Some actors specialize in romantic leads. Others make careers as evil geniuses or nurturing moms. Today, let’s give nerds a place in the sun. They trip, they choke, they make us roll our eyes and shake our heads. Sometimes, they even get the girl (or guy). They are the kids you made fun of in high school — or they’re you in high school. No need to say which.
Although he played the romantic lead in many of his own movies (especially the early ones), Woody Allen is a nerd extraordinaire. In Play It Again, Sam , he makes a killer first impression on his date by dropping her coat on the floor and then swinging it into some breakables. The agonizing discomfort he goes through in Bananas while trying to buy a nude magazine might literally make you itch. With his thick glasses, unkempt hair, and nervous stammer, Allen remains the gold standard of nerds.
Anthony Michael Hall
Sometimes a director finds a go-to nerd and sticks with him, which is what happened when John Hughes found Anthony Michael Hall. Hall managed a triple dose of teenage awkwardness in Sixteen Candles , The Breakfast Club , and Weird Science . Whether dancing in a “very hot” manner for Molly Ringwald or recounting his tragic inability to make a lamp that works, Hall is, by turns, cringe-worthy and sympathetic. Getting his pants pulled down by Robert Downey Jr. elevates him to classic status.
Ben Stiller perfectly illustrates the nerd necessities. First, an obliviousness to looking and acting stupid. See: Zoolander (pursed lips, odd strut, interchangeable “looks”). Second, incurable klutziness: in There’s Something About Mary , he suffers the ultimate self-inflicted groin injury. Third, a genuine desire to fit in: witness Stiller’s sad attempts to impress — or at least survive — his alarming potential father-in-law in Meet the Parents .
Joan Cusack’s character in Sixteen Candles was officially called Geek Girl #1, and her big scene involved banging her headgear against a water fountain as she tried to get a drink. She went on to play a boatload of wacky sidekicks, from the inappropriately loud and brassy (Working Girl) to the frazzled and clumsy ( Broadcast News ) to the cross-eyed and rather dim ( Married to the Mob ).
Jerry Lewis elevated nerdiness to an art form, incorporating slapstick, weird costuming, and even weirder voices as he played put-upon working-class heroes in The Disorderly Orderly , The Errand Boy , and The Big Mouth . He could wring laughs and squirms out of a confrontation with a salty bowl of soup ( Cinderfella ) or an invisible typewriter ( Who’s Minding the Store? ). Even his smoothies, like Buddy Love, in The Nutty Professor , were dweeby.
For stellar under-the-radar nerd performances, look no further than the career of Clint Howard, brother of director Ron Howard. He played small but memorable roles in a slew of comedies like the Austin Powers series and Rock ‘n’ Roll High School . He also appeared in B-horror flicks like Carnosaur and The Wraith and some high-profiles ( Apollo 13 , Cinderella Man , Frost/Nixon).
Rick Moranis rose to prominence on Second City Television, then went on to reprise one of his most notable characters — co-host of The Great White North — in The Adventures of Bob and Doug McKenzie: Strange Brew . His nebbish visage graced Club Paradise and Brewster’s Millions , but he really hit his stride with roles in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and Little Shop of Horrors . Moranis impresses most when contrasted with a more confident screen mate, as when he played opposite Bill Murray, in Ghostbusters .
Curtis Armstrong is uncool yet defiant as the repulsive Dudley “Booger” Dawson in the Revenge of the Nerds series. In the first film, he won an arm-wrestling match by picking his nose and grossing out his opponent. He followed up by snorting snow, in Better Off Dead , and displaying his extreme delicacy, in One Crazy Summer . Armstrong went on to roles in other loser-friendly movies like Bad Medicine , Van Wilder , and Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story .
Her résumé is heavy with television roles, but Amy Sedaris’s cinematic turns as a nerd girl are strong enough to warrant inclusion here. As Jerri Blank, in Strangers With Candy (which she co-wrote), she’s painful to watch: seeing a grown woman struggle to fit in with snobby high-school students is almost as excruciating as watching a teen do it. In Bewitched, she played nosy neighbor Gladys Kravitz, a role originated by Alice Pearce.
If anyone can make it desirable to be (or date) a nerd, it’s Michael Cera as Paulie Bleeker, the chronically uncomfortable baby daddy of the title character in Juno . In Superbad , McLovin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) may have out-geeked him point for point, but Cera’s Evan was still the nerd linchpin. He’s showing signs of inching toward romantic hero (Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist).