Chris Hardwick's Improbable Second Act As King of the Nerds

Between Nerdist, Talking Dead, and @Midnight, Chris Hardwick's career is more alive than ever.

For those weaned on MTV in the ’90s, Chris Hardwick was Jenny McCarthy’s sardonic, floppy-haired co-host on the dating show Singled Out. Hardwick stood out as the reluctant smart-ass who looked like he wanted to be anywhere else but yukking it up with peacocking show contestants (it’s no wonder, given his main interests were video games, Steve Martin, and German existential philosophy). After some bleak years, Hardwick has reinvented himself as an entrepreneur and über-pop-culture enthusiast who now hosts multiple hit shows based on his three loves: comedy, technology, and unabashed nerd stuff. Hardwick’s Internet media company, Nerdist, boasts 2.5 million unique hits monthly, while some seven million tune into Talking Dead, which is like SportsCenter for Walking Dead fans, and his game show on Comedy Central, @midnight, was just renewed for a second season. We sat down with Hardwick in between recording shows at a Los Angeles soundstage to talk about MTV, down-vote culture, and skinny jeans.

YOU GREW UP IN KENTUCKY, AND YOUR DAD WAS A PROFESSIONAL BOWLER. DID THIS MAKE YOU MORE OR LESS OF A NERD? My whole life existed around a bowling center. That’s where I went every day after school. That’s where I first started playing video games in an arcade, and chess with other kids whose parents bowled. There was a big-screen TV that played MTV and I would watch that for hours. But no, it definitely did not make me cool.There’s a pop culture renaissance because we have so many different access points. Attention is the new economy. There’s competition for your attention, and competition breeds quality. That’s part of the currency of how we live our lives: Our attention is as important as money. Before, you had three channels and it was like, ‘What else are you going to watch, asshole?’ Technology has flipped the model and made the content king— within an hour, a song, video, or picture can be global. The middleman has been cut out between creator and consumer. It’s much more a meritocracy: We’re an up-vote culture now.

WHAT’S THE WORST THING ABOUT POP CULTURE NOW? We’re also a down-vote culture. Because we live through machines we’re desensitized to negativity. We’ve also become whiny and overly cynical, sometimes just waiting to trash stuff.
HOW DID YOU GET OUT OF YOUR CAREER RUT AFTER LEAVING MTV IN 1998? At first, I was super-drunk, chunky, unemployed, directionless, scared, and depressed. Then I finally accepted that I’m an awkward nerd, also loud and obnoxious. I stopped trying to chase what I thought the entertainment business wanted me to be. It sounds simple, but it wasn’t for me. I decided in 2003 that I would only go after things that I was passionate about. I started doing tech and science journalism for Wired magazine, did more stand-up comedy, and created the Nerdist blog. Focusing on what I loved was the key to everything.
ARE NERDS THE NEW ELITISTS? When you grow up not being able to fit in, you can come out of it very elitist, like, “This is ours! Stay away!” Or you can come out of it like I did and think, “Everyone should like this stuff and it’s fun and come on in!” Now there’s high-quality big-budget stuff for us nerd folk and that’s great—I think everyone should celebrate the stuff they like the way they want to. Some of the nerds see hipster people spill into conventions, and they get freaked out. I’ve been accused of letting the hipsters in.

WHY? Maybe my haircut or the skinny jeans. Probably the skinny jeans.

Text by Natasha Vargas-Cooper. Photographed by Steven Taylor.