Nerds seem to having their cultural moment. “The Big Bang Theory,” a show about four nerds and the women who love them, is the highest-rated scripted show on television and its star Jim Parsons has won four Emmys. “Silicon Valley,” a show about four nerds and their attempt to succeed in the high tech world, is one of the year’s most critically acclaimed new shows. Then there’s AMC’s “Halt and Catch Fire,” a show about 1980s computer programmers, and even a reality show – TBS’s “King of the Nerds.”
Yep, nerds seem to be popular, which is an oxymoron if there ever was one, because the quintessential nerd characteristic is alienation from mainstream society. Yet people who are definitely not nerds are only too happy to proclaim their nerddom. The White House Correspondents Dinner, the annual gathering of powerful Washington insiders and influential correspondents, has been (ridiculously) self-dubbed the “Nerd Prom.” And any Hollywood starlet who has every read a book is likely to exclaim, “I’m such a nerd.” In fact, the website Filmdrunk compiled a whole clip reel of actresses claiming to be nerds.
Let’s establish what a nerd is and isn’t. Although many nerds are smart, mere brilliance or intellectual ability is not what makes you a nerd. One of the smartest characters to ever appear on television was the teen super-genius Malcolm from “Malcolm in the Middle” but he was no nerd. Similarly, the evil chemistry genius Walter White on “Breaking Bad” was certainly not a nerd.
True nerds are obsessive or socially impaired; they focus too intently on offbeat interests or take mainstream activities like fantasy fiction, comic books and video games to the uber-extreme. They are generally physically uncoordinated and shy, and generally have problems connecting with the opposite sex. Nerds are sometimes thought to have a mild form of Asperger’s Syndrome – in the case of Abed on “Community” there’s a very clear connection between nerdiness and being “on the spectrum” – but there are others who argue against that diagnosis because nerds can at least socialize with each other.
Prior to “Big Bang,” the most famous nerd on television was Steve Urkel of “Family Matters,” an African American teen with thick glasses, high pants and squeaky voice. Urkel exhibited some classic nerd behaviors, including intelligence, physical awkwardness and poor social skills, he was too confident, optimistic and good-natured to be a true nerd. Similarly, Dwight Schrute on “The Office” had nerdy obsessions and poor interpersonal skills, but he was even more self-confident than Urkel, and, unlike most nerds, fairly successful with women.
In fact, actual nerds, like the guys in “Big Bang” and Silicon Alley,” have been in short supply on television. Television is run by those two other high school stereotypes: the popular kids/athletes, who become studio executives, and the moody sensitive wise guys, who become the writers. Nerds are as rare in the entertainment industry as football quarterbacks who play dungeons and dragons and if you’re not in the room when programming decisions get made, nobody’s going to do a TV series about you.
I think television has also been reluctant to feature nerd characters because of the danger of piling on a vulnerable group. Nerdiness is seen as a form of social disability and making fun of nerds triggers guilty feelings among adults who might not have been as sensitive as teens as they are now. Making a nerd seem ridiculous is almost as bad as mocking a blind person or someone in a wheelchair.
Where “Big Bang” succeeds is in spoofing nerdy behavior in a sweet way, while not making the characters losers. In the “Big Bang” universe, nerdy behavior is the norm, not something weird and contemptible. And it’s funny, in that three-camera, laugh-track, mainstream kind of way.
The recent emergence of nerds on television is almost certainly related to their increasing power and prestige in the economy. As the writer Charles J. Sykes put it, “Be nice to nerds. You may end up working for them.” The country’s most exciting companies, all of which seem to be technology firms, were founded by and are run by nerds: Google, Facebook, Apple, Facebook, Twitter. These are the Fords, Cokes and DuPonts of today.
The richest man in America is also our nerd-in-chief. Somehow having $72 billion dollars in the bank makes nerdiness look a little more attractive, but Bill Gates’ recent video on the Ice Bucket Challenge showed that he can also parody his own nerd character when he wants to.
Fame, fortune, high ratings; can we expect more nerds on TV? Given the copycat nature of television, I’d be very surprised if someone doesn’t look at the huge success of “The Big Bang Theory,” and try to rip it off. But they better be careful. There’s an insatiable appetite for shows about good-looking people and clever people because that’s who people want to be. Today’s nerds might be rich, but few viewers would actually aspire to be nerdier than they already are. Most guys would rather hit a major league home run than design a home computer. I’m guessing that television’s appetite for nerds is nearing satiety.