What do you get if you cross the panel quiz show format with a handful of unabashed pop culture enthusiasts and record it in a studio in front of a nerdish audience? You get ‘The Nerd Degree’, a decidedly geeky, kiwi podcast that wears its nerd credentials on its sleeve (and that sleeve is not on a red “away team” shirt, thanks very much).
To quote their website – Six nerds. Two teams. No Wikipedia.
‘The Nerd Degree’ is the brainchild of Christchurch writer, director and improv actor Brendon Bennetts who is also the host of the show. He explains that the project grew out of a desire to emulate panel shows like 7 Days and QI.
“A lot of my friends are improvisers and stand-up comedians, and I love watching panel shows on TV… and I just felt like… we could do that.”
The Nerd Degree’ is also a way of providing an outlet for pop culture focused humour that actually finds the right target audience.
“I used to do stand-up at places like [legendary Christchurch venue] The Dux before the earthquakes and what I noticed was that guys like Jeff Clark, Scott Koorey, Andrew Todd and myself… our stand-up was, in a lot of cases, very nerdy and the people who were coming in, that wasn’t necessarily what they’d bargained for. They’d come for stand-up comedy in a generic way and what they were often getting was pop culture references…
I felt like this was a great product but it wasn’t being delivered to the people who would really appreciate it, so [with ‘The Nerd Degree’] I was trying to put up “the nerd signal” and see who answered the call.”
And people do. The monthly live recordings at Orange Studios are well attended and there’s now a back catalogue of 5 episodes available for download.
But how much is improvised and how much is scripted? Do they really come up with all those quips and jokes on the spot?
Pretty much, yes.
“On the night the panellists know what the theme is but they don’t know ahead of time what the questions are going to be or what the games are going to be because I just think it’s more fun if it’s spontaneous.
We could go away and pre-write jokes which would be another way to do it, but I feel like there’s a joy in seeing something created off-the-cuff.”
Bennetts comes up with the show theme (recent examples are “time travel” and “humans vs machines”) and, together with show regulars who aren’t taking part in the next episode, comes up with the questions and games. As well, there are “fake sponsor” adverts that Bennetts reads between rounds which are written by the panellists.
Does the popularity of ‘The Nerd Degree’ mean that it’s now acceptable to identify as a nerd? Bennetts thinks that there has definitely been a shift towards material that was formerly “just for nerds”.
“Yes, I think that things that were primarily nerdy have now become mainstream. So your classic example is the Marvel movies. They’re so big now. What started off as comic books that were initially for kids and then were kind of for spotty 30 year-olds in Punisher t-shirts, now everyone’s into it, or at least they have access to the same concepts. So pretty much anyone now can talk about Iron Man and Captain America. Now they probably can’t reference issue #53 blah, blah, blah, “The Kree War” or anything like that but now it’s something that we can all talk about to some degree or another. So it’s become increasingly acceptable to like those kinds of things.”
And ‘The Nerd Degree’ is, like all nerdly enterprises, about enjoying whatever pursuits or interests you love, and freeing yourself from the shackles of cool.
Says Bennetts, “last year I tried LARPing (Live Action Roleplaying) for the first time. I’d always avoided it because it has such a reputation for being the nerdiest thing possible. I ended up having a total blast. I’d been missing out on all this fun because I was worried about appearing uncool.
It seems like we put up barriers to enjoying the things that we like because we’re worried about appearing cool or something, and the less we worry about being cool, the more fun we can have.