John Hodgman is the world's foremost expert on all things canny and uncanny, and everything in between. And today marks the release of Ragnarok, his one-hour comedy special about the apocalypse, via Netflix. To celebrate, we talked to him about the meaning of apocalyptic stories, and why he doesn't love zombies.
Last year, Hodgman did a comedy show about the apocalypse, timed to the supposed end of the world on December 21. And now it's available via Netflix, as of today. We talked to Hodgman on the phone for 20 minutes, and he told us all about the end of everything.
Where did the idea for doing an apocalypse-themed stand up tour and comedy special come from?
Well, I’m afraid of death. I’m unusual in that, I think. I turned 40 a couple of years ago, and that is when a lot of humans start to really contemplate their mortality. Up until then it is pretty easy to pretend you are immortal, but when you turn 40 it starts to come into focus that you are not beginning something but ending something and to think about what that ending is. Then I realised we were in the midst of this apocalyptic fervor surrounding the whole new age theory of the Mayan long-count calendar somehow encoding the end of the world or the end of some major period of human history.
And you know, apocalyptic visions are stories and books of the Bible and movies, and so on, are comforting — even though they involve the death of millions of people — because A) they usually involve one survivor or include in their story the idea that you are going to be the one who is going to be lifted up to Heaven or get to wander through the streets of empty New York or survive the zombie plague and finally get to shoot your former neighbours in the head. You know what I mean? So those are all kind of wish fulfillment.
And B) even if you imagine that you are not going to survive, there is something comforting in so far as… It's not merely that you die, it’s that when you die, you get take the whole world out with you in that apocalyptic situation. Your passing is noted with the passing of all civilisation and life on Earth. That, in a dark way, is comforting because the alternative is, what is actually frankly true for most people: That your death will pass relatively unnoticed and over time will not be remembered at all.
There is a picture of H.P. Lovecraft on the set of the special. The thing that I think he understood — the thing about horror — is not merely the horror of the unknown, but the horror of your own insignificance. And that the Old Ones and the pan-dimensional monster creatures that inhabit the margins of his stories, what makes them terrifying is not just the tentacles, but the fact they predate human history by millennia and will post date human history by even more millennia. The idea that we are as cosmically insignificant as we are is terrifying. That’s all. That’s the most terrifying.
What’s your favourite type of apocalypse? Zombies, asteroids, plagues?
What apocalypse do I find most comfortable? Well, zombies, I’m not as into [them] as the rest of the world is. Because I think, as I say, that the wish fulfillment fantasy there is pretty transparent and juvenile — which is you get to hurt people with impunity, in a world where laws no longer apply to you. And, you know your perverse desire to murder is justified entirely, because you are constantly in a kill-or-be-killed situation. There is no nuance to the zombies. They want only brains and they cannot be reasoned with, and therefore there is nothing you can do. You’ve got to just go on a murderous rampage yourself.
But I guess probably the one I find most [compelling] is the "last person on Earth" scenario. Because there is that element of getting to drive through the abandoned city at high speeds and get to wander into every [apartment]. You know I live in New York City, so 40% of my brain is filled with apartment and lifestyle envy, so getting to wander through all the different lives that used to inhabit there [is an attractive fantasy]. But I also find that it is appropriately discomforting as well, because what is worse than death? Being the last person on earth. That is the loneliness we are all going to face in our personal apocalypse.
A lot of my quote-unquote "research" for thinking about the apocalypse was reading Stephen King’s The Stand. And not just the short version either. The whole directors cut, that he put out once he got his money together. So I had never read it when I was younger. I read it for the first time, I’m embarrassed to admit, over the past couple of years ago, when I was starting to think about this material. I found it very compelling and relatively timeless. And chilling.
Do you think the apocalypse should be religious or secular?
I am a true agnostic, which as you know is the lazy person's atheism. Kind of don't want to take a side. And truly, I think that even though my dark instincts are that there is nothing beyond — and I am willing to say that there is little to no compelling evidence that there is something beyond — I am always the first to announce my ignorance, and willingness to accept there might be evidence that I haven't gotten yet. That may be just grasping for hope. The reality is that I just don't know. And the apocalypses, such as the Book of Revelation, have less purchase on my imagination, because it seems more likely that we will not be Raptured to a special place.
And [a story that has] far less blood and fury, and [is] far more terrifying, of course, is The Road, which s a totally compelling and realistic and fatalistic imagination of what would happen if society went away. The thing about that book was, it was unbearable to read. To the point of getting mad — like, why would you put someone through this? And then you kind of experience what it would be like to go through something like that, in the sense that your sensibilities get callused over, your emotions get callused, as they would have to in any profoundly traumatic experience where you see something that you hope never to have seen. And you become caught up in going forward through the book, just as the guy gets caught up in going forward down the road, even though you as the reader, and he as the protagonist, know just how hopeless the whole exercise is. There is something profoundly true about the human dumb persistence in life that is given real relief if you do not believe in an afterlife.
That just got real deep, right?
But then I realised I hadn't really checked in with the biography of Cormac McCarthy in a long time. And he had kind of come out of seclusion to do some press for the movie of The Road when that came out. So there were some more recent interviews with him. So the story that he [shared] was, "I started thinking about The Road when I was on a trip through Ireland with my son, a couple of years ago, who was about the same age at the time [as the boy in the novel.]" And I was like, "Wait a minute. You have a twelve-year-old son, Cormac McCarthy? What's your age again? Oh yeah. You're 79, or whatever. Oh, you're a guy who had a son very late in life. You are not writing about the human condition, or a global apocalypse, you're writing about the personal apocalypse that you're facing. You realise that you're not going to see your son grow up." So I got mad at Cormac McCarthy for putting me through all that, when it turns out he was just working through his own dumb emotions. [Laughs]
I'm not really mad at Cormac McCarthy, but that book really did a number on me.
Has the apocalypse gotten more literary in the last decade? It used to be a lot more goofy, like in the days of Mad Max and Hell Comes to Frogtown.
Yeah, I miss those days. There's some really, really interesting [stuff happening now]. It was an interesting thing that happened when Cormac McCarthy wrote essentially a science fiction novel. Without any science in it. But a speculative fiction novel about a future apocalypse. And there's beautiful and moving and powerful and literary speculative fiction out there that is not ashamed of the genre. And I'm not suggesting that Cormac McCarthy was — but the way that book was treated by most humans in the world was, "Finally someone has done a serious book [of speculative fiction.]"
And I was like, "That's not true." The fact that that book was treated better than other great works along the same theme — including, for that matter, The Stand. Line by line, it's hard to find a better writer than Stephen King. This guy is up there. While it takes its own melodramatic turns, there are moments of abject sorrow and terror in there that rival anything I've read under the "literary" umbrella. And as human and as revelatory.
There is a general fascination, that maybe has come to its head or maybe is still going on, with this feeling that things, particularly in American culture and American primacy, is kind of unravelling. And there is an anxiety, that is appropriate to the times, that we have done such damage to this planet that it may be irreversible. So there is an apocalyptic mood in general, culturally and politically, that is getting everyone's attention from the far-right doomsday preppers, who are underground and imagine the New World Order is coming... to the Chardonnay club of literary circles in New York, who read and discussed The Road.
But certainly, I think the success of that book and the acclaim it got opened the door for writers who might not necessarily have taken a look at these kinds of [topics, and] might not have felt comfortable working in genre before.
Are you going to see World War Z?
Sure. Only because I have to. As much as I malign the zombie thing, what Max Brooks did was more interesting than mass-murder wish fulfillment, so I'm definitely going to check it out.
People talk about the Soft Apocalypse, where everything is just super gradual. What would be the softest apocalypse?
Every day, as we're living it today. It's hard not to feel like frogs in a gently simmering pan at the moment. The softest apocalypse is the one we're living right now, and the one that we face every minute that passes, before the individual apocalypse that awaits the end of all of our days.
Thanks to Amanda Yesilbas for transcription.