In my review of John Hodgman’s Vacationland, I referred to myself as “something of a John Hodgman superfan,” and that is still the case. Though I’m not enough of a superfan to pay $100 for a front-section meet-and-greet ticket for his upcoming show at San Francisco Sketchfest, I was willing to part with $49 for a seat in the rear orchestra.
However, I was not entirely sure that I wanted to read his new book, Medallion Status: True Stories from Secret Rooms, because I often found Vacationland to be overly humblebraggy and coy (I still don’t understand why he refuses to name the town in Maine where he has a vacation home in his books; he makes no attempt to hide it to his 77,000 followers on Instagram, where he often sports a Brooklin General Store cap and posts pics of the store’s famous egg sandwiches).
Would stories about how Hodgman—onetime star of Apple Computer commercials, “The Daily Show” correspondent, and gigs as “a variety of mustache creeps” in guest spots on several TV series—ultimately suffered “the greatest humiliation, that of not being on television at all,” prove simply too annoying? I’ve always felt it’s better to be a has-been than a never-was; after all, the closest brush I have with celebrity is when the guy pretending to be President Nixon on Twitter responds to one of my Tweets. Meanwhile, Hodgman got to meet LL Cool J at the Emmys!
But when I did read Medallion Status, I have to admit that I really enjoyed it. There’s something so nakedly honest and poignant about the way Hodgman writes about his experiences with celebrity, a pulling back of the curtain that gives the non-famous masses a peek at a world most of us will never experience. He draws a parallel between the world of airline mileage programs and fame, as he works his way up to Diamond Medallion status on Delta Airlines, aided by the many cross-country trips he takes while he’s filming a TV series in L.A. You may think you’re special because you are admitted into the airline’s first-class lounge, but there’s always an even fancier “double-secret Sky Lounge” for the extra-special people somewhere around the corner, just out of your reach. If only you could gain access to this sanctum sanctorum, surely that would finally make you happy, right?
Like Hodgman’s TV gigs, Diamond Medallion status is fleeting; it only lasts a year, and without that constant back-and-forth travel, you’ll “dwindle back to Gold, eventually to Silver, and then to nothingness.” (Silver “is a garbage Medallion. It is worse than nothing. It is strictly a teasing reminder of what you once held and now have lost. You are rarely thanked for being Silver, and if you are, it feels like they are making fun of you.”)
“Like all status, if you get into first class, you have to believe you deserve it. And for that reason, once you leave a first class cabin, you feel robbed, wronged, and unnatural, and so you spend your life anxiously, always trying to get back in.” That statement could serve as a metaphor for all kinds of things: fame, white privilege, American exceptionalism. Scoring that Diamond Medallion is only the beginning, and no matter how hard you struggle to hold onto it, someday, you’ll probably find yourself having to settle for silver.