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Chris Hardwick just might be the nerd king of television. On AMC, he hosts a talk show that's basically a bunch of people sitting around dissecting every scene of "The Walking Dead," one of TV's most popular programs. Over on Comedy Central, he's also ringmaster of a game show about social media called "@midnight." As NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans explains, Hardwick has found success making TV out of America's pop culture fixations.
ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: No one is a better guide for TV-obsessed fans than Chris Hardwick.
CHRIS HARDWICK: The governor is back. He's here with us for the entire hour tonight unless he kills one of us with an oxygen tank.
DEGGANS: Hardwick's biggest gig, hosting "Talking Dead," he and his guests dissect the gore and heartbreak in each episode of AMC's zombie drama "The Walking Dead."
HARDWICK: I'm just lucky that people need therapy after a show like "The Walking Dead." That's what we provide. We provide a comedown so you can get into bed and your brain stops buzzing.
DEGGANS: Hardwick also hosted "Talking Bad," helping fans of "Breaking Bad" process the final season of the most brutal show on TV. His nerdy obsession with the Internet and pop culture led to "@midnight," a game show on Comedy Central. It's a bunch comics riffing on social media.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, '@MIDNIGHT')
HARDWICK: Tonight's hashtag is lamecomicbookcharacters and go. Yes, Bronger(ph).
DEGGANS: Born Christopher Ryan Hardwick, he's a chess club nerd from Memphis and son of the late pro bowler Billy Hardwick. But he's also become the wisecracking face of geeky pop culture obsession. Entertainment these days is dominated by nerd-friendly stuff like science fiction, fantasy and comic books, so this is the perfect pop culture moment for a witty goofball like Hardwick. And he already has a perfectly named media empire.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Now entering Nerdist.com.
DEGGANS: The Nerdist is a geek-centered website and podcast. It's grown into a self-help book for nerds, a YouTube channel, a collective of nerdy media creative types and much more. But the 42-year-old Hardwick politely declines status as TV's top geek.
HARDWICK: I don't want the crown because it's - I just like what I like. I don't think that I'm the king of anything. I think I just like what I like and I wanted to sort of build this career that was kind of these modular blocks of things that I really enjoy doing.
DEGGANS: In an entertainment world where fans rule, Hardwick is their enthusiastic TV guru.
JAMES FRAZIER: Chris has kind of put a face to it.
DEGGANS: James Frazier is a "Walking Dead" fan who now co-hosts the popular "Walker Stalker" podcast and convention series. He says Hardwick's charm helps non-fans understand the nerds who obsess over this show.
FRAZIER: He's not this geek that you imagine living in somebody's basement. He's a normal guy with a great sense of humor and I think a lot of people can identify with that.
DEGGANS: But Hardwick wasn't always so comfortable on TV. He came to Los Angeles in the late '80s finding work as a radio DJ, standup comic and host of a dating show.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, 'SINGLED OUT')
HARDWICK: Welcome to "Singled Out," the MTV dating show where we like it simple. We take 50 guys and 50 girls, we ask them a lot of ridiculously easy questions and in the end...
DEGGANS: Hardwick wrote in his book about feeling depressed and drinking heavily back then. He was stuck working on a show filled with mindless 20-somethings trying to hook up.
HARDWICK: The first half of my career, the first two-thirds of my career, weren't really spent on pursuing things that I was passionate about. It was more just surviving and getting jobs. And then at a certain point I was like, oh, wait, you know, maybe I should just work on things that make me happy.
DEGGANS: There are Hardwick haters. He gushes too much about shows he is paid to help promote. He's the Ryan Seacrest of nerd TV, seen everywhere, but a bit shallow. The problem? Some of Hardwick's critics are the very nerds he champions.
HARDWICK: The nerd-on-nerd violence has to stop. Like, there is a very dark side to nerd culture, too, which is almost kind of like an abused dog that you rescue that's, like, it's been abused and so it doesn't mean to be, but it will bite because it's been hurt.
DEGGANS: Hardwick won't apologize for focusing on positivity or saying yes to dream jobs. And his life will only get dreamier: "@midnight" will film 40 weeks of shows this year. "The Talking Dead" returns in February. He'll do more standup comedy and the Nerdist will keep pumping out nerd-focused media projects that make stuff like bowling and puppets look cool.
HARDWICK: I wanted to, in my adult life, just let people know that it's OK to like the things that you like because it wasn't OK when I was growing up. You know, I was kind of ashamed and just, I always felt outcast and I didn't want people to feel that. So I'm very much, hey, let's celebrate the things that we care about and it's OK to like these things.
DEGGANS: Finding stardom by embracing his inner nerd just might be Hardwick's biggest success of all. Eric Deggans, NPR News.