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The rise of the black nerd in pop culture

By Mekeisha Madden Toby, Special to CNN
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Sat March 31, 2012
Alphonso McAuley plays a
Alphonso McAuley plays a "blerd" on the Fox comedy "Breaking In."
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Black nerds or 'blerds' are increasingly visible in pop culture
  • Actors like Donald Glover, Damon Wayans and Alphonso McAuley are playing nerds
  • Expert says "It's fashionable to wear bowties and be educated"

(CNN) -- Comedians Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele, the brains behind the hit Comedy Central sketch show "Key & Peele," joked that President Barack Obama is the idol black nerds have longed for and needed.

"Obama was the best thing for black nerds everywhere. Finally we had a role model," Peele humorously told reporters recently. "Before Obama, we basically had Urkel."

Black nerds, aka "blerds," is a way to describe African-American intellectuals in a time when it's finally cool to be something other than an athlete or rapper.

"There have long been African-American intellectuals," said Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., whose new genealogical show, "Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates Jr.," debuted last Sunday on PBS.

"The difference with my generation and those after is that there are more of us in the spotlight," Gates said. "With my PBS specials, I drew a record 25 million viewers. I wouldn't have been able to do that without the platform I have."

"It's good to see black intellectuals do well," he said. "We as a people are a whole range of things, and we're finally starting to see that reflected in the media."

Because there is a growing number of prominent and successful people considered blerds such as President Obama, Gates and astrophysicist and PBS star Neil deGrasse Tyson, TV viewers are starting to see more and more blerd-type characters on their favorite comedies and even children's programs.

That's right. Lance Robertson, aka DJ Lance Rock from Nickelodeon's "Yo Gabba Gabba!" is a total blerd.

The list also includes comedic actor Jordan Carlos from "I Just Want My Pants Back" on MTV; Aisha Tyler from FX's "Archer" and "Happy Endings" star Damon Wayans Jr. on ABC.

"I'm a black nerd and that was illegal until 2003," joked Donald Glover in one of his Comedy Central standup specials.

Glover has also started blending his nerdy habits in with that of his "Community" character, Troy.

A comedian and a former writer for "30 Rock," Glover has created a whole stand-up act trumpeting blerds like the president and rapper Kanye West.

"Strange, specific stuff -- that's what makes a nerd a nerd," Glover has explained during his bit. "Kanye West is a black nerd. If you go up to Kanye West and say 'Hey, what are your favorite things?' He'd be like 'Robots and Teddy bears.'"

"That's a nerd."

Similar observations have been made by comedian and actor Kevin Hart (a guest star on ABC's "Modern Family").

Like Glover, Hart has created a new brand of dorky, self-deprecating humor that is completely different than that of their comedy predecessors, Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock.

"It's fashionable to wear bowties and be educated," said Dave Nemetz, a TV content producer for Yahoo! "It's part of multiculturalism and with everything blending together, there's a certain subset of (black nerd life) that's becoming cool right now.

"Nerds are cool right now in general and that's certainly an aspect."

Nemetz said the rise in characters such as Brad (Damon Wayans Jr.) on "Happy Endings" is also the result of color-blind casting.

"Damon Wayans' character wouldn't necessarily be a black character the way it was written," Nemetz said. "He's fantastic and that helped him get cast but I also think once you get people from different cultures coming in, and taking roles that may not have been written for them, you see this type of advancement.

"Twenty years ago, it would've been out of place to have this character there because it wasn't happening culturally."

Carlos, who also does standup, said his blerd character Eric on "I Just Want My Pants Back" was Jewish in the David J. Rosen book the show is based on. Rosen also created the TV show and Eric is a medical student.

"I like that they were open to different people coming in and going against type," Carlos said of the show's producers. "I've been Pookie Crack Head No. 2, but I'd never been a member of a cast."

Alphonso McAuley, plays a blerd on the Fox comedy "Breaking In."

He said his character Cash is into "Star Wars" way more than he is in real life, in spite of the fact that he owns not one but two "Star Wars" Lego sets.

"Up until now, black nerds weren't being celebrated," McAuley said. "We've seen the thug, the athlete, the rapper and the comedic best friend. This is something different.

"It's cool to be uncool."

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