He may be the busiest man in comedy, but he loves every minute of it. Between the Nerdist podcast and brand that produces hugely successful podcasts with an online following through their YouTube channel, hosting both the social media hit @midnight and The Walking Dead after-show Talking Dead, all while touring as a standup comedian, he seems to never take a break. The king of the nerds is working harder and smarter than ever before.
Let me start with @midnight. Do you find a pressure to keep up with what young people are into?
[laughs] It’s impossible to keep up with what young people are into, I don’t wanna be a creepy gen X-er chasing millennials. The current consumer – not just millennials, you, me or anyone – is so spoiled now. When I was younger you had one choice on TV and if you didn’t watch it you were out of luck. Now people can watch whatever they want, whenever they want and however they want; people are just conditioned to lay back and scoop something into their eyeballs. The best thing we can do is provide our content on platforms where people are engaging with each other. In terms of chasing millennials, I don’t wanna be the guy with a trunk full of VHS tapes going to hipster diners and begging them to watch. I think ultimately in comedy if people think it’s funny, they’ll watch it. That’s the thing – audiences don’t have to make effort anymore so all you can do is make a funny show and hope that they like it.
Have you been surprised by the effect it’s had on social media?
I’ve been working in television so long that you never know if people are gonna respond to something. When we first started the practice shows for @midnight at Meltdown Comics, Comedy Central said “Okay, in October we’re gonna give you a month of shows,” which is a very unconventional and cool thing to do. This was spring so we decided to do the show at our theater at the back of Meltdown Comics all summer long to prepare. We tried to minimize the learning curve and the very first one we kinda destroyed. You could feel it right away that something special and different was in the air. The show format gives a high joke-per-minute ratio so if you didn’t like one joke, there’s another one soon. As long as the comedians are funny, the content is funny and I can throw a joke in here and there. There’s comedy in every angle of the show. We felt the practice shows were special but it didn’t always mean other people would feel that. I guess I am somewhat surprised that people have responded every night since day one, and it’s a remarkable thing that no other show could make that claim. It’s good for us because advertisers have learned to look at different ways shows can be engaged with – the Nielson numbers don’t tell that whole story anymore. It’s good all the way around, for our egos and the life of our show.
Has it been a positive experience to have a platform for comedians of different backgrounds and styles?
It’s something that’s been so important to me as a comic because it’s something I would have wanted to be on. I did Chelsea Lately for a few years and it helped on the road since there isn’t a lot of standup on television anymore. You used to be able to do standup on a bunch of different shows and people would decide if they’d come and see you. If you look at how many channels there are and how much standup is on television, it’s remarkably low. Comedy Central is pretty much the only channel that has it regularly. Comedians can come on our show and be funny in the way they’re funny without burning through their material, which is huge. It’s really helping them on the road and as someone who cares about comedy and the business of it I think it’s all good. Any show that promotes comedy and comedians as a whole is good for everybody. Two things make me really happy: when people do the show and say they can’t believe how much fun they had and when they say they’ve noticed a shift in the people coming to shows because of their appearances. I feel like a sort of proud uncle. They’re comedians; they’re earning the audience because they’re funny, but providing the platform is really cool. What’s interesting is that Talking Dead has a massive audience but when I’m at live shows and am introduced, people respond to @midnight the most.
The show is more personal; people can be themselves without going into an act, like you said. A panelist like Rhys Darby who I’d never know if his comedy would translate to a show like @midnight but somehow it absolutely does and all types of comedy backgrounds come together.
There are a lot of people who come on whose voices lend themselves very well to our show; Brett Gelman is another one. There are some guys that come on and it’s a caricature of what they do in their own comedy voice, as opposed to being a straight standup. They’re bringing a character on in their own way; James Adomian did an entire episode as Bernie Sanders and the Reno 911! people came on in character and that was really fun. The show can’t go too far off the rails because there’s a format to follow, the game show structure allows us to play around and take more risks. We were really lucky a few months ago to get Joe Randazzo as head writer – I’m really proud that we have a fantastic writing staff with some of the best comedy writers putting the shows together. It took two years to get the show to where I think it needed to be to start taking off. We’re finally getting there and I’m so happy with what we’re doing.
How do you approach hosting The Talking Dead with an assortment of guests from movies to music to cast members – do you prepare for a different dynamic as a host?
The thing that ties them together is being a fan of The Walking Dead. If you come on just to promote something, the audience won’t be excited because they watch my show to decompress and process their feelings about what they just saw. Even though our show is very lighthearted and glides people into reality, there still has to be a degree of taking things seriously. It doesn’t mean they can’t have fun, it just means they have to care about it. Something that we’re gonna try and implement next year that I pitched to AMC, who were very responsive – could there be episodes where a fan is on the couch with a cast member or could there be episodes where we bring on an old cast member, which we haven’t done? Once you’re on the show, you’re part of the universe forever, so why couldn’t we ever have David Morrissey talk about where the show is currently at or what the Governor would have done? I think for that show, the most important thing is bringing the best fan experience to this community.
It is like you said, an hour of decompression to understand all the feelings you just encountered during The Walking Dead.
Necessary, but a totally different tone than @midnight. I’ve been hosting shows for so long that I understand different shows require different sides of me. I can’t make a thousand dick jokes on The Talking Dead but I understand the difference, and that’s one of the reasons why I can jump back and forth between those two modes.
Do you approach hosting the Nerdist podcast differently? Is that where you are most comfortable?
The podcast is just a long conversation, the same as a coffee with someone you just met and want to learn more about. There’s no agenda on the podcast, it’s a conversation and I just get to know people. I let their energy kind of dictate where it’s gonna go. I think some people misunderstand the podcast sometimes and say, “You talk about yourself, I just wanna hear about the guest!” Well, in an hour or hour and fifteen minutes you can’t just interrogate someone. Especially an actor, who’s not very comfortable talking about themselves… which is one of the reasons they become actors! One of the ways I learned to coax people into sharing things about themselves is to lead a little morsel on the ground so they can see you sharing and feel compelled to share something about themselves. That’s how people relate to one another. You wouldn’t go to coffee with someone and go, “So you went to this college mmhmm and then what did you do and then who did you meet and then who did you talk to?” People start to feel like you’re taking too much from them, and that’s why it’s important to share experiences.
That’s the difference with the podcast – that’s about getting to know people, and my goal, in addition to having a conversation, is to learn the path of extraordinary people. I’m a student of it and trying to learn as well, but the main thing about podcasts – and I don’t just mean mine – is people don’t really know and usually underestimate how important a form of media it is. Before podcasts there was no way to get conversations like this with people unless they went on Charlie Rose or Inside the Actor’s Studio, maybe talk radio or even Stern. Ultimately, the podcast humanizes people you thought you knew and gives them a third dimension so you can see them as people with likes and dislikes, fears and passions. I think that’s the juiciest part of what makes it work.
It’s interesting to hear a normal conversation without a hidden agenda or hard-hitting questions.
Exactly, and that’s the problem with interrogating people like an interview. A lot of these people go into interview mode, and interview mode is very defensive because they’re mentally prepared not to say something dumb or get grilled. It’s a very vulnerable place to agree to sit down and just have a conversation. I think if anyone’s ever done morning radio tours or junkets knows it can be excruciating. That’s why so many people say, “Oh did we start?” ten minutes in because I don’t want their shields to be up. That’s why I do things the way that I do.
Your excitement really translates. It’s not just someone asking questions because they have to, the listener can hear you asking questions you really want to know the answer too.
[laughs] I have people on who I’m interested in. We had two guys on recently who are in charge of trying to build the hyperloop which is this big, interesting, forward-thinking transportation system that could change not just transportation but energy consumption and the way people interact. It’s such a neat thing that interests me, so I just had them on. If I like a band, let’s talk to them, get them to play a song and we’ll go into a studio. The podcast can be whatever we want it to be – there’s no rulebook and that’s why I love it. I was attracted to podcasting because I was sick of traditional media telling you how to do things and when and if they thought you were good or handsome enough. Your imagination is the only limitation. It’s a lot of fun, but my work week is insane. We do three podcasts a week and that usually means I’m recording five or seven so that’s 8-9 hours of my time in between @midnight, running Nerdist and The Talking Dead. It’s a lot and I know it’s not construction work or hard labor but I challenge anyone to be hyper-focused and drive something for several hours of the day. Each aspect on its own is a little mentally exhausting, but when you stack them on top of each other in a 12-13 hour day my brain just feels like mush. I’m sorry, you’re Canadian, my brain just feels like poutine.
[laughs] My brain is delicious and something people like to eat when they’re drunk.
Photo by MJ Kim.
Talking Dead airs Sundays at 10/9c on AMC, and @midnight airs weeknights at 12am/11c on Comedy Central.