Chris Hardwick Celebrates 25 Years in Comedy

When Donald Trump closed down one of his late-night tweet sessions in May by introducing the term “covfefe” into the pop-culture lexicon, the internet tripped over itself in a mad scramble to have the first or best reaction of confusion, humor and even justification of what that bizarre mix of characters could mean.

Comedian Chris Hardwick used it as a branding exercise. “Covfefe Vanilli #InternetBands @midnight” read one of his Tweets. “Covfefe Wap #InternetBands @midnight,” read another. Both were references to his game show, “@midnight,” which will end its run on Aug. 4 with it’s 600th episode. (Read Hardwick’s comments on the end here.)  The social-media themed Comedy Central program that airs weeknights on the East Coast exactly when its title suggests and that brings in some of the hottest and up-and-coming comics to riff on some of the most extraordinary morsels that can be plucked and pruned from the far reaches of the web. That its smartphone-addicted audience members can play at home by submitting their own snarky and pun-themed answers to challenges with names like #HashtagWars only adds to its synergy.

However, Hardwick who has spent 25 years in comedy, is not a political comic when it comes to his standup material. He says it “puts an immediate timestamp and therefore expiration date on your material,” and “divides the audience.” Politics isn’t something he’s particularly passionate about anyway and would thus read as “inauthentic,” he says, and he is good at predicting what will get a strong public response, or at least recognition from the ones who care about cultivating online presences.

“He’s authentic and he’s knowledgeable about social media and technology, so that’s why he’s a unicorn,” says Alex Murray, Hardwick’s manager for more than a decade. “There are a lot of people who can talk internet all day long, but they just lack a few of those other qualities that make him so special … what makes Chris special is he’s really smart, really funny and really likable.”

Chris Hardwick has spent 25 years in comedy building a burgeoning empire directed by his passions and interests.
JAKE MICHAELS for Variety

Hardwick, 45, was bitten by the standup bug early on and, luckily for him, had parents who saw no problem with fostering it. He was allowed to watch “Saturday Night Live” and, when other kids may have thought they’d scored big if they got jelly beans and chocolate bunnies in their Easter baskets, he was gifted with Steve Martin’s album “Comedy Is Not Pretty!” His father, the late professional bowler Billy Hardwick, frequently competed in Las Vegas — resulting in ample opportunities for him and Hardwick’s mother, Sharon, to take their young son with them to see headliners including Martin, Johnny Carson and Joan Rivers. He grew up “watching Paul Lynde on ‘Hollywood Squares’ or Richard Dawson get perpetually hammered on ‘Match Game,’” playing Dungeons & Dragons and loving computers and science fiction.

But comedy was also a defense mechanism for Hardwick. “I wasn’t really a sports person and didn’t relate to other kids,” he says. “I couldn’t fight or create any kind of conflict.”

This mentality would later serve him well both as a professional comedian and as this generation’s go-to host for shows that are vastly different: Be it “@midnight,” which is as blue as the cable sensors will allow, the comparatively squeaky-clean “The Wall” on NBC, or headlining his recently launched, “Talking With Chris Hardwick,” a weekly show for AMC that grew out of the postmortem chats he fronted that were centered around the cabler’s cultish hits “Breaking Bad” and “The Walking Dead.” At this point, he’s hosted over a thousand hours of TV and he says, frankly, “I think it’d be very difficult to throw me [into] a show and I’d be like, ‘I don’t know how to do this.’”

“Chris has an incredibly keen sense of where everything is going,” says his agent, Martin Lesak. That is also his appeal as a client. “He’s very committed to whatever his point of view may be in this, which is half the battle. Standup is such a difficult thing to do and when you’ve got as many jobs as Chris has, [handling all of these shows] is part of the brilliance and the adapt ability of who he is. Chris can take on anything and find a way to make it great.”

Hardwick entered UCLA as a math major and eventually transferred to philosophy, but arguably the best education he got was from participating in the school’s comedy club after hearing about it from now-“Family Guy” executive producer, Steve Callaghan. Soon after graduation, such gigs as co-hosting MTV’s 1990s dating game sensation, “Singled Out,” came calling.

But Hardwick says he always kept standup in his back pocket, regularly honing his time at the mic since 1998. This has included a partnership with comedian Mike Phirman through their music-tinged act Hard ‘n Phirm.

The duo are uniting again this summer and Phirman was also part of the inaugural Hardwick-created ID10T music and comedy festival in June in Silicon Valley. The festival’s name is, of course, also on brand and derived from IT department shorthand for “user error.” Hardwick likes it because it “basically means you’re the cause of your own problems and I think that’s so funny because that’s so human.”

“He’s unexpectedly explicit in his act, which surprised me when I first saw him perform.”
Michelle Bonfils

This might as well be the ethos that drives Hardwick. As he’ll be the first to tell you, not everything he touches has turned to gold and there were certainly some dark years.

He is open about his battles with alcoholism, both in his act and elsewhere as well as his failed relationships (he’s now happily married to model Lydia Hearst) and the impact of the 2013 loss of his father.

“His comedy is fast and so specific to the people he’s talking to, whether it’s in the podcast room or in front of thousands of fans,” says Hardwick’s personal assistant, Michelle Bonfils. “He’s also unexpectedly explicit in his act, which definitely surprised me when I first saw him perform.”

But these rock-bottom moments also eventually led to his greatest comeback. Hardwick was one of the first in Hollywood to leverage the internet for his personal gain.

He was an early Twitter adopter and he launched his own website, Nerdist.com, in 2007 and its companion podcast in 2010. Sobriety also made him double-down on work he really wanted — i.e., “what we categorize as the nerdsphere,” he says — as opposed to going after anything and everything, leading to opportunities to write for Wired magazine and covering technology for G4’s “Attack of the Show!.”

“I just said, ‘Hey, if I’m not going to work, I’m at least going to get turned down for jobs that I care about,’ ” Hardwick recalls. “Because you really feel bad when you get rejected for a job you didn’t want in the first place. ‘Like f–k, I can’t do anything right. I didn’t even want this and now I feel bad about it.’ ”

With Nerdist, the mantra was even simpler, he says: “I was going to make a site that was about things that I cared about and I’ll write about things that I care about so it’s in my voice and I’ll put my face on it so people know it’s me. And in the corner, I’ll maybe put something so people will see if I’m performing at a town near them.”

It worked and he invited others to join him. The first year, he says, “it was a guy just writing about sharks,” but soon a staff formed. The site is now run by what it describes as “a many-headed beast” and is where fans can find deep dives into everything from “Wonder Woman” to how to start a fire with a plastic bag and podcasts including Pete Holmes’ “You Made It Weird” about … weird things that comedians do.

“What I really love about the evolution of Nerdist and everything Chris does is it combines this passion and knowledge base and authenticity that has grown into so many projects that he’s worked on,” says current Nerdist editor-in-chief Rachel Heine. “Nerdist is sort of taking ‘nerd’ and ‘artist’ together, so it’s not just about being passionate; it’s about creating something new. I think that creating a brand naturally happens when you’re creating something new and passionate the way that Chris is.”

Chris Hardwick’s knowledge and love of pop culture makes him a popular pick for hosting panels at Comic-Con and other confabs. </strong
JAKE MICHAELS for Variety

This positivity and frankness has, unsurprisingly, endeared Hardwick to a lot of comedians. “The Big Sick” husband-and-wife writing team Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon both stress how much he helped them when they were starting out. Gordon even credits him for her first job in comedy when he hired her to run his Nerdist Showroom, which is part of Meltdown Comics on Sunset Boulevard.

“He just called and said, ‘I think I’m going to have that space be all shows I’m in charge of, but I want you to book it’ I was like, ‘OK …’,” she says. “Within a couple months, it became a huge thing. He just gave me a lot of responsibility without having any idea if I could do it or not.”

It also seems like a natural segue for Hardwick to end up as the host of “@midnight,” one in a new wave of shows that are what “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson” was for previous generations: the holy grail for new comics and a chance for more experienced ones including Nikki Glaser, Doug Benson and Paul F. Tompkins to look smart and witty as they improvise one-liners based around the day’s trending and surreal internet topics without burning their A-list material.
Ron Funches, who regularly cleans up on “@midnight,” says, “When I’m on the road, it’s one of the things people most know me from.”

Tompkins says although he’d like to see more diversity on the show since it often draws from the same talent pool, “it’s nice to know that once or twice a month I get to be on TV and be funny and silly and it’s certainly given me new fans.”

Benson jokes that “at this time, I have more wins than anybody else and I won the last ‘@midnight’ championship, so it’s exciting to say there’s something I’m the best at.” He adds that Hardwick’s a perfect host for this show because “his prepared material is great and his ad libs are great. Plus he seems comfortable in a suit.”

Robert Ben Garant, one of “@midnight’s” executive producers, says the show works because “it’s such a great platform to talk about a constantly changing source of jokes.”

The idea that audience can interact with what’s happening on screen in more-or-less real time was a “great, untapped source of material” he was shocked it hadn’t been done before. He compares it to Comedy Central’s long-running “Tosh.0,” which he says “makes fun of funny videos, but doesn’t get into the constant conversation that is now interactive media.” As far as Hardwick as a host, he says it was fate because “he just knows this sort of world, I think, better than anybody and certainly better than any comedian I know.”

If you’ve read this far and are out of breath just thinking about how omnipresent Hardwick has become onscreen, get a second wind because he’s also pulling the strings behind the scenes.

In 2015, he bought half of animation company Puny Entertainment after befriending its writer and exec producer Shadi Petosky when they worked on an IFC pilot. “Chris is passionate about animation,” Petosky says. “He’s been doing series acting jobs for the last 10 years, so he knows the biz and has a massive original animation cel collection. He’s nerdy about it.”

Although that isn’t exactly surprising and clearly not a unique adjective to describe Hardwick, Petosky did offer another anecdote that proves he might actually be a modern-day Renaissance man: “What shocked me is that he can actually draw,” she says. “He’s a good artist who told me he applied for a job as a layout artist on [John Kricfalusi’s Nickelodeon series] ‘Ren & Stimpy’ while at UCLA.”

toon house Puny, which produces animated series “Danger & Eggs” on Amazon.

Petosky and Hardwick “started working on some stuff together [on] day one,” she says, but her commitments to her new Amazon animated series, “Danger & Eggs,” and other projects make her “not in an assertive development mindset” to be immediately part of Hardwick’s next big venture: scripted television.

In March, it was announced that he had partnered with former Universal Television executive Mike Clements on a new production company, Fish Ladder, which has a first-look deal with AMC Studios for both scripted and unscripted shows.

Hardwick is vague on more details as to what those programs may be. “There are a couple things that we’re making that I can’t talk about yet,” he says. “But [think of] things that are in my sphere of interest that you might expect would be in my sphere of interest.”

As innocuous as that sounds, it’s probably a safe bet that science fiction or horror will be involved.

Hardwick says he and Hearst “are huge horror fans,” in particular, but he’s learned not to judge them, often justifying poor craftsmanship with thoughts like, “you know, these people had an idea and it came together and it’s very hard to make a thing. We don’t know what happened on the shoot day.”

“I’m very forgiving, but I know the types of things that I would like to see and I know the types of things that I would like to make,” he says. “And so, hopefully, we’ll be doing that with AMC.”

It is, however, unlikely that he’ll act in these projects. “No one ever asks me to act in anything … they’re just like, ‘he hosts stuff,’ ” he says. Plus, he doesn’t “want to be the guy who feels like I have to force myself into a thing just because I produced it.”

Hardwick does have his detractors, obviously, and they are quick to call him out. “If you’re doing a sports thing, someone will just call you a horrible name because they don’t like what you’re saying,” Hardwick says. “But with our particular subculture, you will get a 2,000-word dissertation with an annotated bibliography and almost a scientific breakdown of why you suck and to what quantity.”

Hardwick takes it in stride and also appreciates the irony of how this represents how far we’ve come as a culture. “I also kind of celebrated the fact that, when I was growing up, if someone called you a nerd it was a form of an insult,” he says. “And now, it’s reversed so much that fake nerd is the insult. That, I think, is a small victory.”

Haters (and fans) can find Hardwick on Twitter. He’s waiting.

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