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Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches by John Hodgman

December 30, 2017


If I were to choose one word to describe Hodgman’s sense of humor, I would employ the gray area of the hyphen and go “self-depricating.” He is uber-aware of his own idiosyncrasies, the limits of his coolness, and it’s in the calling out of his own flaws and “un-coolness” that he earns his laughs and his likability. He is a post-post-modern hero of hipsters everywhere, a renaissance man for the modern era who achieved fame via the unusual trifecta of 1) regular appearances on The Daily Show, 2) by playing a nerdy representation of a lame computer in tv commercials, and 3) via publishing strange compendiums of mostly untrue trivia. He recalls the time he was introduced “Ladies and gentlemen…the white privilege comedy of John Hodgman.”

The danger of all this is that a) Hodgman is either in your strike zone or not when it comes to sense of humor (and it may be a pretty small strike zone) and b) he comes off as fake, manufactured, too self-aware. What Vacationland does, in my estimation, is both broaden his strike zone with more mainstream humor and give a more candid look into who Hodgman is, such that his image comes off as genuine and uncultivated. He’s not shedding his shtick as much as letting us see the person behind the shtick, and it feels pretty authentic.

The topics included here: inheriting a home, living a more pastoral life, money troubles, success, dealing with fame, living near famous writers, an encounter with Stephen King, embracing (at least acknowledging) middle-age white maleness, garbage dumps, fear of nature, New Englanders, backing a boat trailer, mosquitos and his beard (“I look like the IT guy for Duck Dynasty”), to name a few. The title of the book comes from the nickname for Maine:

There is a sign at the border that says “Maine,” and beneath that word it says “Vacationland”…This is either a cruel joke or maybe simply an error. It may be that Maine is called Vacationland because when Maine was invented we didn’t really know what a vacation was yet. After all, most humans did not take vacation until well into the 20th Century. If you lived in the country, you had a farm to tend. If you lived in the city, you had machines to supervise or a shirtwaist factory to be burned to death in. The idea of having several days, never mind weeks or months, to relocate to a climate that was better for your lungs or gout, or to have an extra home in which to practice bridge strategies and indolence was unimaginable to all but the most wealthy Bostonians and New Yorkers who were inbred and warped. And their idea of vacation was to go north to a cold, dark place. Where they would not speak to their families but instead sit in silence, drinking martinis, looking out over bodies of water that you would never, ever go into because the waters of Maine are made of hate and want to kill you.

As usual with comedians, I prefer the audiobook (if the author reads). I found myself listening to the last chapter of this book in the parking lot of a Home Depot, growing woozy as Hodgman describes his arm being impaled on the nail of his barn door (I don’t like blood that way). I tweeted at Hodgman, asking him if the last chapter was really necessary. He tweeted back, “Yes it was.” And that seemed about right—a little snarky, funny but real.


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