Nerdist empire founder Chris Hardwick is riding the crest of a pop culture wave.
Photos by Deverill Weekes
Though he’s become popular and successful as a poster child for nerd culture, Chris Hardwick still carries his things around town in a plain-brown-paper grocery sack instead of some expensive designer bag.
This paper bag in question contains a selection of the many T-shirts Hardwick has collected over the years, and he’s brought them to Meltdown Comics on Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood for a special photo shoot with Geek. Meltdown, not incidentally, is where his Nerdist brand frequently hosts special events in the back of the shop under the hybrid moniker NerdMelt.
Among the T-shirts Hardwick brought are an original promo design for the 1985 comedy Real Genius, a steampunk C-3PO and R2-D2 design and the crown jewel of his entire stash: a yellow Wizards T from the 1977 Ralph Bakshi-directed animated classic.
“It’s from a place actually called ‘Wizards’ in Memphis, where I grew up,” explains Hardwick. “The store is sort of like a dirty, grungy version of Spencer’s Gifts and they sell stuff like bongs and X-rated gifts. I’d seen this T-shirt from the store that used the art from the Bakshi movie Wizards, so when I went to the store last year, I asked them about the Bakshi art on their shirt and they had absolutely no idea what I was talking about. Totally lost on them.”
Hardwick’s selection of shirts only represents a small portion of his collection, and he admits he never set out to collect as many T-shirts as he has; it’s just something that happened. “I just fall in love with them and I also do a lot of things where I wear a lot of T-shirts,” says Hardwick. “This is how my generation expresses itself — through T-shirts.”
Well, that’s only partially true. In Hardwick’s case, he’s managed to express himself and his love for nerd culture in many different ways and into a full-time career. (Yeah, we still remember Singled Out blowing up on MTV way back when.) The former G4 talking head and founder of the nerdist.com now has a TV show on BBC America, is the host of Talking Dead (an entertaining companion talk show to AMC’s hit The Walking Dead), a stand-up comic, actor and many other hyphenates that keep adding to his ultra-multi-hyphenate credits — in short, he’s a nonstop, perpetual-working machine, which he doesn’t really mind. The only problem is it gets harder for Hardwick to find the time to enjoy the things which he spends so much time celebrating. “It is nonstop, but I think the luxury problem I have now is finding time to still be a fan and consume things, watch TV, read comics and see movies,” he says. “It’s a challenge to squeeze stuff in. I rarely say, ‘I have the afternoon off, so I’ll go see a movie.’”
But Hardwick certainly isn’t complaining, because he gets to work in an industry where he gets to riff on all the stuff he really loves. “I would recommend to anyone to find the things you love and work in and around those things or be near them,” he attests. “It’s the greatest gift to be able to work on something you care about.”
Hardwick’s journey from actual nerd to Nerd King dates back to when he was a kid in the late 1970s. He loved his Atari 2600 game cartridges so much that he literally brought them to school — just to keep them close. This kind of behavior naturally caught the attention of school bullies and quickly landed Hardwick in a garbage can, though, as he notes, the Atari fetish wasn’t his only social red flag. “It was just one piece of the puzzle,” he admits. “I was in chess club, computer lab and I was a very small, tiny kid. I didn’t really grow until I was in high school. I took P.E. with fifth and sixth graders when I was in seventh and eighth grade. The combination of all those things made me a very easy target.”
While Hardwick knew he was an outsider for his interests, it took the 1984 film Revenge of the Nerds for him to finally find a label for himself that felt right. “I just knew what I was into when I was growing up, strangely enough,” he says. “I knew I liked computers, I knew I liked video games, I was into sci-fi and horror stuff, but also stand-up comedy. I didn’t know what it was but, at the time, there weren’t many of us. I knew I was into stuff other kids didn’t like and I thought I was weird because I didn’t play sports or even care about sports. You find your little corner of four friends. That was it. It wasn’t until the movie Revenge of the Nerds where [I was like,] ‘Oh, shit, that’s what it is.’ So it wasn’t until that movie where I felt I had a group I could identify with.”
Among Hardwick’s first nerd fixations were stand-up comedy LPs, Saturday Night Live and, of course, Star Wars. “In the 1980s, I also became obsessed with British culture,” he says. “I watched the Monty Python films on VHS. When MTV was really cool, they aired The Young Ones. I loved it so much. I watched SNL from the very beginning and my parents bought me comedy albums. They would even tape comedy specials for me, including Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy and Rodney Dangerfield. I was all over those.”
And, fortunately, things worked out for Hardwick. No longer trashcan-bound at the age of 41 he has created a virtual empire out of his nerd culture obsession. “I just had to express things I liked and surround myself with things I really enjoyed and was passionate about,” he says. “I was like, well, I know all about what is considered nerd culture things. I know this is all the stuff I love. I know I love and I have a bunch of comedy experience and hosting experience, so let’s see if I can mash it all together and make it a thing. It was not like I felt I was being suffocated by the industry. I thought as long as I can survive within it, I can be happy. I never thought a podcast would be a cornerstone of everything. It was a thing to do, it sounded fun and I wanted to have conversations with people I liked [about] what they did and as a way to also put my voice into the world a little bit more.”
And survive he did, especially after he realized that being an actor was not the end game for him. “I think that’s why I started making my own stuff,” Hardwick explains. “You’re not attractive enough for this role. You have no control over anything. I guess I was just enough of a control freak. With stand-up, you’re used to, ‘I make my own thing.’ You build your own little universe with your comedy. It was like, ‘I’ll do that with other things.’ I don’t know if I had a grand master plan from the beginning with the Nerdist stuff. I just didn’t want to feel like my soul was being devoured. You audition for stuff and a lot of times, it’s stuff you don’t want to do, and you still feel bad about yourself for screwing it up.”
His quick wit and ability to be a voice of the nerd generation landed Hardwick as the host of the short-lived PBS series Wired Science as well as a regular gig on the now-defunct G4, appearing on such series as Attack of the Show for several years and also as a host on Web Soup, an offshoot of E!’s Talk Soup, which Hardwick also guest hosted. All this live TV experience helped him hone his craft, making him not only a better host, but a better comedian as well. “You learn it pretty quickly,” he says. “I’ve done just about every show you can do. When I started working on Attack of the Show, it was a whole new learning experience because I never worked in live television before. Doing five years of live television was great. You just do it. You can’t really overthink it. You have to be in the moment and roll with the moment. If you can do it, you can handle any kind of show if you’re used to flying that way.”
It was around this time that Hardwick launched nerdist.com and began doing a weekly podcast about all things geek related. “It was a site, then it was a site with contributors, and it was a site with contributors with an editor I had to hire, then it was a podcast, a podcast network, a company, a television show and is now owned by a bigger company,” Hardwick says, referring to Legendary Entertainment, now the proud owner of Nerdist Industries, which also absorbed the site Geek Chic Daily and rebranded it as Nerdist News. “It very naturally evolved. It’s gratifying, you learn about yourself, your writing and audience. We thought, ‘If we’re doing this, why couldn’t it be a TV show?’”
This past spring, BBC America transformed a series of The Nerdist TV specials into a full-fledged weekly series, which pushed Hardwick a step closer to global domination. “But there’s a huge difference in the way people consume TV than they do podcasts,” he says. “Podcasts have an hour to meander and find a rhythm for everyone — it’s loose. TV needs structure, but not too much structure where it’s segment, segment, segment. We found that balance.”
The other thing that has sent Hardwick’s popularity soaring are his hosting duties for Talking Dead, the talk show that aired after every episode of The Walking Dead last season. Talking became so popular that it was expanded into a full hour for the second half of Dead’s third season. “We always felt pretty rushed with our half-hour format,” Hardwick notes. “The show was really fun, but we had to move so fast because we were live, and everything has to be exactly on time. With an hour-long show, we had a little more time to breathe and can have more conversation. I think it would be fun if the show felt like a hybridized version of a Comic-Con panel.”
Interestingly, Talking Dead is the type of series with the odds stacked against it — as a talk show devoted to just one TV series — but Hardwick says it worked because of how much fervor and excitement each episode of The Walking Dead brings. “Not every show needs it, but there are a handful that are so dense with characters and tragedy and stories that it’s therapeutic. It helps bring people back into their lives,” Hardwick says. “You watch The Walking Dead and sometimes you’re just shaking afterwards. And characters you love — all this fucked-up shit happens to them and you feel like you want to ball up. So we’re a lighthearted way for people to respectfully glide back into their own lives while getting more information about stuff they’re already interested in. It’s sort of like informational therapy, I guess.” He adds that having the Walking creators and stars on the program added a degree of difficulty to his hosting duties, as they are sworn to secrecy and careful to avoid spoilers.
As Hardwick prepares for the endless array of jobs, side jobs, hosting duties, multimedia conglomerate meetings, comedy gigs and everything else he’s involved in, he makes it clear that nerd culture is powerful and here to stay. “You could never pitch nerd culture shows 10 or 15 years ago,” he adds. “They would have laughed in your face and wedgied you and then kicked you out of their office. Now, we realize that there’s so much power in nerd culture. If you all look around at the warm artificial glow of light that’s reflecting off your face right now, jocks did not build those. So maybe they actually had to do the manual parts of it, but the nerds told them what to do. So there’s a lot of power in our culture in video games and films. Nerd culture has become so ubiquitous and so much a part of who we are. [There are even] Doctor Who shirts at Hot Topic, for crap’s sake. The fact that my mom knows what ‘4G’ means is crazy. We figured that out a long time ago, but it just took a while for the industry to catch up.”
As for the age-old debate of nerd vs. geek, Hardwick admits that we’re now at a place in society where we’re so tech-savvy that the lines have blurred to a point where they’re one in the same. “I think nerds and geeks, we’re pretty much saying the same thing,” he says. “If you want to get really granular, there was a time you would say that geeks are more tech-centric or nerds are more pop-culture-centric. Depending on which side you ask, one would always say the other was the weaker class. Now, for me, it was just regional. We didn’t use the term ‘geek’ — we used ‘nerd,’ probably propagated by Revenge of the Nerds. At this point, we’re pretty much all saying the same thing.”
Nonetheless, the big question does come up, as this interview comes to a close – with him representing the “Nerd” and this interviewer representing “Geek,” who would win in a knock-down, drag-out brawl here at Meltdown Comics? “I’m not physically confrontational,” Hardwick admits with a knowing smile and then adds, “but I’m spry, so maybe I might go right for the knees or grab an action figure off a shelf and bury it in the side of your neck. Maybe I could catch a major artery, and while you’re trying to push your blood back in, I would just laugh. It would be like one of those brawls in the street on Deadwood, but with action figures and rolled-up comics instead.”
5 THINGS YOU DON’T KNOW ABOUT CHRIS
- His first computer was the TRS-80, though he admits, “I never could get the computer to work. It would boot up, but then it would freeze and kind of die.”
- He’s the 1983 Memphis City Junior High Chess Champion.
- He has a massive insect collection.
- His favorite arcade video game while growing up was Robotron: 2084.
- One of his favorite time-travel movies is the 2007 Spanish film Timecrimes.
HARDWICK ON STAR WARS
On Disney purchasing Lucasfilm and Star Wars…
“It was a brilliant idea. Lucas wasn’t going to own it forever. The thing is, Disney has proven they can take pre-existing properties and do right by them. We have Joss Whedon’s Avengers, we have a new Muppet movie people love. Star Wars is already integrated into the [Disney] parks pretty well. Star Tours is awesome. I think with a property like Star Wars or Lucasfilm in general, you need a company the size of Disney to be able to hold it up. You couldn’t have sold it to a bunch of fan boy investors. There’s a whole infrastructure that you need to support that company. To me, I think it ensures the future of that and of all that intellectual property.”
On J.J. Abrams directing the next Star Wars movie…
“I think J.J. did a great job on the Star Trek movie and he was not a Trek fan. But he absolutely is a fan of Star Wars, and I think it’s great to reboot the franchise and let different people do it. They’re also going to do all of these side stories that are not part of the trilogy, too. They’re giving fans, who are now pretty substantial, direction to be the fan boys and do the things with Star Wars that they always wanted to do. I think it’s an exciting time to see different points of view on a property we already know and love.”
On what he’s looking forward the most with the new film…
“Hearing that Harrison Ford is coming back as Han Solo is fucking mind-blowing. Just to see him as Han again, even as a Han the elder-statesman, that idea is really incredible to me.”