While these might seem like handicaps for the man who leads the formidable multimedia company Nerdist Industries, Mr. Hardwick is committed to a radically inclusive vision of nerds. In short, it’s more about passion than about pocket protectors. In his Hollywood office I tested its limits by asking this question: There are math nerds and computer nerds, but can you be a football nerd?
“Yes,” he said quickly. What about a sex nerd? Can a stud be a nerd? A pinched look flashed on his face, and he nodded. Because nerds have often been outcasts, they can’t now be exclusive, he said, adding, “I’d be a hypocrite.”
What Mr. Hardwick, 40, says here matters. He is among the most influential public faces of nerd culture today. So consider the implications. For one thing, if the long cold war between nerds and jocks is over, the movie “Revenge of the Nerds” no longer makes sense. If this sounds strange (not to mention deeply upsetting to a child of the 1980s), it shouldn’t be.
Nerds are everywhere. Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan, a Republican, campaigned for office partly on the slogan “One tough nerd.” President Obama calls himself a “Star Trek” fan, or “a Trekker.” Nerd style has so swept up comedy that it inspired the stand-up Bill Burr to rant, “I’ve had it with nerds.”
Mr. Hardwick is well suited to our times. Since starting with a podcast in 2008 — he hosts it with the comics Jonah Ray and Matt Mira — he has built a comedic empire. He has added a network of 20 other podcasts; a self-help book for nerds, “The Nerdist Way”; two newsletters; a bustling social media presence; a much-buzzed-about Hollywood theater at the back of a comic-book store; a series on BBC America; and a Yahoo channel. And his nerd takeover may be just getting started.
Legendary Entertainment, which has produced many beloved nerd franchises, including “The Dark Knight,” reached a deal in July to acquire Nerdist. It was a milestone for the comedy podcast as an art form. Other comics had spun podcasts into television deals, but this marriage of top-down Hollywood and do-it-yourself comedy was uncharted territory.
The comedy podcast is in a transitional stage. There are now so many of them that it is becoming more difficult to stand out. A few heavyweights (Marc Maron, Tom Scharpling, Adam Carolla, Scott Aukerman) tend to gobble up attention. It’s also perhaps why podcast networks are increasingly common; the site Splitsider started one this month. So the challenge for the podcaster is not introducing a voice but being heard.
Mr. Hardwick is benefiting from getting in early, and he’s one of the field’s most important innovators, though not because his show is particularly fresh. His podcasts, which book an impressive lineup of comics, actors, directors and others, are more conversations than interviews. At their best, they are about obsessions like comic-book movies, video games and gadgets. They are regularly among the most popular on iTunes.
“It’s like that line from ‘High Fidelity,’ ” Mr. Hardwick said, explaining what he’s looking for in a chat. “It’s what you like. It’s not what you are like.”
The sunny banter makes for pleasant company. Mr. Hardwick is a good listener with a quick mind. The chatter comes fast and frenetic, the way it does in a hyperactive action film. But it’s so chaotic that it often doesn’t build momentum. Though conflict can be off-putting, it’s the essence of drama, and it’s frequently missing here.
Instead his podcasts are amiable, often gushing. His interview with Tina Fey was a slobbering exercise in awe. Of course, being in touch with fanboy love is integral to Mr. Hardwick’s persona. In person, he comes off as more quietly contemplative, a bit thin-skinned and very smart. He can articulate both the benefits and the downsides of the dizzying choices in Internet culture.
Where he surpasses some of his peers is in his commitment to growth. He understands that the appeal of podcasting is that anyone can do it. At the same time, he suggests that such freedom divorced from a business model is limiting, if not unsustainable. So he has aggressively pursued advertisers and diversified the Nerdist brand. Sam Thielman of Adweek raved about Mr. Hardwick’s advocacy for digital advertising at a YouTube upfront presentation.
Peter Levin, a business partner who signed on last year, has beefed up sales and development, and he preaches discipline. “In our newsletters, we were monetizing from Day 1; you have to,” Mr. Levin said.
They both see the deal with Legendary as an important step to help the business grow. Future plans could include more television and film production, and perhaps even a Nerdist convention.
It’s understandable to be skeptical of how easily Mr. Hardwick’s theory of nerds matches his business interests. After all, he hosted the boisterous MTV dating show “Singled Out” early in his career. Can you be a nerd if you spent considerable time in the 1990s with Jenny McCarthy?
But one reason he has succeeded is that his enthusiasm appears authentic. Mr. Hardwick loves getting into the weeds about technology or about a show like “Doctor Who.” And his revealing podcast with his father, the former professional bowler Billy Hardwick (my favorite of the dozen or so I’ve heard), suggests his optimism runs in the family. Because of its length and intimacy, podcasting makes it hard to fake a persona.
But the growth of Nerdist presents challenges. Mr. Hardwick acknowledged the potential pitfalls of developing a relationship with a major player like Legendary. Will his fans believe him, for instance, if he champions a “Dark Knight” movie? He offers a counterpoint true to his nature: “I generally really like stuff.”
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