Nearly three years ago, comedian Chris Hardwick dramatically changed the direction of his career — not by landing a sitcom or releasing a blockbuster comedy special, but by recording and distributing an hourlong podcast that would quickly grow into a multimedia empire.
The Nerdist podcast was born on the eve of Super Bowl XLIV in a fit of frustration with entertainment industry gatekeepers. As the New Orleans Saints prepared to pull an upset that would drive Peyton Manning fans to the brink of madness, two comedians and an Apple Genius huddled together with actor/screenwriter Thomas Lennon to record a freewheeling chat that covered slide whistles, Doctor Who and stalking James Gandolfini.
But it wasn't necessarily the content of Nerdist that made it so attractive to a niche audience of comedy nerds and other assorted geeks — it was the intimacy.
"The podcast is kind of a phone conversation in a way," Hardwick tells the Scene during a commute in Los Angeles. "When you're podcasting or you're doing radio, you're not talking to thousands and thousands of people; you're just talking to one person, because that's how people listen to it."
That one-on-one communication is exactly what Hardwick needed to cut through the white noise. Prior to the debut of Nerdist, the Memphis-raised comic was best known as a co-presenter on MTV's Singled Out, a dating show that melded the unholy success of The Real World with the game show Remote Control.
But Singled Out was canceled in 1998. As the '90s comedy boom continued to wane and the pool of snarky white dudes grew bigger, Hardwick made a deliberate choice to move both his acting and comedy pursuits toward his favored niche of science and technology.
Nerdist is an outgrowth of that tech-savvy spirit, which helped Hardwick brand himself as a comedy nerd. Hardwick and co-hosts Matt Mira and Jonah Ray have jokey but in-depth conversations with everyone from actors (Jon Hamm, Tom Hanks) and comics (Mike Birbiglia, Patton Oswalt) to scientists (Neil deGrasse Tyson) and authors (Neil Gaiman).
"Outside of Comedy Central, there hasn't really been a ton of stand-up comedy on television in almost 20 years." Hardwick explains. "So podcasting was just kind of a comic's survival mechanism, realizing that they had to nudge through and get their voice into the world in some way."
In its nascent stages, podcasting was purely the domain of the nerds. Tech talk and weekly dissections of Harry Potter novels dominated the medium, focusing more on education and analysis than joke delivery. Unlike television, podcasting was born for specificity. And what are comedians if not specialized?
Who exactly began modern comedy podcasting is about as debatable as whether or not The Ramones invented punk, but comedians like Ricky Gervais and Jimmy Pardo (Never Not Funny) seized upon the medium as early as 2005 and succeeded with it — wildly.
"I know that guys like Jimmy Pardo and Marc Maron and Doug Benson, who all have been podcasting for longer than I have, were pretty flat-out in saying it was amazing the way that podcasting had affected attendance at their live shows, people actually showing up," Hardwick said.
In 2012, we're in the midst of a full-scale comedy podcast boom. In the iTunes Top 20 Podcasts, comedians regularly make up more than a quarter of the list — in some cases, beating out beloved public radio shows. Comedy podcasts number in the hundreds, with more sprouting up and fading away by the day. Even in Nashville, comics like Chris Crofton (of the Scene-hosted Chris Crofton Show) and Ralphie May (The Perfect 10) have taken up the medium.
"I think if you're a comic, you kind of have a responsibility to use any of those [digital media] tools in some way," Hardwick said, referring to outlets such as YouTube and social media. "Otherwise, how are people going to know who you are, what you're about and whether or not they should come see you?"
It's true that comedians no longer get their big breaks with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. That era is gone. But what comics may be missing in casual fans, they're making up with hardcore devotees. Nerdist is unabashed in its fandom of the fringes, because Hardwick is unabashed in his fandom of the fringes. As a result, Hardwick's fans are, in his words, "actual people that we would hang out with."
With the support of those fans, Nerdist Industries now boasts a stable of 22 podcasts, more than a dozen Web series, a show on BBC America and NerdMelt — a small theater in the back of a Los Angeles comic book store. That said, it also doesn't hurt that Chris Hardwick is, y'know, funny.
Compared to his past late-night talk appearances and stints on bygone stand-up shows like Premium Blend, Hardwick's newly released debut comedy special Mandroid reveals a more confident and sharply geeky performer. He doesn't feel the need to explain himself and let the audience know it's OK to laugh. Instead he dives right in, comparing the now perilous wasteland of MySpace to RoboCop's Detroit and railing against hipster nerds with little worry the crowd won't get the references.
Now that he's developed an audience stacked with like-minded nerds, Hardwick has found a comfortable niche as the nerd king of Podcastlevania. And as a result, his comedy and storytelling have only improved.
Just don't expect another 20 minutes about slide whistles.