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KAI RYSSDAL: You've got to hand it to John Hodgman. In the past year he's published a successful book and he's landed a regular gig on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. And he's wound his way into America's collective consciousness as this guy.
MAC: Hello I'm a Mac
PC: And I'm a PC you know we use a lot of the same kinds of programs. . .
Right. He's the PC in those TV ads for Apple. So how does a struggling writer in New York City become a financially solvent cult celebrity in something less than 12 months? Well, as it turns out Marketplace's Sean Cole was there right from the beginning.
SEAN COLE: Now that he's on TV, John Hodgman is basically the jack-of-all-media. For years he's been writing for magazines and public radio's This American Life and hosting a deranged and very funny reading series in Brooklyn called "The Little Gray Book Lectures" one of which was about his hometown of Brookline, Massachusetts.
[ Hodgman performing
JOHN HODGMAN: My name is Frederick Law Olmstead. After designing Central Park, Mount Royal Park in Montreal and many other parks, some of them in Kentucky, I settled in Brookline to build more parks and also to solve crimes.
Exactly one year ago, Hodgman brought this performance to Brookline. And I did a local news story about it. He was so unfamous at this point that as we were talking on the sidewalk, a stranger thought I was doing man-on-the-street interviews and interrupted us. He and Hodgman got to talking.
STRANGER: How have you been able to survive in New York?
HODGMAN: It's been hard, let me tell you. It's been a hardscrabble existence. I've done some things I'm not proud of. But through guile and deceit I clawed my way to a subsistence lifestyle and worry all the time.
Now when strange men stop john Hodgman on the street it's because they've seen him on TV. And he's climbed rapidly from subsistence lifestyle to creative-economy solvency in one of the most expensive cities in the world. So I met up with him again and asked him what happened.
HODGMAN: What happened? A lot of surprising twists and turns.
JON STEWART: Please welcome John Hodgman . . .
HODGMAN: I think it was day before I spoke to you in Brookline that I got the call saying that I had been booked onto The Daily Show to promote the book "The Areas of My Expertise," which is my book.
A compendium of fake historical trivia.
[Daily Show interview
HODGMAN: A great portion of my book is dedicated to the history of the hobos in the United States, their boxcar-hopping, no-pants-changing ways and their brief attempt to take over the United States government.
That interview changed Hodgman's life. For one thing, Amazon rankings for the book shot instantly from 1,400 to like 4.
Besides which, The Daily Show's producers figured a fake news program could use a fake historian in its line up. So they asked Hodgman, one of the show's biggest fans, to come back on as a resident expert. He was flattered but figured it wouldn't amount to anything. And then . . .
[Daily Show interview
JON STEWART: John, talk to us a little bit about the legacy of Alan Greenspan.
HODGMAN: Oh yes Greenspan. The maestro. Rich uncle penny bags. Mr. Triple your money. The man who saxophoned with Stan Getz free-based with Ayn Rand, dated an anchorwoman and invented macaroni and cheese.
Somewhere along the way Hodgman caught the attention of the agency that was casting the Apple commercials. This time he did not think it wouldn't amount to anything. He was sure it wouldn't. And he says his first audition went very poorly. But they called him back for a second one, which went better.
HODGMAN: And I walked out of there and I was just like "Oh God, I think I might get this job." It was a very bad feeling.
MAC: Hello I'm a Mac.
PC: And I'm a PC.
MAC: I'm into doing fun stuff like movies, music, podcasts, stuff like that.
PC: I also do fun stuff like time sheets and spreadsheets and pie charts.
You see, Hodgman's not an actor. And like many successful Americans he's haunted by the irrational belief that he's actually a fraud. In fact he couldn't even bring himself to say the word "success" as we were talking, opting instead for the neologism . . .
HODGMAN: Non-failure. You know, what adds to my shame is these are the sorts of gigs that actual actors will murder for. They're not just initially a big chunk of money. There's that, but there's also promise of residual money down the road. I have actual actor friends who've told me this through gritted teeth with their hands around my neck, you know? So I believe it to be true.
Hodgman wouldn't tell me how much he's earned for the commercials so far. He did say he could go a year without generating any income. He also said that after college he managed to rack up $20,000 in credit card debt. After all, he had moved to New York with a degree in literary theory from Yale University and wanted to work in publishing.
HODGMAN: What I didn't understand was that those three things are the three key ingredients in a starvation cake.
But the book and his resulting rise to televisibilty have allowed him to pay off that debt and at 35 to begin living a middle class life for the first time since childhood.
HODGMAN: But has for the worrying, it has remained constant at 100 percent. And presumably that's why I'm here on Marketplace. You want to know how I'm investing my wealth.
COLE: And how are you?
HODGMAN: Well here are my top picks. Old comic books. Non-interest bearing checking accounts. I'm very into those right now, I think they're very hot. Leasing of a car. S'pretty sweet. 'Cause at the end of it you don't own anything. That's what's good.
And once Hodgman's next book "More Information Than You Require" comes out, there's no telling what he'll lease.
In Boston, I'm Sean Cole for Marketplace Money.
HODGMAN: You have a limo for me right?