In 2014, Chris Hardwick did the Oddball Tour with some of the biggest comedians working today—Louis C.K., Aziz Ansari, Sarah Silverman and Hannibal Buress. After it was over, the tour’s promoters approached Hardwick to see if he’d be interesting in leveraging his status as pop culture’s Nerd King into some kind of similar mega-event.
“They knew everything I was doing, and they said, ‘Would you ever want to do your own festival?’” Hardwick said. “I said, ‘Sure, yeah, I guess.’ And they said, ‘Would you want to do a nerd-themed festival?’”
He only had one major concern: that it steer clear of the word “nerd.”
Hardwick has built a media mini-empire out of his Nerdist Industries, which started with the Nerdist website a decade ago, and then became one of the first breakout successes of a fledgling media format in 2010 with the Nerdist podcast. So maybe he’s trying to take just a half step outside the nerd box.
“I think we have to be a little more careful what we slap that label on now,” he says. “Which I know is ironic coming from me. I know that’s 100 percent ironic.”
Times have changed, though, since he first christened his company. “I think Nerdist has become its own thing,” he says. “But I also think that word has been co-opted a lot, because bigger media companies have seen there’s money to be made from the group. So they just call stuff ‘nerd’—they use the word, but without any real authenticity to it. I think there’s a certain suspicion when that word comes up, like ‘Is it really? Is it really for nerds?’ If I saw an advertisement for something and it said, ‘Come to the Nerd Festival!’ I’d be like, ‘Well, that sounds dumb.’ I would be suspicious of it.”
So it’ll be called the ID10T Festival when it debuts on June 24 and 25. But like Shakespeare said, a nerd festival by any other name would be as cosplay-friendly. The mix of music, comedy and panels at the ID10T Festival is perfectly situated in Silicon Valley, at Mountain View’s Shoreline Amphitheatre. Saturday musical headliners Weezer are considered the godfathers of nerd rock. Sunday headliner Girl Talk is known for winding Saran Wrap around his laptops so he can sweat on them profusely while he pumps out his Pynchon-level postmodern mashups. The rest of the lineup over two days includes TV on the Radio—who almost all wear glasses—Animal Collective and a lot of other nerds. Saturday’s OK Go just did a freaking TED Talk.
The comedy tent for both days is just as nerd-friendly: Demetri Martin, Michael Che, Michael Ian Black (sample tweet: “Nerds are the new nerds. Shut up about being a nerd, nerd”), Garfunkel and Oates, Brian Posehn, Mike Phirman and more. Panels include Portlandia, Futurama, Mystery Science Theater 3000, The Magicians and, of course, Nerdist Podcast Live.
“Basically, the directive I used was: if I looked at this as a fan, and had nothing to do with this, would this make sense to me?” says Hardwick. “And all these things made sense with each other. But the only way I can describe it, and sort of the way we programmed it, was: what am I a fan of?”
So the biggest question around the 1D10T Festival—pronounced “Idiot Festival,” and not “Identity Festival,” as has been widely misreported, much to Hardwick’s confusion (the name refers to an IT code for clueless computer users)—is not whether or not it’s a nerd-themed festival. It most certainly is. The question is how Hardwick got to the point where people are making festivals around things of which he’s a fan.
The 45-year-old Hardwick had been kicking around show business for almost two decades before he started Nerdist. He hosted a couple of pretty bad MTV game shows in the ’90s, and was a DJ at L.A. rock giant KROQ. He had bit parts in movies, and guest spots on TV. But, more importantly, he honed his stand-up skills, particularly at legendary Los Angeles club Largo. In fact, he credits Largo’s 1990s heyday—which is legendary in certain circles—with giving rise to the mix of music and comedy that is now standard at big festivals, including ID10T.
“It was a music club, but once a week there was a comedy show that I got to do a lot when I was starting out. And it was a certain type of comic—it was David Cross and Bob Odenkirk and Zach Galifianakis and Sarah Silverman and Mitch Hedberg. There was a certain type of comic that paired well with a certain type of music,” he says. “That was an incredible time. The first time I ever did it was 1996. I bombed horribly and I didn’t do it again for two years. So I wasn’t in the first class—Jeanane Garofalo and David Cross and Brian Posehn—but I was probably in the second class, right after them.”
A new blueprint for music festivals began to spread quickly. “The first time I did Bumbershoot was probably 2001, and it was right when people started understanding that with a certain type of alternative music there was a certain type of comedy crossover. And that very thing, at least from my point of view, came out of the Largo scene.”
While he continued to perform, Hardwick started to own his inner nerd in the mid-2000s. In 2007, he started working for Wired, both as a writer for the magazine and host of the Wired Science show developed in conjunction with PBS. In 2008, he launched Nerdist as a website and a Twitter account. They took off quickly, and in 2010 the Nerdist Podcast launched, doubling as a continuing primer on nerd culture (in which Hardwick is assisted by co-hosts Jonah Ray and Matt Mira) and a straightforward comedy podcast featuring interviews with big-name guests. Those guests, he says, were key to making Nerdist one of the earliest breakout successes in podcasting.
“I don’t know. I think some of it was luck—probably a large part of it was luck. It was just the right time for it,” says Hardwick of Nerdist Industries’ rapid development into a network of podcasts and YouTube channels that was suddenly attracting millions of eyes and ears. “I think I just had a good foothold in both digital media and traditional media, so I had good contacts for good guests. And every great guest you have on opens the door for a bunch of other great guests. If Bryan Cranston does it, or Jon Hamm does it, then other people are like, ‘oh, well, they did it, so I guess I can do it.’”
In the early years, though, the guests weren’t easy to get. “After a year or so, I hired a booker to help me book talent, and even then it was really hard. But now, because podcasts are such a thing, and people understand what they are, it’s a million times easier,” says Hardwick. “I’m blown away by the people we get pitched. They’ll go, ‘Hey, Sophia Coppola—do you want to have her on?’ I’m like, ‘What? She wants to come on?’ It’s incredible to me, because it’s this thing that still feels very grassroots.”
Meanwhile, Hardwick has re-invented his hosting career, with discussion shows on AMC like Talking Dead, an hour-long talk show that has run live after new episodes of The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead since 2011, and Talking Bad, which did the same after the final eight episodes of Breaking Bad. In 2013, he redeemed his game show rep with Comedy Central’s popular comedians vs. internet show @midnight.
And his holdings continue to sprawl—besides creating the ID10T Festival, he also developed and hosts The Wall, an NBC game show that debuted at the end of last year with Hardwick and LeBron James as executive producers.
Even he can’t exactly chart how he became a nerd mogul, or explain why he gets offered so many different projects, but he has a few ideas. “I’m professional, I show up on time, I do what I’m supposed to do. I know what I’m doing. I don’t think I’m a dickhead to work with, I try to make everything fun. And I just work on stuff that’s fun for me,” he says. “I honestly don’t know that there’s anything more to it than that.”
Hardwick’s imprint has become enough of a brand that he now attracts a lot of talent himself, not all of it nerdy. Comedian Nikki Glaser is performing at the ID10T Festival on Saturday despite the fact that she is known primarily for the kind of brash sex talk she honed on Comedy Central’s Not Safe with Nikki Glaser, and not for any connection whatsoever to nerd culture. Having guested on @midnight many times, however, she’s not worried about any disconnect.
“Nerds are smart, and as long as you’re dealing with a smart crowd, they’re generally a good crowd,” says Glaser. “And a lot of this crowd loves Chris Hardwick, obviously. I find that our fans overlap just because of @midnight.”
Besides, she says, “nerds are having sex, too. Not as much as they maybe want. But they definitely want to hear about it.”
On the other hand, says Glaser, maybe nerds are getting everything they want these days, including their own festival. “There’s such a nerd Renaissance,” she says. “Although I guess that’s a rebirth, and they’re just having the first birth. So it’s a Naissance. A Nerdnaissance.”