“Sorry, can you repeat that? I’m playing the new South Park video game. It’s amazing!” The interview has just started, and Chris Hardwick is already apologizing over the phone from his L.A. home. Had almost anyone else mentioned there were gaming in the middle of a conversation, the statement might be considered borderline rude. But come on: This is the man they call “The Nerdist,” who’s built an empire out of reviewing gadgets, internet binging and hosting conversations with past and present genre icons. It’s that passion for all things nerdtastic that has allowed him to simultaneously show-run his social media-savvy Comedy Central show @midnight, host Talking Dead on AMC (a TV-recap talk-show for ratings beast The Walking Dead on AMC), and recording his weekly Nerdist podcast (featuring luminaries like Tom Hanks and Mel Brooks). Did we mention that he’s also a consistently touring stand-up comedian?
You may remember Hardwick during his mid-90s stint on MTV, hosting the game show Singled Out alongside the network’s resident raunchy blonde Jenny McCarthy. The show’s three-year run was enough to keep him coasting in the Hollywood party scene for a while, but it wasn’t until a chance visit to a comedy club reinvigorated a childhood love for the form that he got back on track. What followed was a gradual embrace of his powerful inner nerd.
Rolling Stone caught up with the busy 42-year-old to talk about nights out with Bob Saget, what he’d ask the POTUS if he were a guest on his podcast and why meeting your idols may not be as bad as everyone says.
Do you remember the first time you realized you were a nerd?
I knew that I was into stuff that the other kids weren’t into. There were probably five other kids in my entire school who I identified with. We were in the chess club. We played D&D and Atari 2600 games. When the movie Revenge Of The Nerds came out, I was like, “Oh, I’m a nerd!”
How much of your life now consist of moments that would give 12-year-old Chris Hardwick a heart attack?
Those moments come pretty frequently, actually. Like, being friends with Weird Al! I’m saying to myself, “How is it possible that we’re friends?!’ He’s Weird Al! I’ve gone from attending Comic-Con to moderating panels there. I watch the Sci-Fi channel all the time, and every so often, they’ll use a quote from our site to promote it. I just did a podcast from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s home. Dr. Who’s Matt Smith butt-Facetimed me the other day; I woke up, checked my phone and it said “Missed Facetime with Matt Smith.” I’m going to be the voice on a video game soon; that was on the bucket list. I still fanboy-out over all this. It’s all very surreal.
When you started at MTV, did you have the sense that this wasn’t what you wanted to do forever?
I was working at a golf course before I started doing Singled Out, so it was a great alternative to being at college. I was pretty uncomfortable the first season of the show, because I was surround by frat guys and people that I wouldn’t have hung out with normally at all. I would had this constant internal monologue: “Oh wait, you guys used to shit on me in school.”
Did your problems with drinking start around that time?
Well, I was drinking, but it wasn’t really because of the show. MTV was so cheap in those days that they would fly me in to film that morning and have a flight booked for that night because they didn’t want to pay for the hotel. I never stayed around and actually hung out with those kids.
You’ve mentioned on your podcast that you used to go clubbing with Bob Saget….
The alcohol was just kind of a tidal wave that carried you all over LA and then you woke up on some floor covered in seaweed and dirt. The problem is that here there’s always a party — or a thing at a bar, an after party, a club, a house rager — and there are some people who are very in tune with that world. Bob and I were just two of those people. We would go out and get super drunk, and he’d end up dropping me off at my house around 2 or 3 in the morning. I don’t regret any of it, but I’m glad I don’t do it anymore.
Did you still hang out with him after you quit drinking?
There is nothing fun about being at a bar when you’re a sober person. It’s loud. People are just getting drunker throughout the night. I think it’s hard to keep those kinds of relationships going just because the circumstances are ideal for both people.
When did you start doing stand-up comedy?
I had done a little stand-up in college but it wasn’t after Singled Out that I just decided to go for it. Around 1998, I was working on a show with Linda Cardellini, and she brought me to a bar in Westwood to see her friend perform at this alternative-comedy show. I made the decision that I needed to be there. I probably could have performed at bigger venues at the time because of the TV show, but I wasn’t ready yet. I did a few years of local open-mic nights to figure it out. I was performing next to guys like Zach Galifianakis, Brian Posehn, Mitch Hedburg, Doug Benson and Paul F. Tompkins. There was no better way to improve your act than that.
Do you remember any of your old routines from back in the day?
My comedy has always been pop culture based, mostly video games. So I talked about Final Fantasy and my PlayStation. I had a couple of jokes about Morrissey.
What pushed you to start your Nerdist blog, and how did it evolve into becoming something more than a traditional comedian’s blog?
2008 was kind of the downturn of the blog explosion, and that just came from people being lazy. All of these comedians had blogs, but all they were doing was posting their tour dates up there. So I made a blog that was about pop culture and other things that I liked. My tour dates were off to the side, but the focus was on a lot of other stuff.
You were also ahead on the Twitter craze; did you always sense that it would become so important to our current culture?
People weren’t really paying attention to Twitter, but there was a group of early-adopter nerds like myself, Veronica Belmont and Wil Wheaton that jumped aboard long before it hit critical mass. We were just there to have our own fun conversations; at the time, it was our own small community. Then, of course, when Oprah and Ashton Kutcher joined, it exploded.
What prompted you to start a podcast?
There was a period of time where there just wasn’t a lot of stand-up comedy on TV, so how are people going to know who you are? In the entertainment business, you have so little control on how you get out there. Then we saw Adam Carolla leave radio and start his podcast, and I realized that you could just talk like a person and present a side of the business that not a lot of people get to see. We try to recreate the conversations you have when you’re backstage at a comedy show just shooting the breeze.
Who was the first person that shocked you with their personality when you met them?
I thought Ozzy Osbourne was just going to be this burned-out rock star, but then he started talking about his influences, The Beatles, what he loved about music. We knew that Tom Hanks was cool, but we had no idea how cool he was until we talked to him for an hour. Rick Moranis was a guy that completely surprised us. I didn’t know much about him because he doesn’t do interviews. We didn’t know what he was going to be like — and he was incredible. Podcasting my dad was one of the most meaningful moments in my career. He just passed away last year but I’ll always have that recording of our conversation. Being surprised by your own dad is pretty profound.
You’ve mentioned that you had a particularly awkward interview with Harrison Ford…
Harrison Ford did nothing wrong. It was just a weird combination of circumstances. We were at Comic-Con and my schedule could not have been any more packed. I was tired, I had just moderated two panels and we were sprinting to the Hard Rock Hotel to meet him. Usually I can squash the inner fan kid down, but it’s Harrison Ford! I don’t want to be predictable about what I’m asking him, but you’re an asshole if you don’t talk about The Fugitive, or Indiana Jones, or Han Solo. His sense of humor, however, revolves around an enjoyment of making everybody in the room feel awkward. I wasn’t aware of this until the interview started, however. I learned so much in that hour with him.
Barack Obama just did Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis to promote the Affordable Care Act. If he agreed to be on your podcast, what questions would you ask him?
I would love to understand what it takes to do that job and what drives a person to want to lead a nation. What does that kind of responsibility do to a human being, and do you lose yourself at all?
Who is left on your list of people you’d like to talk to?
I always wanted to have Harold Ramis on the podcast; we never got him. I was crushed when I heard the news; he was responsible for most of the films that influenced me when I was younger. I would love to have Bill Murray on, as well Steve Martin and Albert Brooks.
The episode of Talking Dead with Marilyn Manson got a lot of attention due to how strange he was acting, and how you handled it.
He was doing his own thing on the show. It just didn’t involve anyone else at all. For the sake of Walking Dead fans, I just started treating him like a heckler at a comedy show so we wouldn’t go completely off the rails. He’s a smart guy, and I think he’s used to commanding a room. People thought Manson was drunk, but I don’t know anything about that; I didn’t see him drinking. That’s what live television is.
You also hosted an after-show for Breaking Bad; have you talked to Vince Gilligan about doing something after Better Call Saul?
I don’t think Better Talk Saul is going to be a thing. No more after-shows. They are super fun because I’m huge fan of those shows, but I’m really focusing on my program right now.