Chris Hardwick, who is super-into lots of different things, had to focus. He is on the lineup for Funny or Die's Oddball Comedy and Curiosity Festival on Friday in Tampa, slinging jokes with Louis C.K., Aziz Ansari, Marc Maron and more. They're his friends, he said. It will be like "comedy camp." But this event takes the kind of focus that runs counter to Chris Hardwick's blanketlike brand. He'll be on the same stage where Bruce Springsteen performed, in an arena that holds 20,000. He can't ruminate topic to topic. He can't nerd out with the audience. He has to speak more slowly, enunciating to the back row. "Comedy is typically a pretty intimate experience and so the energy, the stuff you can do in an arena is different than the stuff you can do in a comedy club," said Hardwick, who called to talk about the show. His set must cut to the quick of who he is. And who is Chris Hardwick?
If you were a teenager in the 1990s, you know him from Singled Out, the smarmy MTV dating show he hosted with Jenny McCarthy and Carmen Electra, a repository for bros before bros were a thing. After that followed a long period of unemployment, alcoholism, video gaming, late-night pizza binges and 40 extra pounds.
Hardwick realized he was becoming that guy who used to be on television. He stopped drinking. He began to change, or rather, revert back to who he was.
He wasn't a bro. He was a nerd. He was in the chess club. He could tell you the exact first computer he ever had, "a Radio Shack TRS-80, which was basically just a self-contained terminal." He liked Dungeons and Dragons and zombies and comic conventions and obscure fandoms.
So he started talking about them.
"It's not like I was jumping on a wave and thought, this will be popular, because it wasn't really yet," Hardwick said. "It was more that I'd been kind of plopping around the entertainment business and at a certain point I thought, if I'm not going to work, at least I'm not going to work in an area that I actually care about. At least if I'm talking about things I like I'll be happy."
What is now Nerdist Industries started with one podcast and grew to include a host of other podcasts and a YouTube Channel. It produces TV shows. Traveling Nerdist events include live experiences and an annual light saber relay.
He got TV work again, too. Walking Dead fans know Hardwick from AMC's after show, Talking Dead, which he calls “more a celebration of the fandom of the show than it is a rigorous critical analysis." His Comedy Central show @midnight, which airs in a plum spot after The Colbert Report, recently picked up an Emmy nomination. He just signed on to host a BBC show for the premiere of Doctor Who, a character Hardwick likes to cosplay at conventions.
All told, it makes him president pro tempore for Nerd Kingdom, a ubiquitous hype man for everything he loves. His pursuits hit at the correct cultural moment, a time when we all have a screen in our hands.
"When I was growing up, there were only three or four other people at my school who were into the things I was into, and that was it," he said. "Technically you don't even need friends in school now because you have an online community of friends. It was a much smaller world. There was less variety."
Hardwick is lauded as much as he is picked on for being enthusiastic. But he's unapologetic about his positivity. He calls himself a cheerleader without a blink of machismo.
"My tone on everything, and I think it's because I've gotten trolled so much in the 21 years that I've been online, is that everything I do tends to be very inclusive and supportive and positive," he said. "Because you know, if you want to see people s------- on stuff, you can see that anywhere. There is no shortage of people trashing things. I think there's much more strength of character to say what's positive about this."
If he does tease you, he said, he hopes you know he's on your team. It's how his father, pro-bowler Billy Hardwick, reacted when Hardwick wove family stories into his act.
"One of the last times my dad saw me perform, he said, 'You can tell any story you want about me. You don't have to worry about embarrassing me.' My dad was a natural comedian in his life."
Billy Hardwick, who had a home in Bradenton, died in 2013. Since then, Hardwick has reflected on death in his comedy.
"Because I'm a comic and it's how I process things, I started exploring themes about death and funerals and how someone approaches you when someone dies," he said. "It's things everyone has to deal with, but you have to be very careful. You ride this line of, I need to be respectful, but I have to be human about it. Humor kind of gives you power over things."
He knows he can't open his set at Oddball by talking about his dad dying. That would be too jarring, and he can't do 20 minutes on it and switch to a new topic. When he called, he was still figuring it all out.
But he had a lot to choose from. That's the beauty of a being into so many things. It works for him.
"What's your goal?" he said. "Is your goal to experience a lot of things, or do you want to be the person who's best at one thing and you don't see the light of day because you're just focused on one thing? I'd rather live a life of doing a lot of things. It's more interesting to me to play in a lot of ponds."
Contact Stephanie Hayes at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716. Follow @stephhayes.