Chris Hardwick knows his energy is a bit much for some people. Partway through Funcomfortable, his new Comedy Central stand-up special, he calls himself out, comparing his TV persona to “SpongeBob soaked in cocaine water.” It’s a clever way to confront critics of his always-on, perpetually animated comedic style, even if the whole cocaine angle isn’t quite accurate. Hardwick, the ubiquitous television after-show and @Midnight host, isn’t out of control or cokehead discursive. If anything, his high-energy, eyes-locked one-liners and pop culture rants emerge as too meticulously planned. He is consistently amusing (and, on @Midnight, quick on his feet), with his jokes and wordplay tumbling out with cheerful, crowd-pleasing eagerness.
Hardwick is indeed a crowd-pleaser. In fact, that desire to please both takes the edge off of his propensity to hit every joke hard and makes his adolescent delight in dick and fart jokes (and, in Funcomfortable, blow-up doll, queef, shit, blowjob, and parental sex jokes) amusing rather than off-putting. The special’s portmanteau title hypes up audience discomfort, but Hardwick’s delivery ensures that no one’s going to squirm too much. Despite all the scatology, the most effectively transgressive thing Hardwick does can be seen in the crowd-work that will be included with the special’s extended version. Working his way through the front row, he homes in on a burly guy while doing an extended riff in Tom Hardy’s Bane voice. He concludes the bit cradling the laughing dude’s reddening bald head in his arms. It’s worth checking out, mainly because the unstructured interactions with his audience show Hardwick’s looser, nimbler side.
As for the special as shown for broadcast, Hardwick’s desire to please runs oddly counter to some of his more personal material. Stories about his father’s recent death, Hardwick’s well-documented battle with depression and anxiety, and sexual misadventure repeatedly feint toward real introspection (and connection with the audience) before glancing off again with a fast transition. After introducing the subject of his father’s death, Hardwick quickly jokes about bringing the San Francisco crowd down, then zaps them back to life with a clever zinger: “I’m in Dead Dad Club. The initiation fee is one dead dad. You can also be grandfathered in.”
Here, and in his energetically boosterish self-help book/autobiography, The Nerdist Way, Hardwick hints that his enthusiasm is a product of a lot of pain and that his trim, health-conscious stylishness (“like a hipster lesbian on a first date”) serves to maintain his peace and success. His anecdote about knowing his fiancée is the one because she didn’t call him a pussy for his crippling fear of heights is, in entertaining Hardwick fashion, hung with solid observations throughout. He tries to pass off his hyperventilating as “sounds of wonderment” while the pair drives up a treacherous mountain, blending his performing energy with just enough genuine terror to make it gripping. Hardwick doesn’t do voices, per se, but he’s an underrated verbal comedian, deftly slipping into an accent or drawing out a phrase to punctuate a line. (It makes sense that Hardwick’s had some success as a cartoon voice actor.)
Hardwick’s position as pop-culture nerd king gets less of a workout here than expected. (There’s more in the extended version, like when he describes his role as “America’s zombie therapist” as “The Walking Dead’s Cousin Oliver.”) Still, there’s some solid nerdiness in play, with an anecdote about a college audience having no reaction to material about his favorite movie, Back To The Future, which leads to a funny examination of how his reign as monarch of the geek squad will soon end. Imagining himself ranting at the millennials in the crowd, he adopts an old-man persona to extol the difficulty of masturbating to scrambled cable porn: “My generation jerked off to more shoulders than any generation in the history of mankind!”
Hardwick is the least offensive dirty-joke teller around. Many of his bits here—his father’s propensity for public inappropriateness, losing his virginity to a sex toy, stuff about ass play and fetishes—are scrubbed clean before they can do much damage. If that robs the bits of much in the way of true transgressiveness, Hardwick’s facility with inventive wordplay and fanciful conceits keep them lively and fun. After doing the old “that’d make a great band name” about a particularly filthy descriptor, the comic’s imagining what said band would sound like is irresistibly strange and silly. As ever, he nibbles the edges of deeper issues when he tells these stories, with childhood loneliness and adult insecurities peeping out at times. In the end, Hardwick’s strategy is to keep the jokes coming at his signature quippy pace. While the resulting stream of comedy isn’t especially deep, it’s refreshing.