<< Ted Rall | Book Review Barbs >>

Yesterday evening I attended The Pollack/Hodgman Interviews at the Richard Hugo House. The titular "Pollack/Hodgman" were Neal Pollack and John Hodgman, both of whom are affiliated with The Phenomenon That Is McSweeneys. More to the point, Pollack's book The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature has just been published in paperback by Harper Perennial, which means they are flinging him all over the country to do book signing and readings and performances and other such Funny On-Demand events.

This was the conceit of the show: Neal Pollack would be playing the character of "Neal Pollack, the Greatest Living American Writer", an author with countless National Book Awards and Pulitzers and Emmys and so forth, and Hodgman would be playing his former literary agent, who interviews him. Which is to say that Pollack, who has only written one book and has received no awards more prestigious than a pat on the back, would be playing a fictitious character, while John, who really was Pollack's literary agent at some point in the past, would be playing himself. Hilarity would ensue.

Here's what actually happened. First, Mr. Hodgman got on-stage and rambled along amusingly for a spell, reading the first piece he ever had published in McSweeney's (which I cannot find a link to) and threatening to digress into a long discourse on "Lord of the Rings" at any moment. Then the "opening act" came on, young Tommy Wallach, who was so fresh-out-of-high-school that I was prepared to find him thoroughly Not Funny and was surprised to discover that he was Very Funny Indeed. (However, Tommy, if you are reading this, and I'm almost certain that you are: you need to trim that Cat In The Hat Piece by about a third.) Tommy is associated with McSweeney's -- and, by extension, Neal Pollack -- because of this very fine short story he wrote for their publication. When I was Tommy's age I fancied myself as funny as he, but upon reflection I realize that I was not, and for this I resent him.

Tommy was followed by Ana sAsKiA, a performance artist who either did an uncannily accurate rendition of a Bjork song or sang a non-Bjork song in the style of Bjork. Using the word "Bjork" three times in a sentence makes my spellchecker very unhappy.

Finally, the Pollack/Hodgman Interview began (although I am not here using the word "finally" to imply that I did not enjoy the material that proceeded it, because I did). Pollack and Hodgman sat in armchairs and sipped scotch as they spoke, all to further the illusion that Pollack was a highly respectable member of the literati and Hodgman was stolid and rather pretentious literary correspondent. Hodgman had a list of questions (on the subject "How to Write A Novel") and Pollack had nothing, the idea being, apparently, that Hodgman would play straightman and Pollack, in character, would ad-lib hilarious, impromptu replies. I am not sad to report that the two gentlemen failed miserably in adhering to the premise. Try as he might, Pollock could not stick to his "Neal Pollock, Greatest Living American Writer" role, and kept reverting to "Neal Pollock, Amicable Goofball, Who is Frankly Astounded That He Gets Paid to Sit on Stage and Drink Bourbon and, Let's Be Honest, While a Funny Writer, Really Isn't That Great at Improvisional Comedy." Hodgman, on the other hand, who is skilled at ad-libbing and mostly stayed in character, kept trying to keep Pollack on track, all while delivering many of the funniest lines of the night in the dry, monotone voice of a literary snob.

Hodgman [quizzing Neal Pollack, Greatest Living American Writer, on the first lines of famous novels]: Okay, here is your next one. "My name is Hubert Humbert, and I want to have sex with a little girl."

Pollock Uhhh ... Lolita! Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov!

Hodgman No, I'm afraid the correct answer is "Reviving Ophelia" by Mary Pipher, Ph.D

All this made for a show that was certainly funnier than it would have been if things had gone as scripted (or if, indeed, they'd had a script at all). Conducting an interview with The Greatest Living American Writer would have been amusing for a while, but conducting an interview with a guy who had somehow written a book, despite the fact that he couldn't go more than 30 minutes without making a reference to Snoop Dog or attempting (and failing) to make a joke about "Nuclear Viagra," was good for non-stop guffaws. It is no exaggeration to say that I laughed more during this show than I have at anything else in recent memory.

About two-thirds of the way through the performance and well into his fourth scotch, Pollack pointed menacingly at the crowd. "You better not blog about this!" he bellowed. "I don't want to show up on no Google search!"

Posted on March 19, 2002 to Favorite Posts