When Comedy Central’s “@midnight” premiered in 2013, it was revolutionary – a new take on game shows that combined the improv sensibilities of classics like “Whose Line Is it Anyway?” with today’s internet jargon (#HashtagWars!) that allowed some of the best comics in the business to riff on what could be found in the deepest, most bizarre parts of the internet. Comedian Chris Hardwick, who had already enjoyed gigs on MTV’s “Singled Out” and G4’s “Attack of the Show,” was the ideal host, given that he’d already made a name for himself in the online community thanks to his popular social media feed and his geek-themed website, Nerdist. Hardwick is also profiled in this week’s Variety, celebrating his 25 years in comedy.
But four years is an eon in the internet age, and it was announced late yesterday that Comedy Central would be ending “@midnight” next month with its 600th episode. But Hardwick is already making plans for his future: He spent the day meeting with producers for his new NBC show, “The Awesome Show,” stopping by Mel Brooks’ office to ask the legendary comedian to sign the Dark Helmet (the getup Rick Moranis wears in “Spaceballs” that Hardwick recently purchased), and then, eventually, heading down to San Diego for Comic-Con.
First of all, how are you feeling?
Oh, I’m fine. I know it sounds strange, but it wasn’t like the cold axe of the network dropped down and shattered our world. This is something we’ve been discussing with Comedy Central for a bit and have been trying to figure out how we fit in with everything because so much has changed, particularly in the last year, at Viacom and Comedy Central. But the late-night landscape has changed even since we started and I think we got to a point where we felt like you know, maybe now’s not a bad time to go out on a high note and maybe not be the show that overstayed its welcome and in a year have people go, “Oh, that show’s still on.”
It’s not a negative thing. I’m sad in the sense that I’m so proud of the staff and the crew that we’ve assembled and I’m proud of the fact that it’s been such a great platform for comics and comedy. But I feel like I did the thing that I wanted to do with this show and I’m ready to move on and do other things. This is about as amicable and friendly and neutral as a show and network breakup as I can imagine, which is a very rare thing.
When we talked earlier this year, you had said you wanted to be doing more standup. Is that going to be the case?
I’ve already booked a bunch of dates for the fall and I’m already looking at stuff for next year. But I’m also doing stuff for [my scripted production company] Fish Ladder and developing stuff with [the animation company I co-own] PUNY. I have my first meeting today for “The Awesome Show” [on NBC] with the showrunner and that’s about to go into overdrive. Comic-Con is coming up; there’s a bunch of stuff going on with Nerdist and [NBC game show] “The Wall’s” airing.
People always say to me, “How do you maintain your schedule?” And I don’t think about it like that. I think about all that I need to get done in a day. But I have been feeling this past handful of months like I think I’m starting to feel the fatigue of everything at once. It’s weird because, when you’re younger and you’re getting a job, you hope this job runs forever. So it’s weird to feel like this doesn’t need to run forever and I’m very much peaceful that it’s time to do something different.
And we also know — and Comedy Central’s been very open about the fact that, and I’ve been talking to Kent [Alterman] about this over the past couple months – that the landscape has changed so much since our show started. When you think about the snapshot of what’s going on now versus when we started, there was a different administration [in the White House], we were on after Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. It was just a different time, across the board.
Looking at even what’s happened in late-night over the last four years and the tectonic plate shifting that’s happened; I feel like we kind of did what we were supposed to do and the show had the kind of right moment that it was supposed to have and we all get to finish being really proud of it. I mean, 600 episodes is a f—ing lot of television.
Late-night is certainly crazy right now, given the amount of shows already on in that category and the new shows starting.
When you and I talked, I had said I’m not really a political comedian. But I know that politics is something that Comedy Central really wants to focus on in late-night right now. They have Trevor [Noah and “The Daily Show”] and Jordan Klepper’s great [and he has a new show starting this fall]. I think Trevor and Jordan will be a fantastic combination. Just trying to spiritually and philosophically figure out how we fit into that was hard for me.
“@midnight” was not political before until probably the nine months before the election. And, because the show was about what’s going on in social media, that became such a dominate topic in social media that we drifted into politics. But it’s not like I wanted to make “@midnight” a political show, per se. We just talked about the things that people were talking about. I think what’s really working for late-night right now is political stuff and that’s not what “@midnight” was built to do. It’s a joke-based show. We can’t ever go too far in depth with anything, so we don’t really have the runway.
I’m always so jealous of John Oliver, who does such an amazing job [on HBO’s “Last Week Tonight”] of really being able to weave a narrative in the amount of time that he has. We just can’t weave a narrative on “@midnight” because, at the end of the day, it’s game-based and it’s joke-based. It’s hard to go too far in depth into everything and, right now, I think that’s something that everybody really wants. They want things to go more in-depth.
Personally, I have politics fatigue. Sometimes at the end of the day I feel like I don’t need to hear any more about this. I see it all day! It’s one of the reasons why I don’t want to perpetuate it so well. And also, politics is just not my strong suit in terms of comedy.
But in terms of why are there so many late-night shows? I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that what really works for television – what really works for any medium now – is point-of-view-driven programming because there’s so much of everything. So the thing that people, an audience, gravitates to is a personality or a point-of-view or an opinion that they align with or an opinion that they love to hate. I think giving comedy people singular points-of-view-driven shows, so I really do understand it.
Your morning shows are very point-of-view-driven and your late-night shows are very point-of-view-driven because it’s the voice that you want to align with when you wake up and go to bed at night. And I honestly think it’s really impressive to watch so many voices like Samantha [Bee on TBS’ “Full Frontal”] and John Oliver and Trevor really carve out their own voices in late-night, which is a very difficult thing to do.
But John Oliver and Samantha Bee do one show a week. You do four. Do you think this plays into it?
I think it’d be really fun to have a week to craft the jokes. With “@midnight,” you live so much in your short-term memory and the other idea that’s enticing about it is you can’t overthink anything because you just don’t have time to. You just do it and you’re sort of working on a percentages game. Not everything that comes out of my mouth is going to be hilarious, but if I can keep a nice percentage of funny stuff? The other stuff that doesn’t land as well will just float by.
You really get the opportunity to spread your wings in that sense because of the sheer volume of comedy and the sheer volume of jokes. But the down side of that is you don’t get to go too in-depth in anything. And that’s something Jon Stewart was so good at; being able to go in-depth night after night after night.
But what’s enticing of what you’re talking about is having a week to marinate on the jokes and craft them and make them special in that way. That, to me, feels really interesting. There’s a whole different kind of craft to it.
But with “@midnight,” I’m really proud of what I did because I think it’s a deceptively hard show to make. I think because we have such a great staff and such an amazing crew, I think we made it look kind of easy that you almost take it for granted … but I don’t think things have to go on forever for you to enjoy the process. I saw an incredible outpouring [online] of people who supported it. Nothing was like, “it’s about f—ing time.”
Your show was one of the first to really incorporate social media and now all late-night shows do that. Do you think they all took lessons from you?
I think when you work in any field, you all learn from each other. That’s how innovation and progress happens. You move an inch and some other innovative person comes along and moves another inch … I think, everyone, in an unspoken way works together.
I’m inspired by everyone, so I think there’s a healthy form of competition which is this unspoken collaborative thing where you go, “oh that’s really awesome that that person did that. I’m going to try this …” Our show was designed around social media, so it’s not like we had to retroactively add it into our show. We designed the show around it and I’m proud that we did that. And I’m proud that I think we planted a flag in that way. But I’m not trying to take credit for putting social media in late-night.
But I also think the internet changes so fast that if we had done the show much longer, it would have felt outdated. Because it is tightly affixed to social media, unless we started doing the show on Snapchat … it just did what it needed to do.
But Comedy Central does have a show that was based on a Snapchat format; James Davis’ new comedy, “Hood Adjacent.”
But they ported the Snapchat show over to television. I mean how many ways can we explore the games that we’re playing? James was just on our show and he’s great, but I think we’ve explored every avenue that we could with “@midnight.” The game show format – and it’s funny that I would still have to explain to people that it’s not a real game show – is it creates an incredible amount of momentum that doesn’t stop once the show starts. But what’s limiting about that is that you have this structure that is difficult to – we’d break it with live shows and a Trump-Sanders debate … but the core of it is we’re a little bit tied to that engine. I just feel like that limits how much more we could have grown from here.
That’s why I’m not upset about it. I’m actually peaceful about how the process has been. And I don’t have to say this because I don’t technically work for them after a couple weeks, but Comedy Central has been phenomenal to work with and also through this process. I have nothing but positive things about Kent and all the people who were at Comedy Central and went on to do other things while we were here.
You’ve introduced the world to a lot of comics who might not have always gotten as much air time. Are there any comics in particular you’re proud of showcasing?
In a macro sense, I’m proud of the show for being a platform for comedians, period. And not just because we got to riff and play with comics [like Kevin Nealon]. I was performing at the Improv awhile back and I saw this one comic, Marcella Arguello, perform and she crushed it. I immediately said you’re amazing and we booked her on “@midnight” right away and I think she’s won every time she’s been on.
Just as a comedy nerd, I love that stuff because I think the more comics the world gets to discover, the better. I always appreciated that about doing “Chelsea Lately,” [Chelsea Handler’s former late-night show on E!] years ago. I wasn’t working on G4 at the time, but she was helping to drive the majority of my stand-up club ticket sales because I appeared on the show every so often. So I just appreciated the appeal and the value of that and “@midnight” was even more of a standup comedy thing because there was more of a performance element to it.
I know the value of being able to come on and be funny the way you are uniquely funny as a comedian, but also not burning through your material so you can save it for your special. That’s a constant struggle that comedians always have unless you’re Dave Chappelle or Patton Oswalt who can write a new album every week. I’m really proud that so many comedians were able to leverage the show to book more gigs or get better gigs. I feel really proud that I was able to be any part of that process.
Have you thought about who will be on the late episode of “@midnight”?
Our last episode is going to be the 600th episode, so it has a nice roundness to it. If we had ended on 599, it would have been in my brain forever. I think what we’ll try to do is get as many regulars and fan favorites as we possibly can to just pop in parts of the show. And I might actually play some of the game a little bit, which I’ve never done. We’re working on that now and see who’s in town.