Curtis Armstrong is an 80’s tv and movie icon. From his first gig, a part in Risky Business, to the Revenge of the Nerds series, the cult classic One Crazy Summer, his role on Moonlighting, and more– he was a huge part of the culture of the 80’s. These days Curtis is still working hard, he’s one of the creators and hosts of TBS’s hit show, King of the Nerds, and when he’s not busy with KotN, he’s appearing as Metatron on CW’s Supernatural, guesting on New Girl, and doing voice work on FOX’s American Dad and in the feature film Planes: Fire and Rescue. This week he had a busy schedule at New York’s Comic Con, and we were excited when we were invited to spend the day following Curtis throughout his various Comic Con events. Film writer Lesley Coffin got to spend a day in the life of a Comic Con panelist, and observed Curtis in meetings, doing signings, and appearing on radio shows, press tables and panels. She also got to sit down with Curtis and talk movies, tv and of course, nerds.
New York Comic Con has become one of the biggest annual events in Manhattan, using the massive Javits Center (which spreads from 34th Street to 40th) for the hundreds of thousand attendees who gather around the building over the four day event. At this year’s Comic Con, the convention played host to everything from comic book master-classes, Bob’s Burger panels, the stars of Birdman, a Karate Kid reunion, and even a surprise appearance by George Clooney. But one word which describes the people who come to these massive gatherings celebrating comic books, TV, movies, cosplay, technology and popular science is that classic 80s term: nerd.
This of course, is why the stars of Revenge of the Nerds, Robert Carradine (who played Lewis Skolnick) and Curtis Armstrong (who played Booger), created a TV show to celebrate their people: the reality game show King of the Nerds. Before airing their third season on TBS, they made their way to New York Comic Con to meet fans, do some press for the show, and participate on a panel. And that is exactly where we met up to spend the day with one of the biggest names among “nerds”, Curtis Armstrong.
After making my way through the crowds on the street waiting in line for the first day (not a good place is you are at all claustrophobic), you’ll notice that despite how big the crowds get, their a a surprising level of decorum among everyone (thank goodness). But I wasn’t going into Comic Con through the front door…I was heading through the back to meet Curtis and observe the first day’s business, which started with a little show meeting between TBS and Curtis, Robert, last year’s winner Kayla LaFrance, and 3rd runner up and fan favorite Xander Jeanneret, who was moderating the panel.
The meeting was a little breather before the all day event, where they coordinated their team, set up their phones to make sure they could be in constant communication, and got briefed about what they could and couldn’t talk about with press and on the panel and finally, everyone was shown the all important teaser of the third season that was premiering at the panel, which you can watch now.
And then it was time to start the day.
The biggest concern at conventions like this seems to be managing the autograph lines. There were some booths close by with no one waiting for the guest. But too long a line, can mean people waiting for an hour or two will still be turned away with nothing to show for their time commitment. So when we were told the line was “good” I really had no idea what that meant, accept that Robert and Curtis seemed pleased by what they saw. And somehow, Curtis and Robert were able to autograph, talk, and take pictures with everyone who was waiting in the line when they arrived, with just minutes to spare before moving to their next location.
Observing the line, you’ll notice a few things about the people who are willing to spend an hour and half waiting for the autograph and picture. The age range is massive. There are men who could be the same age as Curtis and Robert who not only know about their Revenge of the Nerds days, but their other films and TV work. But their are also twenty-somethings who weren’t even born when the film came out, but know it and are fans of their’s now based primarily on the TBS show. There were even families in line. Ironic considering one of the few people around who has never seen the Revenge of the Nerds happens to be Curtis Armstrong’s own daughter.
“She’s turning 19 and she’s never seen it. I wouldn’t have shown it to her when she was young, but then again, she has a problem with my business. From the time she was really little, she was put off by the fact that I was approached by screaming fans on the streets, which took time away from her. And I believe, honestly, it created a deep resentment against what I do. Which is why she’s going into socio-linguistic, rather than acting. I never said don’t watch it, but at this stage she takes pride in having gotten this far and never seen it. But she hasn’t seen most of my work. She’s only seen about 5 things I’ve been in.”
But without his daughter’s college tuition weighing on his mind there may have never been King of the Nerds, as the price of sending their kids to college seemed to be what motivated Robert Carradine and Curtis Armstrong to create a show of their own. Curtis credits Carradine with the idea of King of the Nerds.
“It came up because we were sitting around and we were bemoaning the fact that we both had children going into college and we are working actors, but college is expensive. And Bobby said, ‘wouldn’t it be great if we created something, and then we could get executive producer credit and money, and maybe it would even franchise it.’ And then he came up with the idea, what if we did a reality show based on nerds. And of course, that isn’t exactly what this is, but that idea is enough that if we went into an office and pitch that, if they weren’t going to take it, they would know instantly. So the two of use came up with an idea that I wrote up and we pitched it to a place that just lowballed us to the point that we gave up on it, because it wouldn’t have even been worth doing. And then about seven years later, Bobby called up and said, let’s try that again because it might be a better market.”
The appeal of Revenge of the Nerds is an interesting subject to address with Curtis, who doesn’t consider himself or his character of Booger a nerd. Booger was nothing like the other smart yet socially awkward characters. Rather he was so easy to dismiss because of his gross behavior, that the nerds acceptance of him made them far more likable and showed that they had the tolerance they wanted from others. That tolerance was the key to the film’s long, and beloved legacy.
What Louis does to Betty Childs is essentially rape. And people go, oh it’s kind of cute because he has on this mask and she likes it, but that is a rape.
“Even the first movie was guilty of some stuff where I see it now, and I kind of cringe. Even the edited version, we did some stuff that was just…The place where everything fell apart for us was with women. The truth is, even though we wind up with them at the end as part of this larger group, they were still treated like shit throughout the movie. And it’s the one thing that in 1984 nobody worried about. Because the big thing was that we were fighting this big bad symbol of male privilege. But of course, we as guys were benefiting. What Louis does to Betty Childs is essentially rape. And people go, oh it’s kind of cute because he has on this mask and she likes it, but that is a rape. You could not get away with that now.”
It didn’t make sense to us that only men were considered nerds. That never made sense to us. And we know women and girls who are nerds. And certainly the way the show has turned out, it’s been pretty clear that women can be just as big a nerds as men can.
Another major requirement in bringing the show to air was to avoid the back-biting, cruelty, and fake drama that is associated with most reality TV. They’ve even refused to film dramatizations of events that just actually happened.
“There is a general sense where people expect a certain type of drama from these types of shows that is always unpleasant. And, it’s been unpleasant on our show, that has been a problem that got out of hand and we learned. But it was always our intention, and I would tell the producers– remember the end of the movie when Tony (Anthony Edwards) and Bobby made their speech at the pep-rally. That is what always has to be there. When people argue and get bent out of shape, that’s fine, but what has to happen at the end of the show is that we remember “nerds are in it together.” And that’ is what we want. That is the ideal.”
Curtis’ Press Tour at Comic Con
After an hour and half with fans on the floor (just in time considering the arrival of the extremely powerful and very loud Green Power Ranger), Curtis and Carradine are off to a lengthy press day. One thing about
going backstage at events is the fact that any artificial “glamour” is immediately ripped away. And there was no better sign of this then when leaving the signing area and are met with an overwhelming smell of garbage in the back area that was hard for anyone to overlook. Fortunately, we arrived at the press area where Curtis and Robert’s first stop was the Sirius XM Entertainment Weekly Radio Show. A few minutes with the host, and then they were off to another hour of press, this time at three round tables, where Curtis, Robert, and players Kayla and Xander each hold court with reporters and writers for 20 minutes, and then move to the next table for another round. If you’ve ever wondered why movie news often has the exact same interview quotes, this is the reason; they have to share.
The topics of King of the Nerds that were most on the minds of reporters that day seem to be the question of how real reality is? (very) and what guest stars that will be on this season (they can’t say). One of the biggest guest stars from the past two seasons has been George Takei, who insisted that he do nothing that would make fun of his “people.” Fortunately he found the experience to be so fun, he came back for a second season, and was one of the first people to reach out to Curtis regarding season three.
The issue of not “mocking” or making “nerds” into jokes has been a big issued that both Robert and Curtis were well aware of and have had to deal with directly. One of the celebrities who has come out against the show was fellow Star Trek alumni and celebrity nerd Wil Wheaton. Curtis talked about Wheaton’s disapproval.
“You can’t watch the show and think that we are trying to make fun of nerds. There are people who have made that decision. Wil Wheaton wrote a thing about us, that we were always trashing nerds, and I thought ‘well, he obviously hasn’t washed the show.’ I understand that he has his other nerd show, which, speaking of mocking nerds.”
But Curtis has great affection and admiration for his fan of nerds and the participants on the show. Part of this, according to Kayla (last years winner), is that he is incapable of being mean to them; but there is also the admiration he has for his very smart and game participants, because he couldn’t win any of the challenges they put in front of them. “I could maybe carry-off cos-play, because that is just acting. But aside from all that, I can’t think of one I would do well in. And some of our challenges are just ridiculous. They are so hard. the mathematics and engineering ones are just so scary.
But one area Curtis has some nerd credentials is a obsessive passion for certain music and books, particularly, Sherlock Holmes.
“It’s really just books. I collects and read books and I’m someone who when I get into an author, I read and reread all their work. that has always been my thing. I never played sports, but I am a great re-reader and still am. I don’t have any of the other stuff. I don’t understand gaming or science or computers. None of those things I respond to at all.” And his love for reading is also what got him interested in acting, recalling “it was the nerd thing of being picked on and not having a lot of friends and spending all my time just reading. Acting was something I had an affinity for and then found out I was actually good at it. And then I was at school and I was still a nerd, but I was the nerd who did all the plays. And people don’t beat you up as much.”
Talking With Curtis About Risky Business, and Moonlighting
Curtis worked in the theater exclusively from 1976 until doing his first film Risky Business, at 28 (despite playing a high schooler). Risky Business was also the first time he got the classic “are you that guy” question from a fan remembering the weekend Risky Business opened ,“you look like that guy from Risky business” and I said ya?” and he said, “you are that guy from Risky business” and I said ya” and he said “no you’re not” and I said “okay I’m not” and he said “yeah you are” and I finally said “we could do this all night.”
I asked him a question I’d always been dying to know; what did he think of the ending to Risky Business.
If you remember the iconic movie, you know that Tom Cruise, after doing some very seedy things with prostitutes, still gets into Harvard and is now dating the former prostitute (good lesson). That ending was filmed a year after they wrapped after a long negation between the director and studio, who refused to release the original cut as is. The original ending had the much darker concept that Cruise had become a pimp himself; a cautionary tale for Reagan era teens. Curtis said the “original” ending was much darker and even disturbing for him to watch 30 years later, but was also powerful. But even he admits that the audience at that screening weren’t very “into” the change.
The other role I personally wanted to asked Armstrong about was his role of Herbert in the TV series Moonlighting, which even now he has conflicted memories of it, despite being the first major role where he got to play his age and play a slightly more well-rounded character.
“I’m not sure anyone ever saw it that way, because when I went on Moonlighting it was finally reaching it’s peek and after I joined, it kind of went into the toilet. And that wasn’t my fault, but people just stopped watching it, and I don’t think it had any effect on my career. And people would describe me as Ms DiPesto’s (Allyce Beasly) troll-like boyfriend. They so loved her and I was sort of horrible. So it didn’t do me a lot of good, because a lot of people didn’t care for it. But I loved it. It was one of the best jobs I’ve ever had.”
Curtis Heads to Afternoon Panel
Back on the floor, and by mid-afternoon comic con is really packed and requires panelist and participants to stay in a kind of huddle to make their way through crowds. Waiting for their audience to be seated, they quietly stand in the back of the room (there isn’t a back door or stage door that a theater has) with agents, assistances, publicists, and wives. Then the panel starts and for an hour they field questions from fans of the King of the Nerds, Revenge of the Nerds, and Robert and Curtis’s other work. Kayla quickly joins them on stage, as does the first third season guest star who is announced as cos-play costume designer Yaya Han (who comes in costume of course).
Most of the questions, when not aimed at everyone on the panel, were directed at Yaya Han and Curtis, who is asked about his roles in 80’s movies, the current shows he guests on such as New Girl and Supernatural, and his voice-over career. But all those asking questions are genuinely excited, including one of the happiest girls you’ll ever see, who could barely catch her breath after asking her question to the panel.
Then the panel is over, and there are even more requests for photographs and autographs from those on stage, before security has to turn people away to get panelists out of the room. As Curtis and the rest walk away, with a few more eyes on them then before, but quickly they are out the door and back in one of the conference rooms to say a final good bye and leave for the day But Curtis still has a long day, heading to Fox News for an interview and then to more meetings. Being creator and executive producer of the show, I asked if this has developed any interest in pursue entertainment outside of acting…and his response was an a definitive NO.
Photos from our day at Comic Con from l to r. Curtis Armstrong with Robert Carradine at the autograph signing table, the line for autograph signings, doing press tables, planning in the Comic Con green room.
An all new third season of King of the Nerds premiers January 23, 2015 on TBS.