With the New York Comic-Con set to kick off this weekend, who better to give us the state of the nerd world than the Nerdist himself?
PLAYBOY: Your podcast, called Nerdist, gets four million downloads every month. Are podcasts the future of comedy or just something to do while you wait to get cast in a sitcom?
HARDWICK: I do podcasts for the same reasons I do stand-up comedy. I love it, and I don’t care if anybody else gets it. I don’t know if the podcast as a medium will ever have the cultural impact that TV and movies do. It may never be super-mainstream. For some people, you say podcasts and they’re like, “What the hell is that?” They don’t understand it’s like a radio show you can download. Mainstream culture is like your mom: It’s always a little late to catch on and gets easily confused by technology, but it means well.
PLAYBOY: What exactly is a nerdist? Is it just a fancy word for nerd?
HARDWICK: I think the Urban Dictionary defines nerdist as “an artful nerd.” That’s not bad. It’s on the safe side of pretentious. Nerdists, unlike nerds, tend to be creators as much as consumers. They’re creative consumers. They don’t just sit and watch passively. They’re crafty. They make shirts and posters and confectionery things.
PLAYBOY: Nerds have been around since the dawn of time. Why are they getting respect now?
HARDWICK: Because nerds make money. I hate to say it, but because of humanity’s capitalistic nature, money is important. And with money comes power. I think it’s also about accessibility. So many people of this current generation have grown up with technology and video games, it’s not nerdy to like that kind of stuff anymore. Nerd culture is ubiquitous.
PLAYBOY: Nerdist Industries is the name of your media empire of websites, podcasts and YouTube videos. In what ways are you similar to ruthless 19th century industrialist George Pullman?
HARDWICK: In every way. [laughs] I’ve always had a fondness for that satirical, Terry Gilliam–esque evil corporate megastructure, the kind of business that hangs banners that say making your life better as it throws kittens into the gears. I want Nerdist Industries to be like that. For a while we were using the slogan “Nerdist: Making Today the Yesterday of Tomorrow,” which is just stupid. It’s dumb doublespeak. But the whole idea of being an industry is about making fun of people’s confusion.
PLAYBOY: You were born in Kentucky and raised in Tennessee, but you don’t have even a trace of a Southern accent. Do you consider yourself a Southerner?
HARDWICK: I love the South. Although I grew up primarily in Memphis, my family moved around a ton when I was a kid. I guess I never stayed in one place long enough to pick up the accent, but I definitely identify as a Southerner. I fucking love grits, for one thing. I am a grits-eating motherfucker. I love all Southern cooking — collard greens, black-eyed peas, I’ll eat it all. Put me in the kitchen and you’ll see how Southern I can be.
PLAYBOY: Your father was a retired professional bowler. Were you ever pressured to go into the family business?
HARDWICK: Absolutely not. Both my parents recognized early on that I wanted to do something in comedy, and they were really supportive. They’re the ones who bought me Steve Martin records and let me watch R-rated comedies long before they probably should have. But I still spent a lot of time bowling as a kid, mostly because I grew up in bowling alleys. They were kind of my playgrounds. Not only was my dad a pro bowler, but my mother’s father and brother both owned their own bowling centers. I still bowl today, though I wouldn’t recommend doing it with me. I’m not fun to bowl with, believe me. I take it way too seriously.
PLAYBOY: How did you discover your nerd tendencies growing up in a bowling alley? It’s not a nerd-friendly environment.
HARDWICK: It can be. That’s where I got into arcade games. My grandfather, my mom’s dad, who was a really smart and wonderful man, was a technophile. He was the first guy to buy those big laser-disc players in 1979. He had the latest camcorders and stereo systems and Betamax players. He noticed early on that video games were a big deal, so he set up a massive arcade in his bowling center in Florida. I spent all my time there. When I wasn’t playing video games, my friends and I would play Dungeons & Dragons or chess at the bar. I had full access to all my nerd obsessions. I guess when I think about it, I was a spoiled piece of shit.
PLAYBOY: You’re not a fan of competitive athletic sports. As a spectator or a participant?
HARDWICK: Neither. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with sports; I just don’t give a shit. When I see dudes in sports bars shoving chicken wings in their faces, watching a game and saying, “That’s my team,” it mystifies me. I’m like, You’re sitting on your fat ass. What are you doing that makes you a contributing member of the organization? You’ve lifted nothing but drumsticks for the past three hours.
PLAYBOY: Have you considered joining a fantasy league? They have statistics and math, all the nerd staples.
HARDWICK: Yeah, that’s not a bad idea. I would have to look at it like a chess game, as a strategy. If I did that, I could probably find a way in. It would make my life a lot easier if I could find a way to appreciate sports. I mean, I’ve never watched an entire football game. It’s horrifying. So many dudes try to bond with me over sports. They’ll come up to me and say, “Hey, do you know the score of the game?” I won’t even know what to say. Game? What game? I can give you some quotes from the last Harry Potter movie. Does that help?
PLAYBOY: You majored in philosophy at UCLA. Were you just not interested in making money or having a career?
HARDWICK: Steve Martin, my comedy idol, was a philosophy major in college. He once said that philosophy is a great thing for comedians to study because it screws up your thinking just enough. If you’re going into stand-up, you’re hyper-analyzing the world and asking as many questions about a thing as you possibly can so you can figure out the ultimate nature of that thing. If you want to get into comedy, it’s really the only subject worth studying.
PLAYBOY: Your first big career break was as a co-host with Jenny McCarthy on the MTV dating show Singled Out. Which leads to the obvious question——
HARDWICK: No, I did not fuck Jenny McCarthy.
PLAYBOY: Actually, that’s not what we were going to ask, but thanks for clearing that up. We were wondering if hosting the show taught you any big life lessons about dating.
HARDWICK: For me, the lessons of Singled Out weren’t about dating. They were about fame. I learned that just being on MTV doesn’t make you famous. When I got the job, I was like, Oh man, I’m going to be on a private jet with fucking Kurt Cobain. We’ll be toasting martinis and getting blown by mermaids. And of course none of that happened. The show ended, and I became an out-of-work comic with a drinking problem.
PLAYBOY: Is it true that Jon Stewart mocked you into sobriety?
HARDWICK: In a way. I was in my apartment, watching The Daily Show, and McCarthy was a guest. Stewart made a joke about me. Somehow my name came up, and Stewart was like, “He gets our coffee now.” It devastated me. It was the first moment I took a long hard look at my life and my career. It made me realize, "Oh my God, I’ve become that MTV stereotype I always worried about becoming." I was proud of Jenny, and I say that with no bitterness. There are only a handful of people who started their careers on MTV who managed to keep it going. There’s Jenny and Pauly Shore and maybe a few others. But it never happened for me. I became the washed-up drunk loser with floppy hair who used to be on a dating show.
PLAYBOY: How did you dig yourself out of that hole?
HARDWICK: When I look back, every time I felt something bleak was happening with my career, I would make some sort of survival-based choice, doing something I could control. I was very lazy about doing stand-up when I was hosting Singled Out. I was like, “Whatever, I have a job.” But when I had nothing, it was a lifeline. It made me feel I was finally taking control of my career. The same thing with the podcast. Every time I was rejected by the entertainment business, which was a lot, I’d be like, “Well, fuck you. I’m going to do my own thing.” Even if nothing happened with it, it was my thing and they couldn’t touch it. Of course, the business didn’t give a shit at the time, but I was still muttering under my breath like a crazy person.
PLAYBOY: You wrote a self-help book called The Nerdist Way: How to Reach the Next Level (in Real Life). Are you better at giving advice or taking it?
HARDWICK: It’s so much easier to give advice than to take it. But I tend to trust any advice that comes from years of fuck-up research. When I was younger, my parents used to say, “Trust us on this. We have more experience than you.” And I was like, “Shut up, you don’t know anything!” But I was an idiot. They did know more stuff because they’d experienced more things. They’d fucked up more often than I had. There’s no better path to knowledge than fucking up.
PLAYBOY: You were part of a regular Dungeons & Dragons game with comedians Brian Posehn, Patton Oswalt and others. Why are comics drawn to fantasy role-playing games?
HARDWICK: I really don’t know. Maybe because D&D is the perfect mental exercise. It’s math and fantasy. It’s statistics and Lord of the Rings. It requires you to use your mind but also be social. Our game was amazing just because everyone involved was so goddamn funny. Patton had a drunken dwarf character called Stump Hammer. I was a lawful good wizard named Blaividane, sort of an anagram of David Blaine’s name. Brian had a ninja character who was obsessed with pickles. It was some of the best times I’ve ever had playing D&D. I really miss it.
PLAYBOY: You don’t play anymore?
HARDWICK: The bummer thing about a D&D game is that it’s like having a band. If one person can’t show up, then the whole thing falls apart. Our game ended because our dungeon master got a girlfriend, and she didn’t want him playing D&D on Sundays with a bunch of guys for five hours. We’d run into him later, and it was always awkward. It was like we were a dude and he was our ex-girlfriend.
PLAYBOY: You’re a regular at Comic-Con in San Diego. Are we correct in thinking it’s like Plato’s Retreat with Spock ears?
HARDWICK: There is an element of that, yeah. Hey, nerds made porn available on the internet—what else do you need to know? But that’s the vibe at comic book conventions in general. When I was growing up, nerds had this reputation for being virgins who lived in their parents’ basements. That’s certainly not the case now. I would say that nerds, as a rule, are much more sexually active than the average person. There’s a lot of anxiety and stress in the nerd brain, so sex is good for that.
PLAYBOY: You’re a Star Wars fanatic. Isn’t your girlfriend, Chloe Dykstra, part of Star Wars royalty?
HARDWICK: In a way, yeah. Her dad did the effects for Star Wars. He helped develop the technology for the lightsaber. The freaking lightsaber! I’m not saying that’s why I go out with her, but it’s definitely a big check in the “pro” box. A couple of months ago she brought me this gift bag, and she was like, “Yeah, I was just rifling around my dad’s garage.” It was an original Star Wars crew T-shirt, with a design I’d never seen before, and an original Star Trek: The Motion Picture crew shirt. It was the best gift I’ve ever gotten. I went on a tour of Skywalker Ranch a couple of years ago and saw the original everything—the original droids, the original concept art, the original lightsabers. I saw the original Yoda, and I’ll be honest, I wanted to spoon with him.
PLAYBOY: As a card-carrying nerd, this is probably the most important question you’ll ever be asked. If and when you have kids, how will you introduce them to the Star Wars movies? In what order?
HARDWICK: You’re not kidding about it being an important question. I talk about this a lot. It’s a big moral quandary. Do you want your kids to experience it like you experienced it, or do you go in the proper order? I’ve heard arguments on both sides. The problem with doing it in numerical order is that it ruins the Vader “You are my father” surprise. The most convincing case I’ve read was by this guy Rod Hilton, who came up with something called the Machete Order. He recommends showing them like this: A New Hope, then Empire, then Attack of the Clones, then Revenge of the Sith, then Return of the Jedi, completely leaving out Phantom Menace. His point is Phantom is unnecessary, and parts two and three play like a flashback. It makes sense, but I still don’t know. I saw Star Wars in the theater with my dad, so if I had a kid, I’d maybe want to show the movies to him or her in that order, just for the tradition of it. [pauses] I don’t know. This is too much pressure. It’s like asking where I want to be buried. Can I get back to you?