Interview: Chris Hardwick goes where only nerds will tread
'The Nerdist' host Chris Hardwick dishes on being a total nerd, working with Jenny McCarthy, Dave Chapelle, his insect collection, Chuck Norris and more.
Self-identified nerd Chris Hardwick is (now) best known for his popular podcast/TV show "The Nerdist," as well as hosting a number of niche programs like the "Talking Bad" and "Talking Dead" TV postmortems on AMC. But the larger populace probably knows him best as the snarky co-host of MTV's now-defunct dating show "Singled Out."
We caught up with Hardwick in the midst of his standup tour to talk nerd stuff.
How would you describe your style of standup?
Well, Boston used to be crawling with comedy clubs and a lot of really amazing comedians came out of Boston. There’s a certain style [that I have] that I actually traced back to Boston. You kind of set up a bit and then there’s just kind of a rapid fire of… trying to assault the audience with punchlines. And I never knew where that came from, and then I was talking to Bill Burr and he was like “Yeah, I think that’s where that came from.” But I never performed in Boston! So I think it was just that a lot of the comics that I was influenced by came from that scene.
Have you ever had to deal with hecklers?
Oh yeah, for sure. But the thing about my show is that, like, 40 percent of what I do is crowd work. So when you open up the floor to “Hey, it’s OK to talk back to me,” people really do talk back to you. But hecklers, I don’t mind. That’s sort of what I’m used to, and I would say that if you saw two of my shows back to back, they wouldn’t be identical. Some of the core material would be the same but it all kind of relies upon what the crowd interaction is. I just like to talk to people, so I’ll always get chatty with the people I can see from where I’m standing.
Have you ever had that really awful, drunk guy heckler that you just couldn’t deal with?
It’s pretty rare. I think the last time that happened was in Ft. Lauderdale, maybe four years ago. There was a guy in the back of the room — and the show was actually going really well! So this kind of shocked me — but for whatever reason he just did not like what I was doing. And this guy was huge, and my mouth moves faster than my brain. So he shouts from the back of the room, “Why don’t you tell us a funny story,” and without even thinking I said, “Well, one time this big, fat piece of sh— at the back of the room started yelling out at me and security threw him out on his ass.” And then immediately I was like, “Oh sh—, I shouldn’t have said that!” But because it engaged him, he loved it. But usually when people are heckling they think they’re helping, or they just want to be part of the show. It’s very rare that you get the heckler anarchist who just wants to completely derail everything.
Did you hear about that incident with Dave Chappelle in Connecticut, where he was heckled so much that he just stopped performing?
I did. I wish I could have seen it. Because Dave is really one of the top three stand-ups of our generation and one of the top comedians of all time, so I don’t know. I think what happens with him sometimes is that he’s a pure stand-up, he wants to come out and do standup. And I know in the past he’s had problems with people coming and yelling out, “I’m Rick James, bitch!” And he’s a comic and he’s trying to do his job. Let’s say you’re a bricklayer and every time you lay a brick someone comes up and just knocks the brick out of your hand — it’s like, come on! Just let me do my job, you know? It’s like, I heard that for a long time Chuck Norris had to travel with a bodyguard because people always thought, “Oh, I can kick Chuck Norris’ ass.”
They were always trying to run up and roundhouse kick him?
Yeah, exactly! Like, “Oh that guy’s not so tough, I can topple him.” And I think that’s what happened with Dave. But the truth of the matter is, if a crowd is really drunk — some crowds are just sh—ty, you know? And yeah, it’s the job of the comic to try to win them over, but every once in awhile it’s the audience’s fault. It just is!
Well, yeah, and I think that’s true of any kind of performer. Musicians and so forth…
Yeah, and my reasoning behind that is, you might have one or two sh— stirrers in the audience, who just want to ruin everything. But if you happen to hit the douchebag jackpot and you have 15 people who want to do that? They can create enough discord to topple the show and no matter how much of a seasoned comic you are, or how much of a professional, you’re just not going to win.
I think it’s interesting you ended up in this nerd niche, having started on 'Singled Out.’ Did you know back then where your career would take you?
Oh no, of course not. When you first start out you take whatever job is offered to you, because you just want to work. When I first started working for MTV ... they brought a stylist in and tried to fix me up. Because I was a super nerdy kid and didn’t really fit the MTV aesthetic, you know?
My defense mechanism was always that I was into comedy and super snarky, and so that worked well for what they needed for the host, but I didn’t look like I should be on MTV. And if you go back and watch “Singled Out” — which I don’t recommend that you do — every season I had a completely different wardrobe because they could not find a style for me that made me look cool. So there was the gas station shirt, and then the sweater era, and then, oh maybe I’ll try suits. But nothing worked. I could never find it when I was there. I didn’t really feel comfortable hosting “Singled Out” because I was always surrounded by obnoxious fraternity and sorority people and so it wasn’t my group.
I think you did a pretty good job of playing that douchey role yourself, as host.
I felt like I was probably being douchey to people on the show, because I was uncomfortable, and I would always sort of mutter things under my breath that the audience at home would hear but they would never hear on set. In fact, there was some pretty nerdy sh— that they let me do on the show. Like, one season we had Adam West on. Stuff that the MTV viewing audience probably wouldn’t have given a sh— about, but I was trying to sneak on.
Was it intimidating for you, as a self-professed nerd, working with a super hot babe like Jenny McCarthy?
The thing is, and no one ever believes me when I say this, but Jenny wasn’t my type of girl. When she first auditioned for the show … she was fresh off the Playmate train. She had, like, acid wash jeans, big fake boobs, giant bleached hair — and that was never the type of girl that I dated. I think I’m not a typical guy, like, “Heyy, sports! Big tits!” I never felt intimidated because, like, when I was a kid I would not have had Playmate pictures on my wall. I’d had like video game posters and comedy posters and weird bands. I just wasn’t that way, so I didn’t feel intimidated. I actually think I felt that it was sort of nice to not be freaked out. There was never any romantic chemistry between us so we were more like siblings than anything else.
Is there a difference between a nerd and a geek?
No, but a lot of people will tell you differently. Some people say a geek is more pop culture obsessed, some people say nerds are more hands-on engineer types. I think it’s more of a regional vernacular. Like Wil Wheaton is one of my best friends, and he identifies as a geek and I identify as a nerd, but we like the same things. So I think ultimately the words have blurred, I think we’re all saying the same thing. We’re obsessive about things to the point where it can almost be unhealthy sometimes and we’re a little awkward in some ways, but I don’t think people are ultimately saying different things. But, you know, I think whichever person you ask, depending on how they identify they might say that the other is the weaker class. [laughs]
Well, speaking to that, I feel like being a nerd is sort of cool now...
Well, yeah, but listen, there’s still a lot of social awkwardness in the nerd community. There’s no denying that that still exists. But that’s not the only identifying factor of nerd culture anymore. People have grown up with things that you used to have to seek out, like really early adopter-y things that you were either socially ostracized for or you were first socially ostracized and then you found those things because they were fringe. But now so much of it is interwoven into our culture because of technology, and now you have a whole generation of people like me who grew up and started expressing all of the sh— that they loved when they were a kid.
Like the fact that Joss Whedon could be a huge comic book guy and then grow up and direct all these TV shows. All of us kind of came of age to express these things that were very meaningful to us. It’s part of our culture now, it’s not fringe anymore. [But] I feel like the benefit of the nerd thing is that there are still places that only nerds will tread. There are still trenches that only they will go down. So I don’t think that nerd culture is in danger of going away. Even if people are trendy nerds, they’ll fall off when it’s not trendy anymore, and the real nerds will still be there. I think our culture is safe.
What’s the nerdiest thing you’re into right now?
[laughs] Well, I have an insect collection that I really like. It’s unfortunately all in boxes right now because I’m in the process of moving.
Whoa. Where do you collect them from?
Just, like, the Internet. And there’s a bug fair in Los Angeles that I go to.
Yeah, that’s pretty nerdy.
Yeah. So that’s probably the biggest one. Oh! My girlfriend got us kigurumi, which are basically like Japanese animal pajamas. Yes, we have worn them together.