John Hodgman brings dry wit, warm heart to SF Sketchfest

For many, Maine is a wonderful summer destination — a place to escape the frantic pace of everyday life in favor of a quieter, simpler experience. For comedian John Hodgman, Maine offers up something else entirely.

“Summer in Maine seems like some cruel Yankee joke. The oceans are made of hate and the beaches are filled with rocks and knives. It is a hurtful place,” says Hodgman, who’s making several appearances at SF Sketchfest, the 17th annual, 18-day comedy extravaganza opening today with a live version of his podcast Judge John Hodgman.

Hodgman was joking (sort of) with the remark, but it’s typical of his comedic approach.

His hilariously dry commentary taken to absurdist lengths in evident in his book on Maine, “Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches,” as well as on his podcast Judge John Hodgman, a ridiculous project where he issues “rulings” on fatuous debate topics, such as how much living room furniture is necessary for television viewing.

Those endeavors are a snapshot of the varied comedic efforts for Hodgman, a screenwriter, actor, “Daily Show” contributor and guest extraordinaire on his friends’ programs. He first came to the attention of many as the terribly unhip “PC” actor in the 2000s-era Apple commercials touting Mac computers.

Although Hodgman applies his bone-dry wit to uproarious extents in all his work, underneath the wry demeanor is a comedian with a genuinely warm heart.

His observations are droll, not cruel, and while he is erudite and professorial, he’s not condescending. Despite the inanity of his Judge John Hodgman cases, he always shares a legitimate concern in the affairs of his participants.

“These might all be oddball cases, but everyone has deep feelings invested,” says Hodgman. “Each dumb-sounding debate has some kind of underlying emotional truth to it.”

The strange formula seems to work. The program has run for more than seven years, steadily picking up listeners along the way — enough to book a special staging of it at the sizable Castro Theatre to kick off Sketchfest’s programming, of more than 200 shows.

Hodgman also is participating in tribute shows, collectively honoring Dick Cavett and Paul F. Tompkins, fellow comedians who share his penchant for progressive, kindly comedy.

Hodgman is a regular at SF Sketchfest (he once earned a tribute show himself), and said he keeps coming back because the event founders — David Owen, Cole Stratton and Janet Varney — have established a formula unlike any other comedy gathering.

“They all have legitimate comedic chops,” says Hodgman. “And because of that, they can put together an event that is truly unique.”

Hodgman adds that it always nice to be in San Francisco this time of year. It certainly beats a Maine winter.

IF YOU GO
Judge John Hodgman
Presented by SF Sketchfest
Where: Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., S.F
When: 8 p.m. Jan. 11
Tickets: $35
Contact: (415) 621-6120, www.sfsketchfest.com

SF SKETCHFEST
Programs run Jan. 11-28 at various venues; rush tickets may be available at sold-out shows.

SELECT EVENTS/TRIBUTES

Dick Cavett: The 50th Anniversary of “The Dick Cavett Show” features Cavett, Lance Bangs, Dave Hill and John Hodgman. 7:30 p.m. Jan. 12, $35. Marines’ Memorial Theatre, 609 Sutter St.

Twin Peaks: Cast members from David Lynch and Mark Frost’s series — Dana Ashbrook, Josh Fadem, Harry Goaz, Michael Horse, James Marshall, Kimmy Robertson, Ray Wise and more — talk about the show, moderated by James Roday. 4 p.m. Jan. 13, $50. Castro.

Paul F. Tompkins: Tompkins, Ben Acker, Rhea Butcher, Matt Gourley, John Hodgman and Eban Schletter appear. 1:30 p.m. Jan. 13, $35. Marines’ Memorial.

Lewis Black: In conversation with Edward Wasserman, followed by a live presentation of the podcast “The Rant is Due.” 7:30 p.m. Jan. 14, $35. Marines’ Memorial Theatre, 609 Sutter St.

Ricky Gervais: In conversation with Christopher Guest at the sold-out show. 7:30 p.m. Jan. 23. $35. Castro.

Jane Lynch: Lynch, Ian Brennan, John Michael Higgins, Michael Hitchcock and Kevin Pollack appear. 2 p.m. Jan. 28. $35. Marines’ Memorial.

Will Reisman

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