It wasn’t that long ago that fans of comic books, monster movies, science fiction and other nerdy stuff had to be fairly closeted about their pop culture choices.
I still remember the look on a guy’s face who, when I was a teenager, looked at the paperback book in my hand and read the title: “The Martian Chronicles.” This was Ray Bradbury. The author was — and is — considered a literary lion, for pete’s sake. But the guy glanced from the book cover to me and looked as if I had been perusing the latest issue of “Nuns and Nazis.”
God only knows what would have happened if I had been reading the latest issue of Famous Monsters magazine.
So I still feel a little lightheaded over the rise of geek culture. Not just the number of big-screen, big-budget movies based on comic books. I’m kind of getting accustomed to that.
No, I’m thinking about the TV shows — at least one of them based on a Podcast — that are not only devoted to a celebration of geek culture but even feature honest-to-goodness, real life geeks.
These shows portray the real-world versions of geeks like those in “Big Bang Theory” — without the Hollywood veneer. More about “Big Bang” in a bit.
Here’s a run-down of the geek and nerd equivalents of Johnny Carson:
“The Nerdist:” Back in the day, Chris Hardwick was that snarky guy with the big voice on “Singled Out,” the MTV game show. A couple of years ago, Hardwick began “The Nerdist” podcast, an online audio look at geek and nerd culture featuring not only fans but celebrity guests.
Hardwick and “The Nerdist” — which also features genuinely funny geeks Jonah Ray and Matt Mira as regular panelists — got somewhat wider (or different) exposure when BBC America tapped the three to appear on a “Nerdist” TV series.
Only a handful of episodes have appeared so far, but they feature Hardwick, Ray and Mira chatting with geek culture demigods like Wil Wheaton and Nathan Fillion. The shows — available On Demand and no doubt online — are breezy and silly and don’t have any more substance than your typical talk show. They are, however, about the kind of geeky stuff that your parents used to hate.
“Talking Dead:” Hardwick packed up his geek shtick — but unfortunately not his sidekicks — and hosted this AMC talk show that followed episodes of the channel’s hit “The Walking Dead.”
Although the focus is narrow — it’s all about “The Walking Dead” — the show is entertaining and offers some insight into the series. The episode following the season finale of “The Walking Dead” featured the show’s creators announcing the actress who will play Michonne but also included one of the show’s funniest bits: An “In Memoriam” video montage of zombies killed off during that evening’s episode.
“Comic Book Men:” Somehow AMC has become the channel for nerd talk shows. Airing on Sunday nights along with “The Walking Dead” and “Talking Dead” is “Comic Book Men,” a series set in director Kevin Smith’s New Jersey comic book store.
Smith makes appearances but the series is focused on Walt Flanagan, manager of the store, and three employees/layabouts, Ming Chen, Mike Zapcic and Bryan Johnson.
All four guys are opinionated and entertaining. Chen, the low man on the totem pole, is like the Gilligan of the series.
It is Johnson, sporting a wild mane and wooly beard, who is the show’s highlight, however. Johnson’s online bio indicates that he has acted and directed in projects associated with Smith.
In “Comic Book Men,” Johnson is portrayed as an archetype familiar to anyone who has spent time at a comic book store or convention: The guy — usually older — who always seems to be hanging out, offering up sarcastic comments and withering put-downs. Johnson makes that stereotype immensely likable, however, through his genuine wit.
If “Comic Book Men” has a fault it is that I don’t think it realistically portrays a comic book store in one respect: Nobody ever buys anything! Most of the interaction between the employees and the public comes when people come in hoping to sell old comics or “Catwoman” Barbies. It’s like a nerd version of “Pawn Stars.”
Not even a roundup to non-fiction geek talk shows would be complete without a mention of “Big Bang Theory.” One of the most popular shows on TV, the CBS sitcom is about four geeks who hang out together, playing online games, going to a comic book store and obsessing about sex.
There’s a pretty divisive view of “Big Bang Theory” online. A lot of geeks consider it patronizing and shallow. It is, of course. But it’s no more patronizing or shallow a look at a group of friends than … well, “Friends” was.
And “Big Bang Theory,” like its real-life counterparts, offer a view of geek culture that not even Ross in the depths of his museum-geek persona could reach.