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November 1, 2008 at 11:50 AM

Apple’s PC guy John Hodgman takes Microsoft quiz on NPR comedy show

“Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me” is a Saturday morning ritual in my house. John Hodgman, the comedian, author and perhaps most famously, “PC guy,” in Apple’s “Get a Mac” commercials, was the special guest on the show this morning, which I heard on local National Public Radio affiliate KUOW.

The “Get a Mac” campaign, including Hodgman’s biting portrayal, has significant role in defining the image of the PC and the Windows Vista operating system in popular culture, while also boosting Mac sales in the last two years. So much so that Microsoft earlier this fall launched a $300 million campaign — including a major series of television ads — to take back control of the brand and restore dignity to Hodgman’s line, ‘I’m a PC.’

Hodgman was asked to answer three questions about the history of Microsoft. Here are some excerpts from his 11-minute appearance on “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me.” You can also listen to the segment here.

From the introduction:

Host Peter Sagal: Well that’s exciting actually, I wanted to talk to you about that because that’s happened since the publication of your last book that you’ve become the resident expert on John Stewart’s show, ‘The Daily Show.’

John Hodgman: Quite by accident.

Sagal: And you have also, and this is how most people might know you who haven’t read your books, you are, of course, the PC in those ubiquitous ads in which there is a guy saying ‘I’m a PC,’ ‘I’m a Mac’ and then go on to bicker in amusing ways.

Hodgman: There is not a guy, it is me saying it.

Sagal: Right, it is you. Sorry for that. Thank you for the clarification.

Obviously, in those ads the ‘Mac’ is played by Justin Long, the handsome, young actor of great charm.

Hodgman: A brilliant comedian.

Sagal: Yes … Which is odd, because you seem to have all the funny lines.

Hodgman: That, that is unfortunately the fate of the comedic duo. There is always a buffoon and there is always a straight man.

Sagal: Right.

Hodgman: And he has said himself that the most important acting choice that he makes in those ads is when to take his hands out of his pockets.

Sagal: Right.

Hodgman: I told you. I told you, he’s a very funny man.

Sagal: Yes, that’s very funny, indeed. But here’s the question: So we know what they were looking for when they cast that part.

Hodgman: Yes.

Sagal: What did they tell you they were looking for when they wanted to cast the part of the PC?

Hodgman: Well, they didn’t really tell me much of anything, but I gather they were looking for someone who was perhaps 37 years old, a little heavier than he used to be, a little walleyed — technically, I’m not walleyed, I have a right hyper, my right eye is higher than my left eye — and I think that’s what they were looking for.

Sagal: Now, it’s extraordinary to the extent that you have become ubiquitos everywhere, that you can’t not only turn on your TV, but your computer, you keep popping up on my computer in Internet ads, which is disconcerting.

Hodgman: Yes, I enjoy watching you while you work.

Sagal: Thank you.

But … I turn on my TV and I don’t see you. I see a guy that Microsoft has hired who looks a lot like you, who they are putting up as a defense against the implied slander of your ads.

Hodgman: I have no idea what you’re talking about.

Sagal: Come on! You must have seen these.

Hodgman: I don’t watch television, you know me. And certainly not ads. I loathe advertising.

Sagal: I know. But there is a guy at Microsoft who got a job in an ad because he looks like you.

Hodgman: Yes, I have heard tell of such things. I’m very happy for him. You know, as somebody who has an accidental television career, I’m happy to see that happen to somebody else.

That guy, of course, is Sean Siler, a Microsoft senior program manager in networking, who opened the second wave of commercials in Microsoft’s Windows campaign. “Hello. I’m a PC. And I’ve been made into a stereotype,” he says with a wave of the hand and a certain detachment. Siler is one of several Microsofties, including Bill Gates, to appear in the commercials, which lately have featured user-generated ‘I’m a PC’ comments.

OK, on to Hodgman’s “Wait Wait” Microsoft quiz:

Sagal: We have asked you here to play a game that this time we’re calling:

Carl Kasell: ‘So you’re a PC, huh? We’ll see about that.’

Sagal: So you play a PC in the commercials.

Hodgman: Yes. That’s it.

Sagal: So we’ve been watching them for a while, and we are beginning to suspect you’re not really a PC at all.

Hodgman: I am not a computer, that’s correct.

Sagal: In fact, we think you’re a cruel parody of the actual machine as created by its enemies. So we’re going to ask you three questions about the history of the Microsoft Corporation. Get two of these questions right and you’ll win a prize for one of our listeners, Carl’s voice on their home answering machine.

Hodgman: Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Sagal: Exactly. …

First question, in 1976 the young company launched its first print advertisement in a technical journal called Digital Design. What was this advertisement? Was it a) a picture of the young Bill Gates with his shaggy hair and aviator glasses and the slogan, ‘He’s a stud’; b) a four-panel comic strip relating, ‘The legend of the MicroKid’; or c) a densely written version of its proprietary … BASIC computer language written specifically for the Altair personal computer.

Hodgman: I will say ‘c’ …

Sagal: … The answer was ‘b’. It was a four-panel comic strip, ‘The Adventures of the Micro Kid.’ He was a boxer, you see, he had speed and power and needed a manager, say a kind of operating system, in order to succeed.

Hodgman: Sounds great.

Sagal: Yeah. …

Once Microsoft got going in the early ’80s, it needed a corporate symbol and it found one, a logo

known in the industry as what? a) the blibbet; b) the all seeing eye; or c) the exploding head?

Hodgman: The blibbet.

Sagal: … You are right, sir! The blibbet looked like an “o” drawn with horizontal lines and lasted a few years.

This is very exciting.

Hodgman: This is the tie-breaker.

Sagal: This is the tie-breaker, you get this right and you’ll win.

Microsoft was challenged in its earliest days by another upstart company you might have heard of, Apple.

Hodgman: I hear they’re very good.

Sagal: Yeah, well. Microsoft considered Apple, though, to be evil based on what very real evidence? a) if you typed a certain string of characters into the Appl I computer, it replied, ‘All hail Satan, All hail Satan.’

Hodgman: They call that an Easter egg.

Sagal: … b) the original price of the Apple I was $666.66; or c) the original code name for the project that became the Macintosh, ‘Lucifer’?

Hodgman: The answer is ‘b’. … That is my final answer.

Sagal: You are correct sir! Very well done.

Steve Jobs explained that he thought $666.66 would be an easy number to remember. I have to ask, you were so confident. Is that because as an Apple advertisement yourself, you are up on the history of Apple?

Hodgman: I don’t wish to brag, but I’m very intelligent. And I did, very luckily, happen to know the answer to that question.

Sagal: That’s amazing.

Bonus material. As an oyster lover, I found Hodgman’s description of oyster eating, adapted from his new book, “More Information Than You Require,” pretty damn funny:

Hodgman: … If you enjoy a food that tastes like snot, after it has been rubbed on rocks and old silverware, then you may enjoy oysters. But do not listen to the killjoys who tell you never to eat oysters in the months that do not contain the letter “r”: May, June, July, August, Octobeh. You know.

They say that you should not eat oysters during those months because they are the warm months, they are the traditional spawning season of the oyster, and that, of course, is when the oyster tends to beg for its life while you’re eating it, which some people find distracting, or embarassing for the oyster. But I’d say, if you’re going to eat a creature alive, you’re going to have to expect some screaming. That is the carnivore’s burden.

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