On July 15, 2007, comedian Chris Hardwick finally came out to his manager.
“I’m a nerd,” he confessed. “Don’t send me out for anything that isn’t science related.”
“I really thought he was crazy,” laughs Alex Murray, his manager at Brillstein Entertainment Partners, who nevertheless indulged his client’s whimsy.
Today, Hardwick, 40, is the founder and chief creative officer of Nerdist Industries, a Los Angeles multimedia venture he runs with CEO Peter Levin, that comprises a nerd culture news site, podcasts, newsletter, live events, and Nerdist Channel on YouTube. His rebranding has resulted in packed 800-plus-seat theaters at his stand-up comedy shows, brisk sales of his nerd self-help book, The Nerdist Way, and–most deliciously–landed him the hosting gig of AMC’s The Talking Dead, a talk show focusing on The Walking Dead.
“He’s the Ryan Seacrest of nerds,” says Murray of Hardwick’s multi-hyphenate status. “He took the power back and gets to make things he wants to make.”
Hardwick’s metamorphosis was born of frustration. By 2007, he’d spent 13 years clawing his way to the middle–playing the road as a comic, hosting dating shows like MTV’s Singled Out and the syndicated Shipmates, DJing on Los Angeles radio, and acting in TV pilots that didn’t get picked up. But his outer hipster clashed with his inner gaming, chess-playing computer enthusiast. That’s when the insomnia set in.
“When you first start working, you take whatever job is offered, because you have to build your resume. But you don’t think about what you’re building,” says Hardwick. But without a hook, it became increasingly hard to cut through the noise. “I was just the snarky white guy who used to be on MTV. It had been a couple of years since I’d worked. I had house payments. I was waking up nightly at 3 a.m. feeling like someone was stabbing me. Then I had this epiphany: ‘Why not pursue the things I cared about, like science and technology?'”
Luckily, his epiphany coincided with a cultural and technological shift that worked in his favor–namely, a sudden need for niche programming to fill the Internet and cable channel explosion, and a rise in nerd power.
“In the ’90s, you couldn’t say the word ‘nerd’ to someone when pitching a show. They would have considered that too niche and wouldn’t have listened,” says Hardwick. With the explosion of broadband and hundreds of channels, the media industry flipped from “a top-down to a bottom-up culture of niche consumers,” he added. “I had an unusual combination of qualifications–stand-up, hosting, and I loved science and technology. I called my manager and said, ‘I care about science and technology, and only want to work in that area. I need to be hosting stuff on the Discovery Channel and National Geographic.’ He was supportive, like a parent when his teenager says something crazy. It was as though I was saying, ‘I’m not being offered jobs, but if I were, I’m only taking ones involving science.’ How do you cut down a pie that already equals zero?”
Two weeks later, the universe answered. He landed a hosting job on PBS’ Wired Science, which lead to a freelance writing gig with Wired and a stint as a gadget expert on G4’s Attack of the Show. “Once I had a clear idea of what I wanted to do, it made [business] decisions so much easier,“ says Hardwick. ”When a job came along, I would only take it if it was in the wheelhouse of the audience I was trying to reach. I had gone from taking any old job to taking jobs that connected to each other. It became a point-of-view-driven career.”
Hardwick’s internal shift mirrored a similar change in the cultural and business zeitgeist, which he sought to harness. He started his site, Nerdist.com, as a modest outlet for his interests and to promote his appearances.
“I had a personal blog, but why does anyone care that I went shopping for hats?” he says. “I wanted a site that was bigger than me, that spoke more to nerd culture, but was driven by the things I cared about. Before, we were ashamed to be out in the open. But nerds are powerful now. They can be billionaires. Comics are being turned into movies. I saw a young generation of nerds just blossoming and expressing themselves. It was never like that when I was growing up.”
Hardwick was also frustrated by old media’s separatist attitude, which wasn’t open to community building, content sharing, and cross-promotion between platforms. ”The old model didn’t know how to adapt. Each sector [of entertainment] was completely blind to the others. Radio didn’t care I worked in TV,” he says. “Technology forced them to take notice that media is not one horizontal delivery system. The sum of the parts is greater than the whole is a better approach than the way media used to work. But you still see companies fighting that.
“We’re not in an information age anymore. We’re in the information management age,” he adds. “People gravitate toward information delivery sources that they can relate to on a personal level. The site is about something bigger than me, but it’s my point of view, and I can promote my shows.“
Between stand-up comedy and TV gigs, Hardwick ran the site himself for 18 months, eventually adding a podcast, until it got big enough for him to hire a full-time editor. While the site still wasn’t generating enough traffic for ad dollars, Hardwick began noticing a change in the audience demographics of his stand-up shows. ”I used to see nerds in the front row, and the rest were rednecks,” he says. “After a while, the nerds slowly overtook the audience–like a zombie outbreak.“
Although the Nerdist site was flourishing as a promotional and branding platform, Hardwick needed greater expertise to grow it into a moneymaking venture. Enter Peter Levin, cofounder of the GeekChicDaily newsletter and a digital media entrepreneur best known for brokering the 2009 multi-million-dollar sale of Deadline Hollywood Daily to Mail.com media Corp. They joined forces last June, creating Nerdist Industries, a few months before Hardwick landed his Talking Dead hosting gig.
”Chris had grown Nerdist in a short amount of time into a phenomenally compelling platform, but he wasn’t focused on monetizing that platform,” says Levin. “I shared the same passion for the space and brought wildly different skills to the table. But as much as I like and respond to Chris as an artist, he put real metrics together with an audience that can be very fickle. Much of that is Chris’s personality. He’s not pretentious or a promotional bag of air.“
One Talking Dead and podcast guest, Michael Rooker (Merle Dixon on Walking Dead), believes Hardwick’s appeal is his accessibility. “He’s like everyman,” says Rooker. “He comes across as a regular Joe, but he has this nice spark and great energy. He also makes sure his guests have a good time on his shows.”
After merging GeekChicDaily into Nerdist News and helping Hardwick secure a YouTube Nerdist Channel (premiering April 1), Levin set about creating novel strategic partnerships and tapping unused geek culture momentum. He arranged a deal with convention producer ReedPop to produce a pre-New York Comic Con business conference, White Space (which premiered last October), and future event content for NYCC and its Chicago convention, C2E2. And, he came up with Course of the Force, a Lucasfilm-partnered, Make-A-Wish Foundation fundraiser, five-day traveling festival and cosplay relay run from Los Angeles to San Diego Comic Con. It enables Nerdist to ride the SDCC build-up without having to compete with other companies at the convention. Meanwhile, the site now attracts some 500,000 unique visitors a month, 400,000 email subscribers, and 2.3 million podcast downloads a month. There are advertisers on all other Nerdist media offerings and Levin expects to have them on Nerdist.com soon.
Upcoming Nerdist ventures include Hardwick’s summer Comedy Central comedy special, televised versions of the podcast for BBC America, a U.K. comedy tour, a film and TV production company, and publishing imprint.
Needless to say, there are no more early-morning anxiety attacks. “Nerdist has given me control over my career,” says Hardwick. “But first and foremost, we’re building a community of relevant content, and not always linking to something that involves me. It has to be a relationship, which keeps the system healthy. And I’m very sympathetic, because I’m in the demographic of how the nerd brain works.“
(Photo of Chris Hardwick and Wil Wheaton by Albert Ortega)