I was a Chris Hardwick fan before I knew I was a Chris Hardwick fan. I watched MTV’s Singled Out when he was the host, and he was the best part, but I’ve become an even bigger fan since he started moderating panels in Hall H at Comic-Con. However, that’s only a small part of the many things he does. In addition to his wildly popular Nerdist podcast (which he founded), Hardwick does stand-up, TV series, and much more.
I got to speak with Hardwick on the phone yesterday, and we talked about his involvement in YouTube’s Geek Week, dealing with extortionist patent trolls and how that relates to podcasting, the experience of moderating panels in Hall H, looking back at Breaking Bad and his upcoming talk show on AMC, Talking Bad, how it will compare to Talking Dead, the SXSW film he’s helping to distribute, Zero Charisma, how much he loved BioShock Infinite, and much more. Hit the jump to check out the interview.
How did you get involved in YouTube Geek Week, and what attracted you to it?
CHRIS HARDWICK: We are part of the YouTube channel initiative. Our channel has been on YouTube for the past year and a half. They decided to do a theme week to bring a bunch of like-minded creators to create programming around center themes. The sum of YouTube is really about sharing. The videos survive because they are shared with friends and users. The audiences are shared between their creators on YouTube, so whenever we collaborate with Harley Morenstein or Felicia Day, we’re sharing some of her audience, we’re sharing some of Harley’s audience, and some people may be exposed to something they’d never been exposed to before. It’s about sharing and then watching creative people express these things on their own channel. It’s a really cool way for YouTube to plan a flag in the ground, and say, “Hey, look at the stuff that’s going on right now. Look at all these creators working together, joining forces with their creativity.”
I like the organization of it. How was it curated to break it down to an easier way to browse what these creators are offering?
HARWICK: YouTube evolves daily to have a better user experience, so that it’s easier to navigated. YouTube is as big as the Internet in some senses. For example, you use Google, and you could learn anything you wanted. You could find out any piece of information that anyone has ever learned. But you would go there and go, “Oh, shit! I don’t know what I want!” It’s so massive that it’s daunting. So there’s really something good about helping people find a way to organize all of that material, and this is another way to do that. To get a bunch of people together who are in the same creative spheres and program within those spheres so that people can go, “Hey! There’s this whole other channel, and I wouldn’t have known about it if I hadn’t seen this.” It’s way more organized if you go to the Geek Week page, which I think is just youtube.com/geekweek. You can see in the sidebar all these channels: here’s Stan Lee, here’s Geek and Sundry, here’s Graphic India. It’s all very well laid out for people, and I think as a consumer, that’s what I need. There’s a weird emotional risk if you go somewhere and have no idea what you’re getting into. People don’t even want to risk five seconds of their time stumbling into a neighborhood of material that’s no of interest to them. So this is sort of like creating a safe zone for people by bringing together like-minded creators and theme-ing it in a way that’s very easy to understand.
There’s something else I wanted to talk to you about. At Comic-Con, you spoke with my editor, Steve Weintraub, and you guys talked a little bit about podcasting trolls. Can you talk a little bit about what you and other podcasters are going through with these kinds of trolls?
HARDWICK: It’s not just podcasting. It’s patent trolls in general, and Obama spoke out and said we need to tighten down on patent trolls because essential a patent troll will find a court in Texas somewhere—a lot of them come out of Texas; that’s not a slam against Texas, it’s just a data point—and will backdate a patent for something that’s very broad, and will then go to some very large company and say, “Hey, I have this patent and it relates to this thing that you’re doing, and I could take you to court, or you could just pay me off.” And a lot of big companies just pay them off because it’s easier than just dealing with a lot of legal shit. It’s a shitty business, which has obviously been profitable for people, so they’re not just targeting companies any more. Now they’re targeting podcasts, like individual podcasters and saying “Hey, we were granted this patent that says we control—I’m probably messing up the language a little bit—but serialized distribution of digital content, or something along those lines. I’m admitting I’m not painting it exactly the way it is, but I’m giving you the gist of what it is. And in some senses, it’s kind of extortion. It’s, “Oh, you have to pay this license fee,” even though the companies don’t produce anything themselves. So the Electronic Frontier Foundation, you can go on their website, read all about, donate to the common cause, and help build a case to help stop this patent trollery because it really is bad enough if you’re going after a company, but it’s shitty and so fucked up to target a guy with a podcast. Like some guy who does a podcast in his living room with his friends is now getting legal threats from a company claiming to own podcasting because of a way they interpret this loose patent they were granted by a judge who doesn’t really understand the way digital content works. It’s a very serious problem, and it hurts free enterprise, and creativity, and the best way to describe it is that it’s shitty.
I wholeheartedly agree. Talking about something happier, I wanted to personally thank you as someone who goes to Comic-Con and covers Hall H for you making the experience much more entertaining.
HARDWICK: Oh, I appreciate that!
What is the process of hosting the panels? Do studios come to you? How much do they tell you about what they’re going to show, and what’s that like for you?
HARDWICK: Just because of who I am and what I like, I can’t even begin to express what it means to me to be able to do that. And it’s a risky proposition because you’re in front of almost 7,000 people who have waited all night just to see a thing that in a lot of cases where it’s their family vacation, they’ve saved up, it means everything to them, and they want the best experience possible, and if you fuck that up, you’re letting them down. You’re letting down the fans of the thing, and you don’t want to be that person and stand in the way of their experience. It’s a risky proposition. You want to make sure you do a decent job.
But I’ve been doing it long enough that I’m comfortable doing it. Not completely comfortable, but comfortable enough to be doing it. So each year I get asked to moderate more and more panels. Last year it was a lot, and this year it was like ten, but everything I was asked to do, I could not say no to. Of course I want to do The Walking Dead. Of course I want to do Breaking Bad. Yes, I want do Community and I want do Marvel and Warner Bros. and Legendary and The World’s End. Comic-Con doesn’t play any favorites, nor should they. It’s very difficult to get into Hall H. I wouldn’t get in if I didn’t moderate any of the panels! So 1.) It’s a way of making sure I get into the panels, and 2.) Yes, I find out everything they’re going to show ahead of time, but not too far ahead of time. I didn’t find out about the Tom Hiddleston/Loki thing until the night before. I went to a rehearsal in Hall H with Kevin Feige and the Marvel people, and then they ran through it, I saw the clips they were going to show. And, understandably so, it’s all very guarded because they can’t risk anything be spoiled at Comic-Con because that ruins it. It’s like being a spy in a way. I’m getting all this information and I can’t tell anyone.
The energy of Hall H…if you watch the Tom Hiddleston video when he comes out as Loki, and I told him before, “You don’t understand the kind of pants-shitting that’s going to happen when you come out in that costume,” and he was like, “Oh, I’m sure it will be great,” but there’s a certain angle and it’s off to stage left where he walks out and everyone loses their minds—because the stage rattles when people are screaming that much—this smile creeps across his face, and it’s not in character. There’s a moment where he can’t contain how amazing it is, and it’s adorable. And that’s what it feels like. When you’re watching people get what they wanted to see, which is to be surprised and see the things they love and recognize, and feel like they’re all included and part of something special and seeing something before anyone else in the world. That’s the spirit of Hall H, and that’s the reason to do it. And watch them interact and ask questions because I know what it’s like to be on the other side and wanting to hear stuff, so I’m sort of like a lucky fan who won a lottery.
Well you certainly bring out the best in that room, so again, thank you so much.
HARDWICK: I appreciate that. I means a lot to me, it really does.
Another thing I wanted to talk to you about was Nerdist is expanding into films and the first one is Zero Charisma, which I saw at SXSW, and really dug it. Could you talk a little bit about Nerdist expanding into films and what the future holds on that front?
HARDWICKE: I don’t want to abandon all the digital stuff we’re doing in favor of film. I just feel like it’s a natural outgrowth just like the podcast was a natural outgrowth of the website, and the TV show was an outgrowth of the podcast and the website, and the YouTube channel was an outgrowth of the website. I just want it to be an organic outgrowth of what we’re doing. We didn’t have the time or the resoueces to go out and find a script, and shoot a movie, and edit a movie. But when Jonah Ray, who’s done the podcast, saw Zero Charisma at SXSW, he was like, “I just saw the most amazing movie. One of the best moves I’ve seen of the year. I’m going to try and talk to the people who made it, I’m going to get you a link.” And he did, and I watched it and was floored because this is a kind of movie that even when we put the trailer up, people in the comments section were like, “Oh, I get it. It’s a nerd movie about D&D,” and I’m like, “Aarrrgh!” That’s maybe the setting, but it’s really about this guy and the fact that he tries, but keeps getting in his own way. It’s the story of that guy, and the B-story of hipsters and traditional nerds clashing. But I think the movie is anything but stereotypical, and I find it incredibly sincere and warm, and not what I think Hollywood typically does with the “nerd scene properties” with “They’re nerds! And they’re weirdos! And let’s laugh at them!” rather than celebrate the culture. It’s much more a personal story about this guy Scott than it is about “Look at nerds playing with 20-sided dice!” And I hope you agree with that assessment, but I think it’s an authentic, sincere, lovely movie that just happens to have a D&D group be part of that. They do such an amazing job, Katie Graham and Andrew Matthews who directed, and Sam Eidson who’s Scott, and everyone was great.
I absolutely agree, and one of the things I like about it is that it’s uncomfortable, and I like that it’s not about “Whoo! Geeks are weird and funny!” It’s a character piece. It’s Taxi Driver and D&D. It’s Travis Bickle throwing a 20-sided die. It’s entertaining it’s own weird way.
HARDWICK: Yeah, and it really is about a guy who, through partially through circumstance and partially through his own devices, just can’t seem to catch a break. And part of me feels bad for him and like, “Oh, that’s not his fault,” and the other part is like, “Oh! That was really your fault!” That’s why I think it’s just a “nerd” movie. It’s a very human movie. It’s funny and charming and sad in places and serious. So I sent it around to my business partner and people in the company and said, “I don’t know what we can do, but I really want to be involved with this movie.” So we’d been working with the Tribeca Film Festival, and they have a distribution wing, and at this point we didn’t really have any kind of distribution wing, but we really liked the Tribeca people so we said, “Let’s partner up and do this thing together,” and they were well aware of the movie and loved it, so it just came together that way. I really hope people love it and look beyond what they think is someone trying to exploit nerd culture or stereotype nerds for profits or whatever. It’s none of those things whatsoever.
So you have this film and you’re going into distribution, but then there’s the rest of the Nerdist empire, but you’re also doing stand-up, Talking Dead, Talking Bad, hosting a new show on Comedy Central in the fall, and it makes my head spin. How do you manage all these responsibilities? What does your day look like?
HARDWICK: I just got back from what was a half-vacation. So I wasn’t off the grid; I just wasn’t in town. I did Comic-Con and then I immediately flew from San Diego to Montreal to perform at the Just for Laughs Festival. And then I took like a week or so off, and my girlfriend and I drove through Canada, and then I went to New York and taped an episode our All-Star Celebrity Bowling show with Jimmy Fallon. So I’ve been out of town for almost a month, but most of it was work, so today I’m back in my regular routine, which is usually a meeting in the morning, conference call, conference call, podcast, maybe another conference call or maybe another meeting or maybe another podcast, a lot of times there’s stand-up in there. Stand-up for me is usually a weekend thing for me. I usually go out of town and do it.
But the way I’m able to manage it is 1.) I’m pretty good with managing time. I do have an assistant who is also amazing at managing time. Even before I had an assistant, my calendar was color-coded and I had all these different e-mail rules for how to prioritize e-mails, so I made it a point years ago to figure all that stuff out because my life was a mess. So for me, everything feels very modular. “Oh, this is the time I do the podcast, this is the time I…” Talking Dead and Talking Bad don’t require any more work than I go watch the show and then I talk about it. So it’s not like I’m in an office all week figuring out what I’m going to talk about. I watch the show at like two in the afternoon, and then a few hours later I sit on a couch and talk about it. It’s an incredibly easy job. The Comedy Central show is going to be a lot of work because it’s Monday to Thursday kind of show, but it all fits in somehow. It just all fits in. I don’t definitely know what the secret it. I think it’s just practice.
Touching on Talking Bad, I am so excited for Breaking Bad to return. I watched all of the episodes. Can you talk a little bit about how Talking Bad will differ from Talking Dead and your approach to what is a very different series.
HARDWICK: That’s funny because we were literally just talking to Vince Gilligan on the podcast, and that’s why we were running late because it was such a great conversation and I didn’t want to cut him off. I think there was some concern from the Breaking Bad fans that I would bring what I have now dubbed as “SpongeBob Energy” to Breaking Bad, which is not the case. Walking Dead is a different kind of fanaticism. There’s floating zombie heads, there’s that sort of horror element to it, you can kind of be like “Fuck, yes!” about that show. But Breaking Bad is totally different. And while I think there are certainly instances of humor, like Vince Gilligan said on the podcast, “I hope that people see that as dark as Breaking Bad is, there’s humor in it.” If you look at all the comedians he does to do the show like Bob Odenkirk and Bill Burr and Lavell Crawford and Cranston was a comedic actor, or was at least thought of as a comedic actor before the show. I think the show will totally be different. I’ve assured people that I will not be coming on during commercial breaks with wacky hashtags. It was one of the things we didn’t know would be frustrating to people until we saw it because a show like Walking Dead or especially a show like Breaking Bad, you’re basically this empathic, emotional sponge when you watch the show. And so you’re absorbing all this emotional energy and coming into a commercial break and somebody’s like, “Hey everybody!”, you’re not being allowed to process your thoughts and emotions and feel that intensity. So it’s off-putting, so we won’t be doing that.
The show will be on an hour after Breaking Bad. So it will be Breaking Bad, the new series Low Winter Sun, and then we’ll be on for a half-hour. So the show will be a half-hour shorter than Talking Dead and it will be on an hour after, which is what Talking Dead was initially. And I think it’s going to be a little more retrospective. Rather than just breaking down each episode because obviously we have this luxury of being on this fourth-and-a-half season. But Vince Gilligan will be the first guest this weekend along with Julie Bowen who is apparently fanatical about Breaking Bad. And in the following episodes we have cast members, we have some pretty insane celebrity guests who I can’t say who they are yet, but some really cool names.
Inasmuch as Talking Dead provides a little bit of therapy for each episode, we have the responsibility of it’s very hard to say goodbye to a show that you were attached to. It hits you in a certain way and all of a sudden it’s just not there anymore. So we’ll try to help say goodbye to the show in a respectful way, and be as upbeat as we can be without being annoying, and keeping it fun. But I will recommend to people, I just went back in the past month and rewatched everything up to now, and Breaking Bad is one of those shows kind of like Arrested Development where you watch, you’re like, “Oh my God! That thing that paid off later! I see the beginning of it now!” You see so many things the second time because you just didn’t have the gift of awareness the first time. The littlest thing in Breaking Bad pays off several episodes later. So when you know where everything is going, and going back and watching it again, I feel the show in a completely different way when I watch it for a second time.
One of the things I like about it is that it’s not just plot stuff, but there’s also a boldness to the show where with a narcocorrido about killing Heisenberg, so it takes those chances.
HARDWICK: Right, where they’re out in the desert and they’re singing that song. It’s breaking traditional format a little bit to tell the story. Or all the cold opens with the teddy bear in the pool. It’s a very unique way to tell that story and keep your expectations and emotions in one play, and then suddenly yank you back in another direction. Even if I had nothing to do with the show whatsoever, I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say it’s one of the top 5 shows in the history of television.
A lot of shows have the pilot and then the first season and they take the time to get up and get going. You know?
HARDWICK: It usually takes three or five episodes to find the voice of the show and some shows we end up loving were allowed to develop. They got a season or two more than they should have because it allowed them to figure out the heart of the show, and then it was this amazing show. But Breaking Bad, right from the minute one, episode one, you’re just on board with it. And it’s been five seasons, and Vince said today on the podcast that he’s very with how the show wraps up and that he thinks five seasons is a good amount of time to tell the story.
Since you’re watching the episodes earlier, has this experience been different since before you were just watching it at the same time as everybody else? Are you a little bummed that you don’t get to be like “Holy shit!” with everybody else or are you glad that you have a bit more time to process it because you have a new way to experience the show as well.
HARDWICK: My feeling is that it’s just a natural extension of how people watch the show anyway. Like they watch a show like this and call someone and talk about it. Or they talk about it at work the next day. That’s really all it is. I get to watch the show, but then I have a platform to talk about it with people. It just so happens, incidentally, it’s publicly. But at the core of it, not that much different than what I would do. Like when I watched Lost, season 3, season 4, I was calling people afterwards and going down the rabbit holes and doing all that ARG [Alternate Reality Game] stuff and finding clues in the show and going online and finding easter eggs and “Where is this going?” and “Where is that going?” It really is not that much different than that.
Do you think you’re going to need more than half an hour for the series finale?
HARDWICK: I don’t want to speak out of turn, but for the series finale I think we might be on for an hour that night, but I’m not 100% sure. You can quote me on that, but I don’t know if I’m right. I was under the impression we might get an hour for the season finale, but I’m not sure yet.
You have all these geeky interests but you’re managing all these other interests. Is there something new that you’re geeking out about that you’ve discovered?
HARDWICK: Do you mean like device-wise?
Anything like a new comic or a new movie or just saw and really latched onto. Something new that comes into your orbit.
HARDWICK: Well like the last month every extra minute has been devoted to re-watching Breaking Bad to get ready for the series. But a couple months ago I came off playing BioShock Infinite which was one of the greatest games I’ve ever played in my life.
I did like your Booker DeWitt outfit in Hall H.
HARDWICK: I was geeking out about that pretty hard and continue to do so because there’s DLC now, which I haven’t had a chance to play because I just got home. Once I kind of get back into my regular rhythm, then I will be playing the BioShock DLC. But that was one where you play through the game in 12-15 hours and then all of a sudden it’s just over. You’re like, “Ah, shit! I really liked being in that world!” So now I can again, and I’m greatly looking forward to that.
HARDWICK: Yeah there’s the battle mode but the other DLC takes place in Rapture, but it’s still getting to be Booker and have the experience. But man, what a great game.
I understand. That’s one of the rare experiences where I beat it and about a day later I was like, “I’m going to go do that again.”
HARDWICK: Did you do the crazy mode?
I did not do the crazy mode because I would just find it frustrating. What I enjoyed was just living in that world, and I’m not going to spoil the ending for people who read this, but you get to the ending and you’re like, “Wait. What just happened?” So you have to go back and piece it all together. Or at least I did.
HARDWICK: Right. We had Ken Levine from Irrational Games on the podcast, and one of the most important pieces that justified the entire thing, which you can block out for your readers, but the pinky finger was not originally part of the story. They sort of stumbled into it. But you see it and you’re like, “Oh my God. That justifies the entire thing.” That makes the entire story possible of her ability to tear, and that was just a thing where they were like, “Well..um…how about this!”
Piggybacking onto that, when you do the podcast, is it rewarding to do these things and then you get to talk to someone who has—
HARDWICK: Oh, there’s no question! Of course! That’s kind of the soul of what we do and what the podcast is. We’re fans of these things, asking questions a fan would have rather than “I’m a professional interview and I know I have to interview this person because that’s what the schedule is and I’ll ask them some standard questions.” We care about the people and things we’re involved with. When in the demographic of the stuff we’re making.
How do you choose what you’ll be covering? Do people come to you or do you go after things?
HARDWICK: It’s both. I go after people where I’ll send our bookers (speaking of Bookers) these weird lists in the middle of the night where it’s “What if we had this person or what if we had this person on?” And then they try to track them down. Like one time, Rick Moranis was a podcast where someone tweeted me and was like, “Rick Moranis has an album coming out. You should have him on the podcast.” And I was like, “You know, I think we should!” so we tried, and he said yes. And we’re in a position now where we get pitched a lot of people. If there’s a movie coming out, and it’s funny. Sometimes people will complain, and they’ll go, “That’s just basically a commercial for a movie that person was doing!” and it’s like, “Yeah, but that’s how we got them.” Some of the time, that’s how you get them. Not all of the time, but sometimes. But one time we got John Lithgow because he was doing a play and the conversation was amazing! It’s partially trying to figure what people having coming out, and if they’re not familiar with the podcast, that’s how you get them.