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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]

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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