Nietzsche’s aphorism “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger” seems to sum-up this stand-up comedian, actor, television and podcast host, writer, and producer who has had enough setbacks for two lifetimes.
By Emily Cieslak
Photography: Luz Gallardo
While most of us clinked our 17th drink of the week for our DIY versions of Octoberfest, Chris Hardwick celebrated his 17th year of sobriety this past October. Sobriety? During the pandemic? Is that even possible?
For Hardwick the answer is yes. The comedian, podcaster, TV host and champion of nerd culture has always been ahead of the masses. Though for many of us it took a pandemic to slow down, invest in hobbies and consider what actually makes us happy, Hardwick ignited his self-discovery years ago. He credits Jon Stewart for giving him his wakeup call during a dis on The Daily Show, prompting him to look at his life and realize drowning in booze in a crappy apartment wasn’t his dream. So he stripped away distractions and applied his key strengths as a self-described nerd—obsession and direction—to build the life he truly wanted.
“Focus on the process, don’t focus on the results,” says Hardwick, Zooming from his home in California. “Results-oriented thinking are generally ego decisions and process-oriented thinking, that’s where the growth happens, and that’s where the sweet spot of life is.”
Currently, the 48-year-old is focused on learning to play piano and guitar over virtual lessons. He began incorporating live music into his stand-up comedy sets last year and is using the pause from touring to make his performances less of a crash course concert.
“I’d sort of joke like, how was the show last night? Oh we paid to watch a guy learn how to play guitar on stage,” says Hardwick previous performances.
From all his obsessions—video games, action figures, movies—standup comedy was the thing Hardwick always wanted to do in life. But when he first embarked on his career, he focused primarily on getting any gig he could land.
“When you’re newly sober, there’s a lot to process because you’re kind of feeling a lot of that for the first time, and then that caused me to do a lot of internal [searching], like who am I and what do I want?” says Hardwick. “I never asked myself in the business before what do I want to do? I just thought, well I got to work, and it doesn’t matter on what. I just have to work.”
After cohosting Singled Out on MTV, Hardwick shifted his attention to his nerdy passions. With the online boom of the 2000s, it was easier to connect with others who shared his niche interests. This isn’t to say there weren’t roadblocks in the process, and like many job seekers today, he got a lot of no’s.
“There was this sort of unspoken curse that if you worked for MTV, no one else would hire you…so then between 1998 and 2003 when I actually got sober, I didn’t really work that much,” says Hardwick. “It was sort of just a constant rejection from the business, which by the way turned out to be the biggest gift.”
Eventually, Hardwick landed stints on programs like Attack of the Show and Web Soup, diving into the latest viral videos and pop culture news. Rather than trying to cater to the masses, Hardwick learned if you create content that you are genuinely passionate about, the right people will tune in. As entertainment becomes more and more saturated, offering a unique perspective is ever more critical.
“Joel Hodgson, who was the creator of that show [Mystery Science Theatre 3000] had said, and it always really resonated with me, we never said who was gonna get this or everyone was gonna get this. We always just said the right people will get this, and I thought oh my god that’s brilliant,” says Hardwick.
So back in 2010, before everyone was recording their own podcast, Hardwick launched Nerdist to get down to “what it really means to be a nerd.” While it may sound complex or pretentious, the podcasts are fundamentally conversations with inspiring people.
“I feel like I talk to a lot of people who are smarter than I am, and for me the podcast is just like a curiosity masterclass,” says Hardwick. “I listen back to all the podcasts and I take notes…so for me the process is just like a journey of discovery conversations.”
The comedian brings the same approach to the stage, where he is more excited to riff with the audience than strictly follow a specific set.
“Everything I work on, I feel like my goal is to sort of ask what does the show need? What does it need me to be?” says Hardwick. “I find that as much as I can make people feel comfortable and make people feel good, and make people feel supported, that’s when they sort of open up.”
At a time when human connection often feels scarce, Hardwick continues to fuel it virtually. The coming months have plenty of conversations in store with his show Talking Dead returning in November to discuss The Walking Dead as well as more episodes of The Wall and a new episode of his podcast out each week. But perhaps what Hardwick is most excited for is spending quality time with his wife Lydia Hearst and the puppy they got conveniently before quarantine. Bringing a puppy home right before quarantine? As I said before, he’s just a step ahead of us.