In The World Of Podcasts, Judge John Hodgman Rules

Nov 30, 2013
Originally published on November 30, 2013 6:08 pm

Should the kitchen sink's built-in dispenser be filled with dish soap or hand soap?

Can you stop family members from using your childhood nickname?

Is a machine gun a robot?

These are the kinds of pressing decisions before the court on the podcast, Judge John Hodgman.

Now, Hodgman is no legal expert. He's a comedian, known for his books, like That Is All, and his appearances as a "deranged millionaire" on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.

But on his podcast, which has now run for more than 130 episodes, Hodgman rules on real-life disputes between people who call in, whether siblings, friends, or couples. It's not unlike TV court shows like The People's Court or Judge Judy, but, as Hodgman tells NPR's Arun Rath, "very rarely do we have people who owe money on a car or an apartment."

"More often," Hodgman says, "it's someone who wants to know whether it's OK to instruct the taxi driver to drive through a late-night drive-through after going to a bar."

(As for the taxi etiquette question, Hodgman says, it depends.)

Jesse Thorn, who also hosts the public radio show Bullseye, plays Hodgman's bailiff on the podcast.

"I'm the guy who hosts The People's Court who's not Judge Wapner," says Thorn, "And I'm also sort of Roz from Night Court, which is to say the sassy bailiff."

The show is a vehicle for comedy, but Hodgman and Thorn both say the podcast has an earnest side, too. Jokes aside, they say, Hodgman really does take the job of fake internet judge seriously.

"The best Judge John Hodgman cases," Thorn says, "are always about the relationship between the litigants."

And, by the way, Hodgman ruled in favor of using dish soap, in favor of a litigant determining her own nickname, and he says, without reservation, that a machine gun is not a robot.

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If you're just joining us, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

You might be too embarrassed to admit it, but I bet at one time or another, you've spent more than a few minutes watching courtroom TV.


JUDGE JUDY: Does it sound as if you have to respond to me?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: No, but I chose to respond.

JUDGE JUDY: Because it sounds like - does it sound like you have to respond to me?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: No, but I chose to.

JUDGE JUDY: Well, you can't, because I make the rules.

RATH: That's the one and only Judge Judy. But daytime TV is lousy with judges. There's Judge Joe Brown, Judge Mathis. But I'm here to tell you, there's a better way - on the Internet. There, you can find Judge John Hodgman. You might know Hodgman from his books or perhaps as the deranged millionaire who appears on "The Daily Show."


JON STEWART: So how are we going to balance the budget?

JOHN HODGMAN: We have to start with cuts to the Pentagon. Do we really need a building with five sides? Honestly, in this economy, isn't that a little extravagant?

STEWART: You're suggesting we change the Pentagon to, let's say, a rectangle?

HODGMAN: A rectangle? What are we, Portugal? No. I'm talking about a rhombus, the most menacing of the quadrilaterals.

RATH: But on his podcast, Judge John Hodgman presides over what he calls his court of fake Internet law. And in the tradition of all great court shows, he's joined by a bailiff, Jesse Thorn, who also hosts the show "Bullseye." The three of us recently convened for a session and, well, I'll let the judge take it from there.

HODGMAN: This is Judge John Hodgman speaking right now, explaining to you - the uninitiated and the lawless - that it is very much like a court show that you would see on TV. People bring disputes before me, the judge, except instead of on television, they call into the podcast. I listen to their various arguments as to who should be doing the dishes or why they should be using hand soap or dish soap or whether a machine gun is or is not a robot, and then I tell them what is right and how they should live their lives.

JESSE THORN: As I think you can guess from that fact that John just said that one of the cases was whether a machine gun is or is not a robot, while the form is familiar, the content may be a little bit distinctive from your Judge Joe Browns and your Judge Judys.

HODGMAN: Yeah. Very rarely do we have people who owe money on a car or an apartment. More often, it's someone...


HODGMAN:'s someone who wants to know whether it's OK to instruct the taxi driver to drive through a late-night drive-through after going to a bar.

RATH: Well, the domestic sort of disputes are easy to understand. But for a machine gun, is it a robot - who wins that?

HODGMAN: The gentleman who is on the side of a machine gun is not a robot. Oh, but you should have heard the argument from the guy who believed the machine gun qualified as a robot. It was very compelling. And that's the thing that made that case worth hearing in the court of fake Internet law that is ours, because these were two friends who had been having this argument for years.

The one friend really believed that the machine gun as a machine that served a certain purpose that was devised by man could qualify under the strictest terms as a robot. But, no, obviously, the answer is no. A machine gun can kill you but only if a human is operating it. Whereas a robot will just kill you on its own.

THORN: The best Judge John Hodgman cases are always about the relationship between the litigants. I remember when I first realized what Judge Joe Hodgman really was. It was the fifth episode of the show. It was about the custody of this - I'm sorry robots keep coming up - this toy robot giraffe. And it was these two girls who'd bought this toy robot giraffe when they were in college, and they bought it together, and it had lived with them in their shared house in college. And now, one of them had moved away, and they weren't sure who should have custody of this toy because it had so much emotional resonance for them.

And Hodgman's ultimate decision, which I found honestly kind of moving, was that the custody-sharing arrangement should essentially require each of them to visit the other on a regular basis. And it respected that what the case was about was not this physical object but rather its symbolism in this relationship between two best friends.

HODGMAN: And I think a lot of the cases that we hear and a lot of cases that are most productive are young people who are learning to grow up and deal with the responsibilities of sharing a household, sharing a life and to stop being a sociopathic monster that all the single people in their 20s are.

RATH: At the same time, there is this very earnest quality about this that you were just talking about, seeing people through their relationships. I think people don't often associate that kind of earnestness.

HODGMAN: No, I have a real, sincere fondness for the monsters that come on to the program, because all young people are monsters. And even though they only see me as a faceless mannequin that has no feelings so they're trying to trick me into letting them get a few minutes of Internet podcast fame, you know, these are real issues. You know, the issue of, my friend wants to put indoor furniture on his outdoor veranda. We need to teach this young man to not to do things like that.

RATH: Jesse, your role in this, you're a bailiff. You kind of do everything else - anything non-judgely, I guess.

THORN: Yeah. Well, I...

HODGMAN: Oh, Jesse can be pretty judgmental, though.


THORN: That's what's great about my role on the show. I mean, sort of, in a technical sense, I'm the guy who hosts the "People's Court" who's not Judge Wapner, you know, who interviews the people as they go into the courtroom and so on and so forth. And I'm also sort of Roz from "Night Court," which is to say the sassy bailiff. I really have free reign to just periodically berate someone when they do say - do or say something I think is stupid.

RATH: So you mentioned that, you know, Jesse, you get kind of judgmental yourself. You tend to be simpatico, but I'm wondering if the two of you have had any serious disputes. Maybe I could help you resolve them.


HODGMAN: I don't think that Jesse and I have ever had any direct disputes in our personal lives, if that's what you mean.

RATH: Or even, you know, robot versus machine guns sort of disputes.

HODGMAN: No. We both know the truth about robots. Come on. We're not fools.

THORN: We did disagree on something recently, John. I don't know if you've blocked it out of your mind because you were so wrong on it...

HODGMAN: Uh-hah.

THORN: ...but it was the pronunciation of the beloved Vietnamese noodle soup...

HODGMAN: Oh, boy.

THORN: ...which I would call something like fuh. He said that it should always be pronounced pho.

HODGMAN: No, I did not say that.

THORN: Couldn't be more wrong.

HODGMAN: Arun, may I ask you, is this National Public Radio?

RATH: This is.

HODGMAN: Nation, this is John - Judge John Hodgman speaking. All I said was that a consensus was building in the United States of calling it pho because it is most often spelled that way, and then that consensus may be wrong but language is a living thing. And unfortunately, usage would go down that road. However, since so many of you have written me back and I've been corrected so heartily, I think we're all going to turn this ship of mispronunciation, and I'm putting myself 100 percent behind fuh, fuh, fuh all the way.

THORN: Well, John, I accept your apology on behalf of the people of this great nation.

HODGMAN: All right. See? Things can be worked out.

RATH: Not a dry eye in the control room here.


RATH: Gentlemen, thank you so much for being with us.

HODGMAN: It's our pleasure.

THORN: Thank you, Arun.

RATH: That was Jesse Thorn and John Hodgman. Their podcast is "Judge John Hodgman."


RATH: And for Saturday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. Check out the WEEKEND ALL THINGS CONSIDERED podcast on iTunes and follow us on Twitter: @nprwatc. Of course, there's the NPR app for all of your smart devices. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.