“Project Nim,” reviewed

“Project Nim,” reviewed (photo)

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This was the experiment: take a chimpanzee, raise it from birth like a human baby, and teach it to communicate with sign language. In other words: can you teach the animal right out of an animal? In his powerful new documentary “Project Nim,” director James Marsh chronicles the highly unorthodox 1970s linguistics experiment that sought to do just that. Some of the people he meets along the way could use their own lessons on how to act like a human.

The experiment was the brainchild of Columbia University Professor Herb Terrace, who gave a chimp named Nim Chimpsky to one of his former students when he was less than two weeks old. Terrace told the ex-student, Stephanie, to raise the baby as a member of her family. So she did: clothing and diapering him, and teaching him sign language. But since Stephanie was a bit of a hippie that also meant letting him try alcohol and pot and even breast feeding him.

In many ways, baby Nim was like any human child: capable of great compassion (Stephanie’s daughter talks about how he used to kiss away her tears when she was sad) and prone to wild mood swings. But as he got older and began to pick up sign language, Terrace reasserted his dominance over the experiment, if you will, and reclaimed Nim, moving him to an estate where he could be monitored and tested full-time by a hand-picked staff of Columbia students and researchers, many of whom, in what I’m sure was just an incredible coincidence, were beautiful single women. The narrative Marsh weaves is thorny with jealousies and broken love affairs between Terrace and his staff. Animal urges, it seems, are not the exclusive province of animals.

Nim’s story seems at first like a cut-and-dried lesson in the power of nature over nurture. No matter how much his human companions dressed him or taught him to use the toilet Nim was still an animal, and by the time he was five years old he was too big, too strong, and too much of an aggressive, dominant chimpanzee to pretend otherwise. But allow me to propose an alternate theory: Nim’s childhood consisted of one jarring scenery change after another, and his human protectors often squabbled over custody of him like a bunch of divorcing parents. In all likelihood, Nim’s increasingly disobedient behavior was a simple case of genetic programming. But maybe the crazed, unfocused nurturing of the people around him helped things along.

Eventually, Terrace’s experiment comes to an unexpected conclusion and Nim is set adrift, sent to one depressing animal testing facility after another. This animal lived a remarkable life but he had no control over any of it, and the lack of agency he has in his own destiny makes “Project Nim” into a frequently heartbreaking film. There continues to be a debate over whether Nim truly learned to communicate or whether his ingrown skills as a brilliant beggar enabled him to ape the humans’ behavior without understanding it. But if we did teach him some small amount of cognition and expression, what we did to him next was an even greater tragedy.

With his experiment, Terrace draws one conclusion but Marsh, skillfully blending a healthy amount of archival footage with careful recreations and new interviews with most of the participants, may draw another with his film. Whether or not he could sign, regardless of how cute he was as a baby chimp, Nim was an animal. But just because he was an animal doesn’t mean he doesn’t have feelings, or deserve simple human decency. “Project Nim” makes it pretty clear that he does, and that Nim spent years crushed beneath the weight of disappointment and abandonment before an unlikely savior appeared to give him back the joy of companionship and friendship. The forgiveness Nim displayed after that is something we humans could aspire to.

“Project Nim” opens Friday in limited release. If you see it, tell us what you think in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter!

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Hard Out

Comedy From The Closet

Janice and Jeffrey Available Now On IFC's Comedy Crib

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She’s been referred to as “the love child of Amy Sedaris and Tracy Ullman,” and he’s a self-described “Italian who knows how to cook a great spaghetti alla carbonara.” They’re Mollie Merkel and Matteo Lane, prolific indie comedians who blended their robust creative juices to bring us the new Comedy Crib series Janice and Jeffrey. Mollie and Matteo took time to answer our probing questions about their series and themselves. Here’s a taste.


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

Mollie & Matteo: Janice and Jeffrey is about a married couple experiencing intimacy issues but who don’t have a clue it’s because they are gay. Their oblivion makes them even more endearing.  Their total lack of awareness provides for a buffet of comedy.

IFC: What’s your origin story? How did you two people meet and how long have you been working together?

Mollie: We met at a dive bar in Wrigley Field Chicago. It was a show called Entertaining Julie… It was a cool variety scene with lots of talented people. I was doing Janice one night and Matteo was doing an impression of Liza Minnelli. We sort of just fell in love with each other’s… ACT! Matteo made the first move and told me how much he loved Janice and I drove home feeling like I just met someone really special.

IFC: How would Janice describe Jeffrey?

Mollie: “He can paint, cook homemade Bolognese, and sing Opera. Not to mention he has a great body. He makes me feel empowered and free. He doesn’t suffocate me with attention so our love has room to breath.”

IFC: How would Jeffrey describe Janice?

Matteo: “Like a Ford. Built to last.”

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

Mollie & Matteo: Our current political world is mirroring and reflecting this belief that homosexuality is wrong. So what better time for satire. Everyone is so pro gay and equal rights, which is of course what we want, too. But no one is looking at middle America and people actually in the closet. No one is saying, hey this is really painful and tragic, and sitting with that. Having compassion but providing the desperate relief of laughter…This seemed like the healthiest, best way to “fight” the gay rights “fight”.

IFC: Hummus is hilarious. Why is it so funny?

Mollie: It just seems like something people take really seriously, which is funny to me. I started to see it in a lot of lesbians’ refrigerators at a time. It’s like observing a lesbian in a comfortable shoe. It’s a language we speak. Pass the Hummus. Turn on the Indigo Girls would ya?

See the whole season of Janice and Jeffrey right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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Die Hard Dads

Inspiration For Die Hard Dads

Die Hard is on IFC all Father's Day Long

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIPHY

Yippee ki-yay, everybody! It’s time to celebrate the those most literal of mother-effers: dads!

And just in case the title of this post left anything to the imagination, IFC is giving dads balls-to-the-wall ’80s treatment with a glorious marathon of action trailblazer Die Hard.

There are so many things we could say about Die Hard. We could talk about how it was comedian Bruce Willis’s first foray into action flicks, or Alan Rickman’s big screen debut. But dads don’t give a sh!t about that stuff.

No, dads just want to fantasize that they could be deathproof quip factory John McClane in their own mundane lives. So while you celebrate the fathers in your life, consider how John McClane would respond to these traditional “dad” moments…

Wedding Toasts

Dads always struggle to find the right words of welcome to extend to new family. John McClane, on the other hand, is the master of inclusivity.
Die Hard wedding

Using Public Restrooms

While nine out of ten dads would rather die than use a disgusting public bathroom, McClane isn’t bothered one bit. So long as he can fit a bloody foot in the sink, he’s G2G.
Die Hard restroom

Awkward Dancing

Because every dad needs a signature move.
Die Hard dance

Writing Thank You Notes

It can be hard for dads to express gratitude. Not only can McClane articulate his thanks, he makes it feel personal.
Die Hard thank you

Valentine’s Day

How would John McClane say “I heart you” in a way that ain’t cliche? The image speaks for itself.
Die Hard valentines


The only thing most dads hate more than shopping is fielding eleventh-hour phone calls with additional items for the list. But does McClane throw a typical man-tantrum? Nope. He finds the words to express his feelings like a goddam adult.
Die Hard thank you

Last Minute Errands

John McClane knows when a fight isn’t worth fighting.
Die Hard errands

Sneaking Out Of The Office Early

What is this, high school? Make a real exit, dads.
Die Hard office

Think you or your dad could stand to be more like Bruce? Role model fodder abounds in the Die Hard marathon all Father’s Day long on IFC.

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Founding Farters

Know Your Nerd History

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIFs via Giphy

That we live in the heyday of nerds is no hot secret. Scientists are celebrities, musicians are robots and late night hosts can recite every word of the Silmarillion. It’s too easy to think that it’s always been this way. But the truth is we owe much to our nerd forebearers who toiled through the jock-filled ’80s so that we might take over the world.


Our humble beginnings are perhaps best captured in iconic ’80s romp Revenge of the Nerds. Like the founding fathers of our Country, the titular nerds rose above their circumstances to culturally pave the way for every Colbert and deGrasse Tyson that we know and love today.

To make sure you’re in the know about our very important cultural roots, here’s a quick download of the vengeful nerds without whom our shameful stereotypes might never have evolved.

Lewis Skolnick

The George Washington of nerds whose unflappable optimism – even in the face of humiliating self-awareness – basically gave birth to the Geek Pride movement.

Gilbert Lowe

OK, this guy is wet blanket, but an important wet blanket. Think Aaron Burr to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. His glass-mostly-empty attitude is a galvanizing force for Lewis. Who knows if Lewis could have kept up his optimism without Lowe’s Debbie-Downer outlook?

Arnold Poindexter

A music nerd who, after a soft start (inside joke, you’ll get it later), came out of his shell and let his passion lead instead of his anxiety. If you played an instrument (specifically, electric violin), and you were a nerd, this was your patron saint.


A sex-loving, blunt-smoking, nose-picking guitar hero. If you don’t think he sounds like a classic nerd, you’re absolutely right. And that’s the whole point. Along with Lamar, he simultaneously expanded the definition of nerd and gave pre-existing nerds a twisted sort of cred by association.

Lamar Latrell

Black, gay, and a crazy good breakdancer. In other words, a total groundbreaker. He proved to the world that nerds don’t have a single mold, but are simply outcasts waiting for their moment.


Exceedingly stupid, this dumbass was monumental because he (in a sequel) leaves the jocks to become a nerd. Totally unheard of back then. Now all jocks are basically nerds.

Well, there they are. Never forget that we stand on their shoulders.

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC all month long.

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