If you’ve been living under a rock in a nerd-free wasteland, there is a chance you do not know the name John Hodgman. Although I am sure that even the most nerd-agnostic among us would recognize his face. He was the PC guy from Apple’s iconic Get a Mac commercials, and is The Daily Show‘s “resident expert.” He quizzed President Obama on nerd-culture trivia during the 2009 Radio and TV Correspondents’ Dinner as the headline speaker. John Hodgman is, in his own words, a “famous minor television personality.”
But he’s much more than this. John Hodgman is, as many of my middle-aged nerd-brethren would likely agree, the voice of our people.
John Hodgman is the real deal – an authentic nerd doing authentically nerdy things in front of a steadily growing audience. He is an eloquent nerd of the bookish variety with a well-groomed mustache and a propensity for performing in a three–piece suit and bare feet. He’s not just playing a character – it’s not shtick. He’s not George Clooney with a pair of taped-up glasses. Listening to him recite the Green Lantern oath or describe the history of chamber pots on the Judge John Hodgman podcast, I can hear true nerd authority in his words.
Hodgman is the every-nerd of my generation. He was there alongside us in the 1980s, reading his comic books and his dog-eared copy of Dune. Thirty years later, he was there alongside the POTUS, extolling the virtues of nerd-dom to a national audience. His rising star follows an unexpected trajectory. A piece he wrote for the New York Times Magazine lead to a cameo on Battlestar Galactica. His first Daily Show appearance to promote his debut book snowballed into a slew of TV roles. Hodgman himself has expressed surprise at watching his career as a writer/author transition into that of a television personality. It would appear that Hodgman is the man chosen by fate to represent all middle-aged nerds in The Show. Not unlike that father at Disney World who gets picked out of the crowd to stand onstage next to Captain Jack Sparrow, waving a fake sword with a dopey grin on his face. “That’s our dad! On stage! Next to Jack Sparrow!” his kids shout.
“That’s Hodgman! On Battlestar Galactica! Next to Starbuck!” us nerds shout.
Hodgman seems to be everywhere as of late; on primetime network shows like Community, reading his essays on This American Life, singing duets with Jonathan Coulton, as a panelist on Stephen Fry’s QI, and performing comedy alongside Kristen Schaal and Eugene Mirman. But does his omnipresence mean that he is mainstream? Mainstream in the sense that we’ve now accepted the nerd-archetype as a primary character and not just some comic-relief sidekick? If so, it raises the much more important question: have I, the skinny kid from high-school with the unfortunate complexion and the “you’re such a great friend” luck with the ladies, finally been validated? Are nerds finally the cool kids at the party?
Some might argue that nerd-culture has long been mainstream, and cite the Big Bang Theory as the standard-bearer for geek-chic. But there’s something oddly cartoonish about the nerds on Big Bang. I can’t always relate to their over-the-top nerd-antics. They are a modernized, cuddlier version of Anthony Edwards and Robert Carradine’s characters from Revenge of the Nerds – more accessible to be sure, but we’re too often laughing at them and not with them. As a card-carrying nerd of the academic variety, I would no sooner feel at home in Wolowitz’s tight pants or Koothrappali’s bizarre sweater-vests than I would an NFL linebacker’s uniform. For many of us middle-aged nerds, our awkwardness is long-since buried beneath a layer of social normalcy and properly-fitting jeans. The pocket-protector thing is an 80s movie trope currently being fetishized and celebrated (with a knowing wink) in reality shows like King of the Nerds or Beauty and the Geek. But it’s not the current reality for most 30 and 40-something nerds.
No, the Hodgmanic nerdiness that characterizes my generation is not so in-your-face. Hodgman nerds won’t be wearing sweatpants to social events, or get tongue-tied around pretty girls/boys. Our mature nerdiness only manifests itself in our sci-fi heavy Netflix queues, our overly-enthusiastic dinner conversations about Schrödinger’s cat, and our pedantic need to politely correct strangers who suggest that Han Solo was the captain of the Enterprise.
The idea of the gentleman-nerd, unironically blending into popular culture, is the domain of Mr. Hodgman. And he has parlayed it into a successful onscreen career, much to the delight of us nerds in the trenches.
I am, of course, judging Hodgman’s success/omnipresence via a biased dataset stemming from my own cultural predilections. Battlestar Galactica, Community, QI – these are the trappings of nerdernity, not necessarily what most folks would call ‘the mainstream.’ Miley Cyrus is mainstream. And I very much doubt we’ll see her twerking in the direction of Mr. Hodgman at next year’s MTV music awards.
But with each appearance of Hodgman onscreen, we inch closer to normalization. Nerds in the mainstream – not as jesters, but as fully actualized and socially competent characters. And perhaps more importantly, nerds being portrayed by people who are themselves fully actualized and socially competent Nerds In Real Life (NIRL).
Based on the current Hodgman data trends vis–à–vis my personal media preferences, I predict that the world is going to see Mr. Hodgman appear in the following:
1) In a cameo as a mustachioed White Walker in Game of Thrones
2) As Ogden Morrow in the film adaptation of Ready Player One
3) As Lady Edith’s next love interest on Downton Abbey
Did you notice the key element in this list? It’s not Game of Thrones (still nerd territory), or Ready Player One (true nerd porn). It’s Downton Abbey. You know who watches Downton Abbey? Katy Perry. And she’s no nerd. Perez Hilton considers her the Queen of Pop! If Hodgman should marry into the Crawley family under the gaze of Katy Perry, then I say that he, as an actor and a nerd-icon, will have successfully bridged the gap between nerd-dom and mainstream popular culture. A nerd face broadcast into the homes of middle-America every Sunday at 9:00 PM Eastern Time! And not in the role of an awkward deranged millionaire, but as a leading man!
As Hodgman’s tendrils penetrate ever deeper into popular culture, the nerd-agnostic public will come to know his name. And in doing so, they will come to know us; the middle-aged nerd army. We are no longer the weird kids playing Advanced Dungeons and Dragons during high-school lunch breaks. We are your doctors, your lawyers, your arborists, and your electricians. Yes, most of us have a shoebox filled with original Star Wars figures stowed safely in the closet. And yes, we go gaga over Kara Thrace. And sure, we’d donate money to a Kickstarter campaign to produce a second season of Firefly. (Is that happening? If so, please send the link.)
But some of us have climbed so high up the mainstream ladder that we get to joke with the President of the United States of America about the Kwisatz Haderach. Some of us might even be the President of the United States of America.
We are nerds. Proud nerds. Aging nerds.
And John Hodgman is our king.
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