NEW YORK -- There's no media entity more pleased to be called an empire than Nerdist, the online factory of earnest pop culture enthusiasm.
This is largely because in the Nerdist universe, "Star Wars" is gospel; the kind of fandom those films have inspired is in many ways Nerdist's model of engagement. It would probably cheer Nerdist creator Chris Hardwick, a comedian and TV personality turned Internet entrepreneur, if this story began in words that drifted dramatically away into space.
The force, you might say, is strong with Nerdist.
"Nerdist stuff is really just the purest expression of fanboy-ism," says Hardwick. "And it's not engineered. We are that way."
The unabashed sincerity of Hardwick and Nerdist has proved infectious. Nerdist began as a little weekly comedy podcast hosted by Hardwick and launched in 2010. It has grown to encompass a network of 21 podcasts, 27 YouTube shows and a growing TV presence. The umbrella company, dubbed Nerdist Industries, was last year purchased by Legendary Entertainment, a big-time producer of the kind of films Nerdist swoons over, like "The Dark Knight" and "Inception."
Nerdist even boasts a kind of manifesto, a book by Hardwick called "The Nerdist Way" that comically outlines his ardent vision of an "artful nerd" -- one whose fandom isn't merely critical and passive, but is passionately proactive. The best example of this was last year when Hardwick and Nerdist organized an Olympic-style torch relay, run with a lightsaber from George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch, along the California coast from Los Angeles to Comic-Con (the Nerdist Oz) in San Diego. In the event, dubbed "Course of the Force," Hardwick captained a replica Jabba the Hut pleasure barge down the highway.
Says Hardwick: "It made us go, 'Oh, well, if we can do that ...'"
Buoyed by such experiences and encouraged by rising clicks and downloads, Hardwick and Nerdist Industries CEO Peter Levin are increasing Nerdist's TV presence while also exploring low-budget film possibilities.
Last month, BBC America, which has partnered with Nerdist for a number of specials, picked up "The Nerdist," a variety talk show hosted by Hardwick, for 10 60-minute episodes to premiere in the spring. Hardwick has been a kind of cultural ambassador for BBC America in championing the series "Doctor Who" and hosts "Talking Dead" on AMC, which follows episodes of the zombie drama "The Walking Dead."
Hardwick is also producing a pilot for Comedy Central and developing a science series with National Geographic. He would like to make a science-fiction comedy film, too, along the lines of 1999's "Galaxy Quest," which Hardwick considers "a perfect movie."
In an entertainment world where comic books make blockbusters and TV shows spur cultish followings, the avenues are many for Nerdist. As Hardwick says, there's something of "a land grab with nerd culture right now." But adapting a hydra-headed digital empire into more traditional, mainstream media poses challenges, too, for the Nerdist realm.
Television is where Hardwick, the 41-year-old Kentucky-born son of pro bowler Billy Hardwick, first made his name. After a stint as a radio DJ in Los Angeles in the '90s, he started landing TV and film roles before becoming co-host of the MTV dating show "Singled Out" alongside Jenny McCarthy.
But it wasn't until a show Hardwick had high hopes for had the plug abruptly pulled that he remade himself through the Internet, starting the Nerdist website in 2008 while continuing his stand-up career.
"What I figured out five years ago, I realized you don't have to do just one job," says Hardwick, who seldom takes days off or is far from his next tweet. "There was that old idea from my parents' generation. I kind of decided: Why couldn't I make a career out of smaller freelance-y jobs, building this fortress of solitude made out of things that I like?"
"I found what my voice was by asking myself: Well, what do I like?"
The Nerdist podcast was an early success in a now flourishing world of comedy podcasts. Levin says the podcasts collectively draw 2.7 million downloads a month. The Nerdist audience, he says, is about 64 percent male, with most in their 20s.
The podcast has attracted big-name guests like Tina Fey and Mel Brooks. Tom Hanks, a typewriter enthusiast, was lured with a 1934 Smith Corona; he accepted in a typewritten response.
The YouTube channel, among those launched with funding from the Google Inc. (GOOG)-owned video site in a high-profile bid to develop original content, is a partnership with Jim Henson Co. and Lorne Michaels' Broadway Video. Its shows include "All-Star Celebrity Bowling," in which TV show casts bowl against the Nerdist clan (given his father, Hardwick has skills); "Face to Face" with Weird Al Yankovic, a parody celebrity interview show; and "Star Talk" with astrophysicist Neil deGrass Tyson.
Currently running in a seven-episode season is one of Nerdist's biggest hits: Neil Patrick Harris' "Puppet Dreams," in which Harris acts out scenes with Jim Henson puppets and adult innuendo. Just as Nerdist pulled in Hanks through a passion of his, Nerdist appealed to Harris' love of puppets. Harris, a longtime friend of Hardwick's, has been a fan of Nerdist since it launched: "I was mostly just envious of the title," he says.
"One of the things I love about Chris is he's a true finisher," says Harris. "He has expanded his empire radically and yet everything he sets his mind to accomplishing, he finishes. In this industry, you get a lot of people with great ideas but not a lot of follow-through."
Like the popular gaming online network Machinima (which has executive ties with Nerdist), the Nerdist approach is to proliferate across platforms. Levin, who co-founded the newsletter GeekChicDaily before merging it with Nerdist in 2010, is looking to put Nerdist on set-top boxes that connect to TVs. Legendary, he says, gives Nerdist more muscle.
"From the top down perspective, they are clearly the market leader," says Levin. "We look at ourselves as an important voice from the bottom up."
Staying true to that spirit, Hardwick says, will remain Nerdist's mission regardless of its big media partners. After growing up at a time when Dungeons & Dragons players (like himself) were outcasts, Hardwick's empire will take all comers -- so long as they're passionate about what they like.
"Nerds can be out about the stuff that they love without as much as the stigma against it as when I was growing up," says Hardwick. "I just want people to feel OK about what they love. Unless that thing is murder and you're a Murder Nerd."