Nerd resurge

Geek heroes sweep screens big and small
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ZEITGEIST This year just may go down as the one when nerds finally ruled the school, scattering HP calculators, parentally purchased button-downs, and World of Warcraft guild master credentials as they tripped on their own shoelaces on their way into WonderCon or the Lick Observatory. The infestation of all screens big and small hasn't been quite so intense since the Ronald Reagan–era '80s, when nerds were regularly toasted on TV's Happy Days, then found fame in the cineplex's Revenge of the Nerds (1984). Freaks, geeks, grinds, dorks, and losers have come a long way from Andy Kaufman cohort Fred Blassie's 1976 novelty tune, "Pencil Neck Geek," and even further along from George Jones's 1993 track "High-Tech Redneck" and the emergence of Pharrell Williams's NERD production squad. Freaks and Geeks, Ugly Betty, and Steve Urkel of Family Matters have laid the foundation for fall's TV invasion, including Aliens in America, in which an Asian exchange student meets geek with his nerd host; The IT Crowd, otherwise known as "Dances with Dudes Who Keep Late Hours Serving Your Server"; and Chuck, whose title character oversees a so-called Nerd Herd at the local Best Buy–esque big-box retailer and dabbles in international espionage. Shoring up the projected sales for Benjamin Nugent's book, American Nerd: The Story of My People, due out in 2008, are silver-screen nerd workouts like Rocket Science, which painfully, wittily details the trials of a stuttering, would-be school debater trying to beat the odds with lots of baggage. The hot nerd sport of table tennis will be sent up in the forthcoming Balls of Fury, and the awkward raunch of nerd-focused teen sex comedy returns with next week's gut-busting Superbad, buttressed by costar Michael "Baby Beck" Cera, who pushes the nerdiness of his übergeek character George Michael in Arrested Development to new heights in this and on his online TV series, Clark and Michael. Despite the fact that Underdog may be truly speaking for downtrodden puppies everywhere, Superbad probably represents the apogee of nerdocity, being coproduced by current comedy master of the universe Judd Apatow, who has played not a small part in the hip-to-be-uncool movement with the aforementioned Freaks and The 40 Year-Old Virgin.

So nerds rock, but why? Chalk it up to a once firmly bitch-slapped and now somewhat resuscitated tech sector — or an infusion of energy and capital in Silicon Valley? Is nerd valorization part of a backlash against the hippie hotties of the early '00s — and a back-to-the-future glance at Reagan social conservatism? Or is this simply where all our heads are these days, as a logical extension of a perpetually wired culture? Nerdiness has seeped so deeply into everyday life that everyone, even the brawny bullies who spindled pocket protectors in the past, must to pay due respect when faced with a blank monitor. (Kimberly Chun)

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