Saturday, June 8, 2013

Remembering "Dweebs": The big bust before "The Big Bang Theory"

The cast of Dweebs: America was not ready to love them back in 1995.

Quick, name the half-hour CBS sitcom about a group of brilliant but socially-inept nerds and the attractive female character who acts as their link to "normal" society. Ah ah ah, not so fast! The show I'm thinking of debuted a full twelve years before The Big Bang Theory. And instead of becoming a pop culture cornerstone, this one left the air after only six of its ten episodes had appeared in prime time. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you.... Dweebs.

Title card from Dweebs.
Created by Peter Noah, who had written for such sitcoms as Amen and Dear John and who has since gone on to produce The West Wing and Scandal, Dweebs is a workplace comedy which tells the story of Cyberbyte Inc., a vaguely-defined software company which has grown successful enough to move out of its oil-stained, cluttered garage headquarters and into a bright, shiny, new office. The company is headed by the eccentric Warren Moseby (Peter Scolari, then fresh off a nice long run on CBS' Newhart), a visionary computer genius and possible Asperger case who can barely speak to others and only seems comfortable when jumping on the trampoline in his office. Toiling for Warren are three wacky programmers: smarmy, wisecracking Vic (Corey Feldman, for some reason dressed like a cholo), neurotic, allergic-to-everything Morley (busy character actor and voice artist David Kaufman), and best of all, clueless, balding uber-geek Karl (the ubiquitous actor and raconteur Stephen Tobolowsky, who's done everything from Memento to Glee and is best known as Groundhog Day's Ned Ryerson). The catalyst for the series is the arrival of a tech-fearing "civilian": new office manager Carey (Farrah Forke of Wings), who's a typical '90s career gal, meaning she wears a lot of vests. To help her better communicate with her strange new co-workers, Carey hires eager-to-please gopher Todd (Adam Biesk), who's fluent in both tech talk and conversational English.

Karl and Sheldon: Two of a kind?
Dweebs is uncanny in the way it presages The Big Bang Theory, so much so that I have to wonder if the creators of the latter had watched the former when it originally aired in the fall of 1995. Stylistically, they're both very conventional, set-bound, multi-camera shows with proscenium staging and a chortling laugh track. The dialogue on both shows tends towards setups and punchlines, with easily-identified zingers, comebacks, and one-liners. In other words, it's very clear when you, the viewer, are supposed to laugh. Much of the humor comes from the dweebs' utter incompetence in social situations, oddball personalities, and lack of real-world knowledge. In the pilot episode, Carey sums it up very succinctly when she tells her friend: "I like these guys. It's like they're so smart, they need someone to help them be normal. They have no idea how to connect with people." That's exactly the premise of The Big Bang Theory. On both shows, one of the main running gags is that the nerdy characters are able to recite huge chunks of dialogue consisting of technical jargon as if it's the most natural thing in the world, often leaving listeners bewildered in the process. It's a scenario both shows repeat again and again. Some of the characters, too, have traits which make them reminiscent of the cast of the later show. With his delicate disposition and homemade lunches, Morley reminded me a bit of the overprotected mama's boy Wolowitz (Simon Helberg). Vic's relatively-down-to-earth perspective makes him a progenitor of Leonard Hofstadter (Johnny Galecki). Warren shares his taciturn manner with Raj (Kunal Nayyar). Carey is very much analogous to Big Bang's Penny (Kaley Cuoco), serving almost the exact same function. And most striking of all, Karl's guileless nature and somewhat prissy demeanor mark him as the granddaddy of The Big Bang Theory's breakout character, Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons).

Big Bang, of course, has become one of television's most successful programs -- the top-rated scripted series last season, a smash in syndication, and the inspiration for merchandise ranging from bobbleheads to board games. BBT might very well be the last big across-the-board hit network sitcom. Dweebs, however, had the misfortune of living up to the title of a Devo greatest-hits compilation: Pioneers Who Got Scalped. We were only about a decade into the personal-computing revolution back then, and vast swaths of the public were unfamiliar with this new thing called "the Internet." Back then, it was plausible for Carey to be baffled by such everyday things like e-mail, spreadsheets, and Windows. Frankly, computers hadn't quite gotten "good" back then. They were clunky-looking and somewhat of a chore to operate. Now, of course, we're all a lot more tech-savvy, and the word "app" is part of the vernacular. (On Dweebs, it's treated like something a Martian might say.)

For educational purposes, here is the pilot episode of Dweebs, written by Peter Noah and directed by Andy Ackerman, who fortunately had another job waiting for him on Seinfeld, where he helmed an astonishing 87 episodes before working with Seinfeld veterans on such series as The New Adventures of Old Chrstine and Curb Your Enthusiasm. As you'll soon see, Dweebs is not an all-time great comedy, at least not yet. The move from the garage to the office building is ill-advised, as the series loses a lot of visual interest in the blah new setting. (Carey corrects this toward the end by bringing a bit of the garage into the office.) The dialogue is too jokey and on-the-nose, and many of the jokes are groan-inducing. ("I don't do Windows," Carey tells a computer salesman.) The abundance of mid-1990s references keeps the show from being timeless. But the cast is appealing (even Feldman, who -- let's not forget -- has appeared in a number of highly-regarded films, including Stand By Me and Gremlins), and there is great potential for comedic possibilities here. Those possibilities, of course, would be explored with incredible success on the very same network over a decade later.

For the truly curious, there is a lovingly-made Dweebs fan site right here.