PLAYBOY: Your podcast, called Nerdist, gets 4 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. Which means you can put it in your phone. And then you can hear it in your phone’s tummy. 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. I’ve seen nerdists make tributes to their obsessions out of Legos that are like works of art. It just goes to show you how pervasive this stuff has become in our culture. It really is an ideology that you can subscribe to now.
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 there’s a lot of money being generated by nerds right now. Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, the list goes on and on. Nerds make more money than our government. And with money comes power. I think it’s also about accessibility. The idea of the archetypal nerd is totally blurred these days. So many people of this current generation have grown up with technology and video games. It’s just a part of the world now, a part of our shared culture. It’s not nerdy to like that kind of stuff anymore. Growing up in the 70s and 80s, it took effort to be a nerd. You had to seek out the nerd stuff. When I was in school, if you wanted a computer, you had to build one. But today, computers are everywhere. We’re all obsessed with technology and having the latest gadgets. 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. A lot of times, they’re like, “What do you do exactly? Is it a website, a podcast?” Well, we do a lot of different stuff on a lot of different platforms. But explaining it that way is just boring. It’s much funnier to sell this idea of a mythical factory somewhere, just churning out content.
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. I have opinions about the differences between Memphis barbecue and Texas barbecue. Put me in the kitchen and you’ll see how Southern I can be.
PLAYBOY: Your father is 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. I have high expectations for myself. I was very competitive growing up. I can’t even play chess anymore because I used to play tournament chess in school. There’s too much sense memory of sitting in front of a chess board and getting super intense about it. It’s ruined the game for me.
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. My mom is a big sports fans. Basketball, football, baseball, whatever. She calls into sports radio shows and gets into shouting matches, that’s how intense she is about it. I got a chance earlier this year to throw the first pitch at a Dodger’s Game on Star Wars day. I called my mom to tell her about it, and I’ve never heard her get so excited. She was screaming, “You’re going to throw the first pitch at a Dodger’s game?!” For her, it was the biggest thing in the world. It was probably more exciting for her than it was for me.
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. And I was like, yeah, that makes sense. 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. The problem with a philosophy education, for me anyway, is that it gets you to question so much about the material world that at a certain point you’re like, why the fuck am I in school? You write a paper about how nothing has any value and then they put a B on it. How’d you do that? How are you assigning a value to my philosophical argument, which you taught me, that nothing has any value?
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: I think it was a microcosm of what the dating process is really like. Whether we want to admit we’re any deeper than this, when you meet someone for the first time, you’re usually judging them on visual cues. We’re not judging their character or personality. We just want to know, are they hot? Because we’re animals. But 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. The mistakes I made in my 20s, sometimes I think, goddamn, if I had those ten more back, maybe I’d be ten years ahead of the game by now. But I needed to fuck up. It helped me become the responsible person I am today. I had to fuck up that much to figure out how to live better.
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. We’d be all (aloof), “Hey, what’s up buddy?” [Laughs.] We’d be weirdly passive aggressive to him. “Well sure, as long as you’re happy.”
PLAYBOY: You’re the tech correspondent on G4’s Attack of the Show, and a regular contributor to Wired magazine. You’re on the forefront of technology. How far away are we from robot maids?
HARDWICK: Like a wise-cracking Jetsons-type maid? That’s hard to say. When you look at the way the human body moves, there are so many articulating structures that we just aren’t able to duplicate. There’ve been a lot of advancements in the field of AI, but not so much in the field of lumbering female robots designed to vacuum your space home and give life guidance to your kids. It’s just not going to happen any time in the near future. But you want to hear about some exciting technology that is available now? I just ordered some Star Wars light saber chopsticks. They’re chop sticks that look like light sabers. They’re not real light sabers, which would be amazing, because then I could cook my food as I was eating it.
PLAYBOY: Speaking ofStar 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 cage from Temple of Doom where they lower the guy into the pit. I saw the original Yoda, and I’ll be honest, I wanted to spoon with him. But I think that’d be like if you were on X Factor and tried to jump on Britney Spears. You wouldn’t get close before they dragged you away. Not that I’m comparing Britney with Yoda. Come on, that’s silly. One of them is a creepy puppet. And the other is voiced by Frank Oz.
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: On the Nerdist podcast, you’ve devoted a lot of time to debating and dissecting movies based on comic books. If you had the opportunity to portray one comic book superhero, who would it be?
HARDWICK: Oh wow. [Long pause.] That’s a tough one. I guess I’d say Spiderman. I kinda have a Peter Parker vibe about me. It doesn’t take a lot of CGI to make me look like a nerdy white kid with glasses. But also, when I have the superhero dream, it’s usually Spiderman. There’s been a lot of debate about the organic web shooters versus the mechanical web shooters, and for me, when I dream about being Spiderman, it’s always the organic. There’s something about shooting webs out of my wrists and climbing up things that just makes me happy. But I also love the immortal healing abilities of Wolverine. And Green Lantern’s ring is really cool. I honestly don’t know. [Long pause.] I don’t like this question. It’s unanswerable.
PLAYBOY: You share a name with the Rubik’s Cube speed champion. What’s your personal puzzle-solving expertise?
HARDWICK: I wish it was the Rubik’s Cube. I had one the first time it came out, and I was super into it. But I was never able to solve it in 15 minutes, or whatever the other Chris Hardwick’s crazy record is. The weird thing is, his nerdiness is similar enough that people would get genuinely confused. I do seem like the kind of guy who’d be obsessive about Rubik’s Cubes. I’d have friends who Googled this guy and then asked me, “When did you have red hair?” I’d have to tell them, no, that’s not me. But that’s not your question. What’s my puzzle? [Long pause.] I guess being in this industry is my puzzle, if that makes any sense. It’s really about strategizing and plotting. Especially for Nerdist Industries. How can we create complimentary content across multiple platforms that doesn’t cannibalize itself? I really feel like that’s the puzzle I’ve devoted my life and career to solving. When people read this in print, they’re probably going to think I’m a cock. But that’s honestly the way I feel.
PLAYBOY: You had your scalp chopped off in Rob Zombie’s cult horror classic House of 1000 Corpses. Did that require all of your acting ability?
HARDWICK: Not in the slightest. Rob told me, “I’m writing this character for you. He’s a sarcastic asshole who gets his scalp chopped off.” And I was like, “Great. I’m in.” It didn’t require any acting skill at all. Especially the scalping part. That was just a lot of fake blood and a 70s wig. It was probably the most fun I ever had doing a movie. Every performer should do a horror movie at least once. The moment they yell cut, everybody is laughing at how ridiculous it all is. You’re covered in blood and fake guts, and it just gives everybody the giggles. There’s a lot of laughing on a horror movie set. They’re magical in that way.
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. [Long pause.] 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?
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the March 2013 issue of Playboy magazine.)