One of the most frightening things about your true nerd, for many people, is not that he's socially inept—because everybody's been there—but rather his complete lack of embarrassment about it.—Neal Stephenson
I’ve long been a fan of various nerds on television. I think my interest began when I met Steve Urkel, the resident nerd on Family Matters, a staple of ABC’s TGIF Friday night programming. Urkel was the epitome of a nerd—he was clumsy; had a high, nasally voice; and he wore glasses and suspenders, the latter of which hiked his pants so high (So. High.) that many men probably worried about Jaleel White’s future children.
When I set down to write this post, I chanced to look up the actual definition of nerd. (I’ve long considered myself a nerd, so reading it stung a bit.) Urkel definitely fits the definition; according to Merriam-Webster, a nerd is “an unstylish, unattractive, or socially inept person; especially: one slavishly devoted to intellectual or academic pursuits.” I always felt a connection with Urkel, nerd or not. When Laura turned him down, multiple, multiple times, my heart always broke a little for him. When he fell and couldn’t get up, which was often, I wanted to offer him a hand.
Urkel certainly wasn’t the first nerd to grace our television screens. Lisa Simpson, a classic nerd girl character, first showed up on The Tracey Ullman Show in 1987. Samuel “Screech” Powers made his debut on Good Morning, Miss Bliss in 1988. (There were many before the late 80s as well.) Since Urkel’s decidedly awkward entrance into our hearts in 1989, however, a variety of nerds have entered our homes, and—dare I say it—made being nerdy cool.
In 1997, Joss Whedon brought nerds to Buffy when he gave Buffy Summers—a no-nonsense, kick butt, vampire-slaying (and loving) girl—two “sidekicks” in the form of Xander Harris and Willow Rosenberg. Xander was a pop culture nerd; he read X-Men comics and knew the Klingon language. Willow was more of the bookish variety; she was often found in the library researching or using her computer skills while the rest of the Scooby Gang were out fighting.
In 1999, the geeks took (part of) center stage in Freaks and Geeks. The titular geeks of the show played Dungeons and Dragons, were picked on in school, and were part of the Audio-Visual Club.
In 2001, we met John Michael “J.D.” Dorian, one of a group of young doctors on Scrubs. J.D.’s nerdiness came out in the many glimpses into his daydreams we were privy to and his lack of finesse with the ladies.
In 2003, Seth Cohen from The O.C. made many a girl swoon (myself included) with his love of science fiction, indie music and Captain Oats.
Many currently airing TV shows also feature nerds:
Chuck’s main character, Charles Bartowksi, is a computer science nerd-turned-super spy.
Dwight Schrute, on The Office, loves bears, beets and Battlestar Galactica.
Jess Day, on New Girl, attempts to wear overalls on a first date and makes a Lord of the Rings reference when discussing rebounds.
Penelope Garcia and Dr. Spencer Reid are essential parts of the Criminal Minds team; Garcia is a girlie-girl computer hacker and Reid is a child prodigy who is often confused by what “normal” people do.
Liz Lemon, on 30 Rock, studied theater tech at Bryn Mawr College, jazz-danced competitively, speaks “fluent” German and didn’t lose her virginity until age 25.
Four out of five of the main cast of The Big Bang Theory—Sheldon Cooper, Leonard Hofstader, Howard Wolowitz and Rajesh Koothrappali—work at CalTech studying theoretical science or mechanical engineering, visit the comic book store every Wednesday and play online MMORPGs.
Is the above a comprehensive list of nerds on TV? Obviously not. (I apologize if I have not included your favorite.) But I think you can probably see the pattern here. Although all of these characters are different, they all possess qualities that make them nerds. They’re interested in nerdy pursuits such as comic books, computer science and role-playing games. They’ve got smarts that would make them ringers at weekly pub trivia, but often lack social skills, particularly in the romance department. These qualities are what get them made fun of by other characters on their respective shows. But these qualities are also what make them so appealing to so many viewers, myself included. (For proof, see Jim Parson’s list of awards.)
Perhaps the next time Merriam-Webster makes edits to the dictionary, we can make an addendum to the nerd entry: nerd, noun: an unstylish, unattractive, or socially inept person; especially: one slavishly devoted to intellectual or academic pursuits; regardless: well-loved and inherently more interesting than “normal” individuals.