Talking to Chris Hardwick About Comedy Stuff and Nerd Stuff

Chris Hardwick might be the most popular nerd in America, which makes you wonder if that even qualifies him as a nerd anymore. Oh well, that’s a philosophical debate for another time.

As the creator and impresario behind Nerdist Industries, Hardwick lords over a digital nerd kingdom that began as a website, but has since expanded to a successful podcast network, YouTube channel, and production house, among other endeavors. He’s also an actor, writer, and television host extraordinaire, beginning with his run on MTV’s Singled Out to his current gig hosting Talking Dead on AMC. But first and foremost, Hardwick is a stand-up comic, and earlier this month his hour-long special, Chris Hardwick: Mandroid, premiered on Comedy Central.

I recently had the chance to talk to Hardwick about his stand-up, how “nerd” has become redefined, and how he gets all those high-profile guests on his podcast.

What do identify as most these days? You’ve got stand-up, you host a TV show, you’re sort of a business magnate with the Nerdist Network. I was just wondering how you view yourself?

Whenever I explain what I do, it always sounds like I’m making it up. Like, “Well, I do a YouTube Channel, and then I do some podcasts and stand-up.” But I’m a stand-up comic. That’s what I’d like to be known as.

But you took a little break, right? When you were doing the Hard ‘N Phirm stuff? Is your new special sort of a statement that you’re getting back into it?

Well, I don’t really get a chance to tour during the summer because I’ve got a lot of “Cons” to go to, but I’ve been doing stand-up for over 14 years and only just now am I doing the special because, yeah, I’ve taken a couple of breaks. I did a half-hour, did the Hard ‘N Phirm stuff with Mike Phirman, I’ve only really focused on my stand up the last four years. I genuinely love everything that I do, if people can believe that or not, but I’ve worked hard and I think early in my career, I worked on a lot of stuff that I didn’t really care about. It became very important to me to work in this world where I only work on things that I really care about instead of just taking jobs. I love everything I do, I hope everything I do will drive people to live shows.

I know you said it’s a little slower during the summer. Are you out performing most weekends the rest of the year?

Towards the end of the year, that will be the case. I have a lot of shows after the special airs. I have Nashville, then I’m in Chicago, then in the new year I’ll be in Bloomington and then San Francisco so we’re really starting to build it back up. I’ve been doing theaters for the last couple of years and I’m going back into clubs because I’m starting a new hour and that just takes a hell of a lot more time and a hell of a lot more work.

How long did it take you to put together the hour in your special?

That’s a tricky question because I had an hour and then I ended up doing chunks of it on different talk shows and I was sort of burning through it. So I got the call from Comedy Central and they were like, “Hey, you got an hour special and we’re shooting it in February.” In my mind, I only had like 35 minutes left – 35 minutes left that I hadn’t done on television yet that I liked. So I had two-and-a-half months to pull together another half-hour and it was really fun because it reminded me of when I first started doing stand-up and how you just have to get stage time. It doesn’t matter where, you just have to get up and do it. You only have two months to get together this half-hour and it has to be tight. It was sort of trial by fire, but it reminded me why I loved it so much, the practice of it, it really helps you figure out what is stale and what needs work. Sort of like playing the game Spore, but with your work, and I really love that. I mean it’s not always fun for the audience, but I personally love it. [Laughs.]

I think people appreciate watching comics work stuff out because you get a glimpse behind the curtain and see the work that goes into fine-tuning a joke. At least, comedy nerds appreciate it. Did you ever consider the $5 online direct download model that seems to be taking hold with other comedians? Because obviously you have the following for it.

I don’t know. I don’t know if I honestly have the following for it because a lot of people still don’t know that I have a stand-up background because I’ve never done a special before and primarily I think people just don’t know I do stand-up. When you think about that model, it works really well if you’re Louis C.K. or Radiohead. But I think there’s so much stuff available online, and it’s sort of like I’ve been running this YouTube channel for this whole last year and what you learn is that people mistakenly think that a web video is like TV because it’s a visual medium. But it operates completely differently because television is just on and people can just watch it, but the thing that drives web videos, or views, or downloads, whatever, is shares. Things do well because they’re shared a lot. It’s a much more active form of consumerism than just sitting on your couch and watching stuff, so I think you really need to be at a certain level before that model really works. If it costs $1,000 to do a comedy special then you’re probably going to make your money back, but if you have high production value then it’s probably not going to work. You need to have a specific internet model for that to work. I haven’t looked at the actual data, but I think right now you really have to be at the top in order to compete. There’s just so much competition online. I think that it’s a much more challenging model than people think that it is. “You just put it online!” It doesn’t really work that way.

Good point.  I didn’t realize there are a lot of people out there unaware that you’ve been doing stand-up for so long. How long has Nerdist been around?

Since 2008. In 2010 we got the podcast started and then started doing 2 episodes a week and started producing other podcasts for people. But the site went up in 2008.

The idea behind it, it just seems so prophetic. When you started this did you see this nerd culture coming? Did you have your finger on the pulse? Because now everyone’s a nerd, everyone identifies as a nerd.

I’ve been doing comedy since ’94 and in the 90’s and the early 2000’s, no one was media-focused or self-identifying, but now we’ve evolved into this much more media-focused society. And now “nerd” doesn’t mean what it used to mean, now it just means focused on something. I came up with the name while I was working at G4, and I noticed that people were identifying with the stuff I was talking about. I think the underlying idea and the core of what I was trying to do was just talk about things that I liked, but I think that accidentally it was reflecting that there was a larger cultural movement well underway, and I feel like I was accidentally pointing that out. But it wasn’t anything calculated or anything like that. People were starting to lead a much more digital lifestyle. More people had broadband, YouTube had just started up, comic book movies were hitting at the box office and you sort of looked around and were like, “Oh, yeah, technology is changing the culture.” It didn’t feel like, “Why aren’t more people talking about this in mainstream culture?” A change was happening, and it didn’t feel small to me anymore. It was really interesting to be able to stop working on things that I didn’t care about and start working on things that I actually loved doing. Even if it didn’t make any money, I thought it would have enough to sustain itself and will give people a better idea of who I am, which as a comic is really what’s most important – having a voice. There used to be so many stand-up shows and you could go on them and that would give people an idea of who you were, but now they’ve gone away and now with YouTube, blogs, and all of that it’s all just the comic’s survival method figuring out a way to get our voice out to the world.  And it ended up being podcasts, YouTube, and blogs, because we didn’t have television to do that anymore. It was really just trying to rip a little hole and stick our heads out and say, “Well, here we are.” [Laughs.]

Wow, that’s a fascinating perspective. Congrats on all of your success with Nerdist, especially since it just started as a website that you wanted to do.

Thanks so much for saying that. I really legitimately love everything that I’m doing right now. I’ve got the Talking Dead, the podcast, and a video that we’re working on with the YouTube channel that has the puppets in it. I hope the message that people take away from it is that you should do what you care about because if you can build your life around your hobbies and make it your career, it’s one of the greatest gifts you can have.

And I imagine you probably don’t feel as burnt out when you’re working so hard and juggling so many responsibilities, when you’re doing things that you love.

Yes, it doesn’t matter if you worked four hours or 15 hours, you never look at the clock and are like, “What have I done?”

In your new special, Mandroid, you talk a lot about the explosion of this whole nerd culture. Is that kind of the theme that runs through it?

I think without hitting it too much on the nose, like by putting “Nerd” in the title. I didn’t want it to be like, “Nerd comedy!” you know? [Laughs.] I think it was more to sort of capture a vibe, you know? But there’s a lot of that talk in there, of course. And then we also throw in a vagina joke, of course. A vagina joke next to a Harry Potter joke, so everyone wins.

As you’re getting older and putting more time into stand-up, are your interests changing? Is what you want to talk about becoming more personal? What are you noticing there?

Of course, because you can only think about nerd stuff for so long before you think, “Who am I?” I think now I’m answering that question. I think it’s a job that requires you to be very introspective, and what’s interesting now is that the special was built around a bunch of shorter sets that were sort of stitched together and connected. I mean hopefully if you did 10 short sets you would see that there are recurring themes, your brain is trying to connect things. The difference is now that I have to start from scratch and say, “What do I want to say in an hour?” I feel like I can finally explore longer arcs and themes and stories. It’s sort of like how Jim Gaffigan will do one special that’s based around being lazy and then a special that’s based around food and it may not be on the nose the whole time but it does stick to a central theme. And it’s an interesting way to present it because it’s a show, as opposed to just a bunch of jokes strung together.

When this airs will you have already begun working on your next hour?

It’s underway, starting the first week of December.

You guys get some amazing guests on the Nerdist podcast.  Is that reflection of your numbers, the connections you’ve made, top-notch producers? What’s the secret?

It’s a lot of things, especially because the show does well and we’re very positive so I don’t think people ever feel threatened being on the show. And then when you have someone like Tom Hanks come on to do the show and it’s like, “Oh, ok they feel comfortable doing it, I’ll do it.” And then we have amazing bookers. I brought on bookers for the show about maybe eight months ago and it’s been amazing. They’ve really helped the show incredibly and really taken a lot of the responsibility off me and just let me do the show. Now we get people that I’ve never met before and they just start talking. So I think all those things together have really helped.

And you really sent Tom Hanks that typewritten letter and he responded?

I sent him the type written letter and the typewriter. It was exactly the response you wanted to get from him.

An encore date of “Chris Hardwick: Mandroid” airs on Dec. 15 on Comedy Central. The extended and uncensored DVD, CD, and digital versions will be available in early 2013.

Phil Davidson writes about, performs, and produces comedy.

Talking to Chris Hardwick About Comedy Stuff and Nerd […]