On Thursday, actor Chloe Dykstra published a harrowing Medium post describing an abusive relationship with an unnamed person who, considering the context, seemed like comedian, producer, host, and podcaster Chris Hardwick. The narrative of her relationship with this two-decades-older man reports controlling behavior (“I was to not have close male friends unless we worked together”), sexual assault (“I was expected to be ready for him when he came home from work”), and a relentless focus on career. (“He … only really made time for industry people who he considered ‘worth it.’ ”)
Over the weekend, organizations employing Hardwick reacted. AMC issued a statement saying that they had pulled his show Talking With Chris Hardwick “while we assess the situation,” and Hardwick will no longer moderate AMC and BBC America panels at San Diego Comic-Con in July or appear at the Kaaboo Festival in September. NBC is likewise “assessing” its relationship with the host, who anchors the game show The Wall. Hardwick, for his part, denied the allegations in a fairly inept statement to Deadline, saying that Dykstra had cheated on him, they had argued, and that he “always wanted the best for her.” He included a line that, given the #MeToo era’s widespread critique of “as a father of daughters” rhetoric, sounded especially tone-deaf: “As a husband, a son, and future father, I do not condone any kind of mistreatment of women.”
This #MeToo case feels like the end of a chapter for podcasting, and maybe, I dare say, for the internet as a whole. Chris Hardwick, who resuscitated his failing career by starting a podcast, then a podcasting empire, then a lots-of-other-things empire, was a symbol of the possibilities the internet circa 2010 opened up for people with enthusiasm to spare. Between 2012 and 2014, I listened to every episode of his Nerdist Podcast, savoring the bouncy intro music, his upbeat vibe, and the dynamic with his co-hosts, comedians Jonah Ray and Matt Mira. Later, I branched out from the main Nerdist show to other shows on the network. Though I don’t play video games, I never missed the Indoor Kids podcast, with Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon; I got into the wild improv of Mike and Tom Eat Snacks; and appreciated the loopy madness of the Todd Glass Show.
I loved that these people—millennial-adjacent comedians with an alt sensibility—all seemed to know each other in real life, and to be doing new and interesting things that they really loved doing. I felt like an alternate-universe me could have gone to one of their barbecues in Los Feliz, wearing a sundress, and fit right in. I defended my dissertation in the fall of 2012 and started my Slate history blog, the Vault, the same week. Like Hardwick and his friends, I was doing something very different from what I’d done before—and something my role models in the field of history, by virtue of their age, wouldn’t have even had the opportunity to do—but it felt new, right, and full of possibility. Was I a cultural entrepreneur, like Hardwick, willing a new phase of my writing life into existence through sheer excitement and confidence? Listening to Nerdist, I felt like maybe I could be.
Those feel like sunny times online, looking back from inside the presidency that trolls helped give us. But there were undercurrents, even in the old days. The intimacy that podcasts create makes fans feel unusually close to the hosts; that intimacy also means that when something like this happens, everyone remembers signs. “This was that terrible feeling you get that a shoe is dropping, and you’ve been waiting to hear it land,” one fan described the feeling of opening Twitter and seeing Hardwick’s name trending on Friday. A number of fans thought of the episode (No. 471) where Hardwick took Ray to task for his seeming lack of commitment, after Ray skipped a taping of the Hardwick-hosted Comedy Central show @Midnight for another professional opportunity. “He makes you apologize over and over again and demoralizes you,” @stephforsyth wrote in a series of tweets to Ray asking him to listen to the episode again. “He uses guilt and jabs as a way of trying to secure fealty to him.” (That episode appears to have been removed from the Nerdist site, but you can hear via a fan upload, here.) Others recalled discomfort with Dykstra’s appearances in the podcast intros (which I also remember being very awkward), and how the hosts “pretty much made fun of her for her age/maturity after they broke up.”
If you were to have told 2012 me that I would ever stop listening to the podcasts that I loved, I wouldn’t have believed you. But I dropped the Nerdist Podcast sooner than most. I stopped listening to the episodes that featured celebrities, which often felt like stops on press junkets, full of overpraise for the guest’s “work.” I stopped clicking “Play” on the hosts-only “Hostful Goodness” episodes a little while later. I soured first on the fact that Hardwick was dating Dykstra, who was so much younger—always a personal pet peeve. As Hardwick took on hosting jobs and more mainstream showbiz responsibilities, his talk of positivity and self-actualization started to sound more and more like patter you’d hear from an un–self-aware yoga teacher at the beginning of class. (Hardwick hasn’t been personally involved in Nerdist Industries since 2017.) And then, after the Dykstra breakup, there was the way the host described his new girlfriend, heiress, actor, and model Lydia Hearst, as “sweet”—a relatively minor and subjective objection, sure, but I still remember that the word seemed to diminish her, and it stuck with me.
I never read it at the time, but I went back to Hardwick’s 2011 book, The Nerdist Way, this weekend. The book is part description of Hardwick’s journey from down-and-out ex–MTV host to nerd magnate, and part self-help manifesto. “If you are a part of now-glamorous Nerd Herd subculture but still feel like you’re waiting to claim your gold cup at the top of the social food chain, then I am here to help you,” Hardwick wrote. He promised readers that they had the potential to be better than others—to dominate them. A “Nerdist,” he wrote, was “an artful Nerd. He or she doesn’t just consume, he or she creates and innovates.” Nerdists just needed to use their “LASERbrain,” the ability to “focus on something until you finish it,” to succeed at a bigger kind of role-playing game: life, career, and relationships. The male audience is implied throughout (“the concept of mind manipulation has long been a Nerd fave, dating back to teen years when the fantasy of getting to see boobs all the time populated many a young fantasy”) but more striking is the way that, even in promising the downtrodden a way to climb it, Hardwick reinforces the importance of the “social food chain.”
Hardwick used his LASERbrain to make a utopian space on the internet, but he ended up replicating everything about Hollywood success—its crushing emphasis on surfaces, youth, money, and power—that he set out to reject in the first place. Whether or not Dykstra’s allegations are true, the Hardwick era of optimism about the internet’s creative possibilities truly feels over.