By David Ross. Back in the day, all kinds of people were plausibly brainy society girls like Katherine Hepburn in Philadelphia Story, working girls like Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday – but in our day the mind itself has been knocked from its pedestal, and ostentatious braininess or even quick-wittedness has become a form of social disease. The socially acceptable posture is an easygoing indifference to little things like knowledge, logic, and consistency (“Dude, take it easy, what’s the difference.”). All of this is implicit in the evolution of the 50’s egghead (object of bemused respect) into the 80’s nerd (victim of locker-room sadism and prom-night ridicule).
Some thirty years into the era of the nerd proper, writers and directors have realized the possibilities of the nerd intelligence and released the nerd from his tiresome battle with his varsity persecutors. The advantage of the nerd as a comic vehicle is the freedom conferred by the premise of intelligence. Irony, quick-witted badinage, literary and cultural reference, intricacies of self-consciousness and self-satire all are suddenly in play. To be sure, the futile pursuit of nooky remains a staple of nerd comedy, but in large part the nerd mind is now permitted to roam its own weird and self-involved universe. The watershed event was the series Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000), which brought a new anthropological attention and respect to the culture of the nerd, while showcasing an impressive roster of young actors (Samaire Armstrong, James Franco, Seth Rogan, Jason Schwartzman, and Martin Starr, among others).
It does not go too far to say that we are now living the golden age of the nerd. I’m thinking of Jonah Hill (Superbad), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Superbad), Jim Parsons (The Big Bang Theory), and Jason Schwartzman (Rushmore), but most especially of Martin Starr (Freaks and Geeks, Adventureland, Party Down). A classic nerd in the limb-tangled, four-eyed mold, Starr plays much the same role in Adventureland and Party Down (a mordantly funny series about a team of misfit caterers in L.A.). He’s the geek who has attempted to transform himself into the intellectual, but only managed to become a geek with pseudo-intellectual pretensions. As a struggling writer of hard sci-fi in Party Down, he scornfully considers himself surrounded by morons and cultural degenerates, when in fact he’s a kook among kooks and perfectly in his element.
If nebbishness is a nerd sub-category, we can also mention the spawn of Woody Allen: Larry David (Curb Your Enthusiasm), Eugene Levy (American Pie ad infinitum), and Ben Stiller (Flirting with Disaster especially), while the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man makes the nerd a kind of theological and metaphysical test case, asking the question that in some sense the entire nerd tradition asks: Why do the nicest and smartest guys wind up with wedgies, in whatever sense?
Among the younger crop of nerd practitioners, all are Jewish or Jewish-seeming, with the single exception of Jim Parsons, who plays Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory. Cooper is one of the funniest characters in TV history, but his goyishness seems somehow contra naturem. The show is not without its classic Jewish nerd, of course. Simon Helberg – who appeared as a feckless young rabbi in A Serious Man - plays Howie Wolowitz, in a funny turn that’s yet a little too thick with cliché (endless gags about Wolowitz’s emasculating mother and her brisket).
One wonders whether the entire tradition of the nerd is not merely a secularization of some obscure strand in Jewish cultural and intellectual history. Was Kafka’s alter-ego K the original nerd of Western culture, or does K channel a paradox of intellectual superiority and social victimization that goes back farther still, perhaps all the way to the Bible?