Hardly a day goes by that someone doesn't stop Curtis Armstrong on the street and yell "Booger" – the name of the belching, nose-picking dweeb he played in all four Revenge of the Nerds movies. "This goes on all over the world," he tells Rolling Stone. "I've been called things in foreign tongues that I need help understanding. It usually translates into some word like 'mucus.'"
Rather than fight the public's love of his iconic character, Armstrong harnessed it for his latest project: the new TBS reality show King of the Nerds. Hosted by Armstrong and his fellow Nerds alum Robert Carradine, the show places two teams of extreme dorks in a house called Nerdvana, where they are forced to compete in activities including live-action role playing, human chess and life-size remote control car racing. It's been an unlikely hit for the network, scoring more than a million-and-a-half viewers a night.
Rolling Stone spoke to Armstrong about King of the Nerds, how Booger impacted his career, the legacy of Revenge of the Nerds and the possibility of a fifth film in the franchise.
Tell me how King of the Nerds came together.
It actually started about six years ago. Robert [Carradine] and I remained friends over the years. There was a period where reality television really seemed like it was beginning to take hold and we started kicking around an idea about basing one around our movie Revenge of the Nerds. We pitched it to a couple of places and, to be frank, we didn't get much of a response. One of the big things going at the time was Beauty and the Geek. They felt two nerd shows would be a drag on the market. We just walked away from the idea and went back to our careers.
Some years go by, and Robert decided he'd have another shot at it. I wrote up a pretty involved outline for it, and we got a totally different response. Six years in the nerd world is like a hundred thousand. Everything moves so fast in the world of technology, and there's so many cable channels now. Everything had changed and it suddenly became something people really wanted.
I love that the show features so many different kinds of nerds.
If you look back at the original movie, that was essentially what we always had. The nerd house had your Asian nerd, your gay black nerd, your computer nerd. . . then you had Booger, who wasn't really a nerd at all. He was just somebody no one else would accept, except nerds, because he was so vile. There was always inclusiveness and diversity within the group.
Robert and I went into this project demanding two things. The first was that it be diverse and that we include women. When we started pitching it there was this automatic assumption it was going to be all men. I think this was partially due to The Big Bang Theory. We said, "There is nothing duller than a house full of men trying to out-nerd themselves." You put women into the mix and suddenly everything changes.
We also insisted that we not be mocking these people. We wanted people to have an emotional investment in these characters. We obviously want the show to be funny and the nerds do bring certain qualities that are inherently funny, but the object is not to make them look stupid. We want them to be nerds in their natural environment, and let whatever humor comes out of that come naturally.
Most people know you primarily as Booger. One might think that would make finding work tough, but looking at your filmography, it's clear you work all the time.
I think it all depends on how you look at yourself. I mean, you're right that I've played lots of roles like Booger, but I've also played a lot of other stuff. When somebody gets into a role like that, for which they're known for the rest of their lives, they can either go with it and appreciate that they're still in the business, or they can get really tense about it and say things like, "I'm not doing anything that smacks of Booger ever again."
I've always approached my career with the idea that I'd rather work than not work. I actually have to say that I'm a pretty good actor. I'm not a great actor, but I'm a pretty good actor. That means people have sent me things from time to time that have been really fun and different. And they've sent me some Booger stuff. I don't really see the difference. It's all work to me.
There's no part of you that fears this show will further cement your image as Booger?
Well, no. Listen, if I worried about typecasting, I should have done something about it in 1984. It's too late now. At least this time I'm not actually picking my nose on camera. . . I mean, I've got a connection forever to Revenge of the Nerds, so who cares?
Do you think a fifth Nerds movie is possible at any point?
Well, if you had asked me a couple months ago, I would have said, "Absolutely not." Now it appears there are people talking about it. They're not talking to me directly, so I can't really say anything. But there are apparently some very preliminary discussions. They would have to come up with a pretty amazing script that would justify putting all of us old, calcified, long-in-the-tooth nerds back on a big screen again. I can't imagine it, but who knows?
Do you think there's any chance that Anthony Edwards might fold at some point and agree to do it? Maybe just for old times' sake?
Not in a million years!
I can't be in his head. I don't know what motivates him. But he did the first two Nerd movies, and then got ER, then went on from there and does movies, and now has a new series coming out. He's set, that guy. Why on earth would he come back to be Bobby Carradine's straight man? It just makes no sense, unless he would do it for nostalgia's sake. Apart from that, I cannot see why he would even consider it for a minute. He's got plenty going on.
Do you think the public's perception of what a nerd is was solidified by the first movie?
To some extent, yes. The writers were very open about the fact that they intended it to be a parable. When you see the sign burning on the nerd house lawn that says "Nerds," it was put in deliberately to make a connection between racism and the KKK. The jocks were the evil ones and the nerds were everybody who was ever put down. It's funny when you talk about it in retrospect because it's still Revenge of the Nerds. You have belching contests and full frontal female nudity and all this stuff, but that was as big a part of it as anything else.
The very early 1980s was really a time when the nerd culture exploded. You had video games and personal computers and Dungeons and Dragons and all these science fiction movies like Star Wars. The movie really came at the right time.
That's really true. It was also the first Reagan term, so there was a lot of feeling that the jocks were beating down the nerds all over the country. They were doing it in Congress or the White House. It was everywhere. It was open season if you were gay or a woman or a person of color or poor. All of those things have changed dramatically.
Nowadays nerds are highly respected, and even celebrated.
Yeah, because they've been so successful. I was on a panel with Donnie Wahlberg recently. He has a reality show coming up on TNT, and we were at the Television Critics thing. He was talking about his show and he said, "I just want to interject one thing. Revenge of the Nerds is what freed nerds and geeks to grow up and become filmmakers and writers and recording artists and run studios." He said he found the movie tremendously inspiring when it came out. The last image is everyone together and Queen doing "We Are the Champions." It's a big celebration and the bad guys lost. You can't get a better ending than that.