Revenge of the Nerds

Wil Forbis
February 16, 2003


Somehow I knew always knew it would come to this. When we first conceived of the concept of Motherfucking Masterpieces while nestled deep in the Antarctic lair that serves as the Acid Logic fortress of solitude, the idea was to run articles that applauded the films, albums and books that, for those with the warped acid logic perspective, stood out. While the rest of society went apeshit over "Citizen Kane," we would throw feces at "Repo Man." While everybody else went ga-ga over "Gone With the Wind," we would go goo-goo over "Maximum Overdrive." And even at that moment I must have known I would have to do a piece on "Revenge of the Nerds."

So why the reticence? Why the furtive hope that someone else - Saleeby or Cody Wayne or Sandra Kay - would beat me to it? Simply because of the obvious question that one is prone to ask of any author who commits to paper an essay praising the film "Revenge of the Nerds" as one of the great cinematic triumphs of the past 30 years.

Are you a nerd?

Me? No, no at all, I mean I like watching nerds, but I certainly wouldn't consider myself a nerd. I'm much too... well, you know, to be a nerd. I mean sure, I've the glasses but at that point the similarities end, you know? I'm a playa baby!

Well... kind of.

But is not the whole point of "Revenge of the Nerds" that deep down, on some level, we're all nerds? Does it not seek to find that lost child that lies within all of us, the lonely geek that felt left out, put down or spat upon? Doesn't the film serve notice to the beautiful people, that, in the words of lead nerd Lewis Skolnik, "There's more us than there are of you."

Poindexter puts the shizzle to the f-zizzle.

Now, perhaps I'm getting ahead of myself here. Maybe you haven't seen "Revenge of the Nerds" in some time. Or perhaps, God forbid, you haven't seen it at all. So let me recap: Young nerds Lewis and Gilbert (Robert Carradine and "E.R.'s" Anthony Edwards) arrive at college, wide-eyed and filled with youthful vigor. But from day one they realize they are second class citizens in the hierarchy of college life as they and other like minded dorks are trampled upon and exploited at every turn by the jock frat, the Alpha Betas (led by that embodiment of Aryan perfection, Ted McGinley). Only by using their vast nerdly wits are the boys able to fight back, first being accepted into the national, all-black fraternity, Lamda Lamda Lamda (which gives them a certain institutional recognition in the Greek system) then by gaining the control of the Greek council by winning the mid season, frat house competition that involves such tests of manhood as the javelin toss and the burping contest. But even that doesn't mark their final victory, which comes when Gilbert, after seeing their fraternity house ransacked by the violent Alpha Betas, marches out to the football field during a pep rally and gives a stirring speech of nerd redemption to a gathered crowd.

So what prompted the Hollywood elites to look up from their cocaine troughs and take a chance on a delicate story about young, pencil-necked geeks trying to find their place in the world?  A lot of it had to do with the fact that "Revenge of the Nerds" could be classified under the prototypical 80's genre of film: the sex comedy. While sex comedies have had a successful comeback with the "American Pie" films, their heyday really was the late 70's and early 80's. It was during this period that such masterworks as "Losin' It," "Meatballs," "Porky's," were released on the world. True to form, each of these films delivered a measured portion of juvenile antics mixed in with gratuitous T&A. But "ROTN" was different and ultimately went on to become the most popular of the genre. Why? Because mixed in with all the foolishness, the tits and ass, the liquid heat being poured into jock straps, and the panty raids* was a genuine rumination on the experience of being the odd man out that really struck a nerve for people**. A lot of viewers, probably more than the producers could have counted on, related to the film in a dorky, bashful sort of way.

* As Cody Wayne recently confirmed for me, the panty raid scene is forever imprinted on the brain of anyone who was a male teenager in the 80's, as it was the first time most of us had ever seen bush (and I don't mean the president) on film. Hell, it was probably the first time most of us had seen bush period. (It's a safe bet that if you were the kind of kid who watched "ROTN" you probably weren't getting any.) Truely a breakthrough moment in cinematic history.

** A few years ago I did an interview with Curtis Armstrong, one of the ensemble stars of the film, in which he said "[The movie] had this theme in it that definitely spoke to people. A message of tolerance and acceptance and all that. And there are a lot of lonely, disenfranchised young people out there - guys, usually - who grab onto the Nerds as being this floating life raft. Because the thing about the Nerds, what made them so appealing, was that not only are they underdogs, [but] they are underdogs who accept other underdogs unconditionally. And that speaks volumes to people."

Of course, it didn't hurt that the film reveled in some of the same stereotypes it was condemning. I mean, Lewis and Gilbert are fucking dorks! Curtis Armstrong's Booger is a nose-picking, belching social reject that inspires not a whit of sympathy. And even I wouldn't blame the gay community for getting upset with the limp-wristed, girly voiced presentation of Larry B Scott's Lamar. Half the time you're laughing with the nerds, but for the other half, you're definitely laughing at them.

More info about "Revenge of the Nerds"
The Acid Logic interview with Curtis Armstrong
Fun for nerds of all ages.

Sounds and Images
Including Booger's belch!

Revenge of the Nerds vs Animal House
The mother of all grudge matches.

ROTN and the Art of War
A look at nerd warfare.

"Revenge of the Nerds" also had a pretty loose definition of the term "nerd." Granted Lewis and Gilbert were "classic" nerds who never appeared without a pocket protector or missed the opportunity to end a sentence with that annoying nerd laugh. And Timothy Busfield's Poindexter (C'mon, you can't have a movie about nerds without a character named "Poindexter.") was only a mild variation on this, accenting his nerdishness with mannerisms that bespoke of a youthful overdose of Ritalin. But the slovenly Booger was really far removed from nerdhood - he wasn't smart or clean (nerd hallmarks) and made no attempt to hide his hedonistic pursuit of drugs or women. Lamar was simply gay (about as flaming as they get) while Brian Tochi's Takeshi  was the quintessential foreign exchange student. (Not that they don't have Japanese nerds - a fact the film allows when Takeshi tries to find boarding in the house of a Asian businessman who turns him away with a flurry of sternly worded Japanese followed by the sole engrish noun, "NERD!")

By expanding the definition of what we would call a nerd, the filmmakers were more likely to offer up characters the audience could relate to. But they also pulled on the heartstrings in a more questionable way, trying to link the cause of nerd rights to Black Civil rights. After all, the only fraternity that even considered accepting the nerd house is the African American Tri-Lams. (Hilariously headed by blaxsploitation tough guy, Bernie Casey who can do little to contain his discomfort in dealing with his painfully white protégées, though he ultimately proves instrumental to their redemption.) And there's no doubt that much of the hazing and abuse the nerds suffer throughout are duplicated from the real life tribulation black students had to endure in the onset of desegregation. Some might even find the scene when the Nerds peer out into their front lawn and are confronted by a flaming "NERDS" sign a bit much to take. But. well, frankly, lighten up. It is after all, a comedy.

It is, perhaps, people's inclination to take "Revenge of the Nerds" a bit to seriously that leads some to criticize the film. The most famous example of such criticism can be found in the recently released docu-comedy, "American Splendor", a movie detailing the hilarious, real life travails of comic author Harvey Pekar. In one scene, Harvey, his wife Joyce, and his co-worker, Tobey (self-proclaimed "Genuine Nerd") travel 250 miles to see the then newly released "ROTN." As they leave the theater, Pekar can't contain his disdain for the film, lambasting it for inflating the tribulations of bourgeois teenagers. (Joyce defends the film, saying, "It's like Martin Luthur King's "I have a dream," speech, showing that she too recognizes the Nerd rights/civil rights metaphor.) As funny as I found the scene (and it is indeed, very funny) I have to confess, I was a little offended at Harvey's insinuations. Certainly there's some truth to what he says - "Revenge of the Nerds," like most mainstream schlock, does focus on the plight of middle-to-upper-class characters (see "Breakfast Club") - but once again, this is a comedy that doesn't ask to be taken that seriously*. For example, one might be better able to view Gilbert's final proclamation that "No one's really gonna be free until Nerd persecution ends" with a straight face if the movie weren't already several strains into Queen's "We are the Champions."

* I'm sure that many cultural critics of Pekar's ilk would say that even comedies should be fully autopsied for their role in the social inequalities that plague American culture, and these critics would have a point, but God you people take the fun out of life.

In the end, it's really a matter of choosing whether the glass is half empty or half full. Yes, "Revenge of the Nerds" is mostly a dumb comedy, it relies on many of the same stereotypes it claims to be fighting, it makes a dubious attempt to compare the plight of nerds to that of blacks and it probably exploits women and a host of other societal ills. But it's also a film that has heart. Amidst the sit-com antics is a genuine plea for people to focus not what on separates us, but what unites us. If such a message were delivered by a self righteous Richard Gere or misty eyed Angela Basset, movie goers now jaded by Hollywood's endless faux-sentimentality might nod off  in the viewing. But after watching a film like "Revenge of the Nerds" even a confirmed misanthrope like myself makes a small resolution to try and treat my fellow man with a little more dignity, understanding and compassion.

At least until the end of the day.


Wil Forbis
is the pen named shared by such noted authors as James Ellroy, Katie Roiphe, and Jim Thompson. E-mail him, I mean, them, at

View Wil's Acid Logic web log, a stirring endorsement of sex with pandas!


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