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It’s been clear for several years now that, in the battle for cultural relevancy, the geeks have won. The evidence is overwhelming and all around us. The box office dominance of fantasy, sci-fi and comic book movies, say: Heroes, Lost and Battlestar Galactica. Stephen Colbert. The entire video game industry. The Internet. 


All of these formerly geekly pursuits are now inarguably mainstream. We nerds were right all along, as the intervening years have demonstrated. This may be difficult for you young people to comprehend, but there was a time—circa 1985, say—when things like computers and videogames, superheroes and comic books, hobbits and wookiees were considered impossibly nerdy. Embarrassing pursuits. An unseemly way to occupy your mind. A waste of time.


cover art

The Geeks' Guide to World Domination

Garth Sundem

Be Afraid, Beautiful People

(Crown)

Actually, the probable truth is that a much larger percentage of us were closet geeks than the cultural census takers had reported. What kid, circa 1985, wasn’t into Star Wars? Or Atari? (If you want to assess your true geek credentials, try taking our TrueGeek Qualifying Exam.)


Author Garth Sundem is obviously one of us. His new book, The Geeks’ Guide to World Domination, is clearly aiming to be a kind of Official Preppy Handbook for the decidedly non-preppy crowd. The book reads like an analog database of geek knowledge. Emoticons. Carl Sagan. How to write your name in Elvish. These sorts of things.


What’s interesting is just how much of this self-identified geek knowledge is actually mainstream pop cultural currency. In particular, the computer stuff. The terrible truth is that the utter ubiquity of PCs, the Internet, handheld devices and social networking sites has made computer geeks of us all.


(My question is—what are the nerdy kids of today into? Seriously, I’m asking. I have no idea. Knitting? Disco? Jesus?)


Anyway, there is one aspect of geek culture in particular that, I would contend, has flowered rather magnificently in recent years. And that is the arena of geek humor. The key to geek humor has always been reference and allusion. Geek humor is rooted in a commanding pop cultural and scientific literacy, deployed with a sense of casual authority.


Our brainier comedy institutions these days—like The Onion, The Simpsons, The Daily Show and, especially, The Colbert Report—traffic heavily in this style of humor. Everything is cross-referenced, and the jokes come in fast and hard. It’s assumed that the audience is culturally fluent and intelligent, and switching gears between high and low humor is all part of the routine. Maybe the best example of geek humor currently in mainstream circulation is Futurama. Check out the series’ latest (possibly last) DVD—Into the Wild Green Yonder—for the ultimate in pound-for-pound geek humor efficiency.


A couple other recommendations: The guilty pleasure known as FAIL Blog has been growing—virally, of course—for the last few years and was recently nominated for a Webby. Essentially a running catalog of found pictures and videos, FAIL Blog is improbably but undeniably funny. I suspect that part of it has to do with repetition of that single, unambiguous decree—FAIL. I’m a little superstitious about FAIL Blog, actually. I don’t want to think too much about why it’s so funny, lest I jinx it all somehow.


Finally, we have the wiseacres over at online merchandise mart, ThinkGeek.com who have—in typical geek fashion—figured out a way to make money from all the relentlessly nerdy jokes flying around.


Click around the website, and you’ll find plenty of excellent geek humor artifacts. In fact, ThinkGeek made some news a few weeks back. As an April Fool’s joke, the site put up for sale the ingenious, but fake, Tauntaun sleeping bag pictured here.


Geeks will get the joke immediately—the sleeping bag references a famous scene in The Empire Strikes Back in which Han Solo slices open a warm Tauntaun carcass and inserts the typically hapless Luke Skywalker, to keep him from freezing to death on the ice planet Hoth.


This was such an unambiguously genius idea that hundreds of eager buyers lined up to buy the sleeping bag—only to discover it was all a hoax. As the news made its way around the Internets, ThinkGeek quickly realized the Tauntaun sleeping bag wasn’t just a great idea for a fake product—it was a great idea, period.


So now ThinkGeek is trying to petition Lucasfilm to let them make actually make the Tauntaun sleeping bag. Somehow, this all strikes me as an elegant example of geek humor and ingenuity—a joke so good it may transcend jokehood itself and enter the rarified airs of blockbuster merchandizing and licensing.


Two suggestions: Optional intestine pillows, and the Echo Base personal alarm clock, which wakes sleeping Jedis with a repeated “Attack Pattern Delta!” Those likely to get this joke in the first place will understand. You know who you are.


Glenn McDonald writes about popular culture from his home in lovely Chapel Hill, NC. His humor essays have been described as "grammatically consistent" and "remarkably frequent". He is editor of the Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me daily news quiz at NPR.org, and a film critic at the Raleigh News & Observer. He lives virtually at www.glenn-mcdonald.com.


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