The Death of the Nerd
Chris Hardwick is a nerd institution.
Or so he tells me.
In the last two years, the unholy Wonderbread known as the Nerdist Podcast has exploded in popularity. The format is perfect for Hardwick’s brand of next-gen Dick Clark genericism. Each podcast features hour-long interviews with everyone from cast members of Star Trek to A-Listers like Tom Hanks and Bryan Cranston. With free-flowing banter, the podcast creates the feeling of a warm, intimate, casual conversation between friends.
That’s the good part.
The bad? Everything, and I mean everything, is super awesome awesomeness. Unadulterated ass-kissing superlative puke.
And it works.
Hardwick has nearly two million followers on Twitter. A ridiculously hot girlfriend. And various pilots, scripts, stand-up specials, and other sundry Hollywood baubles handed out in service of a youth market demographic.
Central to Hardwick’s address is a recent phenomenon that can best be described as a shift in understanding of what celebrity represents. This self-reflexive performance can be thought of as the Proxy Fan. The Proxy Fan reformulates celebrity away from an us/them understanding of media culture and towards an us/concentrated-us relationship.
The proxy fan is the “us” who has become a celebrity, yes, but denies all celebrity claim. It’s a fraud construction, of course. But it works.
Hardwick’s Proxy Fan persona operates as a condensed, singular version of the masses of fanboy/fangirl Comicon fantasy. The fictional audience. Those who cheer and celebrate the variety of mass entertainment as it comes off the Hollywood assembly line. The proxy fan claims to be a stand-in for pop-fan culture, nothing more. But the Proxy Fan is a carefully calibrated carnival pitch-master. Selling. Always selling.
Other Proxy Fan celebrities include new-media superstars Kevin Smith and Wil Wheaton. Each are famous, successful Hollywood success stories who resist and reject the codification of their idenity with other, more easily understood classic-era celebrities. Instead, they appear at Comicon as moderators. Commentators. They speak not as a performer/creator but as a fan-boy privileged to also act, direct, and appear in pop culture artifacts.
But the clearest distillation of this formula remains Chris Hardwick.
In Hardwickland, everything is amazing. The word “super” is dispensed with the pathological regularity of a Woody Allen stutter. Everything from comic books to bland comedies to sci-fi pseudo-drama to cartoons are lauded in the same geekgask expression of joy. But by making everything cool, Hardwick makes nothing cool. He is a pitch man carnival huckster. Billy Mays for the Treme set. Hardwick may self-consciously lay claim to the redemption of the 1980s geek/nerd/fanboy. But Nerd, as the formula now goes, is the new mass effect.
This is how Hardwick puts it on the website:
Nerdist is a place where we nerds come together and share the nerdery that we find. It’s also my home to various elements of the Nerdist Empire. You might recognize me from TV. You don’t realize that’s where you know me from, but it is. You think you went to college with me or I look like your cousin’s friend, but that is not the case. At one time or another you stumbled upon me on your moving picture box in such cerebral gems as MTV’s “Singled Out” and Noam Chomsky’s “Shipmates.”
The blending of pop-culture high brow referencing via the Chomsky is interesting. It tries to position Nerdist as willing to engage in a cerebral reference framework that mainstream pop entertainment would not. It is branding by way of exclusion. Nerdist is not The Tonight Show or E Entertainment.
But even the most casual perusal of the site realizes this is a fraud.
Nerdist is simply a rebranded version of E Entertainment for the Comicon target audience.
Harwick’s interviews perform Geek Ryan Seacrest as kabuki theater. Ass-kissing interviews with the entertainment industry as the center of the universe. Hardwick refuses to dislike anything at all and speaks of comedy and pop culture as the pinnacles of creation. Even D-list celebrities such as Brian Austin Green are heralded as icons of mass consciousness, and lauded for their work no matter how crappy the venue.
It is no surprise, of course, to discover that the Nerdist Podcast is recorded in the E Building.
Removed from the equation, of course, is the dark side of nerd culture.
Worst. Episode. Ever.
The anger, resentment, judgment, and parsing of media by nerds resulted in the small pile of isolated texted proclaimed “genius,” and the massively large pile of mainstream suck.
This is what nerd culture is and has always been.
Harwick is nerd culture as castration. His “no balls” geniality creates an illusion of nerd culture but without the bite that might limit marketability.
This, of course, has never been true. Opinionated celebrities do not suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous non-bookings. Even the great Joan Rivers called him out on this on a recent podcast, asking him to name one celebrity who was a pain in the ass to interview. Hardwick, naturally, couldn’t name anyone.
For the ad wizards of Madison Avenue, the question remains: How to sell something to an audience by inverting the desire formula? How to push something but creating the illusion of demand? Find the proxy “fan” and endow him with mimetic association. The “fan” stands in for the masses. Speaks for the crowd. The “fan” then seemingly organically demands the product you are selling.
Hardwick is that stooge. For there’s money to be made in them there role playing games. Hollywood ain’t stupid.
Of course, subcultures always break down and sell out, by their very nature.
That is how it should be.
No authentic and organic creative movement, created in that heady and uncertain way, can ever sustain itself. The seminal rock band The Who made this very point in 1967.
Nor was nerd culture ever a coherent concept.
The idea was already a cliche by 1984. Nerds were computer, math and science based subculture. Geeks were sex and horror obsessed juveniles, the kind that ultimately led to movies like this and this.
So it is perhaps unfair to say Hardwick has stolen from and misappropriated a subculture in service of his own ambitious desires to become Comicon Seacrest. But it is important to note that whatever authentic pleasures remained in nerd/geek subculture, the profit motive and the exploitation of mass media comic book dazzle has sucked it dry. Hardwick is the symptom. But not the disease.