A few weeks ago on Facebook, my old friend Jonathan Callan (a fantastic writer in Los Angeles) responded to a comment of mine with the words, “Andrew: I love you but you’re lame. Get a role model with an actual skill.”
The “role model” whose praises I had been singing in my own comment is Chris Hardwick, the comedian who made the unexpected transition from being a punchline himself, as the host of the successful but reviled MTV show Singled Out, to the mastermind behind the acclaimed Nerdist Podcast and the accompanying Nerdist Industries website.
Naturally, as a fan of Hardwick’s I took offense to this remark, but the writer in me wanted to produce a more thoughtful reply beyond “he does so have actual skills!” Thus, I got to thinking, and the answer came during a listen to one of my favorite episodes of the Nerdist Podcast (#204, “Gersberms”). It suddenly struck me how much Hardwick resembled one of his own heroes, and this resemblance made me further realize what precisely Hardwick’s greatest talent is.
I would argue that Chris Hardwick is the 21st Century equivalent of Johnny Carson.
Yes, THE Johnny Carson our parents and grandparents watched as religiously as Cronkite, the man whose legacy led to the legendary feuds between Leno, Letterman, and Conan. It’s too soon to say if Hardwick himself will leave a similar legacy, but the signs are gathering like X-Wings around the Death Star.
The initial basis for my comparison lay in a description of Carson by another late and great TV icon, executive Brandon Tartikoff. In his fine autobiography The Last Great Ride, Tartikoff compared Carson to a decathlete, a man who was good at a lot of things while never being great, and certainly not the best. As a monologuist, a sketch performer, a stand-up comic, even in some ways as a host, Carson got the job done and did it well, but he was never brilliant at it, never revelatory or envelope-pushing.
Having now listened to countless hours of the Nerdist and watched several TV and Internet programs featuring him, I can similarly say that Hardwick, like Carson, is a good comedian but not a great one. Even on his own podcast, he is rarely as funny or leaves as much of an impression as his two podcast co-hosts, Matt Mira and Jonah Ray, and in his appearances on camera he comes across as a bit self-conscious and nervous, as if he is aware of the Singled Out history and trying to erase it by playing down. He frequently comes across as having the least personality of anyone in the room. Hardwick himself admits this; he continually speaks of his quest for self-improvement and treats his successes with an attitude of surprise.
But there is one thing Carson and Hardwick both do very well, something which is harder than it seems and requires a lot of actual talent. The word I came up with for their specialty is “assemblers.” Carson had and Hardwick has the knack for assembling remarkable people and bringing them to national attention in unique ways.
Johnny Carson did not have the same level of personality as his contemporaries Jack Paar and Dick Cavett, or successors like David Letterman and Craig Ferguson, but this worked to his advantage. With Ed McMahon working the room in an outsized manner, Carson focused on letting his guests speak and take over the show (most famously in Tiny Tim’s wedding) and letting both veteran and new comedians get the laughs. Moreover, Carson recognized talent and actively sought out younger comics who possessed it, letting them perform for a guaranteed national audience, giving them exposure. I’ve lost count of the number of stories I read in magazines and autobiographies of famous comedians who debuted on The Tonight Show, were invited to sit down and chat with Carson, and cherish the memory as a breakthrough moment. It takes a certain humility and purpose to run a successful program and not make yourself the center of the story. Carson, despite his witty monologues and running jokes such as Karnak the Magnificent, always came across to me as never trying to be the star. He brought the elements together, stepped back, and rose with them.
Chris Hardwick does much the same thing. As Carson celebrated comedy and celebrity culture, Hardwick is a proponent of not only comedy but also fantasy, sci-fi, and pop-rock music which straddles the line between mainstream and experimental, and his shows are all devoted to excellence in these arts. With this mission in mind, the Nerdist Podcast becomes a compelling experience with each episode because Hardwick is one of the finest listeners in the entertainment industry. His interviews are deep, revealing, sometimes moving, and always funny, because he genuinely delights in giving exceptional people the chance to speak their minds more so than usual and let them reach their fan base–and Hardwick has targeted his fan base well–in a very personal manner. Moreover, Hardwick, like Carson, is not the center of his own brand. As Carson brought new comedians to national attention, so Hardwick creates opportunities for comics, entertainers, and remarkable figures such as Neil Degrasse Tyson to run their own shows and find new ways to communicate with the public and reach an audience. At the very least, this is revealed in the affection Hardwick has for Mira and Ray in the “Hostful” episodes, delightful hours in which the three men just riff on whatever they think about with Hardwick frequently playing straight man, as Carson was the droll and low-key humorist on his shows.
But there is one major difference between them, which makes me admire Chris Hardwick all the more. Johnny Carson had the advantage of hosting The Tonight Show in the era of three networks, cable just on the rise, and no Internet. He had a guaranteed national audience. Hardwick is working in an era when entertainment has splintered, when the web has allowed us to seek out only what interests us and ignore the rest. As Hardwick himself has said, the idea of the recognizable household name reaching every shred of the country is passing.
Yet Hardwick is working tirelessly to counter this. Under the banner of Nerdist Industries, his team runs nineteen podcasts and an ever-expanding lineup of short programming on the Nerdist Channel. These shows run an all-encompassing gamut. Having drawn people in with the nerd culture approach of the original podcast, Nerdist Industries now covers on separate programs topics such as news, science, video games, sex education, comedy in and of itself, and sundry other subjects. Anyone who visits the Nerdist websites is thus presented with a wide variety of material to explore, and Hardwick continues to expand their palate every month with new shows and new events, such as the Course of the Force, a charity relay race from Santa Monica to San Diego run entirely with light sabers. It becomes incredibly hard to keep track of everything Nerdist Industries is doing…
…And that is precisely the point. Chris Hardwick has mastered the art of reaching people in this cultural landscape the same way Johnny Carson did decades before: bring together talented individuals, give them a national platform, and be the just-charismatic-enough ringmaster. That Hardwick expounds so much effort for a far more difficult-to-obtain audience is both a sign of the times and a tribute to how much he cares about trying to offer the best of the entertainment world to the masses. It’s paying off so far; the podcast and channel are huge hits, and Hardwick is tapping more mainstream media with his book, his upcoming TV specials, and sell-out live Nerdist Podcasts held across the country.
Even with all this success, Chris Hardwick may never be mentioned in the same breath as Johnny Carson, but he deserves to be. The quiet expertise they share may be hard to define, but once recognized, should be all the more revered. They were/are men of talent who used their abilities to let the world in the talents of others.
(I also need one emotional fanboy moment: Hardwick always comes across as humble, unassuming, so delighted to spend time in the company of people he admires, and even more delighted to be in the company of Nerdist fans. Having gotten to meet him once, I would bet my life this is no act. He is a genuinely nice guy, something increasingly rare in entertainment.)
BREAKING: Two days ago, my points above took an a whole new dimension when Legendary Entertainment, the Warner Bros.-connected studio behind the Batman movies, The Hangover, and Inception, bought Nerdist Industries. Hardwick will remain as the organization’s leader, and the new agenda includes plans to increase the Nerdist presence in television and film. To my way of thinking, a corporation would only make an all-encompassing deal like this if they believed in the potential fanbase and, more importantly, the talent, and it is a testament to Hardwick that he has marshaled so many of these resources so well.