|Nerd Do Well: A Small Boy’s Journey to
Becoming a Big Kid
Gotham Books – hardcover, $27.50
By Simon Pegg
This was an interesting read immediately after Grant Morrison’s Supergods, as both examine largely American popular culture from a UK point of view and delve into its influence beyond American shores and on the authors specifically. Of course, whereas Morrison limits his discussion to superhero comic books, Pegg’s interest is in popular culture broadly, though with a focus on those types of films, television, books, and even comics (a little) that engender in a certain type of viewer/reader a desire to obsessively re-watch or endlessly discuss nuances with others of the faithful. In other words, the popular culture that appeals to nerds. The importance of these works to Pegg’s biography is hard to overstate, as his career as actor and writer from the television show Spaced to movies like Hot Fuzz and Paul is built on extended riffs on such material.
Nerd Do Well is, on one level, Pegg’s memoir of growing up and developing his comic voice, spanning his childhood and young adulthood, up through the filming and release of Shaun of the Dead, the film that brought him to semi-prominence to American audiences. However, with the exception of a few passages describing the formulation of early jokes and an acknowledgment of his creative debt to writing partners Jessica Hynes and Edgar Wright, Pegg delves very little into the process of writing or shooting the television and movies that he’s been involved in. Indeed, while the book is a work of autobiography, Pegg repeatedly expresses reservations about discussing his life, and outside of a few comic anecdotes, he plays the book’s biographical elements close to the vest.
That’s fine, as the real purpose and value of Nerd Do Well is as a book-length answer to the question, “What are your influences?” Where the story of Pegg’s early childhood is amusing but largely unremarkable and disjointed (another quality the book shares with Supergods is a tendency to reveal details out of order, following a narrative thread across a few years, moving onto a new topic, and then finally returning to where he left off a few chapters later), he brings enormous passion to the discovery and discussion of the films and television that formed his artistic sensibility.
Here Pegg is generous and eloquent, and the book comes to life when he describes the experience of seeing Star Wars for the first time. Having studied film in college, Pegg is fluent in critical theory and expounds at entertaining length on his theories as to the resonance of popular franchises with audiences. Star Wars, he speculates, came out at a moment when America was ready to guiltily reevaluate its position as global empire, and he notes similarities between the United States and the Galactic Empire, which peaks when the Empire is defeated in a jungle environment by a vastly outgunned militia of local inhabitants in Return of the Jedi. Of course, he never loses sight of the surface elements that attract young viewers and is an equally astute observer of the less macro emotional levels that these films work on, mentioning on more than one occasion that E.T. brought him to tears as a child.
Later, Pegg turns the same critical lens on his own work, bringing a refreshing self-awareness to a description of the Oedipal issues at play in Shaun of the Dead, an analysis of the consequences of two possible interpretations of the film’s ending and the male wish-fulfillment aspect of the female lead implied by one of them. The feeling is not unlike that of watching a film with audio commentary more concerned with emotional honesty than on-set hijinx.
The tone will be familiar and welcome to many readers in its down-to-earth perspective and genuine humbled excitement at the accomplishments and opportunities Pegg has had. The book’s structuring element is the ESTB—electro-static time ball—which Pegg imagines using to visit a younger self who has just fallen in love with a particular film or television show to announce that his grown-up self has just gotten to contribute to the genre in question or work with the director in question. It’s a disarming technique, although it becomes overused toward the end, when the book devolves into a a series of encounters with famous actors and directors and the ESTB metaphor seems to get pulled out on every page. The enthusiasm for meeting these people feels genuine—it doesn’t seem like namedropping in the sense of trying to impress the reader—but Pegg’s pleasure at meeting yet another beloved filmmaker becomes tryingly repetitive.
One more device that overstays its welcome is the fictional story that opens each chapter, depicting a superheroic version of Pegg on a mission to save the world. Early on it plays a counterpoint to Pegg’s discomfort with sharing the details of his life by giving him something else to write about, and the beginning is amusing, particularly in how the over-the-top description of Pegg’s prowess, both crime-fighting and sexual, makes Pegg himself the butt of the joke without resorting to self-depricatoin. But as the main narrative becomes more pleasurable, the superhero story becomes an unwelcome interruption, though individual installments remain brief. It’s a minor issue, but the inclusion of this element feels distracting.
Nerd Do Well is not the greatest work of pop culture critical analysis you’ll read this year, but it is a clear-eyed and enjoyabe look at how a nerd-culture figure like Pegg has transformed the fictions of is childhood and young adulthood into nostalgic yet fresh-feeling stories today. He includes a wide range of influences from Raiders of the Lost Ark to 2000AD and presents a clear path from experiencing the work to absorbing it to synthesizing it with his comedic style and a few autobiographical touches (though very few of those are explored, the primary one being the influence of a recent breakup with a pseudonymed woman on Spaced. Channeling his heartbreak over the terribleness of The Phantom Menace falls into a weird middle ground) to create his comedy and film writing. Though a flawed and incomplete portrait of Pegg’s creative process, for most of its pages Nerd Do Well is a fun and genial tour through the pop culture of the 1980s through the 2000s and how much they mean to one of their more eloquent admirers, like a long, funny chat over drinks with one of your smarter, nerdier friends.