SF Sketchfest is coming to a close here in San Francisco and more than ever audiences are selling out seats not just for their favorite comedian or sketch show but for live podcasts. Interestingly not one podcast but one podcast network stands out from the crowd. Nerdist, the self-described “many headed beast,” is a podcast network, YouTube channel, and website all dedicated to the wide world of nerds. It features content on subjects scattered all over the nerd range of interests, from video games and sci-fi shows to bowling, sex, and all things music. Founded in 2008 by stand up comedian Chris Hardwick with one podcast, the network has grown significantly and was acquired as the digital division of Legendary Entertainment.
Three Nerdist podcasts — The Nerdist, The Indoor Kids, and You Made It Weird — which all drew packed houses during Sketchfest, are great examples of the unique creator-run content coming out of the network. Jonah Ray and Matt Mira accompany Hardwick on The Nerdist, his flagship podcast. Their weekly interview show covers notable writers, directors, actors, and comedians all with their own brand of nerdy.
The Indoor Kids is a video game podcast hosted by the same wife-husband team that produced The Meltdown show at Sketchfest, Emily Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani. For their podcast, the couple and their friends discuss how games fit into adult lives. Pete Holmes, weirdo-in-chief, and host of You Made it Weird, talks openly on his show about his divorce, sex life, eating habits, meditation practice, and complex religious beliefs. In each episode, Pete manages to coax surprisingly honest confessions and stories from his guests, comedians and performers who include Sarah Silverman, Zach Galifianakis and Jim Gaffigan.
Gigs on the road might help hone comedy chops but podcasts build audiences. The Nerdist shows have developed loyal audiences interested in smart comedy and honest conversation. The shows have developed professional networks surrounding them, but they also provide windows into the social scene behind stand up comedy in the United States. Guests and hosts frequently cross over between shows and projects, helping to promote fellow comedians.
The new gold star in content creation isn’t education or even money but making your own way, and doing it with friends. This kind of collaboration, an everyone-rises-together model, has become a defining factor of new media. It’s as common in podcasts as it is on YouTube. In this new world of content production, the competition becomes an asset. The podcast network thrives where the lone show flounders.
This interplay and the network’s alternative content is drawing comedy nerd audiences, specifically those willing to give real attention to offbeat topics. This allows, as Jim Gaffigan said on Episode 8 of You Made it Weird, “[Comedians] to be more vulnerable and more experimental.”
But it’s not all attentive crowds and insider jokes. “People’s attention is currency now, because we don’t pay for anything,” said Hardwick, speaking on Episode 312 of The Nerdist, bringing into focus one of the downsides of this two-way street with their audiences. “You’re getting this content for free whenever you want to watch it, wherever you want to watch it, maybe cut [us] some slack if it’s not down to the molecule, the way you wanted it to be.”
The hyper focus allowed by interactive and dedicated audiences also exposes the creators to a steady onslaught of negative comments online. Podcasts have become the dominant model in comedy, allowing in-the-know fans to issue up-to-the-second critiques. For better or worse, these creators will find that someone is always listening.