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Monday, July 25th, 2011

The Top Five Comedy Nerds on TV

Oh, comedy nerds. Of all the left-brained downers that are killing our favorite pastimes, the comedy nerd community is the most obsessive. Whereas the guys who work at Nielsen and the interns who feed sports broadcasters all those random statistics actually have raw data to work with, we comedy nerds examine something entirely subjective — humor — and assign it labels, definitions, and graphs. Like other unknowns in nature, we believe that with enough analysis we can answer the epic question “What makes something funny?” and thus become masters of humor, enjoying the respect of our comedy idols.

But the gods have noticed, and lashed out at us the way they do to any pretentious ambition: satire. Some of our favorite characters have revealed themselves to be closet comedy posers. And we aren’t talking about the traditional, pop-culture loving nerds (The Simpsons' Comic Book Guy or Community's Abed Nadir). Nor are we talking about characters who are professional comedians (Liz Lemon, Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David) — clearly if they’re getting paid to write comedy, they’re funny enough to not be considered “nerds.”

Comedy nerds, rather, share one defining characteristic in common: in trying so hard to understand comedy, we misunderstand it more than the average person. To us, comedy is like a toastmaster workshop, performing in community theater, or writing guest columns for the local newspaper. We believe being funny is a skill that can be refined and improved with repetition, and eventually mastered… so long we do our homework.

Here are the top 5 comedy nerds on television:

5. Phil Dunphy — Modern Family


Ty Burell’s Phil Dunphy may evoke the biggest laughs with his pratfalls, but his intentional attempts at comedy reveal his true nature. In the season 2 episode “Strangers on a Treadmill,” Claire struggles with telling her husband — who leaps at every pun opportunity — that his jokes aren’t funny. He takes a great deal of pride in crafting material for a realtor banquet, yet to everyone’s surprise, his corny real estate jokes are a big hit. But that still doesn’t make up for, “So they’ve asked me to Phil in.” Nothing ever will.

4. Pierce Hawthorne — Community


Whereas most men his age and wealth would retire into a miserable, decades-long existence of voting Republican and soaking up Social Security dollars, Chevy Chase’s Pierce Hawthorne refuses to be pigeonholed as a helpless old coot. Among the ways he tries to feign relevance are his futile attempts at comedy, evidenced by racist and occasionally interminable jokes and his brief stint on the Greendale sketch group, the Greendale Goofaws. Like most comedy nerds, Pierce envies natural comedians like Jeff for receiving warm receptions with his quips. But that’s a world Pierce will never know — unless “Old White Man Says” is actually some kind of Andy Kauffman-esque charade.

3. Michael Scott — The Office


One of the ways the American version of The Office improved upon its British predecessor was revealing its boss’s inner comedy nerd. Since the pilot we’ve been familiar with Michael Scott’s tired and inappropriate jokes while on the clock, but only when the show began to follow the characters home in the second season did we see how Michael Scott spends his free time: memorizing Chris Rock routines, shooting Lazy Sunday parodies, producing an annual Dundies award show for his employees, and being “that guy” in improv classes. When asked about his heroes, Scott lists Bob Hope, Abraham Lincoln, Bono, then God — in that order. And only a true comedy nerd would get that excited about an office roast.

2. Professor Twilley — King of the Hill
Yes, you’ve probably never heard of him, but no man has thought more about comedy more than he. Professor Twilley, voiced by Paul F. Tompkins in the season 10 episode titled “Portrait of an Artist as a Young Clown,” makes Bobby Hill’s carefully rehearsed classroom antics look like raw, Farley-natural talent. Bobby, hoping to hone his skills, enrolls in Twilley’s community college clowning course, but instead he discovers a comedy nerd’s wet dream. Considering most forms of laughter to be “ill informed,” Twilley forces his class to memorize comedy flow charts and classify words as funny based on their vowel and consonant sounds. “A unicycle with six wheels?” Twilley laughs. “Oh, the number six!” Scariest of all, Twilley’s “Ha, Guffaw, Aw, Ha-ha,” formula actually turns me on a little bit.

1. Funnybot — South Park


The ultimate caricature of a comedy nerd is in fact not even human. Trey Parker and Matt Stone took aim at the comedy community this past season, simultaneously mocking both the Comedy Awards (produced by resident comedian Jimmy Valmer) and by-the-book joke manufacturers in the form of Funnybot, a German-engineered robot programmed with unlimited one-liners and a catchphrase: “Awkward!” Funnybot boasts “perfect timing within .001 milliseconds,” and packs his zingers with relevant variables: “Man, I hate doing — homework — more than I hate doing — Bryant Gumbel – in the ass hole.” It’s only fitting that Funnybot takes his act to its logical conclusion and, after slaughtering an audience of 1,100 people, tries to exterminate all living creatures on Earth. Awkward!

* * *

Congratulations, fellow comedy nerds! We’re officially as relevant as Steve Jobs, 9/11 conspiracy theorists, and the Church of Scientology. We’re in the early days of a movement, after all, so we can’t really be picky about how we’re portrayed, so long as they at least recognize our existence. And if it means I can have something in common with Michael Scott and Phil Dunphy, I can live with that.

Erik Voss thinks it could be worse.

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  • Matt Stallworth@facebook

    When I first started reading this list, I thought, "cool, I can't think of a better selection for #1 than Ricky Gervais' character of David Brent from the original British The Office." So, needless to day, I'm shocked that you think Steve Carell improved upon the character. Even though I do completely believe that Carell didn't study or imitate Gervais' performance and created his own characterization, this aspect was clearly present in the original characterization already, and was even more outlandish, and yet, a completely accurate rendition of a comedy nerd's existence of loneliness and social awkwardness. It doesn't hurt that Brent is a nerd for British comedy, which is nerdier by nature, and the routines he quotes at length are unintelligible, completely unfunny, or both. Sure, its humiliating and sad when Michael mangles a Chris Rock routine too, but David did it first, and better, with the "big black cock" routine. Michael does have similar qualities, I agree, and they do take it further, but the results as portrayed on the show are often more satirically humorous, rather than cringe-inducing and painfully humiliating. It's all a matter of taste, I suppose, but I am still disappointed when anyone says they prefer the American version, which is admittedly funny, but not an improvement on the original.

    If you're interested, there is one way the American did improve on the original, by allowing a great cast to expand on the world of the show and create a ton of memorable characters with their own personalities, and allowing their version of the office to be a madcap place where hilarious things happen, rather than a homogenous pit of misery ruled by an aggrandizing prick. come to think of it, this ma be why american audiences prefer it: it allows them to laugh at an idealized fantasy instead of facing the sad reality, which was always more of a British thing. But then, I suspect British comic nerdery outshines the American version in other ways too.

    Proud to be a Nerd

  • iamjustryingtolive

    @mattstallworth love the British, but i would have lost my shit had Michael Scott been left off.

    Loving comedy isn't nerdy, neither is videogames, anime, etc.. You know what's nerdy? Reading a f*&%ing book!

  • http://www.twitter.com/pablogold Pablo Goldstein

    Professor Twilley is a genius. Who doesn't laugh at Tartuffe the Spry Wonder Dog?

  • Dylan Pech@facebook

    the south park robot also resembles the robot from dr.who

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Darin-Bulai/100001269810793 Darin Bulai

    bless you Pablo…

  • http://on.fb.me/e9KS2O T. Baron O'Daighre

    Dylan,

    The Daleks aren't robots, they are mutated squid creatures that move about in heavily armoured miniature tanks.

  • Josh Guarino@facebook

    The exclusion of Morris Moss from "The IT Crowd" is a shame. He is by far the greatest comedy nerd on television right now, or ever. Also, I forget the name of the IT guy from the BBC "Office," but he deserves a nod as well.