Revenge of the Nerds (1984)

Director: Jeff Kanew

Starring: Robert Carradine, Anthony Edwards, Timothy Busfield, Curtis Armstrong, Ted McGinley, Julie Montgomery, Brian Tochi, Larry B. Scott, John Goodman, Donald Gibb, Bernie Casey

One of the enduring legacies of 1980’s teen comedies is not gross-out humor (which was present but generally not as dominant as it is now), but relatable characters placed in adversarial situations with idyllic outcomes. The protagonists earn their hero worship in part by standing up and declaring unapologetically, “This is who I am!” They upstage whomever is trying to hold them down, learn something about themselves and, in the process, allow the viewer to do the same. They also get the hot girl/guy in the end… if they aren’t with them already. Can’t leave that out. Also interesting about how the main character in a teen comedy arrives at their desired goal are the decidedly anti-heroic methods they use to get their way. Indeed, if real-world logic were applied, most of these crazy kids would wind up in jail or juvenile hall for all that they do to break the rules. That’s what you call wish fulfillment. One of the few great 1980’s comedies to be neither directed nor written by John Hughes which lives and breathes this philosophy is “Revenge of the Nerds.”

Away from home for the first time, best friends Lewis Skolnick (Robert Carradine) and Gilbert Lowe (Anthony Edwards) are ready to begin their freshman year at Adams College. Although the school has many fine courses suited for young geniuses like Lewis and Gilbert, it’s also dominated by a highly successful athletics program. The Adams football team in particular rules the roost, with Coach Harris (John Goodman) standing as a more powerful authority figure than the wimpy dean. The football players, members of the Alpha Beta fraternity, basically always get their way. When they accidentally burn down their frat house (to the tune of a familiar song by the Talking Heads), the Alpha Betas take over the freshman dorms, marooning the nerds and other outcasts (a collective group of nearly every racial and social stereotype that there is) in the gymnasium.

Although the dean is too spineless to stop this or even involve the police, it’s up to the nerds to find a place to live. None of the fraternities they apply to will have them, but they do find and renovate an old abandoned house on campus. Every step of the way, the Alphas pull childish pranks in the hopes of breaking their spirit. The Greek Council is no help, since it’s stacked with Alpha Betas and members of their sister sorority, Pi Delta Pi (a.k.a. the Adams College cheerleader squad). In order to even have the chance to bring their grievances to a vote, the nerds must first join a national fraternity.

The only fraternity which accepts them (due to it being the only one not sent a group photo of the nerds) is the all-African American chapter, Lambda Lambda Lambda. The Tri-Lambs and their president U.N. Jefferson (Bernie Casey) are at first reluctant to accept the nerds into their family, until Arnold Poindexter (Timothy Busfield) points out that the bylaws specify that they are obligated to take them in on a 60-day probationary basis. The nerds plan a party to sway Jefferson to their cause. Foolishly, Lewis thinks he’s managed to secure dates with the members of Pi Delta Pi, having discussed it with head cheerleader Betty Childs (Julie Montgomery). Of course he knows full well that Betty is dating quarterback Stan Gable (Ted McGinley), the nerds’ #1 nemesis, but it was the heat of the moment and Lewis was thinking with the wrong brain. When the Pis no-show, Gilbert invited the Omega Mu sorority. The Mus are more like their male counterparts than the Pis: they may be less physically appealing, but make up for it with their intelligence. They’re also just as hesitant to dance, a problem which Booger (Curtis Armstrong) solves by supplying certain herbal refreshments.

The party is just livening up when the Alphas and the Pis crash it with a herd of pigs. The nerds seek revenge this time, first organizing a panty raid against the Pis… but it’s just a smoke screen to hide their true motives. While the shenanigans are going on, a few of the nerds set up cameras inside the Pi house, which the nerds use for their own entertainment later. Is it sick and perverse? Yes. Can it be seen as a sexual violation? Yeah, if you’re looking to slap real-world morality onto the situation. But let’s not forget that this is a movie, and the Pis haven’t exactly been portrayed as innocent up to this point. Eventually the nerds tire of watching the Pis parade around in the buff (except for Lewis, who still has a thing for Betty) and the focus is shifted to the Alphas, whose jocks are made to itch and burn to an excruciating degree. The nerds are congratulated by U.N. Jefferson for their willingness to stand up for themselves and are accepted as members of the Tri-Lamb fraternity.

Of course, all of their efforts are moot, since Stan Gable is president of the Greek Council. The only way for the nerds to ever have their voices heard is by winning the Greek Games at the homecoming carnival. Again, since the football team basically runs the show, most of the events are based in athletics. Teaming with the Mus, the nerds have luck in some areas, such as Booger winning the belching contest, but they don’t fare are well in arm wrestling, tug-of-war, and other such events. To say that the nerds resort to cheating at times is a bit strong… Let’s just say that they use their brains to devise clever rule-bending strategies. Hence, the “limp-wristed” Lamar (Larry B. Scott) wins the javelin toss with a more aerodynamic spear, Takashi wins the drunken tricycle race by first ingesting something to counteract the effects of the alcohol, and nude pictures of Betty are used to outsell the Alphas at the pie stand. Trading 1st and 2nd positions throughout the contest, the Tri-Lambs ultimately defeat the Alphas during the musical finale, during which they put on a Devo-inspired performance. Sore losers, the Alphas trash the Tri-Lambs’ house, prompting Gilbert to take an inspirational stand that unites the school’s nerd population and forces even the dean to grow a pair, all to the tune of Queen’s “We Are the Champions.”

Now to address the one thing that so many who discuss the movie seem to want to talk about. In-between the costume/food contest and the battle of the bands, Betty tries and fails to coax Stan into a sexual rendezvous. In fact, his response is typically insulting. Dejected, Betty heads off to the funhouse alone. Lewis, who has witnessed the entire thing, grabs Stan’s discarded costume and follows Betty into the funhouse. There, the two fool around (though exactly how far they go is left to our imagination), with Betty believing that Stan has changed his mind. It is only afterwards that Lewis reveals himself. Many who watch this sequence lose respect for Lewis and look at the situation as one of rape. Certainly, if this were real life, Lewis would be facing hard time for his actions. Betty is no worse for wear, as she has fallen in love with Lewis based on how sexually proficient she finds him to be. That says as much about Betty as taking advantage of her says about Lewis… and, yet again, this comedy never asked us to think too hard about these things. I never really did until I started reading online commentary on the matter. At most, I find her sudden turn a little jarring considering how awful she’d treated Lewis and the other nerds.

Perhaps one could focus more on the politically incorrect parts of “Revenge of the Nerds” if it weren’t for the terrific casting. Putting on particularly iconic performances are the two leads, Anthony Edwards and Robert Carradine (the latter of whose nerdish laugh MUST be heard to be fully appreciated). I also really like Timothy Busfield as Arnold Poindexter, even though his is not nearly as big of a part. He does get one of the most laugh-out-loud moments in the film, with his out-of-nowhere “WTF?” reaction to his arousal while watching the live video feed from the Pi house. Like any successful comedy, the nerds returned in ill-conceived sequels… three of them, actually… each one progressively worse than the last. A remake was even threatened a few years back, but was just as swiftly cancelled. Must’ve had as much to do with today’s climate as it did the chance that it was going to be horrible. Nerds are more highly thought of in what today is a much more technologically-dependent society. In some way, the ending to “Revenge of the Nerds” is reflective of this: Bullies will always exist, but it is nerds who inherit the Earth in the end.

  1. Sylvia Williams says:

    Sounds like a lot of fun!

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