Gilly had beef with her husband Steve. The conflict rested on a wrinkle the Denver couple couldn’t quite iron out: Should the city’s historic University Hills neighborhood, where the pair had recently purchased their first home, be considered the suburbs?
Steve emphatically said no. The Denver native takes great pride in his hometown and hated the idea of dissolving into what he considered the beige sameness of suburbia. Gilly underscored the fact that University Hills was not part of the city’s original urban grid, submitting photos of the neighborhood’s matching 1950s tract homes as evidence for her case.
Enter the honorable Judge John Hodgman. Over the course of an hour, the author, comedian and actor dutifully heard arguments from both sides in “Contempt of Carport,” a 2019 episode of his titular faux-courtroom comedy podcast. Per usual, his verdict delicately walked a hilarious and heartfelt line between tongue-in-cheek scolding and genuine insight.
“I can’t help but say this is a suburb. Historically, it’s a suburb. By looks, it’s a suburb,” Hodgman ruled. “But I am glad to say that suburban neighborhoods are not the horror shows [Steve imagines] them to be. … Culturally, the suburbs you hate are more in your mind than the world you live in.”
Such Judge John Hodgman disputes regularly include color commentary and litigant interviews from his trusted bailiff Jesse Thorn, a podcasting legend in his own right, along with occasional wisdom from a celebrity “expert witness.” Together the pair have been dispensing “fake internet justice” since 2010, when the show spun off from its origins as a recurring segment on Thorn’s long-running free-form comedy podcast, Jordan, Jesse, Go! distributed by his artist-owned, listener-supported Maximum Fun network.
“The fundamental qualities of a good Judge John Hodgman dispute are: It has to be real. It has to have stakes. It can’t be so intense as to be a bummer,” says Thorn, whose NPR interview show Bullseye was the first public radio program west of the Mississippi to podcast. “It has to have real love behind it, real care behind it — and ideally, it involves someone doing something really weird.”
But Hodgman’s bonafides go beyond fake courtrooms. He’s most recently the co-creator with David Rees of the FXX animated series Dicktown, and the author of half a dozen books — like the satirical almanac More Information Than You Require, and recent memoirs Vacationland and Medallion Status. Readers over the age of 30 might also recognize Hodgman from his regular stint as the “deranged millionaire” correspondent on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, or perhaps his appearances opposite Justin Long in a series of mid-2000s Apple commercials.
Ahead of the pair’s upcoming performance at the Gothic Theatre in Englewood, Boulder Weekly sat down with Hodgman and Thorn over Zoom to talk about the history of the show and what attendees can expect from the Feb. 2 serving of “live justice” — plus Hodgman’s favorite hobby store in Boulder, conspiracy theories surrounding Denver International Airport and more.
I spoke with Travis McElroy [of My Brother, My Brother and Me] a few months back to promote their Denver show [postponed to April 29]. So before we get started, can we establish Boulder Weekly as the official alternative newspaper of the MaxFun podcast network?
Jesse Thorn: Yeah, San Francisco Bay Guardian is out of business. You’re in.
John Hodgman: Absolutely. Eat it, Chicago Reader! Actually, don’t eat it. We need all of you.
Thorn: Oh, I just remembered. I already gave the official alternative newspaper designation to Computer Currents. So unless you have listings for used computer parts in your classifieds …
We lose another one to Computer Currents.
Hodgman: This is all on the record, by the way. Best material you’re gonna get out of the whole article.
This is your first time bringing the show to Denver. Have either of you spent much time here before?
Thorn: I went to a public radio program directors conference in Denver, and we all went to a Rockies game. If you’ve ever wanted to take in a sporting event with a group of 200 people who have nothing but contempt for sports, I recommend going to a Rockies game with people from the public radio program directors conference.
Hodgman: I was in Denver in spring of last year to talk to Jeff Tweedy [of the band Wilco] on stage, which was a lot of fun. And I also got to go to Convergence Station, the outpost of the Meow Wolf art installation empire, which I loved a lot.
I also went to Boulder for the very first time last spring as well. I discovered that the Pearl Street Mall is the home of Liberty Puzzles HQ, my favorite jigsaw puzzle maker in the world. I had no idea. I just turned around and there it was. That really made me very excited. And basically right across the street from there is a food hall where I bought an arepa from a young woman who was a big Judge John Hodgman fan, who I hope will come to the show.
And I know you have something of an obsession with Denver International Airport, right?
Hodgman: Well, I’m concerned for our country and our reality. Because the Denver International Airport is obviously up to something, as many people before me have observed. It is a very large airport on a very large parcel of land that is otherwise uninhabited. It has many, many sub basements — more than an airport usually needs — and a lot of very weird and creepy murals depicting a post-apocalyptic environment. So I want to know what’s going on down below there. I think above, it’s basically what you would call an airport: welcoming planes that are arriving and saying goodbye to planes that are going to other places on this earth. I think below, transdimensional travel is likely for our interdimensional overlords.
Have you already begun selecting cases for the Denver show on Feb. 2? Any themes emerging?
Thorn: I can tell you right now we have two submissions from two different sets of people about the exact same thing, which is: “Can a dog’s paws be considered hands?”
Hodgman: That’s from two different sets of people?
It’s a hot topic out here.
Hodgman: I mean, this really does conform to my personal stereotype of what a Coloradan is doing all day long, which is obviously eating a lot of edibles and then staring at their dog and coming up with theories.
Speaking of cases: What are you looking for when it comes to disputes, and what kind of stuff do you try to stay away from?
Thorn: It has to be real.
Hodgman: Yeah, it has to be real. There have been a couple times when I’ve wondered if the disputants had maybe pulled one over on us with a fake dispute just to get on a podcast. But I think for the most part, our listeners and the people who send in disputes understand that it’s a sincere show.
But what I’m looking for is this: Am I interested in it? Do I have something to say about it? Does it make me think about something? If I’m already starting to formulate questions for them in my head, about why they think this or that, then I know I want to be asking these questions in real life.
We do like to have a wide variety of kinds of disputes. Many come in between romantic partners, particularly those who share a house together and are getting on each other’s nerves. So we do try to find some that are more between roommates or friends — or siblings are always great, or moms and daughters. And some of them are just obvious, like the daughter who wrote in saying, “My mom has a wish that when she dies, she’d like to be cremated and to have me flush her ashes down the toilet at Disney World.”
Thorn: She really did want that. Not fake.
Hodgman: I want to know more about that situation, so that one was obvious. Probably the only ones we have gone over and over and over again are dishwashing disputes. I understand why the dishwasher and/or the handwashing of dishes is a locus of dispute. That is a place where a lot of different styles and beliefs come into conflict in a relationship. But we’ve just heard them all at this point, so we probably don’t need them anymore. They’re in the archives.
You’ve been doing the show for 13 years now. How has it evolved since those early days?
Thorn: I was totally wrong about what the tone of the show should be. I thought it would be funnier the higher the stakes were. I thought you couldn’t have funny without stakes. And I think we have found that you do indeed need stakes. It needs to matter to the people involved. But ultimately, we need to have conflict that is resolvable. It’s not a show about watching a train wreck. It’s a show about watching a relationship be repaired.
That’s something I learned both from our audience who wanted that, and from the fact that I didn’t anticipate how immediately and passionately John would pursue wisdom and sincerity in the content of the show. I was there ready to yell at people or whatever. Then John started offering these verdicts that were really insightful. It immediately became clear to me that this wasn’t just like, “Who stole whose dog?” This was really about people’s feelings.
Hodgman: I also came in very hot at the beginning, people will remind me. It is true that I was pretty judgmental in the early days. “Mad with power” is perhaps the phrase that comes to mind. But it’s very interesting to hear you say that, Jesse, because I had not really known that.
I think I intuited pretty quickly that even though the dispute might be over something like, “Which of these two friends gets to hang on to a wind-up toy giraffe they bought together once they move across the country from one another?” — that is, in the grand scheme of things, a pretty low-stakes dispute. But it’s one that I, and I think Jesse, instantly understood to have very high stakes for them as their friendship was going through a transition. They were splitting up, and there isn’t a lot of conversation in our culture around friend breakups, but they happen all the time. They’re a different kind, but it’s sad when your best friend leaves. They were pouring a lot of their feelings about that friend breakup into this wind-up toy giraffe.
I thought it was inappropriate and I told them to smash it, as they should smash all feelings. No — I told them to take turns sharing. I never cut the baby in half. Leave that to some other judges.
What can people expect from the upcoming performance in Denver?
Hodgman: We have one very special guest.
Thorn: Probably Colorado’s funniest man, David Gborie — one of my favorite human beings on earth, and the voice of Comedy Central. The man who comes out of my Paramount Plus app unexpectedly on a regular basis. He’s just an absolute legend of hilarity. But beyond that, what you’ll see is regular folks from Colorado up on stage with real disputes, and us acting dumb for a while but then getting disarmingly sincere. John and I both sing in the show … and there’s also a PowerPoint presentation that ends with a big local reference.
Hodgman: It’ll be our signature mix of sincere and silly plus unexpected guests, or I guess now, expected guests. The surprise of live, in-the-moment dispute resolution, which is a kind of improv comedy all its own. Plus the incredible costuming. I have some very fancy judge’s robes from Canada that I wear — and Jesse Thorn has a bailiff costume, or I should say uniform, that is really quite glorious to behold.
ON THE DOCKET: Judge John Hodgman – Live Justice. 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 2, Gothic Theatre, 3263 S. Broadway, Englewood. Tickets here.