Interview: Chris Hardwick reveals his magic bag of quarters as we get more than a little comedy nerdy

Chris-hardwick Chris Hardwick is a self-described nerd, so much so that his site and his Twitter handle are both called Nerdist, and he's building a whole wide web of nerds, literally, on his Nerdist site. So when he asked me to call him shortly after 5 p.m. (Pacific) on Monday, right after his live spot reviewing a new PC for G4's Attack of the Show, I figured I'd have to ask the man who sings about Pi if he cared that he was talking to me at 5:06:07 on 8/09/10. Yes. We started with lunacy right from the beginning.

Did you get wrapped up in the 8/9/10 silliness? "No, but I should have been. I've been traveling so much, I consistently forget what day it is. Several times I have to go, is today Friday? No…so I didn't even realize it."

That's good, though, right? If you're working that much, that a sign that things are going well. "I've been traveling a ton, and I'm getting ready to work six weekends in a row. (NOTE: Chris Hardwick comes to NYC this weekend for several shows at Carolines. For the rest of his late summer schedule, find his tour dates on his Nerdist about page!) It's getting back into it. I started, I guess it's been a couple of years since I decided, well, I should go out on the road and write jokes that are not just for Los Angeles. It's just kind of slow during the summer. I did all three Just For Laughs Festivals. So that was a few weekends right there. And then I did Comic-Con."

How was Comic-Con for a nerd king like you? "It's amazing. The first one was the Wootstock show, and the other show was Patton (Oswalt) did a show at the House of Blues, so I did a guest set on that…for me, performing for nerds is the best. I understand them, they understand me, it's a good match. I've done comedy at Comic-Con for three years. They've always been so good to me."

How does that compare to performing for audiences in mainstream comedy clubs? "The nerds have slowly been overtaking the regular comedy club folk. It'll be interesting to see now…before the summer was up, the podcast hadn't been up very long, and the website wasn't doing that well, and Web Soup wasn't on for that long. I'll be curious. You know, it always comes down to a promotional issue. I can do six shows in a market, and it'll always be the day that I leave, someone will go, 'Why don't you do a show in Denver?', and I'll say, 'I was just there!' It's such a pain to promote shows. There's not a lot of budget to promote shows, from the club end, especially if you're doing a rock club or theatre, you might get a mention in the town's alt-weekly, but much of the time people don't really know you were there. It's an interesting challenge. This weekend will be another check of the thermometer of the asshole of progress."

Since you just talked to Paul F. Tompkins for your own podcast, it's only fitting to ask if you've considered going his route and doing your own version of The Tompkins 300. "It's genius! It was one of the things that motivated me to see if anyone would be interested in doing street team promotions. Which is a throwback to what we'd do in radio. We had street teams all the time…it's just a really fun grassroots way to do it, and meet a lot of creative nerds in the process. And maybe they meet and hang out and form lifelong relationships, and we can meet again in 10 years."

"Part of me says, well that's Paul's idea. But it's so general…I'm trying this promotion. My plan is to do an hour next year, so to spend the time trying to get isolated dates it'd take too long, so that's why I'm doing all of these weeks. The other thing about theaters and rock clubs, is, I enjoy talking to the crowd, not because of any other reason but because I like it, and the mechanics of it are tougher to pull off in a rock club or theater, because they're not as intimate in that way. Comedy clubs is, you're in the trenches. I feel like they're having a contest of who can have the smallest stage in comedy clubs, so a lot of times it feels like you just stood up in front of a bunch of people and started talking to them."

That's what they used to do with the soapboxes. "It's exactly like the old soapbox. Exactly. Exactly. Except instead with vagina jokes. I don't think anyone ever got up in front of the town square and said, 'Farts are weird!'"

Refresh all of our memories. Had you done much comedy before getting MTV's Singled Out? Or did you do MTV first, then stand-up, or then Hard 'N Phirm, and then stand-up? "Well, I had. But it was sort of a weird trajectory. At UCLA, we had a thing called the UCLA Comedy Club. It wasn't a physical club. We would meet on Wednesday nights and flesh out material, and perform in the dorms…in retrospect, it wasn't enough for me to say I was a stand-up but at the time, I thought it was. One of the guys now is a co-E.P. for Family Guy, another guy works at Family Guy. That's where I met Mike Phirman. MTV came along and I essentially left school to work for MTV. After that, I was in that mindset where I said, do I start doing stand-up now? I tried to do it a few times between college and the end of Singled Out, to varying degrees of success. Half of the times it was fine…then, 1999, I finished working on Singled Out and i decided, I'm really ready to pursue this. So the weird answer is I did, but I didn't really until 1999."

"When Mike finished school, we stopped working and Mike went into visual effects. He was doing digital compositing for, like, CSI Miami, the CSI franchise, directing some second unit stuff. So coming out of that, I convinced him, there was Comedy Death Ray at M Bar, let's do one of our old songs, and it was fun. It was right after Tenacious D, and there was a brief opening where people didn't think you were a jag off for doing musical comedy…We did our half-hour in 2007, and then three years of shitloads of stuff as Hard 'N Phirm, and then we both agreed to do our own stuff again. We don't do a ton of stuff together anymore. Like Doug Benson's doing a show that we're doing the theme song for (The Benson Interruption on Comedy Central), and Mike has his own solo album he's got coming out. And we have eight songs together that we haven't put out. But we'll get to that. We essentially have sold a pilot, I can't say where it is, but it'd be an animated Hard 'N Phirm show, and if we get that, you'll see it. Hard 'N Phirm is not a comedy club act. It's good for festivals…in a comedy club, people just need a little more joke-per-minute ratio. If they don't get one of our songs in the first 10 seconds, they have to sit through it…if you're cranking out a bunch of jokes, it's easier for them to check in and out…rather than if you're singing a song about American dinosaurs. We tend to do a lot better in non comedy-club venues. We're not like Stephen Lynch. I'm not being shitty about him. He has a more comedy club friendly kind of act. We have more of a comedy nerd friendly act."

Getting back to you as a solo performer, did you find it easier or harder having been a TV personality already? "It was hard in the sense that I don't think other comics really respected it, because they said, oh you're a guy who was on TV who's now going to try stand-up. As far as the audiences go, to a degree, they know who you are, and then, that's one of the downsides to developing in L.A., because you're developing in front of the TV business. Then if you bomb in front of them because you're new and you do that, and they see you, it takes a couple of years to do it before they'll be willing to see you again. I say start in a small town and develop there, and then, when you're ready, go to New York and get good at being a comedian, then go to L.A. I did it totally ass-backwards."

Does your experience give you a different perspective when it comes to looking at other celebrities or infamous people in Los Angeles who take up stand-up comedy, whether they be "reality" show contestants or pro wrestlers? "I don't necessarily have negative feeelings about it. I say, let them try it. For me, it wasn't that comedy was something I found later in life. I was obsessed with comedy. I wasn't a sports kid." Wait, you were a bowler! Don't try to fool us. "Right, I was a bowler and a comedy fanatic. Two things that wouldn't get me laid. I watched every comedy special that was on TV, whether it was HBO, Showtime, A&E Comedy at the Improv. I was listening to and collecting comedy albums. I have every Steve Martin album. So if I see wrestlers or reality people, I say let them try it. If you don't have the stand-up gene, it will only be rewarding in that you got up and did it. If they really have the stand-up gene, they'll continue to do it. But once they see, oh it's hard, if they feel like they'll try it, and then they won't do it anymore. Most people don't. In my experience, someone will get up that first time and have a really great show, and then shows 2-100 will suck. In the late '90s, Louie Anderson said to me, oh, do 100 shows, then see where you're at, and I feel that's true. You still don't even know who you are on stage for a while. I don't think I've even figured out. Paul F. Tompkins told me, he said he's been doing it for 20 years and he's only been able to figure it out the past couple of years. It's just a process. It's a fucking process. but it's a process I love."

As a nerd, you must also love video games. Did you hear Billy Mitchell got the Donkey Kong record back? I saw it on G4's site today. "He got it back from that Asian guy?!?" We're the same age, so I'm guessing you, like me, spent as much time in arcades as you did as a youth bowler? "In the late '70s, early '80s, that's when video games found their way into bowling centers. My mother's father owned a bowling center. I'm pretty sure that's where my parents met. My grandfather, he was a technophile. He had a computer and Atari and ColecoVision.
So when my dad opened his bowling center, I, as a nerdy kid, said you need to have an arcade. I would get a bag of red quarters, they were quarters that had nail polish on them, so they were basically my private stash of quarters. It was like a bag of quarters was set aside for me. Even the term: red quarters. That meant I got to play Galaga, and Defender, and Donkey Kong, so yeah, I spent shitloads of time. I had that awful Atari 2600 joystick callus in my hand, so yeah, it was pretty severe." Did you have a favorite game? "I loved the Tron game. I also loved the game Robotron: 2084, which was pretty terrific.
They were all great. It was a golden age. They all dropped at once, so every week or two there was a new video game that came in on the truck, the flatbed trucks would roll in, and I'd watch them lower the tables, and I'd say fuck yes. Also at the same time I was in chess club and D&D, so I was a complete nerd."

I've got the Teen Choice Awards on mute right now, and I wonder if you ever think about what it'd be like to be a teen now? "First of all, I would not appreciate the Internet. It wouldn't be a consideration to me. I like being on both sides of the curtian, of knowing what life was like before there was an internet, and knowing now. Now, like oh, Twitter and the podcast and the social network, when I think back to what it was like for comics in the '70s and '80s, what did you do? I suppose there was such an explosion that every channel had its own comedy show. I don't know what I'd think if I was a teenager now. They have to process information completely differently. As much as we were the MTV generation,
if we have micro-attention spans, they have nano-attention spans. I can't even imagine it. I read an article that said children are much less sympathetic now. I don't know if that's true or not…but if you go online or with text messaging or instant messaging, there's no tone. I think that's why people say the most horrible things they can think of. You know you're communicating with other human beings, don't you? There's this huge dehumanization that takes place…from that standpoint, I'd say, maybe I wouldn't have given as much of a fuck."

As much as you're a Nerdist and you're on G4 reviewing the latest gadgets, you're not always at the forefront, whether it's joining Twitter late, or just now doing your own podcast. Why is that? "I had a Twitter account early on which was just my name. I'm always trying to do 10 different things at once, so it's do I have the energy to start up this other thing? The guy who's really on the forefront of everything is Wil Wheaton. He has been blogging for more than 10 years, he probably signed up for Twitter day one. Sometimes for me, I observe for a little while, and think, is this something that everybody is going to care about? I feel like I've been burned before. It's sort of like the Friendster debacle…it's just being a little gun-shy. You know that's happening. I'm starting a social network off the Nerdist bit. So I think if anything, it's just more about being gun-shy than just like I'm going to pull up the pants and jump right in."

And with the podcast? "I wanted to do it for a really long time, but I put it off because it was an energy thing, and then I wasn't sure what it was going to be. I had to go in with this concrete structure. Actually, late last year I shot a pilot, it was going to be one of those pilots that was, potentially could have been career changing. I was producer of the show, I was writing on the show and everyone said this was going to go, and of course, after five months of working on it, it didn't go, and it was, oh, just great. That's how the business goes. I didn't normally get ripped up about this, because I know it's just show business. But this, I got emotionally attached to it, so it pissed me off when it didn't get picked up. And then I turned to podcasting. This will be my thing and my voice and no one can take this from me. We're in a business where we don't have much control. If people don't listen, they don't listen, but it's going to be my thing. I called up my friends and said, do you want to be on a podcast, and they said sure. As a comedian, there's no better way to connect your voice to the world except through a podcast. We don't have a lot of public outlets that broadcast our true voice. So a podcast is the best kind of consumer you can ask for, because they have to go out of their way to find you and seek you out. And if they come to a show it's because they like you. It's a way to perform for people you want to perform for."

Hardwick told me he realized a few years ago, when people weren't turning out to see him live, that there wasn't a lot of information out there online or on TV so people could know he was a stand-up comedian. Nerdist has changed that. And he has been adding several correspondents in different topic areas. He added a food nerdist on Monday. How is the Nerdist empire-building coming along? "I think there's about 15-16 contributors, but they contribute to various degrees. Sometimes a guy will pitch me a thing, like a guy wanted to write about watches, which I would never have thought about, but it was a cool thing. (On food), I followed her link and went to her blog, and it was hilarious and she had recipes and nerded out about food, so I said, would you write a nerd post for me? I don't really have to sell it as much anymore. She seemed to know what it was and was excited for it, so that just bumps up the quality of the people you run across. The blog has kicked up so many notches since the addition of the contributors. It's nerd crowd-sourcing. What I get out of it are a bunch of things I wouldn't necessarily write about, but I would be interested in reading about as an audience member."

"One of the keys to success in this business is production of content. I will put out one podcast every week, no matter what. It's about being consistent. I think they arpppreciate the consistency. Because you wouldn't keep doing it if you didn't care about it. For Nerdist, I just, my time is being splintered enough, I wasn't finding the best stuff, and I knew other people would, and it's about creating something that's bigger than myself."

I certainly hear you on that, although I cannot really build my own similar network. Maybe I should take you on? I could have The Baker's Baker, The Mechanic's Mechanic. But no. What you're doing is great, though, because it's not only getting a dozen other people to help contribute, but those people also are going to be promoting Nerdist and spreading the word and adding to your fan base. Hmmm. Maybe I should do that? "You have the ultimate comedy blog. I feel like niche content is important. Most of the stuff that everyone loves is flash in the pan. The girl who falls on the coffee table, or David after dentist, that stuff."

Websoup That's a great segue to remind me to ask you about Web Soup, the show you host on G4. How much do you compare yourself to Bloopers and Practical Jokes? "Well, we dont have Ed McMahon's voice and Sergio Aragones' arm going 'Take 2' every time there's a fuck up. It's just America's Funniest Home Videos in a sense. I just don't really think about it that much. I know there are a half dozen shows that are the exact same format. We're derivative of The Soup. We do what we do. It's hard to compare. It's such an easy path to go into defensive programming mode to do something just because somebody else is doing it. I think a healthy amount of competition is good to a certain degree." That's why I mentioned Bloopers instead of Tosh.0. It seems like people forget that these shows have been around for decades before now. "Yeah, even Candid Camera…I'm sure there are 19th Century woodcuts of people getting hit in the nuts."

OK. Before my interview becomes too derivative of itself, anything else you'd like to share with the good people of the world? "Apple Cider Vinegar, raw, unfiltered is very good for strained voices. Also, hugs are nice."

Related: Chris Hardwick's late-summer/fall tour schedule takes him to NYC Aug. 12-15 at Carolines (through the magic of TV, he'll be on Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson on Aug. 13); Aug. 18-21 at Cap City in Austin; Aug. 25-28 at Helium in Philadelphia; Sept. 4-6 at the Bumbershoot festival in Seattle; Sept. 10-12 at the Punch Line in Sacramento; Sept. 16-19 at Laughing Skull in Atlanta; Oct. 1-2 at the Arlington Draft House in Washington, D.C.; Oct. 21-24 at the Brea Improv; and Nov. 18-20 at the Addison Improv.

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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