Chris Hardwick has made a career out of being a nerd. Well, actually, he has made several careers out of being a nerd, as the host of “Web Soup” a writer for Wired, an author and the host of The Nerdist podcast. Paste Magazine and Rolling Stone both named The Nerdist one of the ten best podcasts of the year, which means that it’s now a TV show, with a special airing tomorrow night on BBC America. The podcast has also spawned a community of tech, science and nerd culture enthusiasts on Nerdist.com.
Years before he created Nerdist Industries, Chris was already sowing the seeds of his enterprise. He spent his adolescence seeking out nerd artifacts such as comics, video games and comedy tapes as if they were the missing shard of the Dark Crystal. Here, he talks about working with David Cross at his first job, what nerds did before the Internet, and how building Nerdist Industries has been like a game of SimCity.
Grace Bello: You wrote in Wired that nerds were “once a tortured subrace of humans condemned to hiding in dark corners from the brutal hand of social torment [and are] now captains of industry!” How do the fans of your show and your podcast feel about that? Do they agree? Or do you get emails that say, like, “Oh, actually, I’m still a closeted nerd”?
Chris Hardwick: Well, more and more people are “coming out” about it as nerds. If you were a nerd when I was growing up, in the ’80s, you were socially ostracized. We were just into things that most other kids were not into. There was a consumer electronics thing happening, but it’s not like every store sold computers; there wasn’t an Apple store. You’d have to build your own computer. And most kids who were concerned with being popular wouldn’t take the time to do it. It took work. And the only reason you would do that extra work and sacrifice any kind of social life is if you were really passionate about what you were pursuing. And we were. And those were things like computers and chess club and comic books and things like that. But now everything’s so readily available everywhere, all the time. People don’t necessarily have to be into just one or two things anymore. Also, when I was growing up, nerds weren’t billionaires yet. So the popular kids now have sort of glommed on to the nerds because now nerds are powerful. There was no money for nerds then, which meant that there was no political gain, which meant that there was no manipulation of the nerds. If it manifested itself in any way, it was sort of like nerds tutoring the dumb, popular kids. That was the sort of power that the nerds would have.
Through your podcast, you get to meet some really amazing people, like Jon Hamm, Patrick Stewart and Neil deGrasse Tyson. Of the guests you’ve met, who have you been the most starstruck by?
Most of the people who have been on the show are friends of mine. I knew Jon for years before he did the podcast. Patrick Stewart, I’d never met before; I was pretty starstruck by him. Neil Tyson, I had not met before—and is it weird to say you’re starstruck by an astrophysicist? He would actually mathematically be able to tell me the impact of how starstruck by him I was. It’s great. Every nerd icon I’ve always looked up to, I’m systematically interacting with all of them in some sort of capacity. I always flash back to me as a kid; if someone were to have told me then, “Someday, you’re going to be friends with Weird Al.” It’s like, “What?” I almost can’t process it. I’m a fanboy as much as anyone else in this community. I think I’ve managed to compartmentalize my brain and hold the fan stuff down really deep, and it comes out when I’m not around people.
How did you cultivate your interests in comedy and comics while growing up? That was pre-Internet, so were you lurking in arcades and comic book shops?
That’s exactly it. The distribution is much wider now, but back then, we just had a different way of acquiring that content. If it meant something to you, you would find it. It was almost more satisfying as a nerd, in a way, because you did have to go on a quest for those things. And they were treasures that you had to hunt to find, whether it was underground comedy tapes that you would trade with someone or old comic books that you would trade—it was more in the physical world and it wasn’t a digital process. It also wasn’t instant gratification. It was definitely delayed gratification and a little bit of a crapshoot with what you’d be able to find. Then you’d also get accidentally exposed to things, and there was kind of a nerd pride to being aware of things that people didn’t know. You had discovered this hidden treasure that was very personal. Whereas now, you click on a website, and there’s a suggestion engine. We take for granted that you can find anything and that you’re going to stumble across stuff. But there was a time when you actually had to work for it.
What made you pursue comedy as opposed to, say, going into the tech industry or the sciences?
I don’t know if anyone chooses to be a comedian; I think it’s something that you feel compelled to do. It’s pretty unrewarding for a long time, you know. You’re performing for two people, and you’re constantly asking yourself, “Am I doing the right thing?” If it’s not something that you are genetically predisposed to doing, you’ll quit doing it. The only reward that you have for so long is just the fact that you’re doing it. So I feel like I don’t know what else I would have done with my life. It just so happens that all my sub-interests were things like technology and sci-fi and video games and comic books. But stand-up comedy was always the thing for me.
Who were your comedy heroes when you were growing up?
Steve Martin. I had all the Steve Martin records. George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Sam Kinison, Rodney Dangerfield, Bill Hicks, Emo Philips, Bill Cosby… If there was a comedy special on TV, I taped it. I watched everything. It wasn’t like I limited myself to one kind of comic. I liked all different flavors of comedy. And people don’t really watch comedy that way anymore; we’re such a niche-y culture where you can surround yourself with very specific kinds of things. But I watched any kind of stand-up. I loved it all.
Do you find doing the podcast as fulfilling as performing stand-up in front of an audience?
Well, it’s fulfilling, but it’s fulfilling in a different way. They’re completely different forms of communication. In The Nerdist podcast, we’re conversational, and we don’t go out of our way to craft jokes in the podcast. There isn’t a live audience for most of the podcast; although we do live shows every once in a while. But stand-up is just you and the audience. And you have jokes that you’ve written: some of them are going to work, some of them may not. If they don’t, you’ve gotta figure out how to make them work really fast. They’re completely different but both satisfying.
What advice would you give to a young, aspiring comedian who’s trying to start his or her career?
We talk about this on the podcast a lot. There’s not really any advice other than “you have to start performing.” You can’t even give someone advice until they’ve been on stage a bunch of times. It’s not anything that you have to prepare for six months to do. You just get up and start doing it. That’s how you figure it out. There’s no fast track way. There’s no real way to prepare for it because it’s unlike anything else you’ve ever done. Find open mics in your area, go to open mics, get up on stage as much as possible. When you’ve been performing for a few months, then you can kind of take stock and figure out where you’re at and what you seem to be gravitating towards. It’s really about getting onstage and being comfortable talking in front of people.
Can you tell me about what it was like working on “Trashed,” the MTV game show you hosted in 1994? I mean, what was it like working with Brian Posehn and David Cross back then, both of whom would later go on to do “Mr. Show,” among other awesome things?
Yeah. Doug Benson worked on that show, Janeane Garofalo did stuff on the show, Steve Higgins—who was the head writer for “SNL” and who’s the announcer on the Fallon show, Joel Hodgson from “Mystery Science Theater 3000″… It was an insane group of people to work with as my first job. All I can remember is not really knowing what I was doing. I was shouting a lot because I thought being louder was more entertaining. We were all young comedian types trying to figure it out, but it was such an amazing group of people, and at the same time, the people in that cast were in this sort of parallel alternative comedy scene that had just migrated from San Francisco down to L.A. That was the group that sort of spawned the David Crosses and Patton Oswalts of the world. When I look back on it, it’s not like anyone was going, “We’re all a part of this scene that’s gonna ultimately yield a bunch of delicious comedy fruit!” They were just like-minded comics who weren’t getting stage time at the clubs and made their own thing happen. It was great for me. I was right out of college and I was working on MTV. It was a weird, fun experience.
What was it like hosting “Singled Out” on MTV? What was it like hosting a dating game show, period, let alone a hugely popular one?
You know, “Trashed,” I thought, was going to be a big hit show. It was fun, and I thought, “Of course people are going to watch this fun show!” And no one really watched it. So it went away pretty quickly. So when they offered me the job hosting “Singled Out,” what I had learned was that, well, shows get cancelled right away. I was not mentally prepared for that show to be successful at all. It wasn’t until three seasons in that I finally thought, “Oh, maybe it is doing OK.” I don’t know; I guess it was the right show at the right time with the right age group, you know? I’m sure the show would be ridiculous and tame by today’s standards. At the time, there really wasn’t anything else like it. I don’t know why it resonated so much with people in a certain age group. But now, if I meet people who were between the ages of 13 and 24 when that show was on the air, those people still remember it.
Nerd culture seems to be reigning right now; Comic-Cons and superhero movies are really huge franchises. What are some of the more under-the-radar things in nerd culture that you’re into right now?
Every year, we do a stand-up comedy special on the podcast—an episode where it’s maybe comedians that people haven’t heard of yet—just because I was so influenced by comedy specials when I was growing up. That’s a good place to start with under-the-radar comedians. There are some British sci-fi shows that I really like. There’s this show “The Misfits” that’s really fun. Um, “The Fades,” premiering on BBC America right before “The Nerdist.” I’m a huge “Doctor Who” fan; that seems to have caught on quite a bit in the States, which is good. I always go to Reddit.com; maybe that’s more like memes and nerd silliness.
I guess Reddit is a pretty good source for up-and-coming stuff. I mean, that’s where these really strange memes come from, like Goths Up Trees.
Yeah, so many things come out of Reddit. It really is a petri dish of memes. It’s sort of a playground. I’m really liking Google Plus; I’ve been using that. Obviously, I’m still on Facebook and Twitter. I still have a MySpace account—it’s like an abandoned mining town. All the windows on my profile are probably broken and shuttered. A bunch of graffiti. There’s probably a hobo sleeping bag in there that’s covered in cobwebs. Google Plus, it’s really just a good microblogging service. And now, since Nerdist.com has become more of a website that’s not necessarily about me anymore, I wouldn’t really put silly, personal things on there. Like, I was in Portland over the holidays, and I passed by this old store, and there was this big sign that said that they were selling cat stickers. So I took a picture of it, and it wasn’t really appropriate for Nerdist.com because it’s not really a story. It’s really more of a Tumblr thing; I have a Tumblr account, I don’t use it. But it’s perfect for Google Plus. I can put the picture on there, it’s in the stream, I can write a little story about where I was and share that. So I feel like it’s a cleaner version of Facebook right now.
So, at the moment, you’re juggling a ton of things: you’re hosting “The Nerdist,” you’re hosting “Web Soup,” you write for Wired, you wrote a book. Is there anything that’s still on your comedian or nerd bucket list?
Oh, yeah. There’s a ton of things. The whole Nerdist Industries thing that we’re building is like a game of SimCity. I want to see how we can grow it and expand it. That’s all exciting to me. Now I’ve partnered with a guy named Peter Levin, who’s great. We have this premium YouTube channel. We’re doing a bunch of great stuff at Comic-Con. And we have a live theatre space where we do a lot of shows in L.A. It’s not like we’re going to go start a Nerdist steakhouse or anything; everything is related in some way. It’s realizing, “Oh, we have a podcast network! Well, we have a live theater space where they can perform and record shows and do comedy shows and stand-up! And, oh, those podcasts can be developed into television shows!” So everything is complementary. So as far as a bucket list… Oh, I’ll tell you something that’s on the nerd bucket list: a glass dome underwater lair. I think if Nerdist Industries could be in a glass dome on the ocean floor somewhere, then that would be a big one for me.
Interview condensed, edited and lightly reordered.
Grace Bello is a freelance writer based in New York. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic and on McSweeney’s.
Photo by Gilles Mingasson/BBC America.