Comedian John Hodgman Has Some Career Advice for Children
John Hodgman on what he’s learned from jobs including English muffin pizza salesperson and video rental clerk
Hello. My name is John Hodgman. I have been in my life a professional writer, actor, comedian, food columnist, literary agent, receptionist, cheesemonger, telemarketer, dishwasher, popcorn seller, video store clerk (that’s something you only see at the Renaissance faire anymore), soup ladler, traffic counter, stockroom attendant, English muffin pizza salesperson, and now, the author of this career guide for you, the precocious child.
I started working when I was a little older than you. I didn’t have to go to work. Both my parents had good jobs and only one young mouth to feed (mine). But it never occurred to me not to work. To me, work meant meeting other humans and learning about them. Sometimes it meant getting paid, but not always. The important thing was that I got to pretend that I was a grown-up, which is the dream of every only child.
(I am still pretending to be a grown-up, by the way. That’s a job that never ends.)
I have learned a lot from all my jobs. I would like to share these lessons with my own children, but they are not interested at all. That’s okay. That’s their job. So instead I’m sharing this knowledge with you, and I’m not going to sugarcoat it. I mean, among other things, I will talk about pornography. But you can handle it. Because you’re smart.
English muffin pizza sales
When I was your age, I was pretty much a genius. I didn’t invent the English muffin pizza. I read about it on the back of a jar of tomato sauce. But I was the one who decided to make them and sell them out of a window of my house.
It was a great business plan. After all, we had a whole box of English muffins and a bunch of shredded cheese just sitting there in the refrigerator. I was already holding the jar of sauce in my hand. The bay window in my mother’s office opened onto an attractive patio (with seating). It was the perfect storefront. I wouldn’t have to pay rent, and I would refuse to pay taxes. It was to going to be pure profit.
So my friend Peter and I split up the neighborhood and covered it with photocopied flyers announcing that two children were selling English muffin pizzas for a quarter and that people were invited to trespass onto my parents’ yard to get them. My parents had paid for the flyers. They also paid for all the pizzas. They may have called it a “budget” or a “loan.” But they paid.
Don’t let somebody set you up in a cushy fake job in your mom’s office.
We opened on a Saturday. I think we were wise enough not to make too many English muffin pizzas in advance. We sold maybe nine. Some of our customers were kids, but mostly it was adults. They were all neighbors and friends of our parents, and they all just happened to be wanting an English muffin pizza in the middle of a humid spring afternoon, and luckily, here we were selling them! This puzzled me at first, but gradually I put it together: They were liars. They had been sent in by our parents to goose sales. And that is what soured me on the English muffin pizza biz forever. It was how I learned that there is such a thing as a dishonest day’s work.
Look, absolutely start a lemonade stand. It gets you out on the street and talking to people. If you’re lucky, and you live in Park Slope like I do, maybe Vincent D’Onofrio will come around and not buy anything and just smoke a cigarette and stare at you. That’s cool. That’s Vincent D’Onofrio’s job. And sure, let your parents pay for the lemonade. You’ll get a story out of it.
But don’t let somebody set you up in a cushy fake job in your mom’s office. Don’t let your parents send shills in to buy your pizza muffins out of pity or obligation. This is good advice even if you’re not a child. There are more of these kinds of jobs than you think.
My first legal paycheck came from working in a stockroom. The stockroom was on the top floor of a squat and beautiful Gothic building off Newbury Street in Boston. The other floors were a European furniture company. Before that, it had been an art-house movie theater, and before that, it had been built as a Spiritualist temple. After that, it became a bookstore, and now I think it is a school. It didn’t matter to me. I would have worked in any of these businesses. I liked the neighborhood, and I liked the building, and I liked walking up to it. That is maybe the most important thing about any job.
One half of my job was to take calls from the sales floor. The other half of my job was to unload trucks. Two or three mornings a week, a huge trailer truck would angle itself impossibly into the alleyway next to the former Spiritualist temple. The truck was full of wooden pallets of shrink-wrapped foam loveseats and torchieres. We would bring the pallets up in the freight elevator, one by one.
Mostly the truck drivers were lonely men who had been driving all night long. Sometimes they would just sleep in their cab while we worked. Sometimes they needed human contact. When they wanted to chat, my manager, who had a degree in third-wave jazz trumpet from the New England Conservatory of Music, would send me to buy coffee for the truck driver and us. He was a good boss.
One summer morning, we were having coffee on the loading dock with a truck driver named Dominic. Dominic said he had been on the road for a week, away from his wife and son. But he had a small TV and VCR in his cab.
“Last night, I saw a movie called Ladyhawke,” he said. He gave us a whole rundown. It was a fantasy film in which Rutger Hauer and Michelle Pfeiffer played cursed lovers. Rutger Hauer turns into a wolf by night. Michelle Pfeiffer turns into a hawk by day. They travel together. But only briefly, at dawn and twilight, can they see each other in their true human forms, and then the moment is gone.
I don’t remember Rutger Hauer’s character’s name, but I do know the woman was named Isabeau. I remember because Dominic really liked it.
“The woman’s name is Isabeau,” Dominic said. “Isn’t that a beautiful name?”
I knew about Ladyhawke, of course. I was aware of all the fantasy and science fiction movies that were being released, but I had passed on seeing this one. It was no Buckaroo Banzai. It seemed… a minor work to 16-year-old, pretentious me. That said, I was startled when Dominic mentioned it. It was the first time I considered that a long-haul truck driver and I might watch the same kind of movie.
I felt immediate shame. Though they had raised me in an affluent suburb of Boston, my mom and dad both came from working-class families. Not truck drivers specifically, but people who worked in factories and printing presses and kept house. My grandparents and aunts and uncles liked hockey and beer. And they loved me, even though I was a long-haired weirdo whose belly chub was packed into a Bloom County T-shirt and who felt out of place in their tidy, small homes. I loved them back, too. But even though I had been raised in a liberal town and steeped in public television open-mindedness, I realized now on the loading dock that I was a hateful snob.
My dawning class awareness is nothing to brag about. It’s just to say that work makes your world bigger and shows you your mistakes. It helps you to see other people in their human forms.
“Isn’t Isabeau a beautiful name?” Dominic said. And even though I had enough high school French to know that, even in a made-up fantasy world, ending a woman’s name with the masculine “beau” made no sense, I had to agree that it was.
I worked as a traffic counter when I was in college. I would get up before dawn and go to an assigned street corner. I had a clipboard with a series of counters on it, and I would count the number of cars that turned left, and the number that turned right, and the number that went straight. It was a cold and lonely job. I had to wear several pairs of pants just to keep from shivering. I counted which cars turned left, which cars turned right, which cars went straight, etc. I didn’t know why I was doing it.
I met a woman every week to get my paycheck. One day I asked her, “Why am I doing this?” She said, “I don’t know either.”
But I was being paid $12 an hour, which was real money then. Roughly $3,000 an hour in 1992 money. I rented a lot of movies and lived the high life. Comics only cost 75 cents then, and I won’t tell you what whiskey cost, because you are a child.
For a moment, I thought, I could make a career of this! But it got too cold. In the end, I am glad I finished college. It allowed me to get a job that paid less (working in book publishing), but at least I know why I was doing it. And I have only ever had to wear one pair of pants.
Now that I am a writer and an actor, I sometimes wear no pairs of pants. That’s nice work if you can get it.
Video store clerk
After traffic counting, I worked in a video store. You can’t work in a video store anymore. That’s too bad, because it would have been the best job you ever had. It certainly was mine.
The store was called Film Fest, but it was a very quiet fest. We only had two busy periods. The first was in the morning, collecting the returned tapes from the bin and checking them in. The second was in the evening, when people would come to get movies to watch after dinner. Otherwise it would be pretty much me and Patrick or Susan or Sarah or Jacob, sitting around, watching movies.
You can’t work in a video store anymore. That’s too bad, because it would have been the best job you ever had.
I don’t want to harp on what an education in storytelling and acting that was, because I do not ever, ever want you to confuse me with Quentin Tarantino. However, it was that, and also an important reminder that if you can get a job where you are paid to absorb the culture that you love, take that job.
Between the busy periods, you might see only one customer. But if you’re very lucky, that one customer might be an actor, one of the stars of a very, very famous family comedy from the late ’60s. He might be in town because he is acting in a play at the nearby regional theater. He might come in, and you will both act like you don’t immediately recognize him from his most and only famous role, the one that has followed him for the rest of his life, all the way into this store. He might ask you where the classic movies are, and you will point them out. He will come back with some seriously classic black-and-white movies and open an account. He might offer his ID, but you don’t need to see it. You know who he is, even though he is not on TV anymore.
Then you might break and finally say, “I would love an autograph,” and he will graciously give you one. Then he might take a deep breath and ask you if you also carry… adult movies. There will be silence then. It will be you and this famous person alone in the empty dark video store and universe: he, alone in a dumpy small American city, just looking for some desperate distraction in his bad hotel room and forced to ask a college kid an embarrassing question; you, that college kid, feeling so bad for your television friend, appreciating this awful position he’s in and now knowing that you have to tell him that this whole errand, the whole act he had put on of asking for and renting serious black-and-white movies to cover for his real desire (honestly, this was maybe the best acting he’s ever done), was all for nothing. Because you do not carry adult films. You have to go to Best Video in Hamden for that.
I don’t know why I’m protecting this guy’s privacy. We’re all human, and it’s difficult to be human sometimes, especially if you’re Greg Brady. But of course this will never happen to you, because there is the internet now. Greg Brady can get every kind of movie he wants now without talking to anyone, because there are no more video stores.
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 quickly turn to years when you are not challenged, frightened, tested. And then maybe someone will invent Netflix.
The job I got after college was at a literary agency. It fit a number of good job criteria that I have already established. For one, it was in a beautiful building that I liked walking up to. Specifically, it was in a beautiful old brownstone on 26th Street in Manhattan full of leather sofas and dark quiet places to take naps in.
My job at the agency was to sit at the front desk. I would answer and route telephone calls and sort and distribute faxes. It was a different sort of traffic counting. But it was warm and sheltered (another good job criterion), and I got to sit in a beautiful, tiled outer lobby with a gigantic fern that conveyed sophistication. Every day would bring submissions, book proposals, sometimes whole novels printed and boxed and bound and sent blindly by some aspiring author somewhere. Each was a desperate dream. If they weren’t addressed to a specific agent, it was my job to read and evaluate them.
It takes a lot to write a novel. You can’t just talk about what your job was when you were 22 or whatever. You have to make up a whole world from your head, and because first novels are only sold once they are fully written, that requires time and anxiety and the impossible faith that anyone cares. Notice how I have never done it: Not even I am that narcissistic. It’s an extra cruelty to unpublished novelists that the result of all this labor would be put in my hands, a 22-year-old receptionist.
That said, most of them were terrible. I realized from reading them that it takes the same amount of effort to write a good novel and a bad one, and you really don’t know which kind of novel you’ve written until you’re done. It’s a terrible job, but if you absolutely have to do it, here is the only writing advice I ever give: It is not enough to write what you know. You have to know interesting things. You have to get out there and learn them. That’s where having a bunch of jobs come in handy.
The worst jobs are not the hardest jobs. The worst job is the job you know is wrong for you, but you stay in it anyway.
But when I was not crushing dreams, I enjoyed the job. I was friends with all the other young assistants, and the older agents treated me with kindness. I took naps on the floor of my boss’s office. I am certain she knew this. If she didn’t, I’m sorry, Susan. Thank you for your trust in me. You were a great boss. It is a gift to work in an office if you are supported, encouraged, and forgiven. That was why I liked the literary agency, and that is why I worked there for seven years. But it was the worst job I ever had.
I was happy, but I was sad. Unlike traffic counting, I knew why I was doing the job, even if I couldn’t confess it to myself. I worked there because I wanted to be a writer, but I was afraid to join that pile of dreams that slushed onto my desk every day. So I comforted myself by being around writers, and to some degree helping them, but mostly taking parasitic pleasure in their company, and also a portion of their income. Ultimately, it was a sales job, involving a friendly style of conflict called “negotiation” that only ever terrified me. The longer I worked there, the more scared I was that I would work there forever. The worst jobs are not the hardest jobs. The worst job is the job you know is wrong for you, but you stay in it anyway.
Since the literary agency, I have only ever worked for myself as a writer and performer or whatever I am. You know about all of these jobs. I’ve done well in some and worse in others. But I know I am doing all that I am capable of doing, all that I can’t not do, and I am paid for it. It is the best job I have ever had.
One thing I learned from my time at the literary agency is that kids’ books are where the money is. They don’t always succeed, but they take a lot less time to write. And when they do connect, boom. The problem is I never had an idea for a kids’ book until now, and now I have written it. I like to think we did it together (even though I get all the money)! Good job.