand becomes a Parade Magazine advice columnist, Downton Abbey becomes Upstairs/Downstairs (because it already is that)—but the material, funny and charming though it is, is still too scattershot and dissipated to really live up to the promise the image its opening image makes (although, spoiler alert, you will see Hodgman in just his underwear by the end).
I Stole Your Dad is certainly more personal than that in Ragnarok, but perhaps in this world of ultra-warts-and-all comedians like Louis CK and Jen Kirkman, or monologists like Mike Daisy, we expect a lot from our solo performers when it comes to confessional material. All that being said, it’s still quite an enjoyable evening with a talented, accomplished storyteller, and fans of Hodgman already will likely not be disappointed.
The word Apocalypse itself literally means “unveiling.” Eccentric Billionaire John Hodgman’s world hasn’t quite ended, but I’m very much looking forward to more of his layers coming off.