The New Purveyors: The Nerdist, WTF, and Cultural Conversation

Chris Hardwick and Marc Maron approach the entertainment industry in wildly different ways. But both help us to escape the culture of the soundbite.

A funny thing happened on our way to a society stricken by attention deficit disorder: our revelry in 140 character missives, six-second-long looping Vine films, and whatever Snapchat is has found an affection for long-form audio programming. The podcast is counter to the culture that defies short attentions spans encouraged by technology that exploits immediacy. The most prominent podcasts are those that traverse our popular culture, and no two represent the polar opposites of that discussion—fandom and journalism—like The Nerdist and WTF with Marc Maron. The former aspires to add to the glossy exterior of culture while the latter craves introspection and careful consideration of how that culture has metamorphosed.

The binary of pop culture conversations divides into the realms of either curiosity or craving, provocation or promotion. The Nerdist and WTF define this polarity, and as two of the first true successes of their form they are the illegitimate children of pop podcasts, a bastardization of the late night talk show and NPR. As siblings, they share a remarkably similar history; showbiz mythologies have helped determine their place in the discourse. Both are fronted by comedians (Chris Hardwick and Marc Maron) derailed by addiction, both have found surprising success by reinventing themselves within the landscape of a new technology, and both endear themselves to the audience by placing their chronicles within the larger narratives of their guests and medium.

The Nerdist and WTF are more important than they admit, which is part of their charm—accidental humility both inherent to podcasting’s infancy and the inanity of the form’s parentage. The late night talker, once our window to the backstage of stardom, has become a benign venue for promotion and ego, characterized by scripted interviews with manufactured stars. Hardwick and Maron’s efforts provide a forum for true conversation, and in a time where banality breeds cynicism the podcasts are essential to our collective faith in purveyors of culture.

Hardwick’s show is part of a carefully constructed brand that has taken the former MTV game show host from the verge of Hollywood obscurity to multiplatform celebrity. He took his affection for nerdom and turned it into a venue to engage and entertain a marginalized audience. His growth has paralleled the rise of nerd culture, from the backrooms of comic book shops to the marquees of Comic-Cons. He’s the host of The Nerdist and the CEO of Nerdist Industries (the umbrella company now owned by Legendary Entertainment that houses their digital division), the host of numerous TV shows (Talking Dead, @midnight), and headliner of successful stand-up tours. He’s engaged to heiress Lydia Hearst. He’s become a figure in the culture he discusses. His is a crafted enterprise, one that wears its aspirations and ambitions on its sleeve, unabashedly part of the machine.

That desire to be part of the culture instead part of its reportage is represented in The Nerdist. The show, a simple exercise in longform celebrity interviews bookended by chatter with co-hosts Matt Mira and Jonah Ray, is more Tonight Show than Charlie Rose. Hardwick and his crew are unapologetic in their fandom, fawning (sometimes gratuitously) over their guests, but the show filters itself through its subscription to the ideology of fanaticism. Hardwick wants to know his subject matter and route their context while supporting the public affection for carefully cultivated products of the entertainment industry. The Nerdist allows its guests to revel in themselves, to wallow in their own brand, to be teased by sycophancy—but to the very edge of flattery’s corrupt cousin. The Nerdist is entertainment about entertainment. It is further fluorescence on the marquee lights, but its longform format allows it a depth that the Fallons of the world are unwilling to—or incapable of—providing.

If Hardwick is a brand, Maron is the consumer.

WTF, on the other hand, is completely absent of gloss. Maron’s show is (usually) recorded in his garage in the slowly gentrifying neighborhood of Highland Park in Los Angeles. If Hardwick is a brand, Maron is the consumer. The comedian, former Air America host, and cat owner is a victim and beneficiary of his curmudgeonly self-destructiveness and anger. A decade ago, his career had fizzled and flaked. The former Sam Kinison prodigy let drugs, alcohol, and ego get the best of him and sank to the depths of an industry that is constantly restocking talent. He never got the sitcom or HBO special or stardom of those he came up with (like Dave Attell, Bob Odenkirk, and Louis C.K., among others).

But, in a moment of both inspired whimsy and dumb luck, Maron created WTF and struck a nerve with the podcasting audience. He was resurrected, and now he’s a legitimate (and important) part of the cultural discourse and star of an eponymous sitcom on IFC that just aired its series finale. He’s gotten all the things his brethren did, but in a way that escaped the the faux-Hollywood gloss that can bastardize achievement.

Maron’s WTF interviews are bookended with his world-weary neurosis and journeys into his personal life and struggles. He has a wonderful naivete and curiosity in the conversations with his subjects, but by no means is he simply a venue for their promotion. Maron has confronted guests on their addictions, accusations of plagiarism, and had a notable conversation with President Obama in which the leader of the free world—from Maron’s garage—discussed racism and the failures of his presidency. WTF may be listed with Arts & Culture and Entertainment podcasts, but it is a work of journalism, one that aspires to get guests to open up to the truth beyond their veiled exteriors. Maron has, in many ways, become American pop culture’s most important correspondent. He may be a fan of some of his guests, but—unlike The NerdistWTF doesn’t care about the popular successes or failures of its subjects’ latest projects, but rather promotes genuine interest in lives of success and failure.

WTF stands in for our own self-doubt, our own struggles to find our place within the cacophony of pop. The Nerdist extends our fandom to luxuriate in the product of culture. There aren’t a lot of secrets between the two hosts. They are upfront about the goals of their shows—they just wear their intentions in different hues. Both are able to escape the simple soundbite publicity that permeates their industry, but their varied approaches to the temporal freedom of their form reveals opposing philosophies on how to engage the public in the cultural conversation. FL

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