Comedy in film has been defined by both decade and generation. From Laurel and Hardy to Martin and Lewis to “Saturday Night Live” lineups, audiences identify with the comics of the day. Some of it appeals across generations, say like a Johnny Carson or Jay Leno, while some film genres have an expected and supportive generation. After the post-Vietnam changes in the U.S., comedy established a new benchmark with “National Lampoon’s Animal House” in 1978 but it was the early 1980s when the raunchy teen comedy blossomed and earned almost instant cult status. “Porky’s” (click here for my review) in 1982 (made by the same director who did “A Christmas Story” – click here for my review) became the raunchy standard of the day. It didn’t take long for the next benchmark to arrive: “Revenge of the Nerds” in 1984. “Revenge of the Nerds” is a terrifically funny film with its R-rated zing but, like “Animal House,” has some layers and is actually a decent motion picture.
‘Revenge of the Nerds’
(1984; 90 minutes; rated R; directed by Jeff Kanew and starring Robert Carradine, Anthony Edwards and Timothy Busfield)
Back in the day there was an ensemble cast comedy based on the real-life fraternity experiences of a “National Lampoon” writer Chris Miller. Along with “Lampoon” editor Doug Kenney and another “Lampoon” alumnus, director Harold Ramis, the trio brought “Animal House” to the screen. Things wouldn’t be the same again in R-rated, youth-oriented comedy.
Although there were some good attempts in the genre (“The Hollywood Knights” of 1980 is a good example for the high school set – click here for my review), the next notable college-themed success story was “Revenge of the Nerds” in 1984. “Revenge of the Nerds” It had a great ensemble cast, too, and plays out with only a few agreeable flaws. Overall, it’s better (not necessarily funnier) than “Porky’s” but nowhere as good as “Animal House.”
“Revenge of the Nerds” celebrated its 30th anniversary this past Aug. 10 and it actually stands the test of time well. None of its cast members would see the success of a John Belushi in its wake, but “Revenge of the Nerds” does have a cast that would do excellent work, if not always recognized. It does suffer with some stereotyping that can be a bit disconcerting today, but the film earns a pass because it is so funny and tries to be inclusive. Also, remember it was released in 1984.
In “Revenge of the Nerds,” two friends go off to college. They’re obviously overly intelligent nerds who are embarking on the time of their lives with absolutely no idea of the train that’s about to hit them. Along with other nerds, they pinball from getting tossed out of the freshman dorm by football players to finding their own house to be pranked and expressly humiliated by the coolest frat and sorority on campus. They finally hook up with a national fraternity (whose membership is, until that moment, all African-American) and begin taking their revenge on the cool people who’ve been tormenting them.
After an intra-fraternity competition where they win and get to name the new president of the Greek Council and one of the guys gets the quarterback’s girlfriend, the football players strike back until the guys’ brothers all show up at the most opportune time to save the day (the fraternity members are a ton more intimidating than the lily white football players). One of the guys gets to make the climactic speech (stereotype alert!) and everyone loves the nerds.
I’m especially impressed that a film in this genre actually does a good job moving the plot along. It’s one smooth transition after another and truly isn’t a bad film overall.
As “Lewis Skonick,” Robert Carradine is just pitch-perfect as the pocket protector-wearing, braying laugh little guy. He’s endearing, optimistic and hopeful: everything the cool people want to make fun of. Carradine becomes “Lewis” and all too easily looks like he’s the latest candidate for a wedgie. He was also in “The Long Riders” (click here for my review), “TAG: The Assassination Game” (click here for my review) and more recently in “Django Unchained.”
Anthony Edwards, who is most famously “Goose” in “Top Gun” with Tom Cruise, is Carradine’s best friend “Gilbert Lowell.” Edwards is the shy, retiring guy whose sense of self-confidence is just under the surface. Edwards is better here than he was in another college-age flick “Gotcha!” (click here for my review) as well as “How I Got Into College” (click here for my review) and won a Golden Globe (and three nominations) for his work on TV’s “ER.”
Here’s a quick rundown of the other nerds:
- Timothy Busfield plays “Arnold Poindexter” and you won’t recognize him: he wears bottle-thick glasses, has a horrible haircut and no self-confidence. I’ve never been a fan of Busfield’s work outside of “Nerds” and “Sneakers” with Robert Redford (click here for my review).
- Curtis Armstrong has the most iconic character here as he plays “Dudley ‘Booger’ Dawson.” Armstrong uses nose-picking and general disorder to his advantage with the most worldly-wise member of the team. He has the edge, but knows he’s a nerd and sticks with his friends. Armstrong was also in “Smokin’ Aces” and a bunch of TV roles in a prolific career of 140 credits over four decades.
- I’m don’t believe the gay character “Lamar Latrell” played by Larry B. Scott was much accepted by the homosexual community (talk about a sterotype), but Scott makes something of his character – especially with the javelin engineered for his “limp wristed” style (understand why I don’t believe the gay community doesn’t embrace “Lamar?”). Scott was also in the under-appreciated “Space Camp” (click here for my review) and “The Karate Kid.”
- Andrew Cassese and Brian Tochi play “Harold Wormser” and “Toshiro Takahsi” respectively. Both most likely are not embraced by the pre-teen and Asian audiences for their stereotypes. Cassese was in his first film here and he did the first sequel in a short career of nine roles. Tochi has been in a wide range of films from “The Omega Man” with Charlton Heston to the 1990 film version of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”
Here’s a quick look at the nerds’ tormentors:
- Julia Montgomery plays “Betty Childs” (she was Julie in the film’s credits) and she’s the hot cheerleader who at first works hard at humiliating the nerds and then becomes the girlfriend of Carradine. She has also been in “Milk Money.”
- Ted McGinley plays “Stan Gable,” who is the star quarterback and main tormentor of the nerds. McGinley is excellent in this role and seems born to it. He’s known with audiences as the man who caused several major TV productions to “jump the shark” (the point where they began failing) – including “Happy Days” and “The Love Boat.” He’s probably most recognizable as “Jefferson D’Arcy” on TV’s “Married With Children.”
- Along with “Booger,” one character that stands out is “Fred ‘Ogre’ Palowalski” played by Donald Gibb. He’s funny and always on the verge of out-of-control. Gibb has also been in “Bloodsport” and a string of TV roles.
Veteran actor John Goodman does a nice turn with little material as the rambunctious football leader “Coach Harris” (his name is never spoken and you only see his name on a door. Goodman looks like he’s having a ball with the paper-thin character but his talent alone elevates it. Goodman has been in the cult classic “The Big Lebowski,” “The Big Easy” (click here for my review) and was in “The Monuments Men” released earlier this year.
I’d like to focus a bit more on the work of James Cromwell as Carradine’s father (he was Jamie in the credits) and David Wohl as the college dean. Both do good work, but I’m out of time.
There were three sequels to “Revenge of the Nerds,” but only the second one is even close to being watchable. The second takes place at a national fraternity gathering and parallels the first, with the exception that “Ogre” becomes a friend an ally. Forget the third and fourth all together.
“Revenge of the Nerds” was the 16th ranked film at the domestic box office in 1984 with $40.8 million in ticket sales, according to Box Office Mojo. Its total income went over $60 million with video rentals, according to Wiki. Another great raunchy comedy from the year was Tom Hanks’ truly hilarious “Bachelor Party” (19th with $38.4 million — click here for my review) while the No. 1 film was “Beverly Hills Cop” with $234.7 million. “Red Dawn” came in 20th with $38.3 million (click here for my review) and the very funny, but almost forgotten, “Top Secret!” which was Val Kilmer’s first film, was 52nd with $20.4 million (click here for my review).
Assorted film notes (via IMDb.com):
- Filming at the University of Arizona was once denied when school officials read the screenplay, but they relented and filming commenced. “Booger’s” name here, “Dudley Dawson,” reportedly was the real name of the university official who initially denied the filmmakers’ request to shoot.
- Directly from IMDb.com: “On the documentary for the Special Edition DVD, it was revealed that many of the actors (including Robert Carradine, Curtis Armstrong, and Timothy Busfield) initially did not want to do the film but gave in because the movie either paid well or it was a chance for some of them, who were struggling actors, to get into a movie. “
- Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “Jami Gertz, Joan Cusack, and Sarah Jessica Parker all auditioned for the role of Judy.”
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