Chris Hardwick does not slow down. Between a new stand up special, the hugely successful Nerdist empire, hosting the popular “@Midnight” on Comedy Central and a number of “Talking” after-shows on AMC, it’s a wonder that he had time for this interview at all (and I asked him about that right off the bat, as you can see below). He’ll be bringing his “ID1OT” tour to the Hershey Theatre on Sunday night, which you can purchase tickets for here. We talked about the pressures of stand up in a technological age, how material is parsed through and the one job in his career he wishes could be considered non-canon.
Kevin Stairiker: How do you have time for this interview?
Chris Hardwick: It was scheduled [laughs]. The schedule is very modular. The tour doesn’t actually start until tomorrow night.
KS: I watched Funcomfortable the other night and I really liked it. How much of the special do you end up doing on tour?
CH: Zero of it. It’s not like a band. A band would release an album and then go on tour. A comedian tours and then releases an album because people typically don’t like leaving their homes and pay for something that they’ve already seen. So there’s literally zero of what was on the special will be on this tour.
KS: Wow. So is it material you’re workshopping for a later thing or…
CH: Well, yeah…I wouldn’t call it a workshop. This is the beginning of the new tour that in a couple years, will yield a special that I will tape and that will be that.
KS: You’ve said in the past that podcasts are kind of the new comedy albums. When you have a stand up tour coming up, how do you decide which outlet to dole out material?
CH: Well, it’s different in a podcast. The tour has a theme, and so it’s just finding all the material that revolves around that theme and then just shaping it with the audience. You know, comedy is a relationship with the audience and it’s very rare for me that I write something and that’s just how it is forever. Usually, I write something and then, in doing it onstage with an audience and seeing what they react to, it becomes something else. And that’s sort of where it is right now, is that all the stuff that I’m working on will get formed with the audience. But I don’t want people to come to the show and think I don’t know what I’m doing [laughs]. You know, there are still some jokes on the special that I was doing for a long time that I think of new stuff for all the time, like “Oh I could have done this or that, oh well! Now that’s gone forever!” But it’s a constant process.
KS: Is there an equivalency of say, a topical political comedian taking news from the day and making it a bit that night, but maybe with nerd-related news?
CH: Oh, always. If you saw an 8 o’clock show and a 10 o’clock show, those two shows would not be exactly the same because every show, there’s a lot of interaction with the audience. It’s a huge percentage of the set. It just depends. There’s a foundation of material, but the show is a very kind of in-the-moment type of thing.
KS: Has it always been that way? I saw that you’ve been doing stand up for 18 years now. When you first started, were you hitting open mics or just trying to book shows?
CH: Well, I was already on TV when I really started doing stand up. I did a couple shows where I just jumped in and they went horrible, so I went back and started with open mics. It was kind of a reverse way to do it, because I was on TV, but I didn’t expect any preferential treatment. I just went and did them, signed up, and got my name drawn out of a hat like everyone else.
KS: In “Funcomfortable,” you do a bit about talking about “Back to the Future” in front of college-aged audiences and “aging out” of nerd culture. Is that a genuine concern you have? Is it hard to keep up?
CH: I wouldn’t say it’s aging out of nerd culture, I think it’s just aging out of what college kids know. You always assume that your favorite thing is something everyone knows, but they don’t. So it’s just finally a time for my generation, Generation X … to be fair, a lot of pop culture stuff that we grew up with is much more active than stuff from our parent’s generation when we were in college. Especially because of how entertainment is distributed now compared to the 80s. I don’t think there’s really a way to age out of nerd culture, just because there’s no real age parameters for that. Performing at colleges is weird now…
KS: Having just been in college, I can imagine that.
CH: I wouldn’t even say it’s all that fun, because college kids … it’s really strange, I think a generation growing up with social media, they don’t really know how to relate to things that aren’t exactly about them personally. Social media and preference algorithms have basically tailored everything to them. It’s the “selfie generation,” basically, so they don’t really understand. Not all of them, though. I don’t mean this as an insult, either, they legitimately lack the capacity to understand something that’s not about them. So, if they don’t get a reference or if it’s about a third-party concept, they just don’t relate to it at all and there’s a little bit of a head-tilt.
KS: I can agree, having met a lot of those people in college [laughs].
CH: Oh, good [laughs]. A lot of times when I do colleges, I do almost entirely crowd work because at least it’s exactly about them. And devices, too, everyone has a device. It would be really great if there was some sort of an EMP that you could fire that could disable all the devices in a show so that people would have to pay attention. People would probably freak out.
KS: Does that change the performance for you at all when a majority of the audience is seeing you through a screen in front of their faces?
CH: Yeah, but it also changes things for them, as well. People aren’t experiencing things in real time anymore, they’re saving them for the future and then they don’t really experience them in the future, either. How many times have you taken a million pictures of something and never looked at them again? Or video or streaming something and never look at it again? No one is living in the moment anymore.
KS: You’ve had 800 and change episodes of the Nerdist podcast so far. Are there any that stick out that make you especially proud of how they turned out?
CH: Oh, wow. Let’s see. The episode with my dad is probably my favorite. There was one we did last summer at Comic-Con with Ben Kingsley that I liked a lot. Jodie Foster was just on and she was amazing, I really liked the Gary Oldman one recently. We did a Bill Gates one and then afterwards we talked to a bunch of people at the Gates Foundation, including the doctor who ended malaria, so that was pretty fascinating. Maybe not to the listener, but to me, they’re all different. Some of them are live, some of them aren’t, some are one-on-one. Each one is dictated by whoever is on and what their energy is.
KS: I guess a less overwhelming question than asking you to think of 800+ guests would be, maybe, what goes into making a great episode? Obviously, it’s dependent on the guests, but are there certain things you do to make sure an episode goes smoothly?
CH: It’s really just being open to the person coming in and trying to connect with them as quickly as possible. I think there’s a few broad questions I ask people, but they’re mostly just jumping-off points to get to deeper trenches. It’s funny, sometimes people will critique a podcast because they think they have all the information, but they don’t, because I’m staring at the person so I can see their body language, their breath, their eyes, when they shift. There’s so much more information standing in front of a person to figure out where to go next or what they might be willing to talk about or not talk about. “Why didn’t you ask this?” or “Why did you ask this?” Well, because I can see them and I have a better sense of what they’re comfortable with and how they’re responding or when they won’t look up. There really is so much more to it than people understand from just hearing the audio.
KS: Is there anything in your career that you wish could be non-canon?
CH: [laughs] Well, fortunately, there’s a lot of pilots that no one will ever see. A lot of failed pilots. I did one really bad pilot that I would remove from canon. It was in the year 2000, and it was basically a polygraph show, sort of like “The Jenny Jones Show” where the woman is like “It’s his baby!” and the guy is like “Shut up, bitch, that’s not my baby!” It’s one of those type of things. And then at the end you polygraph them and then you find out, “Oh, you’re an asshole, it is your baby!” It was a show called “Busted” and it was probably the worst thing I’ve ever done and I’d love to remove that from canon [laughs]. It was set up like a daytime talk show … and it was a real … it was a bummer.
KS: Hopefully not too much of a bummer to end the interview on [laughs].
CH: I don’t mind!
Chris Hardwick will be at the Hershey Theatre Sunday, June 4 at 8 p.m.