Chris Hardwick: The 'Nerdist' will inherit the Earth
Nerds, it seems, are taking over the world. And comedian Chris Hardwick is their de facto leader -- or “Nerd Overlord,” as he prefers to call himself.
“They’re not taking over, they already have,” Hardwick insists, racing through the maze-like halls of E!’s studios on Wilshire Boulevard. He’s chit-chatting rapidly, repeatedly glancing at his watch and taking corners quickly, his deep, mellifluous voice rising and falling with unbridled enthusiasm for all things techy and pop-cultural.
Hardwick is creator and host of the popular “Nerdist Podcast,” a twice-weekly Web radio show on which he and comics Jonah Ray and Matt Mira wax about superheroes, sci fi, gaming systems, girlfriends and whatever else is on their minds. Guests have included Zach Galifianakis, Jon Hamm, Neil Gaiman, the Muppets and Weird Al Yankovic; the show consistently holds a top 10 spot on iTunes, with up to 200,000 downloads per episode.
If you’re someone who puts off meals to play “Call of Duty,” you probably already know of Hardwick. He’s aiming for an increasingly broad audience, however, with a copious array of new projects, including his new book “The Nerdist Way.” Already the host of G4’s “Web Soup” and AMC’s “Walking Dead” aftershow, “Talking Dead,” Hardwick will soon launch a nerd-dedicated YouTube channel. It’s scheduled to go live in April in partnership with the Jim Henson Co. and Lorne Michaels’ Broadway Video Entertainment (creators of “Saturday Night Live”). They’re developing programming that will include scripted shows and sketch comedy, Hardwick says.
BBC America also signed him up for a string of five “The Nerdist” TV specials, the second of which airs Saturday. They are meant to be visual incarnations of Hardwick’s podcast. It’s not unlike “The View” for dudes -– a roundtable-like discussion about nerd/pop culture with British and American celebrities, comedians and the general technorati. The shows were conceived to coincide with like-minded programming on BBC America. “The Nerdist” pilot, for example, aired last September after the mid-season premiere of “Doctor Who” and featured the current doctor himself, Matt Smith, as a guest.
The Hardwick-BBC pairing was so sympatico, and the pilot created so much buzz online, says BBC America General Manager Perry Simon, that greenlighting more was a no-brainer.
“We really are committed to building the digital audience for BBC America, and Chris speaks to what our audience is interested in,” Simon says. “He’s been integral to the increasing popularity of ‘Doctor Who’ in the United States.” The show, Simon notes, is now enjoying its highest U.S. ratings ever.
It was “Doctor Who” that brought Hardwick and BBC America together in the first place. Hardwick, 40, has long been an online evangelist of sorts for the time travel show, giving it much lip service on his podcast. In 2010, he sent out an innocuous Tweet wishing to have Matt Smith as a guest on the show and it caught the eye of BBC America. The network not only arranged for Smith to appear on Hardwick’s podcast that year, they also invited Hardwick to host a “Doctor Who” panel at WonderCon 2011.
The first “The Nerdist” TV special, a year-in-review that aired on Christmas, covered pop culture on both sides of the pond; but Saturday’s show will be more focused on the horror genre, to help kick off the U.S. premiere of BBC America’s “The Fades,” a coming of age “fantasy drama.”
Despite this recent storm of projects, Hardwick is not inching into the mainstream so much as the mainstream is inching toward him. He describes his teen self back in Memphis as a math geek, Latin club president and Dungeons & Dragons fan. But in the “old days,” he says referring to the '70s and '80s, Hollywood didn’t take nerd culture seriously. Today, because of the proliferation of cable channels, sophisticated broadband-based gaming systems, the Internet and social networks, communication between once-isolated geeks is greater, he says, and their once-marginalized passions less underground.
“You couldn’t say the word ‘nerd’ in a [Hollywood] pitch meeting as recently as five or six years ago without them going ‘ah, that sounds too niche.’ ’We’ve sort of shifted out of that; so it allows me to work in these areas. And that makes me very happy because everything I work on is something I genuinely care about and would consume anyway.”
After his mother and stepfather moved the family to Los Angeles in his last year of high school, Hardwick began pursuing his other obsession: stand-up comedy. Eventually he landed a gig in 1995 hosting MTV’s “Singled Out.” Despite that success, Hardwick isn’t necessarily proud of who he was in his 20s. As he describes in his memoir, he was drinking “a baby elephant’s weight in alcohol every day” back then and “living in a [dumpy] apartment.”
The book is brisk, witty and surprising genuine, balancing elements of self-help and comedy. As Hardwick puts it: “I don’t claim to be an expert in everything. I just say: ‘Here’s all the ways I screwed up in my life. You may have too. Here’s how I got out of that using [the nerdy] parts of my brain.’”
Today, Hardwick represents a new breed of geek (no pocket protectors here) –- a sort of hip pop-culturally obsessed entertainment anti-mogul. Hardwick has expertly used technology and social media to create multiple DIY entertainment outlets, cross-pollinating content and cultivating a devoted, speedily growing fan base. He now has more than 1.5 million Twitter followers, nearly 3 million monthly page views on his blog, a brick and mortar “Nerdist Theater” in West Hollywood for live comedy and magic shows (inspired by Kevin Smith’s SModcast Theater), and he’s developed a network of 13 additional nerd-specific podcasts, from other creators, on his website nerdist.com. It’s a veritable "Nerdist Empire."
"I think the mistake a lot of people make with new media is they just focus on one thing. But any one thing -- just doing podcasts or just having a website or just doing television -- isn’t enough anymore. It’s the cluster of all the platforms that creates the bigger multidimensional metabrand that’s fun; and an audience member can kick back and forth," Hardwick says. "It creates this sort of swirling eddy of momentum and activity that seems more interesting to me."
Creating original Web TV content for his YouTube channel, however, is what Hardwick seems most excited about these days. If and when TV and the Web merge – “those devices are getting closer and closer,” he says – Hardwick will be sitting on a 21st century nerdy entertainment studio of sorts.
“My hope was to kind of grow everything in parallel so that at the right time, things could just start connecting,” he says, “until it was just one throbbing mass.”
That time, nerds, is now.
-- Deborah Vankin
Photo: Chris Hardwick. Credit: Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times.