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Chris Hardwick is something of a mogul. He’s taken his gig as host of G4’s Attack Of The Show and managed to spin it into the Nerdist empire, which now includes not only its namesake podcast—hosted by Hardwick, natch—but also a network of similarly minded podcasts and YouTube shows. Now, Hardwick’s taking his Nerdist shtick on the road, performing “live podcasts” all across the country with co-hosts Matt Mira and Jonah Ray. Before he took his podcast on the road, Hardwick talked to The A.V. Club about his legacy, nasty commenters, and how he’s not tricking people into hanging out.
The A.V. Club: Since the last time you talked to The A.V. Club, you’ve expanded Nerdist the podcast into Nerdist the empire. How did that happen, and what do you see coming next?
Chris Hardwick: It was one of those cases where I got religious about the podcast—“This is the greatest thing I’ve ever done, and you should do it too!” In the same way that I was curious when people like [Jimmy] Pardo and Doug Benson, and [Marc] Maron started podcasting, and would poke around and say, “Is it fun? Is it too much work? Is it helping people find your live shows?” They all said it was the greatest thing they’ve ever done. I then became one of the podcast evangelicals. So when other comics would ask me, “Should I podcast?” I would go, “Yes! And I’ll produce it for you.” So I kind of got psychotic about it. When I started looking around at [my] friends who have different points of view, it was like, “I have a friend who’s a sex educator, so let’s do a sex podcast.”
The whole Nerdist thing to me is like a giant game of SimCity. Oh, let’s put up a podcast here, let’s do the website, let’s do the television show, let’s do a newsletter. That’s sort of what it feels like. But at the same time, it’s exciting when I hear that Kumail [Nanjiani] from Indoor Kids will go do a live show, and say, “Oh my God, 60 percent of the people there were wearing video game T-shirts, and they were there because of Indoor Kids.” I get excited about that because during the comedy boom, it was very easy for comics to get on television and get their voice into the world, and people would get to see who they are live. But there’s not a lot of stand-up on television anymore, so it’s this great way for comics to be heard and make people aware of who they are so they’ll come out to see them.
AVC: Do you think of Nerdist as a brand?
CH: It’s weird, because the brand is sort of my point of view. I don’t think of it as a brand in that sense. I don’t say, “What’s good for the brand?” I just [ask], “What do I like?” And just because Nerdist happens to be—it was really born out of who I am and what I like—I really didn’t think of it as a brand. But I partnered with a guy named Peter Levin, who’s kind of the business guy behind Nerdist now. Because I’m not Mr. Businessy, I didn’t go to school for that, it was never anything I intended to do with my life. I wanted to focus on the creative stuff. But in the process of putting together all the different little Nerdist pieces, I sort of realized, “I sort of know what I’m doing, but it would be sort of good to get someone who knows how the business stuff works, and how you grow your pet project into a business.” I started all this stuff because I just felt I needed my own thing that wasn’t dependent on some network executive deciding I was popular enough to put on television, which is how television works. At a certain point, when it actually becomes a viable career, you go, “Oh my God, I just want to keep doing this.” And the way to keep doing this is to grow it, and the way to grow it is to team up with people who know how to do that.
AVC: Within reason, presumably. You don’t have people trying to sell you the “Nerdist energy drink,” do you?
CH: No. When we first started doing the podcasts, we didn’t do sponsorships for the first seven or eight months, because I just wanted to focus on the show. But then you realize it’s an interesting trade-off that happens, where you go, “I don’t want to be super commercial, but at the same time, it costs money to give away free things.” The podcast costs money. After a certain amount of time, I started paying Matt [Mira] and Jonah [Ray], because it’s an investment of time and energy. And you can do that for so long, but then sometimes when you get really busy with work, it gets hard to justify, “Well, I’m going to stop doing the thing I’m getting paid for to do the thing that’s fun.” The romantic idea that you should be able to do that all the time is wonderful, but that’s kind of how things fall behind a little bit. So I realized, “Well, this has got to start generating some money, because it’s just expensive to run the site, give away free podcasts, and produce other podcasts.” So when we started thinking [about] sponsorships, I started reaching out to companies I was already doing stuff with, like computer companies and T-shirt companies. Because I figured, if it’s something I like, there’s a good chance the audience will be interested, and then it’s less of a sponsorship and more of a, “Hey, this is also something that I genuinely like that you also might like, too.” It’s not sort of a weird, “This episode of the Nerdist podcast was brought to you by Midshift Adult Undergarments.”
AVC: You’re putting your name on it.
CH: Yeah, if I’m the face of the thing, it has to be genuine. Otherwise you’re doing a disservice to your audience. You don’t want the people who are donating their time and energy to consuming your thing to feel, “You’re just using me to make money.” That was never the case. We still give away the podcast for free, and it still costs money to produce all the podcasts. But one of the greatest things in the world that you can have is to generate money doing the things you love. That’s why I love doing all this stuff. It’s put me in a position where I don’t have to take TV jobs where I don’t care anymore, which is amazing.
AVC: Do you think the recent explosion of podcasting a good thing?
CH: I think it’s the same as asking, “Should I do stand-up?” If it’s something you’re passionate about, then do it. And I like the immediate feedback. Some people don’t. It’s just sort of the way new media works. The audience, you have instant access to them, and they can instantly tell you if they like or hate your thing. You can post, and the comment threads explode, and people get into debates with each other. Not that long ago it really wasn’t the case. It’s an entirely new way, within the last handful of years, that people produce and consume things, then interact with those things and interact with each other. In the ’80s, you’d have to write letters to each other or [write] bathroom graffiti. Those were the proto-message boards.
AVC: Even with letters, people would know you sent it, unlike message boards now, where people can just blast you anonymously.
CH: Oh my God. A lot of message boards are really the worst. And comment threads are full of the worst—there’s really very little constructive talk in comment threads. Comment threads are the new therapy for people. They just go and post the worst things they can think of because they feel bad, and then other people start attacking them, and then they attack back. I would say 60 percent of the comment threads devolve into, “You’re a stupid piece of shit.”
AVC: There’s a weird hierarchy, too. YouTube commenters are the worst, but Wired commenters or A.V. Club commenters, there’s some good stuff in there. It’s not just, “Fuck you!”
CH: But the dangerous thing about the smarty-pants comment thread is that people take all this time to deconstruct things in the worst way. I do have to say The A.V. Club comment threads are some of the most venomous things I’ve ever read. There was one post on The A.V. Club, where a bunch of people were talking about Matt Mira’s weight, and saying shit about his girlfriend, and I was just like, “What are you doing guys? Really?”
AVC: That’s one thing. If you feel good about something you did, then you shouldn’t look at the comment thread.
CH: No. Because the upside and the downside to the smarty-pants comment threads on The A.V. Club or Wired is that there are smart people, and then people who think they are smart. And the people who think they are smart will try the hardest to show you how clever they are in trying to attack something.
People wouldn’t come up to Matt’s face and say stuff about his girlfriend or comment on his weight. What are we doing, humanity? What are we doing to each other? Is it really so bad to be nice? Yeah, you can say you didn’t like something. You can say, “I didn’t like this because I felt like it wasn’t in-depth enough,” or, “They didn’t do a good job with this, or this.” But, “You’re fat” is just a waste of ones and zeroes.
AVC: Do you still have an ego about that stuff? When you read reviews of your book or podcasts—we do Podmass here—do you take those seriously?
CH: I don’t really read reviews and comments that much. There just isn’t a lot to be gained from it. There are two things that are going to happen. Either they’re going to say it’s great, and then they’re just jerking off your ego. Or they’re going to say it’s the worst thing they’ve ever seen, and then you’re going to feel bad.
I would love to pretend as long as I’ve lead a digital existence, dating back to 1994, that I’ve developed this stone flesh, where I’m just like, “Ah, whatever.” For podcasters, people are just being themselves in a public fashion. So when someone is attacking a podcast, they’re really attacking the person, because the person is the podcast. So I think that’s why podcasters take it to heart. It’s a very personal form of media, probably the most personal form of media.
AVC: Do you think it’s more personal than stand-up?
CH: Yes, I think it is more personal that stand-up, because with stand-up, you’re still cracking jokes. But with podcasts, you’re just talking and having conversations. With stand-up there’s a little bit of an exaggerated reality because things have to be manipulated to create comedy, to create jokes. But with podcasts, at least the way we do it, you sit down, you have a conversation with someone. They’re themselves, you’re you. You express opinions. You make jokes and fuck around, but the main goal isn’t really, “I’m going to generate 20 laughs per minute.” At least not for us, that’s the goal for other shows. I would find that exhausting.
AVC: In your last interview with The A.V. Club, you said the main goal of the podcast was to get people out to your live shows. Is that still the aim?
CH: Yeah, it really is. Stand-up is still my favorite thing, and you can’t do it unless people show up. So everything I do is an exercise in, “Can I help get my voice in the world more to get people to come out to see me live?” Now I’m doing an hour stand-up special for Comedy Central. So it’s been nice that people come out to shows. It just makes the process better when there’s people there.
AVC: Do you think you have a more sympathetic audience now? Are people coming to see you because they know you from Twitter or the podcast, not because you’re the “used to be on Singled Out” guy?
CH: Yeah. It’s a paradigm shift. I would go on the road a long time ago, and I’m just going to Cincinnati, Indianapolis, or whatever. And people get free tickets to shows and they come out, and you’ve got to make them like you pretty quickly, and then sell your jokes to them. It’s good to start out that way, it really is. Where you have to figure out how to make your material work in any room is an amazing tool for a comic. But, you know, I think where you really start to grow in the next level of your comedy, you delve deep into who you really are. And if people know who you are when they’re coming to see you, you don’t really have to spend any time going, “Here’s who I am.” You don’t have to win them over right away, you can just get right into it and get a little deeper into the more personal material.
AVC: When people come and see the Nerdist show, what can people expect from the tour?
CH: I didn’t want to tour the three of us talking, sitting at a table, because people then were going to go, “Why am I spending money to hear these three people talk at a table?” Then I realized what we could do. Serendipitously, Matt, Jonah, and I are all at different points in our stand-up careers, and so Matthew opens the show, he does 10 minutes on top, Jonah does a feature set, and then I do a headline set. So the first half of the show is like a stand-up show, and then the second half of the show is us recording the podcast for that week, and we take live questions from people. And if we happen to be somewhere where we know people, we’ll have a guest. We don’t always have guests, because it’s shockingly expensive to get people to travel all over the country for you. So it really is a full show.
We always stay after the show to take pictures and sign things, and that’s been the most amazing thing. First of all, anyone coming up to us at all is amazing to me. But the fact that the numbers are growing? We did a show in D.C. at the 9:30 Club, and 600, 700 people came out for that show. We were signing stuff and taking pictures for two and a half hours afterwards, which was amazing. And I love it, because I remember a time when no one would do that, and it doesn’t feel that long ago. I like people, and I have a soft spot for nerds in particular, and when people are fans of things, because I’m a fan of things. I would have waited in line to see someone whom I’m a fan of. So I say, “Bring your book, bring somebody else’s book, whatever. I’ll sign it. I don’t care.” I’ve signed all sorts of stuff.
AVC: Do you have dream guests for the show?
CH: Do I have dream guests? Oh yes, tons, of course. There’s always a Hail Mary pass, where you go, “Fuck it, why not try to get the most amazing people I can find?”
And it’s starting to get a lot easier than it used to be to get people. I think it’s just because we’ve been doing the show for two years and the show’s been doing well. People feel a little safer if they see, “Oh, J.J. Abrams did the show, Bryan Cranston did the show, all right.” People get so shell-shocked, and I totally understand, because for years they would think of podcasts as equivalent to morning radio shows. For years I did morning radio shows, and it’s just a brutal process. You just feel emotionally brutalized. You’re up at the crack of dawn. You’re in this studio. There’s this weird system in place you’re not a part of. You don’t know if you’re going to be the butt of their joke or not, because they need to do whatever they can to get through four hours a day without murdering each other. It ends up a little empty. You answer a lot of the same questions.
People come on defensive if they don’t know who we are, and protective. But once we talk for a few minutes and they realize, “No, no. We’re not here to be controversial or take you down a notch. We’re just here to talk about stuff you like and be nice to each other.”
AVC: “We’re not trying to trick you into hanging out with us.”
CH: Exactly. It’s funny. I get shit sometimes because people say, “All you do is bring people on and kiss their ass.” And I’m like, “Why do I need to be mean to people?” I feel like—and believe me, I’m a cynical comic type—but I look around the media landscape, and there’s so much cynicism and aggression, and people tend to view negativity as more real than not being negative. I just feel like the whole concept of the Nerdist idea was, “You should celebrate the things you’re passionate about. You should support each other, and be all communal and nice.” I feel like that’s the vibe we have on the show.
I’m never going to be the person, when someone comes on, bringing up their failures, like, “What happening with that thing you failed at?” Everyone has those, so fucking what? Let’s talk about the things you love and try to be a little positive about things. We aren’t Pollyanna about things, but we don’t have to be hard-hitting British news reporters.
AVC: It would also be a little awkward to be sitting two feet from someone asking them about their divorce point-blank.
CH: And also, I think a lot of it comes from me over the years being on the interviewee side when some radio guy was like, “What the fuck was going on with that one crappy show you did?” Really? I don’t ever want people to feel uncomfortable or bad. I want them to talk about stuff they love. And genuinely, maybe even to a fault, I do get overexcited about people and the things they do and the success they have. Because to achieve any measure of success is work, and it’s impressive, and it’s hard. And some people persevere through it.
So I get excited about the guests we have. Like I said, I’m a fanboy about stuff. I think that’s where you see the nerd bleed through the most, me not really containing my excitement about people and what they do.
AVC: Why is all that important to you? Why do you like learning about people’s processes?
CH: I think it’s just a curiosity because I have this path and I’m trying to figure stuff out. I love all of the “how stuff works” type of things. I like all of the “how it’s made” shows. “Oh, wow, and then that one machine shakes all the beads into another and then that keeps it up and that melts and then they combine that with an alloy!’ I love the inner workings of things.
It’s like, here’s the bureaucracy behind the spiritual thing. I’ve always loved that idea of getting under the hood and seeing what makes something run so seamlessly when it’s actually 10,000 moving parts that create momentum. It just fascinates the shit out of me.
Also—just as a sort of a student of wanting to learn how to be a better person in life, which I feel like is something everyone should try to do [laughs]—the only way you can learn how to do things is by asking people. How did you do this? What was the advantage that you had? What was the choice that you made? What motivated you to do the things that you did to achieve this thing that you achieved? What you find is that everyone has an amazingly different story and a slightly different process. Even when you’re talking to stand-ups about how they write, there are some similar touch points, but by and large everyone’s different. Some people sit down to write like a job. Other people have to wait until they get inspired by something. Other people have to travel to get new input in their brains. Other people have to rift in conversation. Some people go up onstage and work out concepts. Other people have to write things down in a notebook. I love that there are so many different paths to the same city.
AVC: One of the most amazing Modern Marvels episodes is about grocery stores—I don’t know if you’ve seen that one. They have those huge rooms in regional warehouses where they keep bananas just at the right temperature for when your local store runs low.
CH: I love the hidden map in things. There are so many things that you take for granted as just like, “Oh it’s just that way because. There’s no real reason.” Like, there are algorithms that determine, in a mall, that they put certain store in proximity to one another because they know if you go to one store, you’re more likely to go to this other store that’s near it to buy something else that seems unrelated, but there’s just maps that just dig into the psyche of humanity. I love that stuff.
AVC: And that’s someone’s job to figure out.
CH: It’s just collecting data. They just collect tons of data and then see how the numbers unfold. I love hidden maps.
AVC: To me, sometimes the most interesting person to talk to is the one behind the scenes. Yeah, you can interview George Clooney, but you could also interview George Clooney’s assistant. Which one would be more interesting?
CH: I think pretty much anyone—if you ask them the right questions—they’re going to be fascinating because everyone likes something. Everyone has some sort of a thing that they’re into. People become really interesting when they talk about the things they care about.
That’s why I think podcasting is so much more fun than standard interviews where you’re asking the same people the same questions they get a million and a half times. We just had Scott Ian from Anthrax on the podcast. A lot of people had no idea that he was a huge comedy nerd, but you hear him talk about the time he met Sam Kinison and what that meant to him, that’s interesting to me. Of course he can talk about metal all day, but you expect that and we already know that. But to know that he has this amazing history with comedy and that he’s been going to comedy shows since he was a kid and that he had all of the albums—I don’t know, you just kind of peek into what makes him tick a little bit more.
AVC: And it makes you like him more. It makes him an actual person.
CH: Yeah, it really does. It’s exposing the humanity in people. I think that’s what’s so great about our show or so many of the podcasts now. It’s great. And I don’t mind that there’s a million podcasts. I think it’s great that people have an outlet. It also inspires a little bit of healthy competition—not in an aggressive way. It just helps you define your voice a little bit more when you see what other people are doing. You just go, “Oh, I guess I kind of do this, and that guy does that.” It just makes you a little more aware of what you do.
AVC: On the Nerdist TV show, you said that 2012 was the year of the nerd. How you define the term “nerd?”
CH: There’s a lot of debate about what nerd means. Everyone has their own idea. You can really piss people off, but it really boils down to a semantic issue.
For me, the word “nerd” doesn’t necessarily mean, “I like Star Trek, I like Star Wars, I like Iron Man.” To me it’s about people who are super passionate about a thing that they love to a degree that’s deeper than just a normal person liking something. You’re super passionate, you obsess over something, you try to understand it more than any other living creature. These are the things that make people nerdy.
A lot of those times those things tend to be sci-fi- and fantasy-related. I think that probably goes back to a lot of the young nerdy kids—whether they weren’t able to relate to other kids their age or were socially ostracized or whatever—they just live a lot in their own head.
I didn’t really interact that much with other kids. I had a couple friends, and they were in chess club. You sort of build this internal world and then all of the sudden, all of this fantasy, all of the sci-fi, all of the supernatural stuff is really what you relate to, because you are building this world in your head, and you look at the stuff that’s a little bit more fantastical, and that’s what gets kind of exciting to you because it just feels more creative and it kind of takes you out of reality a little bit, which, the reality for young nerds—when I was growing up, at least—was pretty shitty.
AVC: Do you take offense as a past and present nerd when Justin Bieber or whomever is like, “Oh, I’m a total nerd, I like to stay in on Friday nights”?
CH: [Laughs.] I think that most people think that they’re nerds because I think a lot of people are realizing, “Hey, lots of people are awkward.” Ten, 20 years ago, most people didn’t want to admit that they all felt awkward around other people. You always think everyone else has it figured out; they fucking don’t. And every other person thinks that every other person has shit figured out. So, I think that if Justin Bieber says, “Oh, I’m just a big nerd,” he probably feels awkward about stuff. I don’t think he’s necessarily a nerd in the way that I would define it, but that’s just the word that he’s using.
For better or for worse, nerd is just one of those social buzzwords right now that people are using. I guess I have to bear responsibility for contributing to that, but I just don’t know what else to call the level of passion that I have for certain things which is a level of passion that my friends have. If you are willing to obsess on something at the expense of pretty much every other thing in your life, you’re a fucking nerd. I don’t know what to say.
AVC: Are you ever surprised at the way your life has gone or the direction your career has gone?
CH: I’m surprised but also I could not feel happier or luckier about it. I mean, literally everything I work on is something that I care about a lot and stems from stuff that I was into when I was a kid. Just all the stuff I’m involved with, or performers that I looked up to that I’m friends with now or that I’m working with now, or being involved with shows where I get to have the Doctor Who cast on, that’s great. My dad was a professional bowler and I grew up in a bowling alley, so now I’m starting to explore ways to pull in bowling into stuff that I’m doing because I love it.
So, yeah, I guess in a way, it is surprises me, but I’ve also been working really hard every day to try to make all of that happen. It’s doesn’t just happen by accident. I’ve been trying to build this world where I didn’t have to do stuff that I didn’t give a shit about. There are some soulless hokey jobs where you just go, “You know what? I’m lucky that I get to work on this and I’ll certainly do this for the money. Do I feel connected to this project? No.” There are some jobs you get where you take them and you have very internal struggle where you go, “I know that the money would be great if this show got picked up but I almost hope that it doesn’t so that I don’t have to have that internal battle of ‘what am I doing?’ every day when I get out of bed.”
I know a lot of people think that money just makes everything awesome, and maybe it does for a little while, but at a certain point you still have to like who you are and what you’re doing. No amount of money can really fix that. If you’re miserable going to work everyday and you’re trying to sell things to the public that you internally hate, it’s a problem. I’ve been in that position before and I don’t ever want to be in that position again, so that’s why I started trying to work on all the stuff that I care about.
AVC: Do you think 11-year-old you would be proud of you now?
CH: I don’t know what 11-year-old me would think. He’d be like, “Get away from me, you’re old. Why are you hanging out with an 11-year-old boy? I’m you—that’s creepy!”
AVC: One more question. Your show is all dudes, and in the podcast world in general, there seems to be a lot of dudes running the show. Do you think that’s going to shift?
CH: There are a lot of dudes. Yeah, I mean the dumber part is that I feel like there are just as many geek-girls as there are geek-dudes, and I feel like they don’t get represented as well. Unfortunately, we unintentionally contribute to that when we have a show with seven dudes on it. It was never our intention. It was just, “Well, these are the people that said yes.”
With comedy and podcasting, it’s a number thing. I think there are more dudes who do stand-up and I think it’s by a lot. I think there’s a certain defect you have to have in order to be a comic. I feel like most women I know are just better adjusted than dudes and don’t feel that need to have to get up and make strangers like them loudly.
AVC: Women are less interested in talking about jacking off.
CH: It’s almost douchey. There are more douchebags who are dudes, so that’s sort of my take on it. I don’t think it’s an environment that would be unaccepting if more women decided to do it.
We have a little beta social network for Nerdist because I thought, “You know, maybe if there was a social network where nerds could support each other and not try to tear each other down, people could come together and form stuff.” These girls got together from meeting on that forum, [and are starting] this thing they’re going to call Nerds In Babeland, which is all about geek-girl stuff, which is fucking great. I think it’s out there and the future world will more represent [it].
The other downside is that before, I didn’t really see male and female nerds, I just kind of thought of nerds as nerds, but when I started talking to women, they’d ask, “How come there weren’t women on the show?” I’ll talk to them about it and then realize, you know, there is actually a specific point of view that they have that should be more represented. So, without trying to sound too much like a politician, we will try to make sure that we represent everyone more equally.