Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Little Gray Book Lectures

As a John Hodgman fan, one of the most wonderful but obscure Hodgmanful things I have discovered is the former existence of the Little Gray Book Lectures, a series of entertaining presentations and performances. These could be seen as early inspiration for the "Nerd Nite" phenomenon of having a monthly series of lectures on diverse topics, interspersed with live music, as a nightlife-style activity for the highbrow hipster class. But the Little Gray Book Lectures were different and special. They were organized and hosted by Hodgman, who define the Lectures as:
a series of readings, songs, demonstrations, discussions, and occasional overhead projections that have been held near-monthly in Williamsburg, Brooklyn since 2001... Like "The Little Blue Book" instructional pamphlets of the 20th century that inspired them, the Lectures are amusing, brief, accessible, enlightening, disposable to some, collectible to others, and always theme-specific.

Hodgman's mom gave him a Little Blue Book (specifically, #1143, "How to Prepare a Manuscript") when he started working as a literary agent.

In 2005, several Lectures were packaged as a podcast. You can download mp3 files containing recordings of seven of the Little Gray Book Lectures. The segments recorded live are bracketed by exchanges between Hodgman and Coulton.

Here are direct links to the episodes for your downloading pleasure:
How to Generate a Winning Character16.5 minutes
Secrets of the Secret Agents34.2 minutes
How to Negotiate All Kinds of Deals and Contracts24.7 minutes
Hints on Public Singing25.8 minutes
Brookline: the Town that Has Everything Yet at the Same Time Has Nothing24.1 minutes
The Countries of Europe Described34.2 minutes
How to Observe Presidents Day (Observed)41.9 minutes

The Little Gray Podcast promoted the idea of converting these lectures into radio programs (much like The Moth). Two episodes are available on PRX including one not released as a podcast (No. 29, How to Communicate Without the Use of Wires). You can stream it (or license it, if you are a radio station) here, but if you want to hear it in its entirety, you have to sign up for a PRX account. The last segment in this Lecture is the Starlee Kine piece on her investigation on a haunted hotel (also aired in Episode 283 of This American Life).

In some alternate universe where John Hodgman did not become a star through his book, Daily Show appearances, and Mac ads, he shepherded the Little Gray Public Radio Show to successful littleness before becoming a star through his book, Colbert Report appearances, and ads in which he plays a non-iPhone "smart" phone.

A nice article about the Little Gray Book Lectures and about Hodgman was published by the New York Observer in December of 2003. Oh, for a time machine to go back and see a Little Gray Book Lecture.

Surprisingly, you can still buy one of the many Cafe Press T-shirts with images describing one of the first 28 Little Gray Book Lectures. Here, for instance, is Little Gray T-shirt No. 28 (note: T-shirt is mostly white and normal-sized).

Also, here is an incomplete list of all the Little Gray Book Lectures:
  1. How to Begin an Important Project
  2. Hints on Public Singing
  3. How to Spell Several Common Words
  4. How Can We Possibly Go On
  5. How to Win a Fight
  6. How to Choose (or Make) the Perfect Gift
  7. Secrets of Self-Improvement
  8. How to Throw a Curveball
  9. Mystery Cults of North America
  10. How and When to Tell A Lie
  11. Europe vs. America
  12. Great Rivalries in American Spelling
  13. How to Seek Your Fortune
  14. How to Speak with Strangers
  15. How to Redistribute Wealth and Joy
  16. How to Pour the Perfect Werthmann
  17. How to Generate a Winning Character
  18. What Will Happen in the Future?
  19. Exiles of Chicago
  20. How to Negotiate All Kinds of Deals and Contracts
  21. How to Measure Misunderstood Genius
  22. How to Gamble and Win
  23. (Missing title: Please send if you know it!)
  24. Strange Gifts From Far-Off Lands
  25. The Animals: Are They Our Enemies?
  26. ???
  27. How to Communicate Without the Use of Wires
  28. How to Observe Presidents' Day (Observed)
  29. How to Commit the Perfect Crime
  30. How to Go Home Again (Or, At Least, to Brookline) - November 4, 2005 - Brookline, Massachusetts
  31. How to Rest Quietly

The description of the last Little Gray Book Lecture (a non-lecture, titled (and entitled) How to Rest Quietly) started: Good evening. If you are here, it is likely because you dialed into your computer. Thank you for spelling 'gray' correctly. One of the questions I am most frequently asked via the internet is this: WHEN WILL THE NEXT LITTLE GRAY BOOK LECTURE OCCUR? AND CAN YOU SCHEDULE IT AROUND MY BIG VACATION PLANS IN WILLIAMSBURG, BROOKLYN?
I am proud to say that I was one of the Internet questioners!

For a long time, this was the last word on Little Gray Book Lectures, with the occasional Hodgman-Coulton book tour show being the closest approximation.

Recently however (September 2010 to be precise), Hodgman filmed the pilot for a potential Showtime series ("GOOD EVENING, MY NAME IS JOHN HODGMAN") and invited his followers to attend. Of it Hodgman said:
BUT ALSO, I HAVE DISCUSSED THIS PROGRAM ON THE INTERNET as the closest thing to the return of the Little Gray Book Lectures that shall ever exist, and those of you who are elderly enough to remember those evenings will already recognize the parallels. The Lectures were a series of themed discussions once held in a former mayonnaise-factory-turned-bar in Williamsburg before “BURGS” were incredibly cool. I have long wanted to return to this venture, but was thwarted by the demands of television, and the feeling that we had accomplished as much as we could in a former mayonnaise factory, and now needed to evolve, and challenge ourselves, and move on to a larger stage.

IDEALLY, this stage would be AT LEAST THE SIZE OF AN ARMORY DRILL HALL, so we have already accomplished that.

Until the next one, we will have to encourage the Little Gray Fanboys inside us to continue to rest quietly.