Bestcasts asks podcasters to discuss the three most memorable episodes of their podcast.
The podcaster: As the hardest-working, most ubiquitous geek in show business, comedian/podcaster/author/mogul Chris Hardwick is uniquely qualified to write a book on productivity, as he did in 2012 with The Nerdist Way. Hardwick first arrived on the pop-culture radar as the wry co-host of Singled Out, the ’90s MTV dating show that rocketed co-host Jenny McCarthy to super-stardom, but it wasn’t until Hardwick sobered up following his largely lost and drunken 20s that he became the multi-tasking Dick Clark of the nerd world and the benevolent head of Nerdist Industries. Hardwick currently hosts the popular podcast Nerdist alongside Matt Mira and Jonah Ray. The podcast is the anchor of the Nerdist Network, a podcasting empire that includes such hit podcasts as Pete Holmes’ You Made It Weird and The Todd Glass Show.
In August of 2012, Nerdist extended its empire to YouTube with a channel featuring original programming from the likes of geek gods “Weird Al” Yankovic, Neil Patrick Harris, and Harry Knowles. Nerdist has also been adapted into a series of specials on BBC America. The ever-enterprising Hardwick also hosts The Talking Dead, an AMC show about the AMC show The Walking Dead, and recently released the CD and DVD special Mandroid. As if all that weren’t enough for one man, Hardwick is also the co-president of digital operations for Legendary Entertainment, the influential production company that purchased Nerdist Industries and is behind massively successful franchises like The Dark Knight series and The Hangover movies.
Episode #219: Billy Hardwick (June 15, 2012)
Chris Hardwick: My girlfriend Chloe and I drove across the country last year. We drove from Memphis because she had never drove across country and I thought, “Oh this would be fun. It would be like a relay race. We’ll drive to Memphis and we’ll drive right back.” So as a last-minute thing, I think, “Oh I should probably just bring the recorder with me because it might be fun to podcast my dad.” He’s a funny guy. And he has a lot of great stories, and I mean, I always wanted to do sort of, even before Mad Men, I wanted to do a ’60s period piece on a professional bowlers’ tour, because they were actually considered premier athletes at that time and it was really cool. It was a really cool thing to do, to be a professional bowler. He has these amazing stories. So just as a last-minute thought, I thought, “I’ll bring the recorder with me and I’ll talk to him and maybe it’ll be fun.” But what I didn’t expect was that we had the most incredible father-son bonding conversation in the process, and I realized afterward I never just sat down and asked him questions. It really gave me a whole new appreciation for connecting with your parents and actually talking to them like human beings as opposed to just what I think a lot of us do, which is just deal with them from time to time. “Oh, yeah, I’ll come over.” “Oh, yeah, I’ll call you tomorrow.” It made me feel like a douchebag that it took a podcast for me to actually sit down and talk to my father.
The A.V. Club: Did it feel strange to be sharing such an intimate and personal experience with the world?
CH: Well, I didn’t really think about it that way at first, because it was just such a nice experience. My dad had completely forgot that we were recording. We were just sitting in the kitchen across the counter from each other just talking. And immediately, the response, and to this day people cite it as one of their favorite episodes to me because it either made them reach out and connect with their father or parent or they said, “I lost my father when I was young” or, “I lost my father and I never got to chance to have this conversation.” So it was just really important to me. Without being too schmaltzy, it was a very special episode. The result, ultimately, was that it dramatically improved my relationship with my dad. And when I sent him to the website and he saw there were 100-plus comments of people who were so sweet about the experience of the podcast, it was basically like a Father’s Day present to him that people were there was this outpouring of, “Oh, your dad’s great” and, “He led such an interesting life” and, “It made me appreciate my own father.” It was way more than I had planned for.
AVC: Did you feel like you understood your father better after the podcast?
CH: Yes. I feel like I connected with him on a human level, which is something that we don’t do a lot with our parents. We just take them for granted. “No, no, they were just people who had a baby. And you’re that baby and they’re not some other entity that’s not on your level.” We’re all human. It’s scary, but also at the same time very much connecting to humanize your parents.
AVC: Did your father generally talk about stuff you already knew about or did you learn new things from talking to your father?
CH: There were certainly details of stuff that I learned and stories that I hadn’t heard before, but also I think it was just the way in which he presented those stories. He’s this really emotional guy that’s walking through life and talking about things that he dealt with and problems that he had with his father. I always knew my dad’s relationship with his father was not great, but to really hear in detail from his side what it was like and how it informed how he behaved as a parent and how it informed me, like, there are some current things that are just indigenous to our tribe basically, my family. It gave me a much better understanding of myself. I think because we’re ourselves, we tend to think we’re unique. “I have problems that are just specific to me.” Then you connect with one of your parents and you realize, “Oh yeah, we had all that stuff, too.” You’re not that original. I mean, in a good way, because it makes you feel like you’re connected and a part of the world and not an island.
AVC: You come away from the episode really respecting all that your father has survived and endured.
CH: We definitely talk about stuff on the show, but the show usually is pretty upbeat and we’re fuckin’ around. Then occasionally we’ll have an episode that really digs deep.
That happened with the Maria Bamford episode. Sometimes it’s really nice to dig in and talk about real, human things. Everything about the episode with my dad was wonderful for me. Even just the bonding, even if I never really made the episode, it still would have been an amazing experience. So I feel like I want to encourage people to interview your parents, because you learn stuff about them and you’ll bond.
AVC: When adults talk to their parents, they have a tendency to regress to the age emotionally when they lived with their parents.
CH: We never try to do anything on our podcast. I never try to do anything. I always just let the conversation go where it’s going to go, and sometimes people take shots at me. They’ll say, “Why are you talking about yourself?” or, “What kind of interview is this?” It’s not an interview, really. It’s a conversation. It’s like a phone conversation, and a lot of people don’t really like to be interrogated. For me, it just felt like I was having a conversation with my dad. I was asking questions, but he was also asking questions. So I guess my dad and my relationship has always been he’s like a buddy, because he had such a bad relationship with my grandfather that he really wanted to be more of a best-friend kind of role. So I’ve never really felt that my dad is unapproachable or he’s way up there, and I’m a kid and I’m down here. We’ve always communicated at the same level because that’s the kind of relationship that he wanted. So it didn’t feel that weird to me, but I just didn’t realize how deep the conversation would go. But again, it’s just because of the way I run the podcast. I don’t ever prepare, which may or may not be a good thing, I just start talking to people and then I just let it go where it’s going to go. I think you’ll see most of the episodes are pretty upbeat. I get a lot of shit for being the upbeat guy. I also feel like the shows vary in their energy, because the conversation just unfolds the way it’s going to unfold, and if people bring in certain energy then I try to follow that. I let their energy lead the episode.
AVC: Was it at all uncomfortable to listen to your father talk about sex?
CH: No, because my dad was always very open about that stuff. He’d say, “Oh, you know, back in the old days on the tour, two guys and I picked up these girls and they blew us in the back seat.” That kind of stuff. So we have this buddy relationship. Now, if it were my mom telling those stories, I’d probably be like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, take it easy,” because I don’t have that kind of a relationship with my mom, thankfully.
AVC: Listening to the episode, you get this sense of the bowling world of the ’60s and ’70s being a world onto itself.
CH: Yeah, it was a fascinating world. Bowling really was a big American sport in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, and then it kind of died off in the ’80s. In the ’60s, when he was bowler of the year and he ruled the ’60s, it was a really cool thing to be able to do. He was actually a respected athlete, so just to hear these stories of my dad living that lifestyle because he was one of the best at his craft and also trying to learn about focus and willpower and overcoming doubt and overcoming that sense of, “Oh, I’m not good enough.” He had to do that to get to where he was, and those are really important lessons for me that have nothing to do with bowling and can be applied to anything. I was genuinely asking these questions. I want to learn how to be better at what I do and he coaches people. He’s coached golfers before because his mental game was so strong, and that’s why. He even says, “Everyone thought I shouldn’t have been as good as I was,” but he just had the mental game down and that was most of the game right there.
Episode #267: Tom Hanks (October 8, 2012)
CH: Tom’s assistant is a Walking Dead fan, so she came to a couple episodes of The Talking Dead. She’s incredibly nice, and one of the people who helped book our show said Tom loves vintage typewriters and that we should get him a vintage typewriter. I’ll type an invitation on it and then we’ll just send him the whole thing. So I wrote up this letter on our letterhead that said, “Hi, my name is Chris. I do a podcast. Here are a bunch of people who have been on the podcast, including your son, Colin. We’re not murderers, and we’d love to have you on.” And so two weeks later or whatever, I get this response on Playtone stationery that’s apparently typed out on the 1930s typewriter that I sent him. It was exactly the response that you’d want to get from Tom Hanks: “How dare you think you can bribe me with the most delightful typewriter I’ve ever seen.” Then he damned us all to hell and said, “I’d love to come out.” So I put the letter up on Reddit. I sent Tom Hanks an invitation on a typewriter to come to my podcast and it got this response and it blew up like nothing I’ve ever seen. I think it was in the top 20 posts on Reddit of last year. Because it was exactly the kind of response that you would want to get from Tom Hanks.
It was very Hanksian, the energy you want to have of Tom Hanks. He is amazing from the get-go. A lot of people who have never been on a podcast before, there’s usually a few minutes where they’re feeling it out and they’re a little pensive and they think, “What is this I’m doing? Oh, okay.” Then they realize it’s a conversation. They calm down and then it’s fine. But with Tom, we got to his office and we started ripping around on these energy drinks that he had. We’re screwing around, and we weren’t recording anything. It was just him, and the second we sat down he was just in, like there were no questions about what we were doing. The machine started, and he was in it and it was amazing. It was just absolutely wonderful. I get a lot of shit for things. I get a lot of shit for using the word “amazing” on the podcast a lot. And the reason is because we talk to the most amazing people, because the people talk about things that are fucking amazing. I could grab a thesaurus and give you a bunch of synonyms for amazing, but ultimately they are amazing, and Tom Hanks is one of those guys. How many performers have achieved what that guy has? You can count them on your hand. And the fact that he is still the same guy that he was when he first started out, just like a fun-loving, cool, respectful guy. Everything about him is great. We all liked him a lot before, but afterwards we all wanted to build a shrine.
AVC: The public has such strong ideas about how someone like Tom Hanks should behave that living up to that image has to be a little daunting.
CH: It would be if he weren’t genuinely that way. I don’t think you can keep that up for decades if that’s not really who you are, and I think it was apparent to us that that’s who he was and is without a filter. That’s just him, so it’s not difficult for him to keep that up. I would imagine because that’s just him. He’s not affecting a persona. One of the fun things about the podcast, or about any podcast, really, is that because you get to talk to someone for such a long time, it’s very difficult for people to keep up a persona for that long, because they just get tired. It requires energy. It requires a lot of energy to have a fake persona for an hour when people are just having a conversation. Their guard drops. So I really just think that’s who he is and that was one that we love. So my hope is that we can do more fun stuff with him in the future. But hearing him go through Storage Wars and do all the voices. I mean, he’s a comic at heart. He was never really a stand-up, but he has a comic’s heart, which is that he likes to play and screw around and crack jokes and do voices and make fun of things and laugh and everything.
AVC: For some reason, hearing him talk about reality shows was intensely humanizing.
CH: Well, sure. I mean, if you think about it, anyone else in his position could be like, “You know, I have an Oscar-winning persona to put forth, and I make very serious films about space and war. I know I’ve been in some fun movies, but I’m in an adult now and I really need to keep this persona.” He just lays it all out. He’s a regular guy. He’s a guy who watches reality shows, and you can’t fake stuff like that. Even if you tried to fake that sense of, “Oh, I’m just a regular person. I watch reality shows like you.” He was doing all the characters in conversation with each other on the show. You can’t fake that.
AVC: One of things that you and Tom Hanks share is that you’re both unabashedly excited about things in a pop-culture world that’s very cynical.
CH: I could not agree with you more. I do catch shit from people who sometimes say, “You’re too upbeat. You must be fake.” No, we’ve adopted this idea in our culture that negativity is more real somehow than being positive. I know this is going to sound weird because they’re values, but ultimately they’re neutral. Not neutral, it’s just that they’re equal. You can either be negative or you can be positive. But they’re equally as real. We just assume that negativity is more real because we’re used to being unhappy or we think, “Oh, yeah, being positive, that’s a thing that people fake, but the real people live down here where you’re just knee-deep in shit and everything sucks. And anybody that tells you otherwise is trying to fucking sell you something.” I’m like, “No, some people are just upbeat. Some people are just positive and they’re every bit as real as people who are negative.” I think that’s more a reflection of the observer than the thing that they’re observing. Tom is just a nice, upbeat guy, and we’re upbeat guys. We are who we are. We all can’t fake it for hundreds of hours.
AVC: I think because you tend to be more upbeat, people who feel this deep-seated cynicism feel the need to insert that cynicism in their opinion of you.
CH: I think when I look out and I see there’s so much negativity in the world and a lot of people are unhappy and a lot people are anxious, it just feels like that’s one view of the world. But you don’t have to always focus on that view of the world. When I was growing up, I was always ashamed of the stuff that I was into. No one liked me, so when I got older, I thought, “I don’t want people to feel ashamed about themselves or ashamed of what they like.” The other side is having done a million and a half radio tours where you call in or you go into a radio station, and they just talk at you and they’re not really interested in what you have to say or they’re super-negative because that’s funnier to their audience. I think I purposely want an environment where people come on and feel safe and comfortable and complimented and good about themselves. Focusing on the good stuff about them is every bit as real as if I tried to hit them with the negative stuff. “Well how come this, Bob?” What’s the point of that? Then they’re unhappy. They’re defensive. They shut down. The conversation doesn’t go anywhere. I want people to feel good because when they feel good, they’re going to talk about stuff and I think it’s really interesting to hear people talking about stuff that they love.
Episode #288: Mel Brooks (November 26, 2012)
CH: Mel Brooks. Oh my God. I love that guy. I’m at Sketchfest right now, and I had to bring Max [Brooks] up to give a zombie-preparedness talk. They do this night at Sketchfest at the California Academy of Sciences, so there’s comedy shows happening around different places in the museum. And in one of the conference rooms, Max gave this amazingly hilarious 40-minute zombie-preparedness talk, and he was great. One of the reasons Mel agreed to do the podcast is because Max and I are pals and Max told him, “It’s okay to do this.” So we went to Mel’s office, which is at a lot in Los Angeles, like a studio lot. He’s 86 years old, and you wouldn’t know it.
AVC: He does seem to have an almost teenaged energy about him.
CH: Yeah, I’m sure a lot of people feel this way, but Mel Brooks has the same energy that my grandfather had, and my grandfather died in ’95. And my grandfather, my mother’s father—we already established my dad’s father was not the warmest guy in the world—my mother’s father was the diametrical opposite in that he was just positive and energetic and lovely and warm and just a guy that you always wanted to be around. He just made everyone happy. He elevated the room when he would come in and Mel had the exact same energy. So I just have a very natural fondness for that type of person.
If you’re Mel Brooks at 86 years old, you’ve pretty much been asked everything. You know what I mean? Like, he’s probably had to tell a lot of these stories a bunch, but it seemed like he was telling them for the first time to us, which is a credit to him, and he was willing to talk about everything.
The story about how his wife had to pass him money under the table because he was so broke, that was hard to believe. I mean, we’re all comics, so when we have people on, there’s a language and a bond there already. Joan Rivers could have easily been up there. I could have said the Joan Rivers episode as well. You look at these people as comics, you relate to them and go, “Oh my God, we’re definitely a certain type of personality, and you are that type of personality. You have persevered through all these years, and you’ve had ups and downs, but you’re still here and you’re okay and you’re still funny.” To look at comics that you respect who are in their 80s and they’re still funny and they’re still relevant and they still want to make stuff, it’s inspiring and it’s a relief because there’s a thing in comedy where at a certain point most comedy people lose their drive or they just stop. They lose their creative hunger. They just get comfortable or they don’t have the energy. It takes a lot of energy to put stuff out there and go out on a limb and try to make stuff that’s entertaining. I think that’s something that’s very easy for young people to do because young people are biologically inclined to want to go out and make their mark on the world.
Then when people get older, they just don’t give a shit as much. I think that’s what happens, so when you see people that can still do it in their 80s, it’s incredibly relieving.
AVC: It was striking to hear Brooks’ curiosity. He really seemed to be looking to you to explain how the modern world works.
CH: That’s what I noticed, is that when we’ve had performers on who are a bit older and maybe they’re people who haven’t done as much in recent years or they don’t really want to be performing anymore, they don’t ask those kinds of questions because they don’t care. But Joan was the same way. In fact, I’m having lunch with Joan next week to talk about digital media. And she and Mel, they’re people who want to figure it out. Larry King was another one, too. They want to figure it out, and those are the people that will keep creating because they don’t push the world away or say, “Well, this other way was really comfortable, so this new way is dumb.” They say, “All right, so there’s a paradigm shift, and we want to figure out how to be a part of it.” That’s very inspiring because everything’s changing so fast, and the media landscape’s going to look a lot different even five years from now. If you care about this stuff, it will never end.
AVC: The evolution of technology and culture?
CH: If you’re Mel Brooks, at a certain point, you can probably go, “Eh, I figured it out.” From my point of view you could, but in his mind he still hasn’t figured it out all yet. And I love that he’s still asking those questions at 86, and he’s still trying to be a part of it. I mean, he’s lovely.
AVC: It’s great to still have that curiosity about the world.
CH: Yeah, I mean, he’s Mel Brooks, and we’re talking with him and he’s like, “Oh my God. I’ve got to show you this thing I did with Carl Reiner.” Not in an “I need to promote it” way, but like, “I’m a kid and I made this thing and I want to show you this thing because it’s funny.” But instead of it being a kid, it’s Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner. So it’s like when you can see that young performer energy still is the dominant energy. It just makes you feel better. Also, it’s just fun to be around. For me personally, I have a fear of, “If I stop, I’m going to die.” If I stop doing the things that are enriching to me or creatively exciting to me or if I stop creating, then I feel stagnant. If something isn’t growing, it’s dying. So I guess, for them, they’re in this perpetual state of growth and evolution, and it’s great. I could not have more respect for that guy.
AVC: Speaking of perpetual creativity, in the Wilco episode, Jeff Tweedy talks about creativity as a reflex, as something he’s driven to do by nature.
CH: Yeah, because it’s fun. I’m at this interesting point in my career where I don’t have to do anything that I don’t want to do. So if I do something, that means I wanted to do it. I think the greatest thing that you can have with your work is to not have to do things that you don’t want to do and only work around things that you enjoy or are excited about. I think that’s one of the other reasons why I seem upbeat to the point of being schmaltzy is because I still can’t believe that I get to do what I do, that I get to make a puppet show with Neil Patrick Harris or get to sit down with Mel Brooks or Wilco.
With this list, I also could have singled out the Ben Folds episode, the first Ben Folds episode, because we basically went into a recording studio and we talked to Ben, who was great, and then I feel like we cheated him because he essentially gave us a private concert. We just sat there while he sang songs and played the piano. With Wilco, Wil Wheaton was the one who introduced me to Wilco years ago, so it was a thrill to be able to do the interview with him being there.
AVC: Was this in the ’90s?
CH: No, it was early 2000s, and so I thought it was important to have Wil there because he’d introduced me to the band. Beyond the conversation, Jeff Tweedy was really great and very open and very sweet, and we’d invite guests into the dressing room at the Wiltern. And I feel like this was the first time that we did this, but we had this idea that there’s a band in town. We can talk to them right before sound check. Then we’ll get a couple of songs from sound check because that way, that’s a very unique thing for our listeners. They’ll get performance that they would never have been able to hear otherwise. Wilco agreed, so I think what was so special about having this great conversation with Jeff was Wil being there, and then we got to go down into the floor of the Wiltern. At that point, the concert is in three or four hours, so the stage is all set up. Everything is set up like it’s a concert. But it’s just us sitting on the floor of the Wiltern watching Wilco play. They played for an hour. So we watched a concert and they had the lights in the background.
When you hear the songs that play at the end of the podcast, those were recorded then and we watched that. To hear those songs ring out in this historical empty theater was transcendent. Wil and I just kept looking at each other and we’re like, “How the fuck did this happen? How are we here?” Those are the kind of experiences that make me super upbeat. Why would I not be excited that I got to do that? So I think that was special as well. Wil’s one of my best friends, and here we are all these years later. They’re playing for us. It was great, and they sounded so incredible. I can only put up two songs, but I have the whole sound check at home. Those are kinds of things the podcast does and this goes into the basket with my dad; it binds us. Whether it’s Matt [Mira] or Jonah [Ray] or Wil or my dad, we’re all having these experiences that, yes, are on a podcast but at the same time, we’re all friends bonding over experiences that we’re super-excited about having together. So that was definitely one of them. That will always be one of my favorite memories, just all of us sitting around at the Wiltern.