The Nerdist host reflects on the show's growth over five years and more than 600 episodes
Five years in, Chris Hardwick’s Nerdist podcast is only continuing to grow.
What started as three friends gathering around some microphones on Super Bowl Sunday in 2010 has turned into over 600 episodes of the flagship Nerdist podcasts, a website, and a host of other podcasts on the Nerdist Network.
The show celebrates its fifth anniversary with episode 631, a special live show recorded at the NerdMelt Showroom. Hardwick spoke to EW about the live show, what Nerdist has meant for him over the last five years, and where he hopes to take it in the years to come.
EW: So the fifth anniversary episode is out, but how did the show go from your perspective?
Chris Hardwick: It was amazing. We didn’t really plan what it was going to be, but it became this celebratory retrospective. I hope it doesn’t come off too much like we’re patting each other on the back, but we started a thing five years ago, and it’s grown and it’s changed our lives and we’ve learned more than I ever could have dreamed that we could have learned from it. We had our producer Katie [Levine] and Kyle [Clark], who’s our production assistant, and my mom came out. We took quemments [a question and a comment] from the audience. It was kind of a last minute idea, like “Oh for the fifth anniversary let’s just do something at Meltdown.” So doing the podcast in the theater, and the theater exists because there’s a podcast. Seeing this community that’s sprouted up around it was pretty incredible.
When you’re doing a podcast, it doesn’t feel like you’re doing anything official. It just feels like, oh I’m having a conversation with someone I really want to talk to. So you don’t really think of it in terms of, people are going to hear this and maybe news will break from it, or we’ll have the X-Files 2015 hashtag. But it affects something outside of it, and that’s where I go, oh, I guess it really is a form of media like radio or television. But we just don’t think of it like that on a day-to-day basis.
And since it’s started there’s been such a huge growth, not just in popularity but in the dedication of the listeners. How has it been to see that community expand?
Yeah, it has, and the other crazy thing about it is, in the beginning, we had to beg people to come on, and [say] “OK, it’s a podcast, it’s like an internet radio chat.” We were trying to explain what a podcast was to people. “It’s a conversation. You just come in and have a conversation.” And [the reaction] was “What is this? Who listens to this?” [laughs]
“I’ve never heard of one of those before!”
Yeah, exactly. But for every guest we got, it opened the door to another series of guests. So we’re fortunate that enough people took chances with it along the way that now we’re close to 700 episodes in, but the thing that I never really foresaw was, I always assumed that people would just listen to the podcast for the guests. And we started the hostful podcasts, which one of our listeners pointed out was a nicer term than saying guestless [laughs]. It was really just a way to condition the audience many years, like, “Someday I’m going to run out of friends who can be guests and it’s just going to be Matt, Jonah, and myself, and I’m training you to be OK with that.” And I assumed that people would mostly pass over those and listen to the guest episodes. But what strangely happened was that the hostfuls developed their own personality because it was just the three of us catching up with each other, and those get just as many, if not more downloads than a lot of the guested episodes.
Oh wow, really?
Yeah, and so that was something I didn’t really foresee happening. And it’s always the one thing people are like, “Do more hostfuls, do more hostfuls.” And we try, but our schedules have been just a little bit crazy, for good reasons.
When listening to the hostfuls, you, Matt [Mira], and Jonah [Ray] often aren’t afraid to open up about your personal lives. How has it been to see the audience have this window into you not just as a host but as someone they can relate to?
As a person, you just go, “well no one wants to hear about me. I’m boring. No one gives a crap about that.” What happens with stand up is you tend to start writing about things that are out in the external world, and the more and more you start to talk about yourself, you think “I’m not doing anything, I’m just talking about myself.” But people connect with that more, and you realize that’s what makes you different because you’re you. That just surprised me, and it makes so much sense now, but it didn’t before, that we’re all just looking for human experiences to connect to with each other. I think a lot of our podcasts, and podcasts in general, feel, as a listener, like you’re sitting in the room. You have to make some effort to get it into your head, which I think is good because it means you’re a little more invested in it. Media that just happens as you’re near it, you’re less invested in and it’s a little more disposable to you, but people tend to really consume [podcasts] as a very intimate form of media because it guides you through your day. It gets people through breakups, it gets them through happy times, or exams or work, or public transportation, or exercise. So we accompany people through very personal times in their lives.
It makes the audience feel like a part of something.
I’m proud of the audience. When people come out to live shows, I’m like, these are people I’d hang out with. They’re not just audience members, they’re part of, it sounds hokey, but they’re friends, a community. And then you realize, well if they are not turned off by how we communicate on the podcast, they are probably someone who could sit in with us. I’m very proud of the community around it, and especially when we do live shows, the venues always say “I can’t believe how nice your audience is.” And I’m like, “Yeah, they’re nerds. They’re nice. They don’t want trouble. They just want to come enjoy a thing, they’re peaceful.” [laughter]
And then on top of that, we all text each other after podcasts with people that we can’t beleive we just met and talked to. There was a run at the end of last year that was like, Benedict CUmberbatch, Martin Short, Henry Winkler, Paul MCCartney. We just did Bill Gates. It’s silly that we keep tricking these people into sitting down and talking with us. I mean, we sat in Martin Short’s kitchen and he gave us coffee and we just talked.
I think that helps the audience relate, because you’re fans of the people you talk to just as they are. Are there moments, like that run at the end of 2014, since the beginning, where you were shocked by who was willing to come on the show?
Well, that always happens where we say, “I can’t believe this person agreed to do the podcast and turned out to be really cool.” Then all of a sudden, Tom Cruise is on, and we can’t believe we got Tom Cruise, and I can’t believe we got Morgan Freeman. But, now, media companies and people are starting to see the value in podcasting, and so they come to us now and pitch us people. Like, Jeff Bridges is coming on next week for a third time. We got a call, “Jeff wants to come back on the podcast.” Like, “OK. Yes!” So I think because the podcast audiences are very engaged, the bigger media outlets are starting to realize that 400,000 podcast listeners are probably more engaged than a million, two million people just watching television at night. Personally, I saw more of an uptick in attendance to my live shows, which has always been a huge goal of mine, from the podcast than all the previous TV things I had done up to that point combined.
As a comedy fan, it’s great to see the Nerdist podcast develop from one show into this network that gives a platform to a whole group of really talented comedians.
It’s been great because when I started mine, and I immediately saw people were paying attention, and I had ownership over it, not just in the business sense but I mean spiritual and creative ownership over it, that you don’t get that a lot in the entertainment business. And then when I saw how much fun that was and how it was actually benefitting not just my stand-up writing but live performances, then I immediately ran around and was like, “Kumail [Nanjiani], you’ve got to do a podcast. Pete Holmes, you’ve got to do a podcast. There’s this really great thing and you should be doing it because it’ll change your life.” So it’s been really great to see, the first time Kumail went on the road and saw a bunch of people with Indoor Kids shirts, he was like, “I can’t believe it, you were right. People are paying attention.”
Podcasts were a survival mechanism for comedians who didn’t have the same television stand-up show outlet to express themselves anymore, and a stand-up is entirely defined by his or her voice, so if you’re not able to get that out into the world, how should people know whether they should come see you or not? So podcasts, we were the tiny mammals that crawled out of the earth after the asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs of big media and started to thrive because we needed a form of expression. [laughs]
And so as it continues to grow, to episode 1,000 and beyond over the next five years, what do you hope to do with the show?
Well the medium is fun because you can really do anything you want with it. We started doing live shows in the first couple of months that we started it, and then, “Hey why don’t we go in studio?, Ben Folds is going to come on, so why don’t we go in studio and have him play?” We just had Cold War Kids on the show, Broken Bells played a song, Wilco, Spoon, all these really great bands.
Something happened when we did the Bill Gates episode where, after we talked to Bill, they said, “Oh well there are other people in the foundation if you want to come down and chat with them.” And at first I was like, well, we got the guy, I think we’re OK. But then I thought, “Well we’ve got the recording equipment, why not? I’m actually interested in talking to the guy who is trying to eradicate polio from the planet or the woman who manages the charity fund that doles out a billion and a half dollars in investments in humanity.” The returns they’re trying to get back for those investments isn’t monetary, it’s “How can we go into a culture and give them an infrastructure so they can then sustain themselves?” So I talked to both of them for 40 minutes each and they were, of course, fascinating. So it made me think, why couldn’t we do a TED Talk thing every once in a while and have an educator on or a scientist or some type of thought leader? I would love to see it expand more on the cultural front rather than just the pop cultural front because what I’ve learned is that everyone has a story, everyone has experiences, everyone has a path that they took, and they’re all interesting. So yes, I would love to get Bill Murray on, I would love to get Steve Martin on. There are still people I would love to get on, but why not also talk to the Elon Musks of the world? And of course, do more hostfuls [laughs].
And in expanding what Nerdist can be about, it’s also expanded just beyond the podcast. Not just to the website and other shows, but even things like @Midnight, which, even if not directly, feels very much of apiece with the podcast.
Yes, it all kind of connects. This little podcast that we did just for us that started five years ago on Super Bowl Sunday in 2010 has now given us the greatest experiences that we could have ever [imagined]. I did a podcast with my dad a couple of years ago, and that was the most significant conversation we’d ever had in our relationship, and that changed the way we saw each other. And everyone who listened, a lot of people [said] it spoke to them about family, and how to talk to your elders as human beings and not just the person that tells you whether you can do stuff. And then when my dad died a little over a year ago, I’m so fortunate that I have that with him now. So going from just watching the first couple thousand people download the podcast to, I think it’s somewhere between six and seven million downloads a month now, so it’s really been life changing. And I can’t believe it’s been five years, half a decade. So we’ll just continue to do it, and like I said to the guys before, we’ll just keep doing it as long as it’s fun.