How to Make a Nerd

The 1980s gave nerds a space in popular culture, usually as the butt of a joke or the enemy of jocks. But there was also a strain of nerd-fear, a sense that in the near future these nerds would take over and non-nerds would be punished. Their large nerd brains were up to God knows what: Matthew Broderick nearly set off a nuclear war and Val Kilmer subverted the beverage industry by making his own currency.

Now that I’m finally talking about Real Genius (1985) I can finally admit how I was convinced for years that Mitch was Sarah Jessica Parker. But I digress. These 80s nerds, cross-dressing or not, were the future and as a child HBO/CTW’s Encyclopedia was an essential part of my nerd formation.

I haven’t seen an episode in over two decades, but I still fondly remember the cast and the band, “Betty.” When I was a kid I thought these adults explaining things were pretty cool and I’m happy/not surprised that I turned out like them. In hindsight, it’s a pretty weird concept: certain entries from an encyclopedia are explained, often through catchy songs, by goofy actors.

“Leif Ericson” through reggae, sure, why not? Every third-grader will buy at least one Bob Marley album in their lifetime. Another favorite entry was “Optimist.”

There’s really little room for misunderstanding here. Also, Mr. Pessimist paved the way for a more nuanced view of life and a general embrace of all things Woody Allen. Speaking of philosophy, how do you teach kids about “Infinity” without freaking them out?

Harmonies, space clothes, and an overall New Age feel. P.S. “Betty” is still around! They just got a new Twitter follower. I could talk about Encyclopedia all day, but I have nerd things to do. I leave you with “Duck” in honor of the great 80s nerd, Duckie, and because I want to reincarnate as a duck.

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