The busy stand-up comedian and host of @midnight, Talking Dead, and the Nerdist podcast carved out a fanboy niche that obliterates the line between work and play. He slows down long enough to talk about nerd swag, fanboy hate, and the most despicable troll ever.
This feature appears in Complex's April/May 2014 issue.
Chris Hardwick first gained recognition in 1995, playing it cool on MTV’s dating show Singled Out with Playboy Playmate co-host Jenny McCarthy. But it wasn’t until he embraced his inner nerd on stand-up stages and the TV shows Wired Science, Web Soup, and Attack of the Show! that he found his entertainment sweet spot. Today, the 42-year-old from Louisville, Ky., hosts his comedian friends on the Internet-skewering Comedy Central game show @midnight and fans out professionally as host of AMC’s Talking Dead, The Walking Dead’s companion talk show, and the Nerdist Podcast, where he’s explored the geek passions of everyone from Tom Hanks to Donald Glover. Turns out his best guest ever, though, was his old man.
Are you a workaholic? In your podcast episode with Conan O’Brien, you said you “crave the constant distraction” of work.
That’s true. It’s tough to be alone with your own thoughts. It’s tough to process the day alone. [Laughs.] It’s why so many people go to bars after work. I don’t drink. The worst thing that I do in my life is drink chai lattes from Starbucks twice a day. I have the career that perfectly suits my personality. It’s very modular: @midnight is three days a week; I do stand-up on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights; Talking Dead on Sundays; and I do podcasts and other Nerdist [Industries] stuff. Every once in a while I feel like, “Oh my god, I’m gonna be crushed by the weight of responsibilities that I have!” But it’s not like I have to get up at 4 in the morning every day. The biggest responsibility that I feel is making sure that I still have time to be a consumer of things, to see the movies that I want to see, to play the video games that I wanna play, or read the comic series that I wanna read.
No matter what you do, there’s gonna be a section of humanity that hates your face. There’s nothing you can do about that.
Of the many people you’ve interviewed, whose nerd tendencies most surprised you?
I didn’t know CM Punk before he came on Talking Dead and I came to realize a lot of wrestlers are just nerdy guys in titan bodies. You go to his place in Chicago and he’s got a flux capacitor in his living room with a bunch of horror paintings on the wall and you realize, “Oh fuck, this guy is just like me except he could rip someone’s head off.” [Laughs.]
Being a nerd used to mean being an early adopter of technology and culture. Now that entire generations of people are using the most cutting edge technology available, do you still feel that drive to be the first to know about something or use it?
If I were competing with those rules I would go crazy because it’s really hard to stay ahead of everyone else in that way. The playing field is leveled. There are so many outlets, so many writers, so many blogs. You almost have to be in R&D at a company or sign an NDA to see stuff before anyone else. It’s really difficult to be ahead of everyone if you aren’t directly involved with the development of a technology. When I was writing more for Wired or when I was working for G4 then maybe I would’ve felt the responsibility [to use things first]. Now there is that whole firsties culture of getting to write first in a comment thread. There is a genuine thrill in stumbling across a YouTube video or something online or an app before most people have seen it and knowing you were on the ground floor before it entered the public conscious. There’s definitely a thrill in that.
Given your access, you must have amassed a crazy collection of nerd swag. What are the most precious items that you own?
My girlfriend Chloe’s dad is a special effects guy named John Dykstra and he’s worked on a lot of the movies that are relevant to my interests. He did special effects for Star Wars, so for Christmas 2012 he gave me a three-inch chunk of the original Death Star. It’s this piece of foam with molding on top of it. It’s the medium range Death Star, like right before they go into the trench run, it was that shot. He gave that to me that was pretty amazing. Then Chloe also raided her dad’s storage unit and gave me original crew shirts from Star Wars and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Greg Nicotero gave me one of Darryl’s ear necklaces from The Walking Dead. I have one of Rick’s badges. I have a piece of film strip from the original Star Trek series that was given to me by the Roddenberrys. I loved animation when I was growing up and was a huge Ren & Stimpy fan from the early days. I had a series of meetings with John K. [Kricfalusi], who’s the creator of Ren & Stimpy, and he got to a restaurant we were meeting at early, so he made a drawing for me and signed it. That was a pretty big deal. [Laughs.] I have a lot of things like that, that I can’t believe I actually have.
Your projects are inclusive and emphasize community. Does it surprise you that some in the fanboy community resent you? (They probably hate you even more after reading all the cool shit you own.)
No matter what you do, there’s gonna be a section of humanity that hates your face. There’s nothing you can do about that. If people don’t like you, they get angry because they don’t want you being associated with something that they’re passionate about, like a television show. If Walking Dead fans hate me, they say, “Fuck you! You ruined Walking Dead!” But it’s not possible for me to ruin Walking Dead because I have nothing to do with the show itself. I’m just a guy who’s a fan of the show and I talk about it. I’m avoidable.
And then I realize, 'I’m fighting with the Internet again. Why am I doing this?' It’s like trying to punch the wind.
Some of your critics say you’re not critical enough.
I’m not that negative about anything because you can get cynicism everywhere. Nerds excel at it. There’s a fuck-ton of negativity in the world. Why not celebrate the things that are fun and positive? They aren’t any less real than negative things. I’m like a mix between SpongeBob and Tracy Flick from Election. I have this rabid enthusiasm, but also this overachieving class-helper vibe. It’s like, “Why is that guy raising his hand again? Who is he trying to impress?” I enjoy working on things that I like! I don’t have to take jobs that I don’t like anymore, so if an opportunity comes along with something I like, then I’m gonna do it.
I took Talking Bad very carefully and almost didn’t do it because Breaking Bad is a precious show to me and other fans and I did not want to go online and see, “Huffington Post says ‘Chris Hardwick ruined Breaking Bad.'” I knew that that show called for a different vibe [than Walking Dead]. Even as outlandish as the story lines could be on Breaking Bad, Vince [Gilligan] always grounded the show in a dark and tense reality. It’s just not the same as someone driving over a zombie head and exploding. It required a slightly different energy and thankfully I didn’t get ripped to shreds. People understood that I really did care about the show and I was there to give them a little more insight than they would’ve had and that I was their friend and not a guy who was trying to yell at their faces. [Laughs.]
I am who I am and I like what I like and you’re free to not watch it if you don’t want to. I totally understand and I’m not offended. You’re allowed to have your opinion. When people say, “The stuff you makes sucks!” I always say, “Great! You should go make stuff that you want to see exist in the world. Use me as the example of what you don’t want to make, and then make the thing you want to see exist in the world, because that’s what I did, and anyone can do it.”
Hosts from Dick Clark to Ryan Seacrest to Carson Daly get a lot of flak. Is hosting an underappreciated ability?
Running a live show and keeping a conversation going with a producer in your ear is harder than it looks. I’m not trying to be arrogant but it’s not a skill set that a lot of people have. I never get offended when people say, “Your jokes are stupid,” or “I hate your face,” or “You suck,” but when they say, “You’re a bad host,” I’m like, “Wait a minute!” [Laughs.] People might not like my take on something, but mechanically I’m decent at what I do. And then I realize, “I’m fighting with the Internet again. Why am I doing this?” It’s like trying to punch the wind. I have to remember that some people hate your face no matter what you do and they just wanna be heard.
What are you hard on yourself about?
Pretty much everything. It’s a tendency that comedians in general have—a lot of performers do, but particularly comedians, who are hypercritical. It’s a comedian’s job to be critical of the world and that turns inward. We’re essentially insecure beings who are drawn to a business that unfortunately attacks your insecurities. [Laughs.] It’s a completely fucked-up cocktail that I’m surprised any of us actually do, but that’s why if you do comedy for any length of time and you continue to do it you’re probably doing the right thing, because it would scare most people away.
I’m probably hardest on myself about taking myself so seriously that someone can come along and say, “Fuck you! You suck!” and it would affect my day in any way. It’s fighting insecurity, it’s making sure I don’t beat myself up. To comics it’s, “Am I funny? Am I funny? Those other people are funnier than me. I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m not Louis C.K. Why did I think I could be a comic?” All of those really bad questions you ask yourself because you never know and this business is unstable. It’s just not like a normal job where you go, “Well, I’ll start in the mailroom and then I’ll work myself up and I’ll be an assistant, then I’ll have a desk and I’ll take over a department and then I’ll be head of a….” It’s not linear in that way. It’s nebulous.
So much of our culture now bears no responsibility for what they say. It’s gonna have a real profound effects on our culture at some point generations down the line. When you take away accountability, what happens? People are just shitty to each other because they can be.
Do you think you’d be less susceptible to trolling if you’d grown up with the Internet?
Pre-Internet babies view Internet comments the same as if someone walked up to you in a public place and said, “You fuckin’ suck! And your face sucks! You’re a cock and everything you do sucks!” And then you’d be like, “Oh my god, what the fuck happened?” But it’s not that way at all. It’s funny to me the manner in which the Internet has connected everyone and essentially vocalized the planet, yet at the same time it has isolated us as a species because you’re essentially interfacing with a machine, and when you’re interfacing with a machine there’s a de-personalization and there’s nothing human about it. It’s easy when you’re staring at text to type, “Go fuck yourself in the face, you cock lord,” because you’re not looking someone in the eye and you’re not connecting with them on a human level.
So much of our culture now bears no responsibility for what they say. It’s gonna have a real profound effects on our culture at some point generations down the line. [Laughs.] The reason that a culture and a society can function is because people are accountable to one another. When you take away accountability, what happens? People are just shitty to each other because they can be. Because why not? It’s funny. It’s a freebie.
What is the worst thing someone’s said to you online?
The day after my dad [legendary professional bowler Billy Hardwick] died, someone on Twitter started trolling me, saying shit like, “Say hi to your dad for me. Oops, you can’t.” Using that to attack me was literally the meanest thing that anyone has ever done to me. It was mind-boggling. That’s when I think, “I’m a little worried for humanity.” [Laughs.] Those are the days when I feel like, why would I be open about stuff if it’s just a way for people to genuinely hurt me? That day, that troll 100 percent succeeded. But getting through that was also a strengthening exercise because I didn’t react to it. I didn’t say anything. I just blocked him. My first impulse was, “I’m going to offer $10,000 to anyone who can tell me who this person is and I’m going to fly there and I’m going to bust him.” I mean, I wouldn’t literally do that. I don’t know what I thought I was going to do to that person, but in my head I was just like, “I WILL FIND THIS PERSON!!!” [Laughs.]
What did doing a podcast with your dad mean to you?
The podcast with my dad was incredible. I almost didn’t do it, and now that he died last year, I can’t begin to tell you how excited I am that I did it. I just happened to be back home and I had my recorder and I was like, “Oh! Let’s podcast my dad.” My dad had a really interesting life, being a professional bowler, being on the PBA Tour, and being a pioneer in his field and a legend at his craft. The podcast ended up starting this deep connection with my dad that we didn’t have before, and it changed the course of our relationship. I haven’t been able to listen to it since he died; it would break me in half right now. But someday when I’m able to listen to it I’ll have this time capsule of me connecting with my dad on an incredibly human level.
Interview by Justin Monroe (@40yardsplash)
ADDITIONAL CREDITS: (STYLING) Kit Scarbo. (GROOMING) Sean James.