Before ‘Silicon Valley’ and ‘The Big Bang Theory’, There Was ‘Dweebs’

dweebs01Twenty years ago, on November 9, 1995, a little-watched CBS half hour sitcom breathed its last, having aired only seven of its ten recorded episodes. No big deal, really. This kind of thing happens every television season. It’s a heartless business, after all. What sets this particular comedy apart is that it was a pioneer in its own way, a prime time vanguard. Created by Peter Noah, the regrettably-titled Dweebs was quite possibly the first American sitcom to focus its attention on the tech world and the integration of computers into daily life. In an age of Silicon Valley and Halt and Catch Fire, this may not seem exotic, but Dweebs was practically avant garde for its time.

CBS, stodgy though it is, was reacting to a major, still-ongoing paradigm shift in America when it (briefly) awarded Dweebs a spot on its fall schedule in September 1995. America was deep into the home computing revolution by then, but we still had a long way to go. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of American households with computers jumped from 8.2% in 1984, the year of Revenge of the Nerds and Apple’s famous Ridley Scott ad, to 22.8% in 1993. Impressive, sure, but that number was more like 79% in 2013. Meanwhile, the Pew Research Center calculates that Internet usage in America was at 14% in 1995, when Dweebs debuted, compared to 78% in 2011.

So Dweebs existed at a time when a substantial portion of America, but by no means a majority (or even close), was computer-savvy. While 1995 was the year that brought us the landmark Windows 95 operating system, it was also the year Microsoft decided it needed Matthew Perry and Jennifer Aniston of Friends to explain that operating system to laypeople. Even as late as 1997, it was feasible for Beavis and Butt-Head to do an episode like “Cyber-Butt,” in which a public high school with hundreds of students has only one, closely-guarded computer with internet access, and using this precious machine to access pornography is like pulling off a heist from an Ocean’s Eleven movie.

Dweebs definitely reflects America’s ambiguity toward computers in the mid-1990s. The show’s viewpoint character, its surrogate for the audience, is Carey (Wings veteran Farrah Forke), a winsome young woman who takes a job as an office manager at a fictional Seattle software company called Cyberbyte. Under the leadership of taciturn, eccentric Warren Mosbey (Newhart grad Peter Scolari), Cyberbyte is raking in enough money to move from its oil-stained garage headquarters — shades of Woz and Jobs — into a clean, modern, and utterly bland-looking office building. It’s the classic “tech start-up” origin story.

Since Warren doesn’t really do the whole “talking to other people” thing, Carey does most of her interacting with Cyberbyte’s trio of wisecracking, jargon-spouting programmers: whiny, neurotic Morley (David Kaufman, best known as a voice actor), clueless, sheltered Karl (Stephen “Ned Ryerson!” Tobolowsky), and snarky, sleazy Vic (tabloid legend Corey Feldman, hidden behind sunglasses). Rounding out the cast are starstruck new hire Todd (Adam Biesk) and Carey’s best friend Noreen (Holly Fulger), who exists to give Carey a sounding board and to keep Dweebs from totally flunking the Bechdel Test. Noreen feels like an afterthought, perhaps the product of studio notes. (“Shouldn’t there be another civilian on the show,” an executive might have said, “maybe someone Carey can talk to, away from the nerds?”)

The show’s underlying premise, which the characters restate in dialogue again and again, is that the Cyberbyte dweebs will indoctrinate Carey into the wonderful world of Clinton-era technology while she, in turn, teaches them about the real world that exists away from modems and microchips. Back then, this really was an “either/or” situation. Computers were one thing, reality was another. Little did any of these people know that their two worlds would eventually overlap, intermingle, and become inseparable from one another. Google was still three years away when Dweebs was being filmed, let alone smartphones! Technology was an alternative to life, not an integral part of it. Today, what dates Dweebs, even more than “topical” references to Courtney Love and Disclosure, is technophobic dialogue like “What in god’s name is e-mail?!” and the idea that a grown woman would be terrified of spreadsheets.

Think for a moment, though, about that basic concept. Here we have a group of nerds, incredibly smart in their chosen field and incredibly dumb about everything else, and the “normal,” attractive woman who serves as their connection to the rest of the world. Sound like anything you know? Yes, since 2007, Chuck Lorre’s The Big BangTheory has covered the same basic material with incredibly profitable results, ruling the prime time ratings and spawning a cottage industry of board games, bobbleheads, and Sheldon Cooper Halloween costumes. True, the series is essentially a “minstrel show” of geekdom put on for the benefit of non-nerds, but its across-the-board acceptance represents the normalization of nerds into the mainstream of American culture. Dweebs would have killed for that acceptance.

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The similarities between Big Bang and Dweebs go down to the marrow. One of Dweebs’ favorite tropes, for example, is having its three main programmers spout technical jargon at a rapid pace as if it were normal, conversational English, leaving any non-dweebs in the vicinity (usually Carey) totally in the dust. This is also one of the core jokes of Big Bang, and it’s clear that the actors on both shows have had to learn huge chunks of dialogue phonetically. And on both of these series, it’s a given that the geeky heroes find mundane social interactions and customs totally baffling. Naturally, both Big Bang and Dweebs contain countless jokes about the nerds’ ineptitude at dating and utter lack of fashion sense.

Most of all, these two sitcoms are connected by the personality traits of their respective characters. Carey is Dweebs is very much analogous to Penny from The Big Bang Theory, right down her slovenliness and lack of organization. (Carey’s apartment is a mess where all the clocks blink 12:00.) These token female characters serve exactly the same purpose on their shows. Vic’s smutty innuendos and unctuous advances on Dweebs were inherited by Wolowitz on Big Bang. Warren’s inability to talk to women was likewise passed down to Big Bang’s Raj. Most striking, though, is the resemblance of Dweebs’ Karl and Big Bang‘s Sheldon Cooper. Both are played by lanky Texans — Stephen Tobolowsky and Jim Parsons — and both manage to seem like outcasts even among other outcasts, guys so isolated by their geekiness that they’ve lost perspective on themselves. If, by some miracle, Dweebs had been a hit, Karl could well have been the breakout character with the hit catchphrase.

Peter Noah, the man behind Dweebs, was an unlikely trailblazer. As a writer and producer, his background was in very traditional, middle-of-the-pack sitcoms: Amen, One Day at a Time, The Facts of Life, Dear John, etc. And in many ways, Dweebs reflects that sitcom orthodoxy. It’s your typical multi-camera, laugh-track-saturated workplace comedy, complete with extremely artificial-looking sets, a smattering of sentimentality, thuddingly obvious punchlines (“I don’t do Windows!”), and characterizations broad enough to merit mention in Images That Injure: Pictorial Stereotypes in the Media.

Apparently, there was some online speculation at the time of the series’ debut that it was an adaptation or ripoff of Douglas Coupland’s Bill Gates-chiding novel Microserfs, but there is no tonal or structural similarity between the two works. From an aesthetic standpoint, the show’s only real innovation is the way it transitions from scene to scene: We occasionally see a Windows-type desktop with icons representing various locations, and an arrow-shaped cursor will appear and make a selection from those. Sure, it’s just a crudely computerized variation on the clever transitions that Home Improvement had already been doing for several years, but it indicates that the show’s makers at least had some rudimentary idea of how PCs actually work.

Innovative or not, Dweebs was all but certainly a goner from the get go. Ironically, this group of nerds was done in by an even bigger nerd: Steve Urkel. During the mid-1990s, CBS was trying to establish a beachhead on Friday nights, and Dweebs had the rotten luck to be scheduled against consistent ratings winner Family Matters. Urkel was the kind of nerd America could embrace in 1995. With his nasal voice, cardigans, suspenders, flood pants, and oversized glasses, Urkel was even more of a cartoon than the Dweebs guys. More importantly, Urkel’s brand of geekiness was not closely tied to personal computing, let alone the internet. He was more like a junior mad scientist, puttering around with cloning machines and robots. And a lot of his nerdy interests, like cheese and polka music, were charmingly retro and had nothing to do with technology at all. He was not, in other words, a harbinger of a possibly-threatening future.

Reassuringly, the failure of Dweebs does not seem to have ruined anyone’s life or career. Certainly, its cast recovered nicely. Besides being a gifted raconteur, Stephen Tobolowsky remains a busy, nigh-ubiquitous character actor in film and television. Turn on your TV, start flipping through the channels, and you’ll probably find him in something right now, maybe a showing of Memento or a rerun of Glee. Peter Scolari, though never again a headliner, has kept busy, too. In recent years, he’s been a regular on Girls and Gotham. David Kaufman is another dependable showbiz lifer with plenty of credits: a Rizzoli & Isles here, a Mentalist there, some assorted video game and animation work. The usual. Corey Feldman was destined to become part-entertainer, part-sideshow, and Dweebs wasn’t going to change that. Farrah Forke’s career slowed down when she became a mother, and she’s largely been away from the game for the last decade, but Dweebs appears just about smack-dab in the middle of her resume. Not a life-changer.

Behind the scenes, series creator Peter Noah was far from finished in network TV. He only got one more shot at creating a series (1996’s Mr. Rhodes, a flop vehicle for comic Tom Rhodes), but Noah jumped ship from comedy to drama in the new millennium and found success as a writer and producer on some programs people actually watch, like The West Wing and Scandal, scoring Emmy nominations for the former in 2004, 2005, and 2006. The biggest off-camera casualty may have been Peter Tortorici, who was CBS’ entertainment chief when Dweebs was greenlit. In New York magazine’s Fall 1995 preview issue, columnist J. Max Robins specifically cited Dweebs and The Bonnie Hunt Show as reasons why Tortorici lost that job to Les Moonves, who eventually ascended to the rank of President and CEO of CBS. And even Tortorici wasn’t down for the count, post-Dweebs; he’s currently the CEO at GroupM Entertainment, labeled by Variety as “the advertising industry’s largest media-buying firm, overseeing more than $70 billion in global ad spending.

Interestingly, it was under Les Moonves’ leadership of CBS that The Big Bang Theory thrived. That’s one of the weirdest twists of the entire Dweebs saga: Moonves profited enormously from a show that was a virtual clone of a series that had (maybe) gotten his predecessor fired. Yes, Dweebs was truly a pioneer of its time, but anyone who has played Oregon Trail knows what happens to pioneers. Occasionally, they die of dysentery. And it’s a shame, too. Dweebs is creaky, bound by convention, and achingly dated, but it’s charming and ingratiating in its own way, too. The cast is uniformly good, give or take Feldman, and the setting has potential. Had it been nurtured a little and allowed to grow and mature, Dweebs might have become a dependable cult favorite with a loyal audience of ‘90s fans, eagerly videotaping each episode and posting detailed synopses to Usenet newsgroups.

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