Nerds came of age in the 1980s. Marginalized for decades prior in a variety of insufficiently descriptive monikers like bookworms and poindexters, the sudden advent of personal computing and mounting intrusion of technology into the everyday lives of socially healthy people were bringing bespectacled geeks into cultural consciousness. This meant they were no longer marginalized: nerd characters were becoming a part of TV and movie casts as fully rounded stereotypes of many traits. In this episode of An Alan Smithee Podcast we discuss the epochal Revenge of the Nerds, which acknowledged the pile of nerd stereotypes accumulated since at least the breakout performance of Eddie Deezen in Grease and as blaxploitation films of the 70s did for black stereotypes, attempted to make nerds kind of cool through comic exaggeration and emphasizing their underdog status.
After 1984, far fewer movie nerds were mainly the butt of jokes – rather becoming humanized like Crispin Glover’s George McFly in Back to the Future, Anthony Michael Hall in Weird Science or stupid Patrick Dempsey in Can’t Buy Me Love. The common denominator is of course their desire to get laid, which is universal to the male moviegoer and made more attainable when even “Genuine Nerd” Toby Radloff (of American Splendor fame) could find his Bride of Killer Nerd in the 1992 Troma film of the same title.
American Splendor comics actually featured a story of Radloff going to see Revenge of the Nerds which was recreated in the Paul Giamatti film years later. To be sure, the joke of the scene is how the nerds in the film are ultimately the creations of Hollywood and not entirely comparable to real life – their happy ending triumph over the bullying jocks is preordained – but genuine nerds like Toby needed that fantasy in 1984. They needed to see the jocks as villains for once, and were willing to look the other way on the occasional spot of movie bullstuff like the nerds having a robot butler in their frat house and working virtual magic with the pitiful computers of their day. For once, normals were invited to laugh with these guys and not at them. The relationship of lead nerds Robert Carradine and Anthony Edwards is established from the beginning as one of longtime mutual endurance in the face of social intolerance. Their sensitivity towards one another anchors the story from the start in the reality that lots of nice young men don’t fit in because they’re awkward, not because they’re inferior people.
The film’s secret weapon may be the broader categorization of “nerds” as anyone who doesn’t fit into the social hierarchy. The stunningly cohesive ensemble cast is an even split of classic nerds (Timothy Busfield, Andrew Cassese, Edwards & Carradine) and simple misfits: Brian Tochi the Japanese exhange student, Larry B. Scott as the openly gay black guy, and Curtis Armstrong as the immortal “Booger.” Armstrong’s character is the perfect distillation of qualities which make someone unpopular with the in crowd without actually being too smart, too unfashionable or too shy to the degree that classic nerds are. He’s merely rude, crude, lewd, dry, gross and underachieving. Hard to believe that 15 years later, guys like Seth Rogen and James Franco would be more or less honing their “Booger” personas on the movie career launching pad of Freaks & Geeks.
While the effect of Revenge of the Nerds on the rest of pop culture began almost immediately, 20th Century Fox didn’t have clue one as to why the film was popular – let alone worked – when they signed a different director and writer for the 1987 sequel Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds In Paradise. The extent of creativity for the follow up was literally “let’s send the nerds to Ft. Lauderdale, where hijinks ensue.” Nerds In Paradise does what the first film didn’t, which is to play the nerds as near-total goons from Mars incapable of normal human behavior. The jokes are seldom based on performance or character, instead a turgid series of encounters with wacky ethnic stereotypes or comical misunderstandings lurch by while three-fifths of the returning cast from the first film were presumably getting soused between takes. Even the jocks are more two dimensional this time around; the cruelty of Ted McGinley in the first film had a realistic nuance compared to the bigger-is-funnier pranks of Bradley Whitford which ultimately culminate in stranding the nerds on a freaking desert island.
Probably worst of all for the average non-nerd moviegoer in 1987 was the total lack of nudity compared to the rather ribald Part One: Nerds In Paradise bears the rating of PG-13, resulting in nothing appealing for any audience except perhaps preadolescents too young to watch the first film and not discriminating enough to realize what they’re watching isn’t funny.
NEXT WEEK: TWILIGHT ZONE THE MOVIE SPECIAL! TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE (1983, JOHN LANDIS & STEVEN SPIELBERG & JOE DANTE & GEORGE MILLER)