If Nerds ever really were an oppressed class, they have now sufficiently overcome. First they made all the money (the most lasting money too–as the fraternity bros in the finance industry keep plummeting tech and web companies keep soaring). Then their pop culture took over everything else–the fact that actual movies stars and entertainment industry giants have to take questions from indoor superfans at ComicCon never fails to blow my mind. And finally, their chosen medium, the Net, has spawned many powerful cultural superstars (Warren Ellis, Felicia Day, Wesley Crusher?) with the undisputed comedy king being the man who bears their name: The Nerdist, Chris Hardwick. His podcast under that name is one of the most influential and widely downloaded, he has one soon-to-be-two television shows and his @nerdist twitter account boasts, not a typo, One Point Five Million Followers. This may not be a lot for a porn star or a basketball player, but for a comedian this is somewhat uncharted territory.
Remember Lord of the Flies? Well in real life Piggy would never have gotten squooshed. He would have patented his Firestarter™ glasses and ruled the island with a team of vicious and well-paid hot booth-babes dressed up like Lara Croft.
With mad influence comes mad responsibility, obviously, but so far Hardwick, despite being on two amazingly morally-bankrupt dating shows in the late 90s (Shipmates and oh god yes MTVs Singled Out) has emerged as the premier voice of insider skepticism for the dumb parts of nerdom as well as cheerleader for the best bits of it. Opposite Jenny McCarthy on Singled Out, he was the sarcastic gadfly who never looked comfortable with the fake humping and crass sexuality the show was pumping. Now, opposite whoever replaced Olivia Munn on Attack of the Show, where he is the gadgetry reporter, he exudes the same air of Are We Serious About This Shit? Even on Web Soup he doesn’t look convinced by the silly jokes and parade of camera-wielding fools, which is course the core of why he’s so appealing. There is real darkness to his cynicism at times, which his forthcoming book touches upon as it outlines how he overcame depression and obsession to become an unstoppable content machine, but unlike, say, David Cross, who also grew up in the wretched South, his brutal honesty never spills over into pure hatred of his less intelligent peers. As he himself would say, despite an inborn and irrepressible resistance to any sort of institutional bullshit, he is primarily concerned with doing good–hence the name of the current Stand-up Comedy tour: The Chaotic Good tour (more ((a lot more)) on what that means later).
So yeah on top of all this he continues to be a delightful and uncompromising Standup Comedian, who is as much at home making fun of his own Redneck upbringing as the latest tech industry fail. He’s coming to the Arlington Cinema and Drafthouse this weekend, and will no doubt talk about a bunch of things close to your beady little heart. I got a chance to talk to him on the phone this week about why nerds have taken over everything, what his new TV show is going to be about, and why there’s always somebody being a hater on Twitter. But if you want to know who elected him Philosopher King of Nerds exactly, he won’t have an answer because he would reject the designation out of hand. In his mind, and in the mind of all the leading Geeks and Weirdos, they’re still outsiders, even as their armies jackboot down Main Street in sweaty cosplay uniforms. Let’s just be thankful their dominance is benevolent. So Far.
BYT: Well first of all I want to warn you BrightestYoungThings has a reputation as a ‘Hipster’ website.
Chris Hardwick: Ah yes hipsters. We do give Jonah (co-host on the Nerdist Podcast) a lot of grief for being a hipster. The thing about hipsters is that they take very seriously trying to make themselves look like they don’t take themselves seriously. But make no mistake: they are serious about it.
BYT: While maybe nerds are not being serious enough about taking themselves seriously. Or no that makes no sense, there isn’t a reverse.
CH: Here’s how you know Jonah is a hipster. Because he uses all the arguments a hipster would use to defend himself from being a hipster: “I got these glasses ten years ago at a flea market!” So…BEFORE THEY WERE COOL HUH?
BYT: Well maybe we can call a truce for the purposes of this interview. Since you were one of the first people to re-claim the word nerd from being an insult, but now everyone wants to claim to be a nerd. Are there fake nerds out there? And why?
CH: Yeah there are fake nerds out there but I guess that is just part of the Nerd Renaissance, people jumping on the train. It was not a cool thing when I was growing up, and all the stuff I was into I got mercilessly tortured for. I had all the original D&D books, and I was in chess club and computer club and Latin club. I was president of the Latin club actually. It wasn’t a socially cool thing but…we got to a point in our society where the types of things that nerdy people like began to dictate the types of things we have in our culture now. Gadgets and video games, DVRs and computers and the Internet all became really popular, and they all came from nerds. So what happens when nerds all get rich is: there’s a politics to it. Where there is money there is power. So then everyone else is like: “Hey nerds are great!” And I realized this was going on a long time ago, when all the highest grossing movies were either comic book movies or Harry Potter movies. Even soap operas have vampires and werewolves in them now. Pop culture is nerd culture.
BYT: It’s funny that you use the phrase Nerd Renaissance since in a lot of ways, since they’ve won, there’s become a sort of weird street cred battle where…like you mentioned having the original D&D books but were they the Basic ones from the box or the one with the banned demon cover or… it become this kind of authenticity argument usually reserved for albums and t-shirts that hipsters might have.
CH: It’s true. The difference being that a nerd would wear a D&D shirt because he loves D&D while a hipster would wear a D&D shirt because it’s ridiculous that he is wearing a D&D shirt. There’s no ironic appreciation of things we love, even of things that are in fact ridiculous, which a hipster might take and own and show the world the humor in it. There are certainly crossovers, I mean if you looked at a Venn diagram of the two world’s there would be a big shaded region in the middle.
BYT: Thank god since I feel like we’re journeying there now. Speaking of D&D also I hear this comedy tour you’re on is called the Chaotic Good tour. Is that really the best alignment? (Editor’s note: the following extremely fucking nerdy discussion is based on this alignment thingy from Dungeons and Dragons and you might just want to skip it if you are not a role-playing game devotee and scroll to where we talk about the NFL draft: way down ⅔ of the way past never.)
CH: Yes! Of course.
BYT: What about Lawful Neutral?
CH: Noo, Chaotic Good, it’s the Han Solo alignment! Lawful Neutral is an unemotional alignment where you just follow the law without caring about people, while Chaotic Good is about being a rebel but you’re good at the core.
BYT: What about the Dark Knight? Isn’t he Lawful Neutral? Obeying the law above all else even kindness?
CH: Batman is…let’s see. I actually wrote an Alignment Chart in my new book that’s coming out…Let’s see. He might be lawful neutral. But wait he doesn’t follow the government’s laws…hmmm.
BYT: Are you consulting the book right now? I like the idea that you carry it around with you in case matters of such importance arise!
CH: No, I’m looking it up on my computer. I just have so many versions of it. I’ve been writing it for about 3 months and only just finished it.
[A long bantering pause while Chris apparently searches for the character string ‘Batman Alignment’ in multiple text files.]
CH: Found it! Huh, it looks like Batman is Lawful Good. Because he does follow a higher authority to do good, to the letter.
BYT: Well that’s actually why I’d put him as Neutral since the law matters more than people’s lives, but if it’s too late to get it back from the presses I’ll let it slide.
CH: Haha, sure. And for Lawful Neutral I have James Bond and other soldiers who just follow orders rather than think for themselves. For Chaotic Evil I have… let’s see… Riddick!
BYT: Yikes. What other stuff is going on in the book? Beside this life changing chart?
CH: Well the reason that I made the chart is that the book is kind of a productivity guide for nerds. It’s partially autobiographical, though I’m obviously not a motivational speaker or a doctor. There are certain parts of a classic nerd’s brain that can destroy that person–obsessing about things to the detriment of everything else in your life. But those are the same tools that you can use to turn everything around. One thing I have people do in the book is go out and buy graph paper and make a character sheet for themselves. What’s great about D&D and how it can apply to a real person is that very few people write a basic overview of who they are and how they view things. You know? So it gets you think about who you are and why you make choices, which can make future choices easier. So, if I’m lawful neutral, and I just listen to what other people say–knowing that can inform my decisions about what to do, if I find myself in a situation where I’m having difficulty. So I have people pick an alignment just to step outside themselves a little bit and figure out who they are and what they want.
BYT: This would have been super helpful What other kinds of advice do you give the nerdlings?
CH: There’s three sections: a mind section and a body section and a time section, about managing all of those. The mind section is about managing the mental traps nerds get into, the moderate depression and mild OCD. It just says “I went through this and here’s what I did and here’s how you can do it too.” And the body section is about how I started exercising a couple times a week–not like a maniac–but just enough to feel better about myself. And the time section is about getting a better handle on what you spend your time on.
BYT: The Body section might be the part that causes some nerds to throw it across the room in frustration. “How DARE he try to get me to go outside!”
CH: It’s possible! I would have too. It is one of those things you don’t really get until you experience. After you try it you go “Oh I guess our bodies did evolve needing to exercise a little bit!”
BYT: I’m surprised to hear that you struggled with these issue since you’ve always been incredibly productive in my memory. Recently in particular you’ve had your finger in…so many… kettles? Wait is that the right metaphor?
CH: It is now. “He’s got his finger in many kettles.”
CH: Is that guy fingering those kettles?
BYT: He looks busy! I have no idea what I’m saying. Anyway, in particular I’m amazed how many things you will pop up on, from reading tweets with Craig Ferguson to being my favorite guest on the Jordan Jesse Go podcast…
CH: Haha yeah the last one I was on got really filthy. I think I started it but Jordan (Morris, co-host) had no problem coming along with the dirty talk.
BYT: You mentioned on that episode, speaking of other projects, that you just got a TV show on BBC America, also called Nerdist. Will it be structured like the podcast?
CH: Sort of. It’s not going to be like the old Howard Stern show on E! where they just had cameras in the recording studio. We’re actually shooting it in the same TV studio where we shoot Web Soup.
CH: We’ll be doing things that take advantage of the fact that we’re on TV. My best friend Mike Phirman (of the great Hard and Phrim) will be the ‘band guy’. There will be a British correspondent we can throw to every once in a while. And I’ll have people on that blog for me every once in a while to talk about whatever it is that they’re nerding out over at the moment. In general though, the body of the show will focus on the guest like usual, where we’ll have a full 45 minute chat. We’ll cut it down to be a TV show but then we’ll release the audio as a podcast. You get a benefit on either side, if you like the podcast you can see what it looks like and if you like the TV show you can hear more of the conversation.
BYT: That’s the most fascinating me piece of news to me, that the podcast will in some ways be the main event rather than the show. Podcasts may not be the most widely popular medium, but everyone in media is talking about them perhaps because they seem in a lot of ways like it is the most important new thing to come along in a while.
CH: It makes a lot of sense when you think about it. People can get exactly the kind of content they want to go through their day. In the same way that listeners no longer are stuck in a single vertical of a genre of music, only listening to Classic Rock or R&B or whatever, and now they all listen to music like it’s a mixtape. People have control of what kind of content they can listen to at any time. We follow people around from their desks to the treadmill, on buses, everywhere. What is fun about podcasts is that we’re really forming a relationship with people who download the show.
BYT: I think it’s Jesse Thorn who said that audio mediums are the most intimate form of mediums, because they are just one voice or several voices having a conversation and nothing else to distract the listener like a set or an outfit or even a hairstyle. Is that more true of podcasts?
CH: Podcasts are still essentially a radio show format but without all of the extra stuff where you break for commercials or read the news or anything else you don’t want to do! It’s funny, I put off doing a podcast for two years because I was thinking too much in terms of traditional media. I thought we had to have segments and focus on a specific genre and have a point. And a bunch of my friends just had shows where they were just talking–Jimmy Pardo and Adam Corrolla and Marc Maron. So I decided to just try that out. I thought no matter what else happens we’ll just put out one a week and feel like we’re accomplishing something, and listeners might come and go but at least we’ll have something consistent. And of course that turned out to be one of the best things I’ve ever done in my career. We never set out to have one of the most downloaded podcasts on iTunes or anything like that. Honestly it doesn’t even feel like ‘a thing’ because we’re so used to being hired by other companies. So when it’s just three guys going into a room and talking and leaving and then it’s out in the world an hour later…that’s a thing? I guess so.
BYT: It must be a similarly confusing moment when you realize 1.5 million people are reading things you can type on your phone to your twitter account?
CH: [Pause] I mean I… I stopped thinking about that a long time ago. If you think too much about how too many people are looking at you then you start making weird fear-based choices. And then you start becoming bland. I just assume that of anything that comes out, one out of ten people will think it is the Worst Thing They’ve Ever Seen and that you are a piece of shit. Four other people won’t really care about it, four people will like it, and one person will tell you it’s the Greatest Thing Ever. It’s the 1-4-4-1 rule!
BYT: I wanted to ask about Attack of The Show. Your segments on that are great but I sometimes get uncomfortable watching it because it is a giant advertisement for whatever they’re talking about. I mean it’s purely an ad, rather than something like a late night talk show that at least pretends to be about having a conversation with an actress when it’s really a commercial for the movie she’s in.
CH: All television is an advertisement– that’s why it exists. It wasn’t the art-form first and then the commerce–it was that they could put on entertainment long enough to distract people into looking at products. It’s for focusing people on advertising and separating you from money in some way. Some people forget that. The side product is that we get some great eye candy. TV is the best it has ever been right now. I don’t have a problem with that since it’s what keep us employed. In the same way that if you write an article there will be 50 ads around it to pay the bills.
BYT: If we’re lucky. Well I would remiss if I didn’t ask a single Singled Out question. You were one of the greatest things on television at the time because, with all this chaos brewing around you, it always seemed like were muttering something sarcastic or had a general reaction look in your eye like you just could not even believe those people. Was that a purposeful act or were you just really honestly reacting to them?
CH: No I really couldn’t believe all those people. I really really couldn’t. [thoughtful pause] A lot of them were the types of people who were shitty to me in college. Really really shitty to me. I mean, I was into nerdy stuff, I came in as a math major and ended up as a philosophy major but also took animation classes. And so all those crazy sorority type people, like the people we got on the show, never would have given me the time of day at school. So there was a certain nerdy… “HA HA I Own You Now!”
BYT: But also maybe a sort of terrified…”Get Them Away From Me”?
BYT: Well potentially this is your final revenge over jocks: If you google ‘Daniel Tosh vs Chris Hardwick’ the first result is some forum post that says and I quote: “Tosh is funnier but has no body. i’d pick him first i think. although i think chris is hotter. …” so that’s a moral victory in my opinion!
CH: Argh. Well as a comedian, I’d rather be funnier, so it’s bittersweet. But I’ll take it! It’s a dirty win. A win, but there’s pieces of shit on it.
BYT: You made your saving throw but you still…
CH: I still got lanced in the shoulder.
BYT: It’s all about gaining experience. Well thanks for talking to me man, looking forward to the show!
CH: Thanks, me too!
You don’t have to be a certified D&D/Comics/8bit/DrWho/Hacker dork to enjoy the Nerdist’s hilarious bawdy nunchaku/comedy skills. But if you are one, you are required to come to the show, by the laws of the kingdom and your ruler’s decree, yo.