That Is All
by John Hodgman
2011 • 368 pages • Dutton
Eddie Izzard is one of my favorite comedians. And when I was a kid, he was my favorite comedian. (He may have been the only comedian whose comedy albums I listened to as a kid, but variation and wider context were of little concern to my anxious, angry child self.) His lack of any up-to-the-minute topical references that would have flown over my sheltered head certainly helped, but it’s his gleeful relations of history that have always stuck with me. Well, that and “If I die on the floor, can I get up in these heels? NO!” Something about learning something new about history and immediately poking holes in it appealed me. As a teenager, I even put together a delighted retelling of Rasputin’s death in unwitting tribute, although I’ve phased it out ever since I discovered Boney M.’s magnificent “Rasputin.”
John Hodgman appeals to me for a similar reason; his humor, especially the humor on display in his trilogy of complete world knowledge, stems from both delight in the bizarre world around us and the puncturing of authority, although the authority, in this case, is his, to be punctured by his tremendously surreal but precise imagination. In high school, I used to go to the gym three times a week and work out listening to The Areas of my Expertise on audiobook, over and over and over. To this day, the scent of a public gym mat conjures memories of a copious list of hobo names and Jonathan Coulton’s improvised theme songs for all fifty-one states. (The fifty-first is the roaming state of Ar, of course.)
I never moved onto More Information Than You Require, although I certainly gifted a copy to a promising friend of mine. But when I saw That Is All at the public library in the dying days of 2014, it felt right. I have trouble with the end of months—something about seeing all the checks on my calendar (one of my rare superstitions: days must be crossed off or they’ll linger and haunt you), the advanced number of the day, and the week cut off in the middle tires me. And the end of the year is that times twelve. I can usually get through by plowing ahead with my daily routine and hurling myself into the holidays, but it nonetheless lends that last week of December an apocalyptic mood for me. A book whose only real unifying theme is the looming threat of Ragnarok spoke to me.
I don’t have to tell you that That is All is funny. If you enjoyed The Areas of My Expertise and More Information Than You Require, you’ll enjoy the more of the same on display here: a list of Old Ones, an entry on every page for the days in the year leading up to Ragnarok, and a time-traveling Ronald Reagan that made me spit out my drink. Hodgman is at the top of his game here. The rhythm of spoken comedy can be hard to pin down on the page, but Hodgman’s erudite, long-winded, and boisterous personality is the same in both mediums. (This is presumably due to his comedy career’s roots in writing; I had no idea that his visits to The Daily Show started when he was interviewed to promote The Areas of my Expertise. Amazing!) For example: “Of course money cannot buy happiness. Money is just an inanimate object, in the shape of dollars and beautiful coins. ONLY YOU can buy happiness and self-confidence, by buying THINGS with MONEY. (691)”
But That Is All also gets personal in spots, which I didn’t expect. It’s about a ninety-ten comedy to personal life split, but Hodgman tells a few personal stories, such as visiting Aspen with Jonathan Ames (who “resembles the ghost of a drowned ship’s captain from the nineteenth century,” another joke that made me laugh out loud) and, most importantly, when he realized that he no longer wanted to be a literary agent. The story is not technically true—it centers on his attempts to sign a fictional, reclusive author—but it nonetheless remains deeply personal, focused on how Hodgman realized that what he was doing was sucking the life out of both him and his clients. I found it oddly touching, especially since Hodgman’s comedic persona is so specifically constructed (especially in the guise of the Deranged Millionaire). It’s a strange but poignant conclusion to a trilogy of complete world knowledge.
I rented this book from the public library.