Back when "bad" was slang for "good," nerds were easily identified by their pocket protectors, goofy glasses and apparent lack of social skills. Then the 21st century came around, and society had to come to grips with the awful truth: These days, nerds are cool, and they definitely aren’t staying in on Friday nights. Case in point is Nerd Nite at Galapagos Art Space in DUMBO, a monthly event that consists of three witty, informative and sometimes shocking presentations given before a captive (and often tipsy) audience, who jam themselves into the crescent-shaped benches atop the shallow ponds that make up the venue’s floor. Recent topics include human parasites, Tetris and sleep disorders; no wonder it’s commonly described as being like the Discovery Channel with beer.
Meet the nerd curator: Matt Wasowski, a self-proclaimed sports nerd whose credentials include a love of "Weird Al" Yankovic, participating on his high school Academic Challenge team and refusing to join his fellow 12-year-olds when they staged a walkout from their seventh-grade history class. "I stayed in the classroom and did my assignment the whole time. From there it’s a downhill story," Wasowski, 33, says with deadpan humor. But although he might have been a nerd in the traditional sense during adolescence, he explains that there are "many different flavors of nerd," and they’re often found in unexpected places: "Even the quarterback of the high school football team could be a nerd, if he’s really into chemistry or English or NFL quarterback statistics from the 1960s."
At Galapagos on January 9, nerds from every walk of life paid the $7 cover charge to enter. For the first time in Nerd Nite history, Galapagos was so packed that the lab-coat-sporting hosts were forced to turn people away at the door. (Guests literally sat on top of each other on the floor.) What’s the allure? "There are a lot of overeducated people," explains Wasowski, who’s worked at an educational software company for eight-and-a-half years, "and it’s hard to find excuses to learn things you normally wouldn’t encounter." Wasowski’s longtime friend, Derek Lee, has a simpler explanation: "It’s better than going to the movies."
Sporting a neon green button-down and white tie, Wasowski hopped on stage like a brainiac fourth grader pumped to present at the science fair. He kicked things off with his standard five-minute presentation, this one about 2008 Guinness World Records. As pictures flashed behind him on the giant PowerPoint projector screen, he shared last year’s feats with the crowd: the world’s longest leg hair (6.5 inches), longest chopsticks (22 feet) and longest rabbit (2 feet, 8 inches), among others. "I guarantee none of you have a longer rabbit," he quipped without cracking a smile.
Wasowski’s intro achieved the three Nerd Nite goals: make them learn something, make them laugh and, of course, make their stomachs turn—at least a little. The presentations that followed were similar. First up was Dave Shuff, whose talk, "A Journey Through Liquid Space: The Disney 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea Ride," was chock-full of fun facts about the now defunct attraction, a vintage video from one of the sea vessels and a look at the creepy mechanics behind the animatronic mermaids. (He knows his stuff: Shuff is a bona-fide 20K expert—he even has a website dedicated to the topic.)
Then came Jay Stahl-Herz, who looked something like a crazed (if incredibly earnest) scientist. His topic? "Bad for the Patient, Cool for Pathologists: The Science of Anatomic Pathology." The crowd squirmed with delight as he described the graphic slides on the screen behind him—a dismembered foot, testicular lymphoma and a brain that suffered a fatal hemorrhage, among many others.
When Stahl-Herz left the stage, the audience anxiously awaited the final act: Barry Julien, a writer for Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report, and his presentation, "The Nerd at the Card Table," complete with a tiny camera that showed his moves in real time on the screen. Julien taught the crowd about Dai Vernon—the only man who ever fooled Harry Houdini—along with cold decking (swapping out the deck in play for a stacked deck) and bottom dealing (this one’s self-explanatory). "I could have learned how to talk to girls in the time I learned to do this," he muttered into the mic while meticulously preparing his final trick, a seamless example of riffle stacking—a complex technique of shuffling, feeling out the cards with your thumbs and dealing yourself or your partner the perfect hand.
At the end of the evening, Wasowski jumped back on stage to bid farewell to his fellow nerds. Lee said of his friend, "He’s a minor celebrity. It’s tough to be nerdy and so cool at the same time." And although Wasowski is aware that being a nerd has taken on a whole new level of chic, he explains that that wasn’t his intention at Nerd Nite’s NYC genesis back in 2006: "The material and format aren’t trying to be cool or hipster. It’s very straightforward—sit, have a beer and learn about something you don’t know."
To fully grasp the tenets of nerdiness, experience it yourself. The next Nerd Nite is February 13, and in celebration of Valentine’s Day, a bout of nerd speed dating will precede the presentations. Be there—and be square.
For more info, check out nerdnite.com or become a friend of Nerd Nite’s on Facebook.