Although my early childhood was spent wishing I was flying through space in the Millennium Falcon, or in the backyard pretending I was Indiana Jones or Snake-Eyes from G.I. Joe, things changed a bit when I hit 11 years old and discovered the world of those bizarro 80’s comedies from the likes of John Hughes or “Savage” Steve Holland. Films like Stripes, Summer School, Weird Science, Real Genius, Revenge of the Nerds, and my two personal favorites – Better Off Dead and One Crazy Summer – helped to lay the groundwork for what I find funny to this very day. (Not to mention awaken my burgeoning hormones at the time with some softcore nudity, and beautiful 80’s babes like Diane Franklin.)
Robert Carradine, whose unique, duck-like nerd laugh became instantly iconic, played the lead “nerd” in 1984’s Revenge of the Nerds, and Curtis Armstrong gained immediate infamy for his portrayal of the lovable, nose-picking, pot-smoking, beer-belching dengenerate Booger in the film. Armstrong also went on to play two more great roles in back-to-back Savage Steve Holland movies — he was the sublimely strange, 21-year-old high senior Charles DeMarr in Better Off Dead, and, in a 180-degree turn, played the shy pacifist Ack-Ack in One Crazy Summer.
Recently, I was fortunate enough to land an interview with these two icons of oddball 80’s cinema at the New York Comic-Con, where they hosted a panel promoting their upcoming TBS reality show, King of the Nerds. The show should be of great interest to readers of the Geek League, as it features a houseful of nerds competing in trivia wars, nerd debates, science & math challenges, and other geeky competitions until one true “King of the Nerds” is crowned.[divider]
GLA: The reality show landscape is littered with lowest common denominator stuff like Honey Boo-Boo, The Kardashians, and Redneck Millionaire. Do you feel King of the Nerds is a response to that; an attempt to bring intelligence and creativity back to the reality TV realm?
Robert: King of the Nerds is a celebration, because we didn’t want it to be putting nerds down. We wanted to bring it [nerd culture]up, shed light on it, and the curiosity, the passion, and intelligence that define being a nerd — our eclectic, accomplished cast members will show that.
Curtis: And, I would say – just personally – there’s nothing that makes me crazier than a lot that kind of reality show, and we really are doing something that’s a little different. These are really, really smart people from all walks of life, but they have one thing in common: they are real nerds. But it is, in a way, sort of a reaction to the sort of outback, redneck, type of reality television that’s so much on there, because these people love what they do, and they love the fact that they’re geeky and they love the fact that they’re intelligent. So, I think it’s a great antidote to that kind of reality television.
GLA: 25-30 years ago when you guys made Revenge of the Nerds, stuff like this massive New York Comic-Con didn’t even exist. Nerds and geeks were still a small subculture that was ridiculed and persecuted, but now “geek culture” is dominating the mainstream and even driving box office figures and TV ratings. Do you think the film was an important stepping stone to get us to this point? Do you feel a certain amount of responsibility for where nerds are today?
Robert: Boy…I would like to think that we might’ve planted the seed, because it was so long ago – 1984 – but the film does have staying power, and maybe it influenced some of those guys along the way to realize that nerds invented all this stuff that’s in our daily lives and is really important.
Curtis: Yeah, I think that it is a timeless idea of, you know, the downtrodden and the underdog prevailing, and all that. But, I do think that coming out when it did, and the way it was done – with respect to nerds, really might have had some influence on it. I wouldn’t say it made it happen, but it was definitely part of it.
GLA: A Building block…
GLA: How strange has the transition been for you guys to go from film work to reality TV hosts? Have either you had experience hosting TV shows in the past?
Robert: Well, I can’t speak for Curtis, but I can tell you that I have had no hosting experience, and with clever editing, it may not show!
Curtis: [laughing]He’s exaggerating, but it is totally new to both of us, and it’s a strange new world for us, but we learned quickly because we had to. And it seems to have worked out pretty well. But it’s very different, obviously. So much of it is reliant on what is happening within the moment. I mean, some of the things like when we’re up there announcing, for example, the challenge – whatever the “nerd war” is going to be – it is basically, you have lines, and you’re saying them, but then there are other moments when we’re interacting with the nerds –
Robert: –And it becomes a reactionary situation…
Curtis: But they – meaning the people in the production office, rather, the control room – they will be thinking, “Well, we need to get such and such,” and that is an ongoing thing. They’ll go, you know, “ask so and so this,” so you’re having to think on your feet constantly, which you don’t do as an actor.
Robert: We were wearing these devices so that the control room could talk to us while we were filming —
Curtis: In case something’s missed, you know, because we were trying to memorize the lines, if we dropped something , they’d say, “go back, say it again, this is what happens…” that kind of thing. So in that respect, just technically, it’s not at all like acting. But, in the end, you’re still standing in front of a bunch of cameras.
GLA: So, does the show take place in a stationary location, or do you take the nerds travelling to different places?
Robert: Well, it all takes place in one house, and the name of the house is “Nerdvana.”
Robert: So, they’re sequestered there for the duration of the show, and they have to live with each other and eat with each other and all that stuff.
Curtis: Now, whether we use the same house again, we don’t know.
- GLA: So what kinds of nerdy challenges do you put these people through?
Robert: Well, we have a debate on comic books for one of the challenges, another one of the challenges is two nerds teams have to write, and produce, and perform like America’s Got Talent, like a nerd-themed skit or song.
Curtis: We also had a physics challenge, which required them to determine…they had these three towers with sheets of glass within them, and bowling balls at the top, and there different variations on the weight of the balls and the thickness of the glass on each tower and they had to figure out – taking into account all the mathematical probabilities – how many sheets would break when the ball drops. You know, that kind of thing, and I still don’t know how they figured it out!
- Curtis: We’re all over : the gaming, the sci-fi, the performance, music, debating, the physics…everything is more grist for our mill. the “nerd war” is followed in every episode by a “nerd off ,” which is where we start losing people. And there’s some remote connection, but they’re all very visual; very big and pretty funny.
GLA: Okay guys, my last question is unrelated to the show, I hope that’s okay.
Robert, you just finished working with Quentin Tarantino on Django Unchained, and Curtis, you have a long history working with “Savage” Steve Holland. So, just how completely out of their minds are those two?
Robert: [smiles]Well, Quentin is a contained dynamo. I understand he hardly ever sleeps. He’s constantly writing and coming up with ideas. And I’m a little envious that he has the wherewithal to devote that much time to being creative. He was on fire, you know?
GLA: Is he the creative visionary that everyone says he is?
Robert: Oh yeah, I mean, he would watch every single take very carefully and make miniscule adjustments, and sometimes, he would just shout out, “We’re gonna do another take because –” and the whole crew would shout, “We love making movies!!!” [laughs]So he tries to keep a really good attitude on the set. He plays music between setups, it’s a feel good time.
Curtis: As for Savage, the strange thing about Savage is, when you would meet him, he is a normal as rice pudding. He’s not someone you would think would have all of that stuff in him. And he is arguably the sweetest man in the world. On the sets – and I’ve worked with him now ever since 1984 in Better Off Dead on all sorts of things: animation, TV, film, episodic stuff – no matter what he does, he has that crew with him, and everyone adores him and everyone has a great time, and everything comes together and you just go, “where did that come from?” But he’s a lovely, lovely guy, not insane at all, straight arrow.
GLA: Thanks guys!