I had my iTunes set to shuffle the other day, and one song, in particular, caught my ear – Queen’s “We Are the Champions” – mostly because it sounded so different from any of the dozen or so songs that had played before it.
As someone who has been subjected (yes, I chose that word intentionally) to more raunchy comedies than I care to admit, it’s impossible for me to hear that particular song without thinking of Revenge of the Nerds. (No, I’m not recommending you watch it.)
I can honestly say, without hesitation, that I’m not really a fan of that particular kind of movie, but as someone who studies theatre and literature, I can’t help noticing the parallels between those films and ancient Greek comedy (a.k.a. the plays of Aristophanes).
Although they were created more than two millennia apart, both tend to be sophomoric, stereotypical, scatological, and sexualized, with an emphasis on low, highly obvious comedy that ultimately leads to an often heavy-handed attempt to convey a serious social message in the last few minutes of the play or movie.
In other words, both of them have the ability not only to shock us (and satirize us) but also to teach us.
In Lysistrata, perhaps the most enduring (and certainly one of the most outrageous) of the ancient Greek comedies, the women of Athens and Sparta unite to withhold sex from their husbands and boyfriends in an effort to end the civil war between the two cities. At the end of the play, Lysistrata makes an impassioned (if somewhat overlong and overwrought) plea for peace to the assembled representatives of both cities and, of course, to the audience watching the play, as well.
In Revenge of the Nerds, one of the most enduring (and possibly one of the tamer) relatively modern raunch comedies, a group of misfit nerds attempt to create, maintain, and protect a makeshift fraternity in the face of sometimes violent opposition from the rest of the campus (especially, as you might imagine, the school’s resident jocks). At the end of the movie, best friends Gilbert and Lewis make an impassioned (if somewhat unlikely) plea for tolerance to the students and alumni assembled in the bleachers for a homecoming pep rally and, of course, to the audience watching the film, as well.
Gilbert: “I just wanted to say that I’m a nerd, and I’m here tonight to stand up for the rights of other nerds. I mean uh, all our lives we’ve been laughed at and made to feel inferior. And tonight, those bastards, they trashed our house. Why? ‘Cause we’re smart? ‘Cause we look different? Well, we’re not. I’m a nerd, and, uh, I’m pretty proud of it.”
Lewis: “Hi, Gilbert. I’m a nerd too. I just found that out tonight. We have news for the beautiful people. There’s a lot more of us than there are of you. I know there’s alumni here tonight. When you went to Adams, you might’ve been called a spazz…or a dork…or a geek. Any of you that have ever felt stepped on, left out, picked on, put down, whether you think you’re a nerd or not, why don’t you just come down here and join us. Okay? Come on.”
Gilbert: “Just join us, ‘cause, uh, no one’s gonna really be free until nerd persecution ends.”
In true Hollywood fashion, as they finish, almost everyone sitting in the bleachers listening to them speak flood down to join them.
However awkward and unrealistic Lewis and Gilbert’s attempt may be, the message of the film is clear – all of us, at some time in our lives, have been the outsider, faced with the sense of isolation and loneliness that comes with being the other. In some cases, that common experience of isolation and loneliness may be the only thing that connects us, but even so, it’s still a connection – a common starting point for empathy and understanding.
I’m running out of time to finish this entry before midnight, which means I’m not going to be able to make my conclusion as eloquent as I’d like, so I’m just going to end with this: the next time you have a choice between making someone feel like the other and helping (or even just letting) them feel like they belong, remember how it feels to be the outsider – “stepped on, left out, picked on, put down” – and help (or even just let) them feel like they belong.