Chris Hardwick’s evolution from an I Love the ’90s footnote as co-host of MTV’s Singled Out to his current position as king of the nerds has been pretty remarkable, and on his debut Comedy Central special, Mandroid, he offers up nerd humor to an adoring crowd of his people. (Virtually every close-up shot of the audience features at least one individual wearing glasses.) Hardwick has ridden nerdiness to such success, though, that his concept of it threatens to lose any kind of meaning. In his slick gray suit and black tie, Hardwick looks nothing like a nerd, and in the early part of the special, he gets easy applause just by referencing any nerd topic whatsoever, even without making a joke about it. He opens with, “Are there nerds here tonight?,” and from the huge crowd response, people sound happy just to be acknowledged.
Hardwick’s nerd pride also leads to a weird sort of reverse ostracizing, as he mocks and dismisses sports fans in the same way that jocks have always put nerds down, and then does the same thing to hipsters, decrying their supposedly disingenuous interest in nerdy pursuits. Hardwick’s exclusionary vision of nerdiness just reinforces the same social stratification that bullied misfits supposedly strive to overcome and transcend.
Hardwick is funnier when he moves away from pandering to his audience and offers up more universal bits about awkward adolescence and the horrors of getting older, although his jokes are usually more gently amusing than laugh-out-loud funny. There’s a strain of misogyny to his bit about the horrors of being sober at a strip club (“Strippers are just pigeons with tits.”), and his jokes about Germans and Latinos trade on obvious stereotypes.
The best material in Mandroid involves Hardwick drawing on his nerdy knowledge to apply it to something unrelated, as when he uses a lengthy Harry Potter metaphor to describe his attempt to lose his virginity, or when he refers to using the morning-after pill as “Control-Z that shit.” The best line of the entire special is a throwaway reference at the end of a segment about the proliferation of ghost-hunting TV shows, as Hardwick wonders, “Do you think Patrick Swayze now goes up behind people in pottery classes and hugs them?”
Hardwick is clearly capable of putting clever spins on nerd-related topics, but one of the perils of his success (via his popular Nerdist podcast and related endeavors) seems to be that his audience is so grateful for the validation that he doesn’t have to go very far to please them. Mandroid plays like a victory lap rather than the first major special from a cult-favorite comedian, and anyone not already on Hardwick’s wavelength will probably find little to draw them in. That may be fine with Hardwick’s loyal fans, but it makes for disappointingly insular comedic material.