Chris Hardwick Wants To Bring ‘Talking’ Back To Talk Shows

These days the late night talk show market is rife with choices. John Oliver and Samantha Bee lead the politically savvy pack of hosts whose comedy attempts to skewer those in power while educating viewers. Newer participants, like Comedy Central’s The President Show, endeavor to do the same — albeit with more bluntness. Elsewhere, legacy programs like The Tonight Show, The Late Show and The Daily Show, approach the same politicized material with far more general audiences in mind.

And then there’s Chris Hardwick, the comedian turned host of the long-running Nerdist Podcast, whose Talking franchise on AMC had largely focused on its own programs and their fanbases. The Walking Dead, Fear the Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, Preacher — all have become the reactionary talk show’s focus at one point or another. Yet with time to fill between new seasons of each (minus Breaking Bad), AMC and Hardwick decided to open up the conversation-centric platform and embrace all things pop culture in Talking with Chris Hardwick.

Judging by the initial press release and our discussion with Hardwick, Talking at first sounds like a filmed version of the podcast. Yet Talking Dead and its offshoots did far more than commit an audio recording to video, and its latest iteration may very well do the same. Besides, considering the experience Hardwick has amassed after years of podcasting and hosting shows like @midnight, Talking with Chris Hardwick may accomplish what so many others don’t and spend most of its time “talking.”

Talking Dead obviously sparked Talking with Chris Hardwick, but I’m curious: How did this new show specifically come about? Did AMC come to you, you to them, or some third option?

I think it just came from AMC saying, “What would you do with that time slot?” Or, “What would you do with Sunday nights when The Walking Dead wasn’t on?” At first, I kind of brushed it off. People watch Talking Dead because of The Walking Dead. I never thought they would be interested in watching me do something else on Sunday nights, so I just joked about it and moved on, but they were persistent. So I told them I would probably take the skin of Talking Dead and make a similar show, but spiritually, it would be more like the Nerdist Podcast, because that’s something I don’t really see on television anymore.

Everyone is so desperately chasing after audiences with presumed short attention spans. “We’ve got to do viral clips! We’ve got to have a lot of guests on! We’ve got to move as fast as possible so no has a chance to change the channel!” So I said let’s just throw all of that away and do a show that is essentially a televised version of the Nerdist Podcast. Which Talking Dead already is, to a degree, but with a live audience at the taping, the audience watching at home, and everyone else on social media. With all of this combined, we would weave in participatory elements similar to what you’d see at a Comic-Con panel. Ultimately it’d be a conversation between me and whoever is on the show, but with as many connections to the biggest audience possible.

I’ve moderated a lot of Comic-Con panels, I remember telling AMC, so what if I ran the new Talking show like one of those? That way, what resulted would be more of a moderated conversation between me and the audience, as well as the guests who were on that particular episode. Does that make sense? What we came up with was basically a cross between Talking Dead, the Nerdist Podcast and a Comic-Con panel. That’s the best way I can describe it.

This is basically how Talking was described in the original press release, and it makes sense. The majority of late night feels less like “talk” shows and more like strings of bits tied together with occasional conversation. What you’ve described is something I’d like to see more of. I’m sure audiences feel the same.

I hope so. I mean, maybe there’s a reason there isn’t really anything like this on TV at the moment. Maybe people just want short viral clips and stuff like that, but personally, I think it’s nice to let a conversation breathe. Having done almost nine hundred podcast episodes, one thing that is almost universally true is no one likes doing press junkets. It’s not anything against any of the press outlets, of course. It’s just that they’re not designed to go in depth at all. They’re designed to get a couple of quick sound bites out of people in a very short amount of time, so they can promote whatever thing it is they’re promoting.

That’s actually been a major hurdle for booking guests on the podcast and this Talking show. That is, explaining to people used to promoting things all the time they can still come on even if they don’t have anything to promote. More often than not, listeners and viewers just want to get to know who a person is, and the process of having a real conversation like that doesn’t necessitate any kind of promotion. Basically, I tell guests they’re promoting themselves as human beings. The past 10 years’ worth of podcasts has allowed fans to get to know who their idols are. It adds a whole new layer to it all, a bit of humanity people weren’t used to seeing, especially since the two-dimensional representations they see onscreen don’t always allow for more. So by adding that to Talking, I think we’re able to put the actual “talk” back in “talk show.”

It’s easy to chalk it up to shorter attention spans among viewers. Then again, I think audiences generally want shorter, digestible bits. At the same time, I’m sure there’s enough eyeballs to justify having a show like Talking.

I don’t know how big the audience is, but I’d like to believe there’s an audience out there that just wants to see authentic, engaging conversations. Not just five minutes of someone, then five minutes of someone else, and so on. It really needs time to breathe. On our show, you’ll see that elements of Talking Dead woven together with the more superficial elements of a Comic-Con panel — like when someone in the audience asks a question and gets something in return. So if Elijah Wood is a guest, someone might him something Hobbit-y, and they’ll get something for it. Plus, we do have to edit the show down a bit. It’s an hour show, but each episode is actually forty-one minutes long to accommodate promos and commercials. It’s not like we just puts video cameras on a Nerdist Podcast episode, though sometimes these conversations will go on a little bit longer than planned, so AMC agreed to let me publish the unedited audio as Nerdist Podcast episodes.

You can get the visual experience of those kinds of conversations. I think it will be different than anything else you’re seeing on TV, especially in terms of the pop culture world of people who’ve touched some type of genre in one way or another. Not just those who’ve been on this type of thing, or in this type of movie, or involved with this type of project. Our guests are more like the people I have them on the Nerdist Podcast. They’re often promoting something, sure, but I have them on because I feel like we would have something to talk about. More often than not, there’s a kind of fandom associate with our guests.

Between putting out the longer audio interview as a podcast, along with the regular televised episodes, it should be a fun experiment to see if anyone cares. But it’s been really fun to do. We’ve done three episodes so far and they’ve been really fun. Everyone participating just fell into the conversations in a very natural way.

How will you organize episodes en lieu of Talking Dead‘s concrete focus? Will it just depend on the guests, or are you emphasizing certain subjects for each one?

It flows like the podcast, but it’s a little more structured. I mean, the podcast has no real structure to it. Which I think works because you don’t have to watch it, you know? You can just listen to it, so it doesn’t necessarily have to have a whole lot of structure. A TV show, however, needs structure. I learned that the hard way when we did The Nerdist TV show on BBC America a few years back. It was an incredible learning experience, because I thought you could just turn cameras on and record a podcast just like that. We quickly realized television doesn’t work that way.

That works if you’re like The Howard Stern Show, where the show itself is a little bit of a circus and there’s always something going on. But even his show has some structure to it. So we learned from that experience how to give the show a proper foundation. Plus we have the same show runners as Talking Dead [Michael Davies, Brandon Monk and Jen Patton], so we know each other pretty well. We even have a shorthand. And they are really great at making television, so it’s really just a way of expanding Talking Dead, and using the same tool sets.

As for guests, most shows will probably just have one, like the podcast. For a couple of episodes we’ll have much more, like as much of the cast of Silicon Valley as their individual schedules allowed. So we’ll have casts on sometimes when we’re able to, and that’s when it’ll really feel like a Comic-Con panel.

You mentioned sometimes having difficulty booking people, both for the podcast and for this. Is there a flip side to that? That is to say, has the prospect of an engaging conversation not bound by promotion ever been a major attraction to potential guests?

Maybe some people. Some, like Jeff Bridges, were really hard to get on the podcast. But when we finally got him the first time, and he did the podcast and understood what it was, he came on a few more times. Sometimes with out us even asking! We would get calls saying, “Jeff Bridges wants to come on the podcast.” Our initial response was, “What? That’s amazing!” When people come on and see what it actually is, both the podcast and Talking, I think they’ll want to come back more often. Because going through a press junket can be a very dehumanizing experience. It’s not really about who those people are. It’s really just about the project, and any kind of sound bite-y things they can get so people pass it around. It’s a very commercial approach, of course, but there’s nothing wrong with that.

But there isn’t really another form of media where someone will sit down and talk with them at length, like a normal human being. Where they’ll just have a conversation without all the interrogation. During the first few years of the podcast, I quickly realized our conversations would flow much better if I didn’t interrogate them for an hour. It’s not how I want to be talked to, so I don’t do it to others. I ask them questions and share experiences similar to theirs. I’ve had listeners tell me “no one gives a shit about you” and “just ask them question.” But I always say the same thin: “No one wants to be interrogated for an hour and fifteen minutes. It’s not fun.” I’ve been on that side of it, when you feel like you’re giving and giving and giving, but not getting anything back.

That’s something I always think about when doing these interviews. They’re necessary, of course, but I never want it to be boring or mundane. So I always try to be conversational.

When it works, it works really well. It’s like if you met someone you thought was interesting, went to coffee with them, and actually talked to them instead of interrogating them for an hour, an hour and a half. You know, you would relate some of your own experiences because that gets people to open up and relate to you. I think there’s a sweet spot in there, where you’re having a genuine conversation, trying to understand a person, and relating to them on a human level. It just feels better than trying to mine someone for information, so you can use it to get likes. I think that’s something all podcasts have created. Certainly not just mine. There is a wide berth of really wonderful podcasts out there that didn’t exist before a handful of years ago. Someday, when they look back at the history and evolution of media, I think podcasts will end up representing a really significant shift in how everything was done. There just wasn’t anything like it, which this much long-form, accessible content.

All these conversations, with all these people you learn so much about — there just wasn’t a place for them to go and do all that before podcasts. That’s why I feel like infusing the spirit of that into this show. It just feels right to me. It feels good. I feel like I had to muddle through various learning experiences before getting to this point. Talking combines so many of the skill sets I’ve learned from making so many mistakes over the years, and it’s finally paying off. If anyone asks, “What’s a Talking show without Talking Dead?” I’ll tell them it’s this. In the context of the podcast, or moderated Comic-Con panels, I think that makes perfect sense. This is just a natural evolution, or mashup, of all these things I’ve been doing for so long.

I mean, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe no one gives a shit about this. As a fan, however, it’s something I want to see on television. So I’m operating under the premise that if you’re not happy with what’s out there, you should go and make it happen yourself, on your own terms. That’s what Talking is all about.

Talking with Chris Hardwick premieres Sunday, April 9th at 11 p.m. ET/PT on AMC.