How The Comedy Movie Nerd Has Evolved
Nerds! Nerds! Nerds!
With his face twisted into a rage that should be reserved for mosquitos or your mom’s social media, Alpha Beta’s Ogre roared one last battle cry against the inevitable in 1984’s Revenge of the Nerds. But despite his fraternity’s best efforts, funny nerds were destined to rule the Adams College campus -- and the multiplex. (Even Ogre himself would become a nerd in Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise.) But that doesn’t mean the ascent of the nerd wasn’t a long time coming. Let’s take at the storied history of nerds in movie comedies -- and where those uproarious dorks might be headed from here.
1960s - Jerry Lewis
You could argue that Lewis always played a nerd when he teamed up with Dean Martin, but on one solo voyage, he practically invented the movie nerd archetype with The Nutty Professor’s Julius Kulp.
Here Lewis hatches the nerd fully formed--the hitched-up pants, the coke-bottle glasses, the buck teeth, the gangly gyrations. The movie was Lewis’s personal favorite and the critics agreed. In 2004, The Nutty Professor (the Lewis version) was entered into the Library of Congress for comedy preservation.
Julius Kulp continues to reverberate, inspiring Hank Azaria’s Professor Fink on The Simpsons, the multiple Eddie Murphy remakes, and the man who was arguably the biggest movie nerd of the 1970s.
1970s - Eddie Deezen
You may not remember the name Eddie Deezen, but you likely remember the face.
“Jerry Lewis was absolutely my nerd influence,” says Deezen in Teen Movie Hell. Yep -- one watch is all it takes to see the clear line from Julius Culp to Deezen’s Eugene in Grease.
Deezen was the go-to nerd for movie comedies of his era, showing up in flicks like Belushi’s 1941 and the Scott Baio epic Zapped. He claims to have portrayed the first computer nerd ever captured on film in War Games with Matthew Broderick. “That’s just a fact,” says Deezen, “and I’m proud of that.”
Deezen also believes he may have been the actor who popularized the basic geeky nerd--the clumsy goof with glasses and a high nasal voice. While Deezen clearly modeled his dweebs on Lewis, it’s undeniable that the Nerd fully became a stock comedy movie character at about the time Eddie was showing up left and right. Give the nerd his props--we think Deezen is right.
1980s - Revenge of the Nerds
Deezen was often mistaken for Robert Carradine’s Lewis from Revenge of the Nerds, the movie that elevated the dorks from the butts of the joke to the stars of the show. The movie made sure every nerd stereotype was represented, including Asians, Blacks, and gay people, which says something about who producers thought of as “nerds.”
Unlike Deezen, not all the actors were thrilled to play onscreen weirdos. Carradine confessed that in real life, he was more the type to beat up a nerd. “I was picking my nose and belching,” remembers Curtis “Booger” Armstrong. “And what was first in my mind was all of my acting teachers from the Academy of Dramatic Art at Oakland University.”
But the movie was a huge box-office hit, and for most of the cast, being a nerd was the thing for which they’re best remembered. John Goodman, who played the Adams College football coach, confesses, “I had no idea people would still be talking about it this many years later.”
Movie comedy nerds were officially here to stay in 80s movies like Real Genius and Weird Science. While the Revenge guys garnered more of the geek glory, let’s give an honorable mention to certified 80s movies nerds like The Goonies’ Data and Back to the Future’s Doc Brown.
1990s - She’s All That
Enter the Nerd Girl. Lacey Boggans, the central propeller head in She’s All That, simultaneously brings a new feminine dimension to the big screen dweeb while reinforcing a bunch of dumb old stereotypes like “she’d be a knockout if she just lost the glasses!”
Sure, we’d seen Nerd Girl in the 80s -- the girls of the Omega Mu sorority in Revenge of the Nerds, Jordan in Real Genius, Joan Cusack’s nameless girl-in-the-neck-brace in Sixteen Candles. But while She’s All That was ridiculous, it finally put a female nerd front and center.
Other nerds we loved in the 90s? Milton in Office Space was an all-timer. The decade might also have been Apex Nerd Era on TV, with Urkel and Screech leading the way.
2000s - Napoleon Dynamite vs. McLovin
The Apatow era meant that big screen shlubs were no longer a novelty. You could nominate McLovin or really any of the Superbad boys as King Dork of the 2000s and we wouldn’t fight you. Michael Cera, Seth Rogen, and Jonah Hill spent the decade making dorkiness a leading-man quality. But we’d have to find some place in the king’s court for Napoleon, a fresh take on unpopular weirdness. We’re partial to his particular nerdom for never conforming to other people’s idea of cool. Call it supreme self-confidence or blissful unawareness that he wasn’t already awesome.
Nerds started kicking some ass in the 2000s as well, with bespectacled Peter Parker showing off as the web-slinging Spider-Man.
2010s - Jesse Heiman
Jesse Who Now? See if this face rings a bell.
If you’re looking for Heiman as a movie’s lead nerd, you won’t have much luck. But in the background? Heiman is everywhere. The guy barely ever gets a line, but you’ve possibly seen him in (deep breath) American Pie 2, Old School, Austin Powers in Goldmember, Reno 911, Arrested Development, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The Social Network, Parks and Recreation, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, The Big Bang Theory, Neighbors, Silicon Valley, and The Goldbergs. He’s basically the Where’s Waldo of funny nerds.
And after kissing model Bar Refaeli in a 2013 Super Bowl commercial? “Ever since I got booked as that nerdy guy who kisses hot chicks,” Jesse told eBaum's World, “all the girls wanna kiss me.”
We’d be remiss if we didn’t shout out another 2010s Jesse -- that would be Mr. Eisenberg, who proved in The Social Network and Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice that a nerd can now be the villain. Progress? In the case of his twitchy Lex Luthor, definitely not -- but it did open our eyes to all the ways the nerd can continue to evolve through the next generation of comedies.
How about a wizened old nerd mentor? A nerdy temptress, preferably one who leaves her glasses on? A geeky serial killer in a comedy/slasher franchise? With nerds, the possibilities are endless.
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Top image: 20th Century Fox