Chris Hardwick has experienced a wild career arc. These days, the comic and TV host gets hailed as comedy’s nerd king or the Ryan Seacrest of nerd culture. But 20 years ago he was hooking up frat bros and bimbos on MTV’s “Singled Out.”
“I felt very out of place in context of the type of people who were on the show,” he said by phone ahead of two stand-up sets Friday at the Pantages Theatre. “But I also had a microphone and the ability to take subtle shots at them — in a fun way, not in a mean way. But it was a lot of types of people in college that drove me crazy.”
It was a great first gig out of school. But it feels light years removed for a guy who landed his “dream job” in 2013 as host of the Internet-themed game show “@Midnight With Chris Hardwick” — a frenetic, palate-cleansing addition to Comedy Central’s late-night lineup.
Whereas “The Daily Show” riffs on political headlines, “@Midnight” smartly harnesses the inane hilarity of the Internet and social media. Comedians compete over a rapid series of quick-wit games arbitrated by Hardwick shouting “points!” after clever portmanteau hashtags or off-the-wall translations of emoji sentences.
“It’s a bunch of standups getting together and making jokes about the Internet,” he said. “It’s perfect for me.”
But the son of a pro bowler’s journey from MTV to Comedy Central was long and hard. After “Singled Out” ended in 1998, he turned to stand-up full time. The crowds were small and offstage Hardwick battled alcoholism.
“My career was dead,” he recalled. “People weren’t coming out to see my stand-up and no one wanted to represent me. It was about as dismal as you can get in the entertainment business.”
Spurred by a reality check from his therapist, Hardwick got clean in 2003. When he started in TV there were few opportunities for servicing niche communities like his sci-fi and gamer brethren, he said. Like many other comedians, Hardwick launched his acclaimed Nerdist podcast in 2010 as a “survival mechanism.” It merged with GeekChicDaily to form Nerdist Industries — an online nerd-culture hub — in 2012. Nerdist spawned a YouTube nerd-news channel and Hardwick’s currently producing an offshoot pilot for Syfy.
Nowadays, Hardwick is living long and prospering. Between hosting “@Midnight” and “Talking Dead” — the recap talk show for AMC’s ratings-blockbuster “The Walking Dead” — and running his Nerdist empire, the Memphis-reared 43-year-old still finds time for stand-up.
On his debut comedy album, “Mandroid,” Hardwick tucks sharp one-liners into longer bits about hipster nerds, shark vaginas and Comic-Con stabbings (mechanical pencils: “the nerd switchblade”). He’s not above a ribald punch line, but keeps his lewder material — including a hamster ejaculation story — out of the gutter by deftly incorporating it into awkward-youth anecdotes.
With demons and dating shows behind him, Hardwick’s career is thriving in the nerd space he holds dear. Despite his own fame, his inner fanboy makes frequent appearances — like when “Weird Al” Yankovic recently asked him to write a column for a Mad Magazine issue he’s guest-editing.
“If 15-year-old me knew that Weird Al asked me to write for Mad Magazine — like those two things together — I wouldn’t have believed it,” Hardwick said.
When: 8 & 10:30 p.m. Fri.
Where: Pantages Theatre, 710 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.
Tickets: $35, 612-339-7007 or www.hennepintheatretrust.org.