If you had the choice of picking between creating a successful geek empire, hosting a popular comedy show, hosting a hit game show, or regularly chatting with cast and crew of the biggest zombie drama on TV, which would you pick? For Chris Hardwick, founder of Nerdist, host of NBC's The Wall, Comedy Central’s @Midnight and AMC’s The Talking Dead, he didn’t pick just one, he chose to do all four. Hardwick's empire will soon be expanding even further, with the announcement that AMC is launching a new Talking Dead spin-off series called Talking With Chris Hardwick that will air on Sunday nights.
“I didn’t really think ‘I’m going to make so much money off of this!' It was really just a way to not go crazy in a business where I felt like I didn’t have a lot of control,” Hardwick says on his motivation and inspiration to start Nerdist, the digital brand that includes a highly-visited website [10+million per month] a podcast [5.5 million people download the podcast monthly] and even a comedy school under its massive geek enthusiast umbrella.
“It was one of the great things about being a stand-up [comedian], every stand-up is really entrepreneurial in spirit. Every stand-up has a start-up mentality because you have a direct relationship with your audience, you can pivot really fast when you’re on stage, you’re getting this immediate marketing feedback--are these bits working, are they not working, am I connecting to my audience--and so I just thought, well I want to do that, but with this kind of entity.”
If you were to have a conversation with Hardwick without knowing anything of his background, the 45-year-old would come across as a blend of your two closest friends from college, the first who had the uncanny ability to make friends across all campus social circles, and the second who could quote every line to Monty Python’s The Holy Grail. It’s in that ability to still cling to a true nerd identity with mainstream appeal that Hardwick found the voice for his brand. Hardwick wholly assured of what he brings to the table, and has successfully translated that into a burgeoning media empire.
“I had been working for about 14 years, so I had a really kind of had a strong sense of who I was, so I realized 'I don’t think there’s anyone else out there who quite has this crossover, the same people that would read Scene It but would also watch Flight of the Conchords', and I felt that voice was not present at that time, or at least I wasn’t seeing it.”
Hardwick’s love for geek culture is expansive but not uncommon: Spend a couple of hours on the internet, and you’ll meet millions of Whovians that’ve seen every Doctor Who charity special or countless Star Wars fans who can tell you the name of Chewbacca’s wife at the drop of a hat (It’s Mallatobuck by the way.) But Hardwick’s most valuable asset is his uncanny and extremely rare ability to create that same love for geek culture in others.
“I wanted to create a place where people felt like how Comic-con feels, like ‘hey this is a safe space, like what you’re into, I may not understand what you’re into but I’m not going to tell you you’re a shithead for it!’ Let’s celebrate the fact that it’s ok to celebrate positivity and happiness, that was the vibe of it,” Hardwick says on his approach to creating Nerdist.
Other pop culture news and entertainment can generate high traffic numbers just through taking an automatic contrarian approach to geek topics, or in laymen’s terms, by being haters.
“We’ve become accustomed in our culture where we’ve been algorithmically conditioned so that people now have this understanding that they can download the exact thing that they want, anytime, anywhere and consume it pretty much however they want, to their exact specifications", Hardwick says. “So when things aren’t exactly like 100 percent how someone thinks it should be, they fucking lose their minds.”
One doesn’t need to have the edgiest geek opinion or be completely in tune with the latest happenings of the digital landscape to enjoy his Comedy Central show @Midnight. Even if the topics cross over into geekdom, the 'all-are-welcome' show is ultimately based off of funny people saying and doing funny things, with Hardwick proudly stating that @Midnight has more jokes per minute than any other program on television.
“I think if you know the things that we’re talking about, that probably adds a layer for you, but even if not, it’s still ‘well here’s a ridiculous thing we found and here’s a bunch of jokes about it’ and anyone can relate to that whether or not they know exactly what the specific memes are,” Hardwick says. “We try to find good content which is entertaining, I try to put commentary on top of that to make that entertaining, and each of the comics have stuff to add to that. There’s a lot of entertainment buttresses supporting the structure of the show.”
Hardwick also attributes some of @Midnight’s success to its fluency in the digital landscape, fostering a dialogue among its audience instead of talking at them, and creating content that he and his team would enjoy as much as their viewers.
“TV is really is kind of a monologue, but digital is a conversation,” Hardwick says. "You can tell when a company goes, oh well we just put clips from our show on a YouTube channel. We just understand the native languages because we’re native. Just like with Nerdist, we’re in the demographic that we’re making stuff for, so we don’t really look at things from a marketing perspective, we look at things from 'what do I want to see, what do we like,’ perspective--our audience is us.”
The host said some of the best guests from @Midnight have been unexpected, like Oscar-nominated actor Michael Shannon “He destroyed and it turns out that he’s insanely funny.” Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson is also a highly-desired guest to have on the show, but if there was one dream guest that he could book, Hardwick already knows who he would call.
“Bill Fucking Murray. He’s like an entity that you can’t summon, he just shows up when he shows up,” Hardwick jokes. “I’d be more surprised if we were able to book him for the show than if just showed up for a taping one day and said ‘hey I’m going to play the game now,’ which of course we would let him.”
Even with @Midnight’s success, it arguably isn’t even Hardwick’s largest TV commitment. He also hosts The Talking Dead, the talk show that airs after each new episode of AMC’s runaway, or walkaway, zombie hit The Walking Dead. But even into eight seasons of the TWD, many TV pundits are still baffled as to why the series is such a ratings behemoth. It hasn’t received as much awards love as other cable TV monsters like Game of Thrones, but was still the largest-watched TV show of the 2015-2016 season by a significant margin.
“The perception of the world is like 'oh it’s all going to implode'. So this idea that if it does, how would we survive and what do we do in the apocalypse and The Walking Dead is as apocalyptic as you can get. I think when people watch, they’re very empathetic to the characters [who are] trying to figure out what would I do and where would I go and what’s right and what’s wrong when all the rules change. I think there’s that element of it.”
Beyond examining how human nature would adapt in end times, Hardwick says it's ultimately the cast and fans who make the show so special. “The characters and the quality of the show and the quality of the effects on the show. And then beyond that, I think people just like watching zombie heads get chopped up, that’s fun too. But the show is very much about a community, and there is a very strong community around the show.”
Even with these high-profile projects, the Nerdist podcast has still always held a special place in Hardwick’s heart. Since 2010, the podcast has built a strong audience of passionate listeners as Hardwick and crew dissect nerd-centric topics of that moment. Guests have varied from stand-up comedians like Paul F. Tompkins and T.J. Miller to Star Trek cast members Patrick Stewart and Jeri Ryan and a slew of Hollywood and comedy figures appearing in-between.
“I want to make sure their defenses aren’t up and then they relax and realize ‘oh this is safe,’ I’m not trying to fuck them over, I’m not trying to create a new story out of something crazy,” Hardwick says. “It’s just a coffee chat basically with someone I’m interested in and this is maybe the first conversation that we’ve ever had, some cases second or third.”
Last year, juggling the podcast was a difficult task for Hardwick among his other commitments. “At the end of 2015, it was really starting to feel like a job because the demands for content were so high to get three episodes up a week that it became more about that than being able to really enjoy what was happening.” But even in times of high demand, Hardwick still finds fulfillment through the platform.
“I really do the podcast more for myself than anything else because why wouldn’t I want to talk with Mark Hamill for an hour and a half?” Hardwick cracks. “I’m a student of everyone who comes on, what they’re like, what they’ve achieved, what can I take away, it’s a constant learning experience for me … the podcast is a constant gift that continues to give.”
Beyond all of Hardwick’s numerous professional commitments, he has still miraculously found the time to build a personal life as well. Hardwick met model and actress Lydia Hearst during a taping of Talking Dead in 2013 and became engaged in September 2015.
“When you’re young, you sort of think ‘oh drama equals passion,’ --nothing crazy, just relationship drama, but it’s not, it’s not at all, and I think a lot of that was probably tied to me being a recovering alcoholic … just sort of being addicted to those emotional spikes,” Hardwick admits. “When I started dating Lydia she was very even-keeled, a very calm, very supportive force. It was just like ‘oh this is a very adult relationship,’ and having spent a few months with her and seeing that there was no drama, that actually feels really nice … and she realizing that she doesn’t want or need anything from me but just to love her and be supportive and I have the same needs and wants.”
The couple got hitched this past August at the historic Langham Huntington hotel in Pasadena, California. The ceremony wasn’t just a celebration of their love but also incorporated their passion for geek culture.
“Our wedding was amazing, the ceremony was very short, we had some Star Wars woven in there, a little Doctor Who woven in there, there were zombie servers, and a lot of that stuff was her idea--she said we should have zombie servers.”
“People keep saying ‘how did you talk your wife into having all the nerd shit at the wedding?’” Hardwick jokes. “Well she wanted it, we like the same stuff.”
With anyone who has successfully transformed a hobby into sustainable means of employment, like Hardwick successfully has done, there is a risk that that hobby or passion will no longer have the same fulfillment once it becomes a full time commitment.
“I don’t think anyone should ever be afraid that if they turn their passion into a career then life’s gonna suck, then they're not going to have a passion anymore. I think that’s an excuse to not do stuff,” Hardwick says. “The most successful you can ever be doesn’t matter how much money you make, the most successful you can ever be is are you doing things that you like and not having to do anything just to survive. If you can achieve that, then that’s about as much success as you can ever have. And that’s great.”
FOR CHRIS HARDWICK'S FULL INTERVIEW AND MORE EXCLUSIVES FROM HIS 6 PAGE SPREAD, DOWNLOAD ROGUE'S ISSUE N°5
Photography by Tyler Shields
Written by Justin Sedgewick