Comedy Central has been doing quite well for itself for a while now in late night with the one-two punch of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. But increasingly, it looks as if Chris Hardwick might be part of that regular lineup, based on the straight out of the gate success of "@midnight.”
With little fanfare and not a lot of marketing,"@midnight” has been staking out a unique place in the late night landscape, distinct from the traditional late night talk shows or even “The Daily Show” or “Colbert Report” that air before it.
A blend of panel talk show and game show, Hardwick hosts three comedians each night who compete for points by riffing on the most interesting Internet finds of the day. The points are assigned somewhat arbitrarily by Hardwick, but the intent is to generate as many laughs as quickly as possible, with the conventions of Twitter being one of the show’s guiding forces.
“I love the game show format because it’s a wheel that constantly drives the comedy,” Hardwick said during a post-show chat in his dressing room at Hollywood Center Studios. “It makes people a little competitive. Yes, there are no prizes, but a comic’s ego is very fragile and to be the funniest person, to have a score and quantify that, puts a nice element to it.”
The series debuted on Oct. 21 with good ratings that continued to climb. During its first week of shows, "@midnight” was second only to “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” in the channel’s core young male demographic, beating out Leno, Letterman and the rest of the traditional network late night guys.
Additionally, the series has proved to be a hit on Twitter, a key factor for a program that makes social networking a core part its DNA. Each night, the show uses new hashtags to provoke creative responses from its contestants, but at-home players are eager to throw out their own suggestions, meaning the show has appeared in Twitter’s top trending topics every single night since its debut.
Though Comedy Central has been around for more than 20 years, it is just now attempting to program a regular original program into its after-midnight time slot, an hour that has long been a place where the channel aired reruns of its original programming.
“I thought [after midnight] could be a new frontier for us,” said Kent Alterman, president of content development and original programming at Comedy Central. “In the past, we always did well with reruns at midnight. But reruns don’t perform as well in the new TV age and there’s a voracious appetite for new content from the audience.”
"@midnight” began in slightly different form as “Tweeterdome,” a pilot produced by Thomas Lennon, Robert Ben Garant and Funny or Die. When Hardwick saw the pilot, he was sold, but expanded the scope to include all forms of Internet media.
Hardwick said, “We’re still perfecting it, but I think the best balance is 30% game show and 70% screwing around. So there’s just enough game show to keep things moving.”
Guests on the show have included Patton Oswalt, Natasha Leggero and Doug Benson, among others. While the comedians are given the topics for each show an hour or two ahead of taping, what’s been most beneficial was the run of live shows Hardwick ran last summer out of live show space his company, Nerdist Industries, runs in the back of the Meltdown Comics shop in Hollywood.
“It allowed us to see what worked, see how interactive the show was,” Hardwick said. And the test run allowed "@midnight” to land on the air seemingly fully formed.
But perhaps some of that instant familiarity comes from its host. Hardwick is seemingly everywhere these days, with his Nerdist podcast network and his weekly live appearances on AMC to dissect “The Walking Dead” and “Breaking Bad” before it. While some see his high profile as a triumph of geek culture, others resent his ubiquity.
“Sometimes people say, ‘How many jobs do you need to take?’” Hardwick said. “But I just take the jobs I want to take. I’m lucky enough to have gotten to this point where I don’t have to take anything I don’t want to take. That’s a really fun place to be.”
“Chris is not an accidental host,” Alterman said. “With the Nerdist empire he’s been building, he’s totally, authentically of the social media world.”
The series received an initial four-week order and is currently in its final week of shows. Though Alterman declined to say if the show would be renewed, he did add, “There’s a lot of enthusiasm for it throughout the network.”
And despite the nightly addition to Hardwick’s already busy schedule, his enthusiasm for the new show is easy to see.
“This is a show I would be very happy doing for a very long time,” Hardwick said.
[For the record, 2:11 p.m. PST Nov. 11: An earlier version of this post described Judd Apatow and David Spade as guests who had appeared on "@midnight.” Apatow and Spade are actually scheduled to appear this week on the show.]