Chris Hardwick: Nerdism For Fun and Profit
Set TiVo to: Sunday, 9 p.m., G4, for Chris Hardwick's "Web Soup" (Twitter.)
Chris Hardwick is a nerd. He humbly embraces this now, and he’s happier for it. The trick was to align his career with his passions -- even if they’re frowned upon by jocks.
The comic/writer/TV personality has a deep affection for science, technology, and his love affair with “Dungeons and Dragons” is in its third decade. While Hardwick isn’t the type of nerd whose busted eyeglasses are fastened with Scotch tape, when meeting with LAist he sported mismatched shoes -- one sneaker, and a blue soft cast. This cumbersome near-boot protected a broken toe. (He dropped a ten pound weight on himself.)
“I’m so ashamed to admit this, but I thought maybe I shouldn’t go to the Emergency Room,” said Hardwick. “But then I could totally Tweet about it! Twitter was actually a factor in why I went to the Emergency Room.” His fondness for “microblogging” isn’t a secret to the more than 550,000 who follow him.
“The Soup” vs. The Internet
As the host of “Web Soup,” G4’s new “The Soup” spin-off, Hardwick said the cyberspace-centric program has “been probably my favorite work experience.” In addition to punctuating some of the Internet’s most bizarre video clips with quick wit and hilarious snark, he’s one of the show’s writers.
“We’ll have writers' meetings, and we’ll show clips, and you do the old Mystery Science Theater -- throw jokes out through the clips,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun.”
“Chris is a complete natural for the territory we cover. He has a great deal of legitimacy in the tech world,” said “Web Soup” Co-Executive Producer K.P. Anderson. “When it comes to the tech stuff, he knows what he's talking about. And he's funny as hell, but it's not done at the expense of the culture, which is why he has so damned many Twitter followers.”
When G4 offered Hardwick the gig, he wanted to make sure “Web Soup” had a different voice from his old buddy, Joel McHale’s “The Soup.” “Joel and I are so much in the same category -- sarcastic white guys,” said Hardwick. “Joel’s career’s been a lot of fun to watch. He’s so great on ‘The Soup.’”
A UCLA “Stud”
While studying math, science and philosophy at UCLA, Hardwick and some friends auditioned for a dating gameshow called “Studs.” “I got wrangled into it because I had a car and the other people didn’t,” he said. “I ended up getting on this show and I had to go out with these girls. They made it seem like all of this stuff happened on the dates and nothing remotely happened.”
A year later he received a call from a “Studs” producer who was looking to make him a contestant on a new dating show. “I had no interest,” he said, instead taking an offered hosting audition. Hardwick became the host of MTV’s “Trashed.” “I was two quarters away from graduating and I left school to start working for MTV.”
“Trashed” featured contestants gambling their own possessions against their ability to successfully answer questions. The show was cancelled after a few months, even though its staff was full of comedy’s soon-to-be-stars like David Cross, Bob Odenkirk, Doug Benson, Dana Gould, and Janeane Garofalo.
At 23 Hardwick was offered another hosting gig. Moving from trivia to dating, he and sexy newcomer Jenny McCarthy, launched “Singled Out.” It became one of MTV’s most successful programs of the ‘90s.
“Singled Out” ran five days a week, lasting a few hundred episodes, over five cycles (seasons.) “It’s hard to maintain a daily show with the same people and the same concept,” he said. “In dog years that show was 90. It died of old age.”
Despite the dating show’s popularity, Hardwick was compensated in noted MTV fashion -- minimally. “The important thing was, for an entry level job, it could’ve been a lot worse,” he said. To answer knocking opportunity, he took a second job with rock radio powerhouse KROQ. His midnight-to-five a.m. on-air shift “did not conflict with anything other than sleep.”
Despite Generation X’s significant awareness of Hardwick's public persona, he kept his personal interests to himself. “I wasn’t really super open,” he recalled. “’Who loves D and D?’”
No longer on MTV or KROQ, Hardwick spent his newfound free time pursuing stand-up. “I was kind of like ‘I’ve always been obsessed with stand-up, I had every standup comedy album, I need to do it,’” he said.
“I did every open mike I could get into. People gave me a lot of playful shit -- ‘oh hey, MTV Guy, doing open mikes.’ I loved being on stage and I didn’t care,” he said. “The other part, I was really drinking a lot, and I was just sort of numb.”
“I probably shouldn’t be drinking beer in the morning,” he recalled thinking. “I didn’t realize how bad it was until way after. There was a period of time where it was a lot of comedy and a lot of beer. Fortunately, it was the comedy part that survived, not the beer part.”
Hardwick took another dating show hosting job. On “Shipmates,” the contestant’s courting occurred on a cruise ship. It didn’t stay afloat long, nor did his spirits.
Hardwick sought the help of a therapist to unearth why he “felt compelled to drink all the time.” One day she said, “why don’t you stop today?” He replied “okay,” and, as his troubled mind, and overtaxed liver breathed a sigh of relief, that was the end of his drinking.
“It was the best thing that could’ve happened because it’s almost impossible to plan,” he said. “You’re always going to find a way to put it off.” That was six years ago. “Ultimately, it’s the best decision I’ve ever made in my life.”
“There’s an economy of energy that you have in your life. You just have to devote it to things that are good for you, for the most part,” he said. It was then he took some of his “unnatural obsession” with alcohol and focused it on work. “That’s more constructive than drinking. And one of them doesn’t end in uncontrollable vomiting and crying.”
Hardwick ‘n Phirman
A freshly sober Hardwick reunited with his old collegiate buddy Mike Phirman and they formed the comedy-musical act Hard ‘n Phirm. Their lyrics focused on their shared collegiate interests, math and science. Their educational, whimsy-infused songs resonated with college audiences.
Hard ‘n Phirm packed theaters across the country, and recorded a prestigious Comedy Central special. This gave Hardwick a taste of what it was like have both success and satisfaction.
“I used to feel like I was just kind of bobbing in the ocean, ‘maybe there’s a lifeboat that’ll past by,’” he said. “That ship probably wasn’t going to come in the form of another dating show. I’ve lost a lot of jobs to Joe Rogan and Mario Lopez.”
Suddenly Seeking Science
“I had this weird kind of epiphany: I can actually write about the things that mean so much to me in life,” he said. “It made so much more sense. I hadn’t really thought of my interests and hobbies as anything that I could do for work because they all revolved around nerdy stuff I was into.“
“I thought, ‘I’m going to start over, and if nobody remembers anything I did before, then that’s fine,’” he said. He kept focus, and began turning down projects he would previously have entertained. “It was weirdly empowering. I think the best thing you can do is figure out a plan, and even if it ultimately doesn’t work out the way you thought, at least you’re moving in a direction.”
Shortly after that he was approached about hosting “Wired” magazine’s television collaboration with PBS, “Wired Science.” The gig fit Hardwick, a longtime fan of the forward-looking, tech-centric publication, like a Nintendo PowerGlove.
“’Wired Science’ has been like the Winchester Mystery House of passages, and rooms, and doorways,” he said. That lead to becoming tech correspondent on “Attack of the Show,” writing for “Wired,” and the motivation to put his all into his Nerdist blog. “I feel really lucky that it’s kind of working out.”
“I think nerd culture is the reigning pop culture right now,” he said. “Even in the economy, gadgets will still sell a trillion dollars worldwide this year. So that’s good.” It’s easier than ever for Hardwick to continue trudging his tech path, though he gets the occasional call, “’do you want to host ‘Wardrobe Malfunctions’ on some channel?’ Why would I try to carve out time to do something I didn’t really care about?”
Hardwick hopes his future is steeped in stand-up. “It's a simple formula, but it’s a difficult formula to achieve -- if you can get people to sit in seats, you can do shows,” he said. “The easiest way to do that is television.” “Web Soup” might make that so for Hardwick, it now claims the top spot on iTunes' Comedy Podcast chart.
As our chat draws to a close, Hardwick’s ride is here. It's his girlfriend of five years, Janet Varney. She’s the funny, attractive co-host of TBS’ “Dinner and a Movie.” “She drove me today like a Soccermom because my foot was hurting," he said.
Hardwick seemed to breathe a little easier after this humble admission. He likes his nerdy life, but now knows its most comfortable when he's honest about it.
Fun Fact: There is an even nerdier Chris Hardwick.
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