Was the Revenge Of The Nerds series a prophetic vision of our present?

Was the Revenge Of The Nerds series a prophetic vision of our present?

With Run The Series, A.A. Dowd examines film franchises, studying how they change and evolve with each new installment. Fair warning: Spoilers are inevitable.

Long before Chris Hardwick hosted TV shows, Rivers Cuomo set X-Men references to power chords, and your dad knew everything about computers, “nerd” was still a four-letter word. Pinpointing the exact moment that changed—when the word became something people call themselves, not an insult to sling at others—is basically impossible. But the writing was on the wall as early as 1984, when the ribald campus comedy Revenge Of The Nerds let its freak flag fly. “I’m a nerd,” announces Gilbert (Anthony Edwards), the film’s sweetly awkward protagonist, during the climax. Soon, others are rising to their feet in a show of solidarity, proudly admitting the same. Was this the first pop-culture reclamation of the word? Did Gilbert and his big coming out speech open the floodgates for self-identifying nerds everywhere? Or is all that just a bit too much cultural freight to put on a movie featuring a belching contest between characters named Booger and Ogre?

The Revenge Of The Nerds series is a quintessential product of its era—a franchise that could only have been born in the pre-web years, when being good with computers was still the purview of so-called geeks and losers. The original film was released in 1984, months after the first Mac came out, while the fourth and final installment arrived in 1994, months before Windows ’95 hit stores. That’s a decade of momentous change, both cultural and technological. No wonder each Revenge sequel seems less essential than the last: The very definition of “nerd” was changing by the year, becoming less meaningful as the Internet began to obliterate the distance between mainstream interests and fringe ones. (In the age of torrents and search engines, becoming a superfan of something or an expert on a topic starts with clicking a few buttons.)

Then again, is nerd even the right slur for the beleaguered members of Lambda Lambda Lambda, Revenge’s misfit fraternity? Look at the team makeup: Gilbert and his best bud Lewis (Robert Carradine), whose big teeth and snorting laugh make him prime wedgie material, certainly fit the egghead bill. So too does Arnold Poindexter (Timothy Busfield), the bespectacled, near-mute alien spazz, and 12-year-old Harold Wormser (Andrew Cassese). But what of Japanese student Takashi (Brian Tochi), whose main crime is that he has a thick accent? And then there’s Lamar (Larry B. Scott), who’s gay, and Booger (Curtis Armstrong), who’s a slob with bad hygiene. Really, the only thing these characters have in common is that they’re all social pariahs. Revenge Of The Outcasts might have been a more appropriate title.

The films exist in a strange alternate universe where specific prejudices—based on class, race, sexual orientation, and so forth—have been replaced by a general mistrust of Otherness. The villainous jocks hate the Lambdas only because they’re different, not for how they’re different. “They all look alike to me,” says one of the cruel sorority sisters, ignoring the vast disparity in appearance between, say, Booger and Takashi. The Revenge world is one of very efficient intolerance: Why be specifically homophobic or racist when you can just call them all nerds and be done with it? The series thus functions as a crude civil-rights parable, with later entries making that connection more explicit.

The original Revenge remains the highlight, mostly by virtue of its uneasy blend of sweetness and raunch. A slobs-vs.-snobs comedy in which the slobs have been replaced by the painfully uncool, Revenge Of The Nerds follows the university-warfare template set by Animal House. (Both sides have a Bluto, with Booger filling that role for the Lambdas and Donald Gibb’s bellowing caveman Ogre filling it for the stuck-up Alpha Betas.) Kicked out of the freshman dorm after football players burn down their own house, Gilbert and Lewis find themselves grouped with a gang of fellow untouchables, all of whom have been forced to live in a kind of makeshift refugee center in the gym. They form a fraternity to gain better housing, convincing the head of the otherwise all-black Lambda Lambda Lambda organization to grant them probationary membership. But will the Alpha Betas find a way to force them out of their new home, too? This being a college comedy, there are panty raids, keg parties, and a climactic frat Olympics, during which the heroes prove their stealth hipness by briefly transforming into a new wave band. (Oddly, they also cheat to win the first event—a pretty bogus move that’s never remarked upon.) 

Revenge fancies itself a plea for tolerance and inclusion, and there’s something faintly endearing about its portrait of outsiders achieving victory through togetherness. Yet, like its small-screen descendant The Big Bang Theory, the film “celebrates” its nerds by reducing them to outrageous stereotypes, not so far removed from how real jocks might see their meeker classmates. While it’s nice, for example, that the guys are okay with Lamar being gay, the film also finds him winning the javelin event thanks to his “limp-wrist” throwing style. As anyone who’s been called Poindexter can attest, being lumped in with the nerds of Revenge Of The Nerds is not flattering. The movie’s an underdog story for the overdogs. 

Of course, you could also argue that Revenge is an equal opportunity offender, painting its BMOC villains as moronic party animals and their sorority-girl counterparts as bitchy bimbos. The latter, especially, take a lot of abuse—sometimes literally speaking. Like Meatballs or Porky’s or any of the decade’s other boys-behaving-badly comedies, Revenge revels in sophomoric sexual high jinks, but the gags occasionally shade from innocuously pervy to downright creepy. In the film’s worst moment, Lewis masquerades as the villain, Alpha Beta leader Stan (Ted McGinley), in order to screw his girlfriend, Pi Delta Pi cheerleader Betty (Julia Montgomery). Rather than being horrified to discover that she’s basically been raped by a stranger, Betty swoons for her nerd conqueror. She also instantly forgives the fact that Lewis has been disseminating naked photos of her across campus. It’s enough to make your skin crawl.

To the chagrin of horny teenagers everywhere, the Revenge sequels basically eliminated all traces of T&A. (Part two did so to score a PG-13, while the other two entries were made for television.) The original was also the last time that all the Lambdas would appear on-screen together; characters came and went, usually without explanation, and unmemorable new additions to the squad were added along the way. Edwards appears in only three scenes of the first sequel, his Gilbert stuck at home with a broken leg while Lewis leads the group to a frat conference in Fort Lauderdale. (The ER actor literally phoned in his performance, giving his BFF a couple long-distance pep talks before permanently exiting the series—though the third film would recast his role for a cameo appearance.) Takashi is MIA from the second film, but shows up again in the later ones, while Poindexter is never seen or heard from again after part two, despite the fact that he’s prominently featured on the poster for the fourth movie. The series mainstays are Lewis, who becomes the fearless leader in Gilbert’s absence, and Booger, who takes center stage in Revenge Of The Nerds IV: Nerds In Love. Armstrong, who went on to become a somewhat ubiquitous character actor, adds an invaluably energetic flavor, his Booger an unlikely ace in the franchise’s hole (or nostril, as it were).

All the sequels are misjudged, but for very different reasons. Revenge Of The Nerds II: Nerds In Paradise (1987) plays like a tropical knockoff of its predecessor, regurgitating many of the same plot points. Beginning again with a road trip, the film soon finds the nerds getting kicked out of their lodging (a Florida hotel), finding lousy new lodging (a much shittier Florida hotel), trusting the villains and paying for it, sparring with the heads of another frat counsel, throwing their own party, and stopping the movie cold with a musical performance. There’s also a go-nowhere subplot in which Blade Runner’s James Hong teaches Booger how to hock a loogie “from the soul,” as well as a new love interest for Lewis, even as the film more than once reminds viewers that he’s still with Betty. (Hasn’t she suffered enough?) The main highlight here is seeing Bradley Whitford, of The West Wing fame, play the new preppie-douchebag adversary. He’s shockingly convincing in the part.

The series moved to television in 1992 with Revenge Of The Nerds III: The Next Generation. As its title suggests, the movie features a new class of nerds, including Lewis’ snorting nephew (Gregg Binkley) and an obese British student (John Pinette) inexplicably brought back for the final installment. Resembling one of those “what if?” TV episodes in which the pre-established rules are turned on their ear, Next Generation finds the boys’ alma mater, Adams College, now run by the mouth-breathers. (One character even calls it a “nerd Israel.”) Lewis, meanwhile, who’s married Betty, has now become a self-loathing nerd. His old rival, Stan, tricks him into supporting his campaign for dean, in a dastardly scheme to win the campus back for the athletes.

That’s not the worst idea for a Revenge sequel—in theory, it beats the copy job that Paradise performed—and Next Generation gets by briefly on the novelty of its bizarro-world conceit. But laughs are in very short supply: The mischievous spirit of the original is an ancient memory, replaced by a much more sanitized vision of college mayhem. One of the pranks, which makes approximately zero sense, finds the boring new nerds rigging a rival’s shower with paint, so that he emerges looking like either a candy cane or a barber pole, depending on who you ask.

The screenplay, written by three of the authors of the first Revenge, leans much too heavily on the phony friendship between Stan and Lewis, waiting until the final third to let the latter become his old self again. As for the nerds-as-oppressed-minorities angle, it mutates here into a labor metaphor, with the computer-savvy geeks going on strike and shutting down the whole town. Here, again, is a sign that the Revenge movies could only exist during the time period that produced them, before basically everyone became at least somewhat proficient with computers. How different is the satirical geektopian campus of Next Generation than our own techie-controlled present?

In Revenge Of The Nerds IV: Nerds In Love (1994), the creative team took the racial/class undertones of the franchise even further, into Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? territory. Having improbably fallen in love with Booger, Omega Mu sorority girl Jeannie (Corinne Bohrer) scandalizes her wealthy, Republican, nerd-hating parents by announcing that she’s marrying the schlub. “She’s obviously getting even with us,” theorizes the father, while the mother pointedly asks, “Can’t we all just get along?” Much of what follows is primitive culture-class farce, with the nerd herd invading polite society, acting like incorrigible weirdos while a supporting cast of stuffy aristocrats look on in horror. As if suddenly aware that they forgot to include an essential college-movie trope, the screenwriters insert a food fight into the proceedings. That’s about as wild as things get during this nuptial-themed final installment. Even a bachelor-party trip to the strip club is safe for television.

Many franchises grow more sentimental with age, as the filmmakers either indulge their own affection for the characters or cater to the audience’s. The Revenge series is no exception, ending as it does with the narrative equivalent of a group hug. Nerds In Love gets gooey often, turning the horndog Booger into a middle-aged romantic and reducing most of the other nerds to emotionally supportive background players. In a way, the film treats its outsider heroes more charitably than the original did: The Lambdas seem less like walking punchlines and more like actual people—probably because the actors who play them have had time, and several other movies, to give their characters a little nuance. The flip side is that Nerds In Love may be the most laugh-free entry in the whole series. In place of jokes, there are only heart-to-hearts. Watching the film is like catching up with an old buddy you used to party with in college, only to discover that he’s now a boring, domesticated square.

As comic parables about the struggle of marginalized groups, the Revenge films are fundamentally hopeful, even utopian. But they’re also weirdly prescient, anticipating the rise of nerds as cultural heroes and the way that everyone, in the modern age, has more or less become a nerd. Throughout the course of the series, many of the antagonists switch sides: Ogre gets fitted with glasses and a pocket protector at the end of Nerds In Paradise, while Stan sees the error of his ways and assimilates into the Lambda pack in Next Generation. Inevitably, everyone comes around to the nerd way of life; each Revenge film ends with a triumphant display of acceptance, as all but the most stubborn of bigots fall for Lewis and his friends. Therein lies the reason, perhaps, that the Revenge franchise dried up: In the aughts and beyond, nerds simply aren’t underdogs anymore. They’ve had their revenge, and it’s living well.

Watch: Revenge Of The Nerds

Skip: Revenge Of The Nerds II: Nerds In Paradise; Revenge Of The Nerds III: The Next Generation; Revenge Of The Nerds IV: Nerds In Love

Outside canon: In 1991, Fox aired a single, inaugural episode of a Revenge Of The Nerds sitcom. Basically a condensed version of the original film, the pilot reduced the number of nerds to four—Gilbert, Lewis, Booger, and (strangely) Harold—but otherwise stuck closely to its recycled plot. Reviews were reportedly so scathing that Fox scrapped the series entirely. For curious masochists, this one-off failure is available on Dailymotion and as part of the Nerds DVD box set.

A 2007 Revenge remake, produced by and starring The O.C.’s Adam Brody, made it two weeks into production before the studio pulled the plug. The cited reasons for shit-canning the project include disappointment over early dailies and problems with the campus it was being shot on. Or perhaps everyone just realized that a modern Revenge Of The Nerds isn’t a very good idea.

Next up: Mission: Impossible

[NOTE: After the first edition of Run The Series was published, it came to my attention that a couple of other sites have similar features. Both Witney Seibold’s The Series Project and Joshua Miller’s Franchise Me are great reads.]

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