John Hodgman, the bookish, bespectacled and often-extravagantly mustachioed humorist, has made a career out of being, in his own words, “an obnoxious know-it-all.”
For nearly 10 years, Hodgman embodied this persona with dry wit and a thick air of Ivy League condescension as “The Daily Show’s” Resident Expert, dishing comic-wisdom on a wide and ridiculous array of topics, including opening a gated community on Mars.
More recently, he has been presiding over a “fake internet courtroom” on his weekly podcast, “Judge John Hodgman,” where he hears the everyday disputes of his callers and then explains, with great relish, the various ways they are wrong.
The “Judge John Hodgman” show — recording live at The Trocadero Theater this month — is something of a comedic People’s Court, focusing on normal, mostly harmless conflicts among loved ones, the kind of cute disputes that so often make for long-running inside jokes.
A couple can’t agree on how to decorate their apartment. A woman keeps stealing her daughter-in-law’s cooking recipes. A husband wants to dig up the family dog and make a little taxidermy statue out of its bones.
OK, not all the disputes are normal.
No matter the issue, or how weird it is, Hodgman hears both sides of the case, asks a smattering of clarifying questions, and then eloquently explains to someone how they’re wrong.
“I love telling people they’re wrong, a little bit more than I love telling people they’re right,” Hodgman jokes over the phone on a recent Friday afternoon. “I have been alive for a period of time and have a certain amount of wisdom … that I like forcing on people, whether they like it or not.”
People do like it, though, even when he’s ruling against them. It seems to be generally understood that, though Hodgman is a comedian who makes light of each episode’s disputes, his podcast is more to him than fodder for jokes.
“The fact is, I never even considered it to be a comedy podcast to begin with,” he admits. “I mean, I hope that we all have a good time and we get some cracks in, including the litigants, but mostly it’s a fun conversation where we learn about how people live their lives. And, maybe, by shining a light on their worst habits, we get to repair a marriage.
“Or,” he adds, “destroy a marriage that shouldn’t exist.”
It seems that the key to “Judge John Hodgman’s” success lies not in the snobbish, know-it-all persona its host perfected during his years on “The Daily Show” — a comedic exaggeration he refers to as “a heightened version of myself” — but in the show’s genuine warmth toward its guests.
“As much as I tend to yell at people on my podcast, it is with great affection, because I like human beings,” he says. “I always enjoyed, when I would go on tour with comedy or with my books, talking to people afterward and learning what they do in their lives.
“I realized very quickly into it that [‘Judge John Hodgman’] is about justice,” he adds, “but it’s also essentially an excuse for me to have conversations with people that I otherwise would never meet or necessarily come in contact with, about their weird, dumb lives.”
That’s the heart of it for Hodgman, who, before his career in comedy, wrote lengthy personality profiles for New York Times Magazine, meeting with interesting people, briefly peering into their lives, and then telling their stories.
“What people do in their lives, in the world, is fascinating to me,” he says. “And, for me, it’s always a joy to see who I’m going to talk to next.”
Now embarking on its first major tour, the “Judge John Hodgman” podcast, including indispensable bailiff Jesse Thorn, will hold court at The Troc on Sept. 20, where its host will rule on the disputes of Philadelphians before a live audience. “And then,” Hodgman says, “if it still exists, I’ll go to Little Pete’s and eat some scrapple.”
On the format of the live show, he says, “Essentially it will be a big, raucous, live, sort of trial-by-mob, whereas the regular podcast is in the staid and silent confines of my fake internet courtroom. Now it’s coming out into the town square, where people can yell and scream their disapproval or aggravation.”
Yell and scream though they might, Hodgman says he retains all authority.
“I’ve learned not to let the mob sway my decision-making too much. But it does add an element of extra excitement,” he says, adding that only “very rarely” do the live shows result in “tarring and feathering.”
For more information on “Judge John Hodgman,” visit maximumfun.org/shows/judge-john-hodgman.com.