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The Nerdist Interview: 12 Questions with Chris Hardwick

Versatile host & comedian sheds light on how-to-success for nerds

  • Chris Hardwick
  • Chris Hardwick
  • Chris Hardwick
  • Chris Hardwick
  • Chris Hardwick
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Fans of comedian Chris Hardwick first got a taste of his skills during the nineties when he was a successful DJ for LA radio station KROQ and as the co-host for MTV’s original dating game, Singled Out. However in recent years, Hardwick has reinvented himself as a force to be reckoned with. His Nerdist podcast is one of the top ranked in the country, along with appearing all over television either as host of Web Soup, Talking Dead on AMC or BBC America. With roughly 20 years of stand-up under his belt, Hardwick has become one of the premiere comedians working today that has the ability to perform in front of a variety of audiences ranging from traditional comedy clubs to  hip and alternative rooms. In his new book, The Nerdist Way: How To Reach The Next Level (In Real Life) Hardwick details how fellow nerds can better themselves through a series of motivational exercises (including real exercise* yikes!) all told through Hardwick’s unique comedic voice, peppered with stories from both his professional and personal life.

SanDiego.com had a chance to catch up with Hardwick from his home in Los Angeles and talked about his early years in stand-up, Meltdown Comics on Sunset Blvd., and his upcoming one-hour special for Comedy Central.

When did you first start doing stand-up comedy?
Chris Hardwick: It was in 1991, when I was in college.  There was a stand-up comedy club at UCLA and we would get together once a week and write material and do dorm shows. That’s where I met my best friend Mike Phirman. I started way before MTV and I kind of stopped doing it while I was working for MTV, then I picked it up again full time after that.

Is that when you started Hard & Phirm or did you resume as a solo act?
It was solo because Mike was a couple of years younger than I am, he was still in college. When he got out of college he started working in digital effects; he worked on CSI and did second unit stuff. Then we started doing Hard & Phirm stuff again in like 2003. So it started in college and then we didn’t do it for years. Then after I had been doing stand-up solo for maybe five years we started inserting more of the Hard & Phirm music stuff, and then that became its own separate act, and I then took a couple of years off doing solo stand-up, then we did our special for Comedy Central and then after we did the special we both started doing our own stand-up full time again. 

After you got back into stand-up, how long was it before you were headlining shows with forty plus minute sets?
It’s a weird catch 22. You need the time in order to headline, but in order to get the material you really need to be headlining a lot. The difference between doing 15 minutes or even 40 minutes - it’s a weirdly big jump. Your set as a whole has to have some cohesiveness to it I think once you start getting up into 45 to an hour, and that just comes with stage time and experience. There’s no shortcuts, there’s no other way around it, you just have to do it a lot. 

When do you think you discovered your voice as a comedian?
I was performing at the Aspen Comedy Festival in 1999, and I asked Louis Black that question and he said 12 years. Any comic will tell you it’s between six and 12 years. I still kind of feel I’m just getting whatever that is, and I don’t know if I fully have it. I think it was maybe about four years ago when something sort of clicked and I went, ‘Oh okay, I kind of do jokes this way.’ When you first start out you’re writing whatever you can and saying whatever you can, I didn’t really think about it anymore in terms of like, ‘Oh I think this thing is weird I’ll say this on stage.’ Then after awhile you start noticing consistencies in the material, the way that you attack stuff from a writing standpoint, and a lot of the time it’s not something that you would consciously decided to do, you just kind of notice, ‘Oh, I guess my brain is trying to express this consistent pattern of things in this way.’ I started doing stand-up in LA which is the worst place to start doing stand-up, it’s just the worst. It’s better now than it was 10 or 15 years ago, because there are cool spots like UCB and we have a space at Meltdown. There are good spaces where comics can develop now, but when I was starting in LA it just wasn’t that great. I was sort of part of that Largo comedy scene with the Patton’s and the Sarah Silverman’s and the Janeane Garofalo’s of the world and I sort of interpreted alternative comedy as like, ‘You tell stories and it doesn’t have to be real joke heavy.’ And the problem with that is I would go on the road and that’s a tougher style to make work on the road. So I started to realize, ‘I guess I don’t need to do a two minute setup for one joke.’ I’m not saying that’s how that scene actually was - I’m saying that’s how I interpreted it. Then maybe three or four years ago I started opening for Joel McHale, and Joel didn’t really have a stand-up act. He toyed around with stand-up a little bit, but he was a sketch/improv guy. But he started to realize that people would pay to come out and see him so we started doing these series of shows at the Improvs around the greater LA area, and Joel would host the show. He would draw people to the show, and would host it but only do 10 or 15 minutes. Then his executive producer KP Anderson, who’s a really good stand-up and myself would do the lion’s share of the time. It was during those shows that I realized, ‘If I just cut some of these story parts out, or I can just add a funny thing here and there, there’s a little bit more fluidity.’ There’s a few jokes to every minute, and then stuff started to make sense to me there about how to present my material; just opportunities and places where it could be funny rather than a story telling exercise with no comedy in it. It was just sort of born out of what I perceived the alternative comedy movement in the nineties to be; that movement was anti-comedy club, anti- joke; if you were trying to make a joke then it was considered hacky, and it was really more about trying to relate real experiences. And it’s fine to relate real experiences, that’s ultimately I think what you do when you really develop as a comic. Going on the road broke me of a lot of those bad habits that I had. 

You seem to be the type of comedian who can perform for both the alt-comedy crowd and the audiences at a two-drink minimum club.
I appreciate that because I love doing both kinds of rooms; the UCBs and Meltdown’s of the world or even Comic Con. It’s sort of like accessing a different bank of sound effects on a keyboard. Where the two-drink minimum crowd is a different bank of references, and it’s not in a pandering way; why make them sit through shit they’re not going to understand, then no one has fun. It’s sort of gotten to the point where I don’t have to do those shows anymore. When people come out to see you on purpose it completely changes the kinds of shows you’re doing.