Arts & Culture

From reality TV to reality (really)

5 min read

Nate Dern isn’t really a geek, but he plays one on TV.

It started when Dern was standing in front of the Science Center handing out fliers for the improv comedy troupe the Immediate Gratification Players (IGP) and a couple of recruiters from the CW network (formerly the WB) walked up and asked him if he’d like to try out for a reality TV show, “Beauty and the Geek.”

“They thought I looked like a geek because I had a beard and I like to wear kind of … loud clothing. So I tried out, just for the heck of it, and I kept getting invited back, and then finally I got chosen.”

The show (to quote from its Web site) pairs “eight gorgeous but academically impaired women with eight brilliant but socially challenged men to test intellect and social skills.”

Dern and his partner Cecille Gahr made it all the way to the final episode, but lost out to another Harvard man, Alan “Scooter” Zackheim ’06 and partner Megan Hauserman.

Dern gave a good account of himself, but that’s because he didn’t really fit the show’s specifications. How socially challenged can someone be who regularly improvises comedy skits based on suggestions thrown out by the audience? This high-wire form of entertainment is IGP’s stock in trade. So when the geeks received their first challenge, Dern was up for it.

“They said we had to get up in front of an audience and do stand-up, which was supposed to be really terrifying, but I was secretly smiling because I was thinking, ‘Wow, I get to do stand-up on national TV — that’s awesome!”

While his fellow geeks stammered and generally bombed, Dern sailed through a confident six or seven minutes, although only the following segment was shown on TV:

“I think nature’s pretty great — I do. But if I had designed things, I’d have done allergies a little differently. Instead of making people allergic to small things like peanuts and strawberries, I’d have made people allergic to really scary things like tigers and sharks. So it’s like, ‘Uh, oh, a rash. There’s a tiger somewhere.’ Or (making swimming motions), ‘My nose is running — where’s that shark? I got a rash too. It must be a tiger shark.”

Dern’s brand of oddball humor is familiar to anyone who has caught an IGP performance or seen one of the videos on the group’s Web site at

Typical is the one in which IGP members talk about the group’s origins, asserting with a kind of dazed solemnity that Nero, Attilla the Hun, and Eleanor Roosevelt were all former members. Or the one about the eternal struggle between man and machine in which IGP-ers struggle with manic intensity to free their hapless friends from the clutches of predatory refrigerators and Laundromat dryers. Or the one in which the president and his cabinet show up in Dern’s dorm room to present him with an award for good decision-making, but then take it back because they see that he is eating a stale chocolate chip cookie dipped in salsa.

In their live performances, IGP isn’t just a gang of wild and crazy cutups; they have a philosophy. First and foremost is the principle of “yes, and … .” This means that when someone offers you an idea on stage, you accept it and run with it. That keeps the skit moving forward. Another is that it is better to offer fellow cast members information than to ask questions, give them something to work with rather than put them on the spot.

But there is more to Dern than doing improv, making goofy videos, or masquerading as a geek — much more.

For example, he thinks he may be the only person from his Evergreen, Colo. high school ever to go to Harvard. The transition from small town to big city hasn’t always been easy. He had to learn not to say hello to everyone on the street or empty his pockets when panhandlers approached him.

A social anthropology/study of religion concentrator, he wrote his honors thesis on the Islamic community in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Fluent in Spanish, he spent a summer there hanging out in a mosque.

He plays in a rock band called “So Long, Princess,” which performs original songs based on the movie “Star Wars” with titles such as “Wookie,” “Storm Trooper,” and “Yavin 4.” The group’s name is a line from the movie in which Han Solo bids a sarcastic farewell to Princess Leia. “But when we say the name, we usually don’t say it sarcastically,” Dern adds.

He managed to snag an internship this summer on “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart. What could be cooler than that?

He also received a Harvard Cambridge Scholarship and plans to use it in 2008 to earn a one-year M.A. degree in linguistics from Cambridge University.

Dern has the following year sketched out as well. After going through the Teach for America training program, he plans to spend the next two years teaching in a low-income community.

And after that? Dern’s original ambition when he came to Harvard was to go into politics, and he hasn’t entirely given up on that, although his conception of himself as a politician has been modified by his comedy experience.

“If I ever do get into politics, I think I’ll have to be a Jesse Ventura type of candidate.”

Whatever the future holds, Dern knows comedy will be part of it, although probably not the driving part. He may not be a geek, but maybe Dern is still a small-town boy at heart.

“I want to keep doing comedy on the side, but being on “Beauty and the Geek” made me realize that I didn’t want to go to Los Angeles or New York and get eaten up by the entertainment machine.”