Chris Hardwick Breaks TV’s Late-Night Formula With ‘@midnight’

Chris Hardwick Nerdist
Terence Patrick for Variety

Chris Hardwick doesn’t think late-night TV is all fun and games, but he is certainly making the case that fun and games can shake up late-night TV.

Hardwick is many things: the face of the “Talking Dead” after-show that follows airings of zombie-drama “The Walking Dead” on AMC; a stand-up comic; and the founder of Nerdist, the geek-centered digital site. At Comedy Central, however, he plays ringmaster to a half-hour of fast-paced social-media discovery made through commentary from up-and-coming comedians on “@midnight.” The wee-hours program has garnered late-night’s strongest following of young, male viewers.

“People have a singular perception of late night” formed by watching decades of monologues, comedy bits and celebrity palaver, said Hardwick in an interview that took place during a three-hour driving trip between stand-up gigs in Dallas and Houston. “We are ready to shatter that with our show.”

The program just finished a turn in a different kind of spotlight that could win it more viewers. Comedy Central ran “@midnight” at 11 p.m. for the past three weeks, a bid to keep something original and new in the time slot that normally houses “The Daily Show,” which has been on hiatus since host Jon Stewart stepped down (Trevor Noah is slated to debut in a new version of the program on Monday). Indeed, one could argue that having Hardwick’s program air in the earlier slot gave Comedy Central a better venue in which to run promos for the new Noah-hosted show that will appear at 11 starting on Monday.

During its time in the earlier roost, “@midnight” garnered a double-digit percentage increase in the number of young men who have viewed it, said Kent Alterman, president of content development and original programming at the Viacom-owned outlet. He thinks the show’s appeal is simple: Hardwick is fast on his feet, and able to quiz the comedians while rolling out any number of topics. In just the past week, subjects ranged, from the latest emoji from Apple to a tweet by Ted Nugent to YouTube videos of a rat hauling a piece of pizza and a squirrel drinking a milkshake.

The show “is kinetic,” said Alterman, but at its heart it’s simply a new take on a TV staple –  the panel show, in which a host moderates a discussion among several participants. Bill Maher’s “Politically Incorrect,” which started on Comedy Central before moving to ABC, might be the best known recent example. On “@midnight,” Comedy Central gains access to three different comics each evening, Alterman said, and the panel “becomes the engine by which we generate many laughs per minute.”

This week, Hardwick parried with comics like Ron Funches and Sara Schafer, and led them through a segment in which they had to toss out jokes based on hashtags, and a tribute to the kooky sayings of now-deceased New York Yankee great Yogi Berra. More often than not, some of the things Hardwick discovers online and the ideas generated on the program become digital memes and trending topics.

Hardwick may look to tackle more serious issues as the show’s tenure extends. The host thinks “@midnight” might be able to examine the 2016 election and politics and current events as much as it does at funny animal videos and other social-media flotsam and jetsam. In a recent segment, Hardwick encouraged the panel to poke fun at Turing Pharmaceuticals CEO Martin Shkreli , who had to defend his company’s decision to put into effect a huge price increase on Daraprim, a drug that treats infection in patients with weakened immune systems.

Elements ripped from the headlines could make their way into the program with greater frequency, Hardwick suggested. “We used to be a lot fluffier in the sense that we weren’t really tackling anything of any gravity,” he said. “I think we are starting to find the balance between how we can cover newsier things, in particular the election, put them into the machine of the show and be able to crank out jokes around it.” The program isn’t about to become “The Daily Show,” he said, though he would certainly welcome political candidates to take part in the games.

A prevailing theory about late-night TV is that audiences don’t want to be roused from their journey toward slumber. They just want a few jokes and some sedate conversation before hitting the pillow, though Jimmy Fallon’s tenure on NBC’s “Tonight Show” would indicate there is some desire on the part of late-night viewers for more activity.

Hardwick thinks TV programs based on old formulae might be fizzling out. Shows ought to be built around the community to which they want to appeal, he said. “How do we build a community and how do we engage a community and how do we give back to the community?” he asked. “TV is a dialogue. It’s a conversation. You’re not just sitting on the couch.” If you are, chances you are not watching “@midnight.”