Revenge of the Nerd: The Rise of Simon Pegg

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04012008_simonpegg.jpgBy Neil Pedley

Last week finally saw the U.S release of the long-delayed directorial debut of David Schwimmer, “Run, Fat Boy, Run,” a comedy about a directionless loser running a marathon to win back the woman he jilted at the altar. While not dreadful, the film hews terribly close to the standard rom-com formula, with each crippling setback and pivotal redemption of its archetypal players arriving exactly as it has in a hundred films before. “Run, Fat Boy, Run,” does have one inimitable thing going for it that singlehandedly carries it to someplace approaching enjoyable. That thing is its star, Simon Pegg, for whom “Run, Fat Boy, Run” is but a blip on his upward trajectory from obscure cult television in Britain into one of most sought-after comedic actors in the business.

Pegg’s hardly the first to attempt the transition from Britain’s small screen and the global market, but he’s one of the few to have succeeded in establishing himself as something beyond a passing curiosity. It’s partially timing — Pegg’s become one of the representative faces of the geek-as-the-new-cool. He began his career as a stand-up comic in London, and was quickly drafted by Channel Four to help develop a series of new comedy shows, most notably the anarchic ’60s satire “Hippies” and the darkly sardonic sketch comedy show “Big Train.” Through these series, Pegg met much of the ensemble that would feature so prominently in his later film work, along with his long-standing writing partner and director Edgar Wright. Pegg and Wright, along with Jessica Stevenson, went on to create “Spaced,” the series that confirmed Pegg as one of the singular comedic voices of his generation.

“Spaced” followed Tim and Daisy, two directionless twenty-somethings who pretend to be a couple in order to secure a lease on an apartment. The show employed a blend of classic sitcom precepts, calculated surrealism and a non-stop homage to movies and television that also served as a drawing board for things to come — an episode where Tim takes speed and mistakes an art scene crowd for zombies after playing Resident Evil all night was a dry run for “Shaun of the Dead.” This brilliantly observed series ran for two seasons and stands as a fine confirmation of how popular culture has become a universal language.

Part of Pegg’s great appeal comes down to the fact that he’s an unabashed nerd of the highest order, a Dungeon Master of movie trivia and a Gandalf of pop geekiness. The two features he co-wrote (rather than just adapted), “Shaun of the Dead,” the story of a man trying to win back his ex in the midst of a zombie apocalypse, and “Hot Fuzz,” a buddy cop film set in a bucolic village, smack of a man who’s likely forgotten more about genre cinema than most will ever know. But Pegg’s is a uniquely inclusive nerdiness, one that has nothing to do with a self-delusional sense of superiority stemming from encyclopedic knowledge of some obscure corner of music, television or movies. He wants nothing more than you for to get the joke or spot the reference.

04012008_simonpegg2.jpgTo Pegg and his creative partner Wright, the line between real life and film is simply a question of emphasis and presentation. They hone in on those universal moments in life that are inherently cinematic and frames them in a genre code or a homage that we can all come together with and appreciate. For instance, a group of demoralized restaurant workers having their self-esteem slowly eroded by the condescending speeches of a passive-aggressive boss might indeed feel like they’re in one of Nurse Ratched’s sessions in “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” — a parallel made in another episode of “Spaced” — and the only difference between that and what most of us suffer through daily is the absence of a seven-foot-tall Native American to throw a washbasin through the window.

It’s this eagerness to seek out the absurd parallels between life and fiction and have us laugh not only each other but ourselves that separates Pegg and company from the previous wave of fanboys-turned-filmmakers, epitomized by Kevin Smith. While they have plenty of reference points in common (Smith has done “Scooby Doo” and “Spaced” sent-up plenty of “Star Wars”), Smith prefers the mocking exclusion of those he deems less worthy (according to Clerks II; those who obsess over “Star Wars” are cool, while those who obsess over “Lord of the Rings” are losers). Smith’s pop culture barrages can come across as self-indulgent, dialogues done for his own benefit in a kind of quest for validation. Pegg and Wright’s work is always clearly about audience enjoyment first, and trying to reach out, safe in the knowledge that pop appreciation is not some kind of competition — a collective experience for the many, not an elitist one for the few.

Also important to realize is that while they’re riotously funny, “Hot Fuzz” and “Shaun of the Dead” don’t lampoon the works that were their inspiration. They aren’t spoofs — while their comedic momentum is founded on an chaotic quality, both film play entirely by the rules and tick all the requisite boxes of the genre to which they belong. They’re at heart a pure exercise in overindulgence, an excuse to gorge on guilty pleasures at the behest of Pegg, a leading man whose sincerity and gleeful enjoyment of the work explodes off the screen like a particularly gratuitous exit wound. This respect for the work, combined with the giddy excitement of a schoolboy, generates his infectious charm and widespread appeal.

“Run, Fat Boy, Run” might fall well short of what we have come to expect from Pegg, but the fact is it wasn’t his show this time around — while he shares a writing credit, his role in scripting the film was revealed to be little more than to retool the pre-existing script to ease the transition from New York, for which is was originally written, to London, where it was eventually shot. Pegg’s strength as an actor is in his reactive qualities to the world around him and the ridiculous situations he and his troupe imagine themselves into. “Run, Fat Boy, Run”‘s London feels lazily painted over an unmistakable New York sensibility (antique piano stores, high-rise apartment block parties, spin class), which makes it all the more challenging for the characters to have any sense of authenticity. But even saddled with some depressingly unimaginative material, Pegg manages to make do with physical comedy, and to stretch the visual gag of a pair of short running shorts a long way.

Next up for Pegg is his highest profile role yet, as Scotty, the iconic chief engineer of the starship Enterprise in J.J. Abrams “Star Trek.” It’s one that may see him forced to leave his comfort zone for, arguably, the first time, as early indications are that Abrams is looking to inject a sobering sense of realism into his vision of the final frontier. I’m looking forward to what will likely be a stern test of Pegg’s acting chops, as he looks to boldly go where no geek has gone before.

[Photo: “Run, Fat Boy, Run,” Picturehouse, 2008; “Shaun of the Dead,” Focus Features, 2004]



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.