I just finished John Hodgman’s book, “Medallion Status” and I want to talk about it.
I have enjoyed all of Hodgman’s books, starting with his absurdist trilogy of satirical almanacs and then his first play-it-straight work of memoir/storytelling, “Vacationland.” “Medallion Status” is certainly in the vein of “Vacationland” — it’s story-based and, though very funny, it is sincere as opposed to absurd — but it’s a far more affecting book than its predecessor. And it, quite unexpectedly, resonated with me personally for reasons I’ll explain in a moment.
The overarching theme of “Medallion Status” is Hodgman’s contemplation of his relatively minor celebrity status and how, it would seem anyway, he is on the way toward losing most of it. It’s a status he earned, such as it was.
Hodgman was a literary agent and left that to be a magazine writer. He then wrote his absurdist books and became a semi-regular on “The Daily Show.” His most visible bit of early fame came when he starred in those memorable “I’m a Mac/I’m a PC” commercials for Apple. Then he was on TV some more, becoming a regular or semi-regular on a few dramas and comedies — fourth or fifth-billed, maybe; the friend of a main character or a key person in a four-episode story arc — all the while continuing to write books and articles in various places. He has a popular and long-running podcast and does live performances that fall somewhere in between standup comedy and storytelling.
In another era Hodgman would be called a humorist or a raconteur and would regularly show up on talk shows or game shows even when he had nothing to promote. If we still had shows like “Love Boat” and “Fantasy Island” he’d make multiple guest appearances in the third, comedic plot line of that week’s episode. Like Charles Nelson Reilly or Paul Lynde or someone, his fame, once achieved, would never have really ended.
We don’t live in that era anymore, however. Now entertainment is thoroughly fragmented and there is not as much room for the broadly and non-specifically famous as there once was. Hodgman’s writing career is ascendant now, yes, and he is very well known to people who care a great deal about podcasts, brainy and witty social media presences, and the like, but his fame — the sort of fame that being on TV gives a person that writing even well-regarded books does not — is on the wane because he has mostly stopped getting TV work.
Almost of the stories in “Medallion Status” deal with this in one way or another. The title comes from the lofty airline status he achieved while flying back and forth across the country to film episodes of his TV shows and the great lengths he went to maintain it. Other stories deal with how hotels and drivers and people who work in restaurants treat even the moderately famous differently than they treat other people and how strange and different the day-to-day existence of entertainers happens to be. It might be tempting for someone in Hodgman’s position to write somewhat dismissively about all of those things — to treat it with ironic detachment, as if it was all just a superficial lark and to claim that now, thankfully, he is doing real, substantive intellectual work — but Hodgman resists that urge.
Hodgman’s stories about the peculiarity and absurdity of being famous — or at least fame-adjacent — are hilarious, but he does not dismiss the lure and pleasure of even minor fame. He’s clear-eyed and self-effacing about the fame he achieved, but not excessively or falsely self-effacing. He’s honest about how much he enjoyed it. He isn’t afraid to admit how important it made him feel when the manager of a fancy Hollywood hotel considered him a special, regular guest or when he was invited to parties by people who are and always will be universally famous. He is also not afraid to admit that he misses a good many things about his more famous days and he isn’t afraid to show that he is not completely over them, apparently, being gone. Indeed, the entire book could be read as Hodgman trying to come to terms with losing that status. There’s no denial or anger, but there is a good deal of bargaining, depression, and grudging acceptance on display to suggest that he has experienced something akin to grief about it all, even if it also seems pretty clear that he’ll be just fine, thanks.
I’ve never even been adjacent to the fame-adjacent, but in the smaller world of sports media I’ve had some superficial Hodgman-level notoriety. I’ve been on TV many times and had regular radio appearances and things like that. I’ve been invited to events I would not have been invited to if I did not work for a big famous media company and got to meet and talk to people who I would otherwise never have met. Though not many people could pick me out of a lineup, if I said “I work for NBC Sports” they immediately knew what I was talking about and at times I got treated way better than I deserved to be treated because of it. And now, of course, that phase of my life is over.
That part of my life being over should not be even a remote source of sympathy nor is it the sort of thing that is going to inspire me to write a book or anything, but I’m not gonna lie: it’s a bit of a drag on the old ego that I’m no longer able to say “I work for NBC Sports.” It was superficial, but it wasn’t nothing. It was a very nice shorthand that allowed me to portray myself as something a bit more elevated than a suburban dad writing on the internet while sitting on the couch in his pajama pants and a cat on his lap. Three weeks after being let go I’m still adjusting to the fact that I don’t have a job with a recognizable, name-brand media company. No stranger out in the real world has yet to ask me what I do for a living since the NBC job went away, but even if I am doing something that I’m super happy about, super excited about and, if it continues to go well, will be even better, practically, than my NBC job, I don’t know exactly how I’ll put it when someone does ask me what I’ll do. The current venture doesn’t have that nifty little status-infused — “I work for NBC Sports” — thing that the old gig had. I’ll have to explain what I’m doing now. And no one will assume — as no small number of people before did — that I’m jetting around the country, VIP-style, to cover big events and hobnob with famous athletes when I tell them what I do. Even if I never actually did that before.
Reading Hodgman’s book about a vaguely analogous thing was useful and helpful in light of all of that. For the past couple of weeks I’ve felt embarrassed to even think the things I wrote in the previous paragraph let alone say them out loud, because who gives a fuck if I no longer have a title or status that sounds misleadingly impressive? But it is a thing that sticks in my brain a bit still, and likely will stick there for at least a little while longer. Silly or not, I’m glad I’m not the only late 40-something-year-old dad in the world of media and entertainment who thinks such things and I’m glad Hodgman was willing to share stories about his decidedly first world problem, because dammit, some of us have decidedly first world problems of our own.
There’s a bit in “Medallion Status” though, that has nothing to do with Hodgman’s life as a fame-adjacent person that really speaks to me. It comes in the chapter in which he details all the jobs he’s had in his life — something I did myself over a decade ago, the last time I was ending one job and starting another. Among the many things Hodgman did before becoming famous was working at a video store. This was about 30 years ago. It was a job he loved. Maybe more than any job he ever had. It was easy and it was fun and, given his love of movies, it flowed perfectly with his personal interests and tastes. But, he writes, it’s a job he had to leave for his own good:
“Easy jobs are great. And as you ease into them, they get even better. They do not challenge you, and you never want to leave. But be careful about getting stuck in the easy jobs. Days turn to years quickly when you are not challenged, frightened, tested.”
I loved my job at NBC — it truly was great and, as noted, there was some status to it that I miss — but yeah, this hits pretty close to home. Inertia can be be a bitch. It can put you right to sleep, even if the sleep is rather pleasant. And you don’t realize that you were sleeping until you’re startled awake.
Now, though: I’m feeling challenged and tested. There is the feeling that the safety net has been taken away and that is exhilarating in ways that, while not completely independent of fear, is motivating. I am awake again. I feel alive in ways I haven’t felt alive in a while, even if I had been perfectly comfortable.
Anyway, thanks for indulging me in this. Go read “Medallion Status.” It’s an excellent book.
(Featured photo: the book jacket of “Medallion Status,” by Aaron James Draplin, Draplin Design Co.)