For the past three years, Greta Johnsen and Tricia Bobeda have been producing Nerdette, a podcast in which they talk to “people we like about the stuff that they make.” Those people include scientists (check out the episodes featuring J’Tia Taylor, Chris Hadfield, or Neil DeGrasse Tyson), comedians (Tig Notaro, W. Kamau Bell, or Maz Jobrani), writers (Stephen King, Margaret Atwood, Amy Tan, Nick Hornby, or Sandra Cisneros) and feminists (Roxane Gay, Lindy West, Caitlin Moran, or Rebecca Traister).
The Nerdettes also explore stories of “lady nerds of history,” word games, sports, and all kinds of television. All kinds of television, but particularly Game of Thrones, for which the Nerdettes cannot contain their enthusiasm. They literally cannot contain it; they spun off a new podcast, “Nerdettes Recap, etc,” with WBEZ podcast crony Peter Sagal from Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me to analyze each episode.
Greta Johnsen recently answered a few questions about the Nerdette ethos.
Elizabeth Bales Frank: Your origin story (if you forgive the expression) says that you worked in the same public radio newsroom and decided to start a podcast. Can you explain the pitch that got this show a green light?
Greta Johnsen: First of all, we love the expression “origin story” and use it quite a lot. Because superheroes! When we started in May of 2013, we produced Nerdette completely independently of our day jobs. So it wasn’t a pitch that got a green light. It was giving ourselves deadlines, doing tons of interviews, building an audience and constantly trying to make a better show than the week before.
About two years and a hundred episodes later, we became an official part of the WBEZ podcast family. Not to wax too poetic, but it’s a great example of what can happen when you decide to stop waiting for someone to tap you on the shoulder and ask you to do your dream project. We wanted a show like Nerdette to exist, so we made one. We’ve had lots of help and advice along the way.
EBF: One of your taglines is “It’s not what you love, it’s how much you love it.” But it is kind of what you love, isn’t it? If the world is a high school lunchroom, then Nerdette guests would be sitting at the theater geeks’ table, the AP classes table, and the AV club’s table. Not so much the varsity football or cheerleader’s table. Would you agree?
GJ: We must respectfully disagree. One of Tricia’s favorite moments ever on the show was talking about baseball with presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. Just take our own families: Tricia has still never beat her brilliant brother at Bananagrams. He was a college baseball player and a college cheerleader. My brother played varsity football, and he’s obsessed with politics. Both are huge nerds. What’s nerdier than memorizing statistics?
The topics on the show skew toward our personal interests, and so that does mean plenty of word nerdery and geeking out about theater and TV. So I think the kids from the AP classes and AV Club would feel very at home. But it is totally possible to be genuinely enthusiastic about anything, and that’s our only prerequisite for being considered a nerd.
EBF: On the other hand, it is about how much you love it. I would venture to say that people who love “Game of Thrones” love “Game of Thrones” more than people who love “Everybody Loves Raymond” love “Everybody Loves Raymond.” There’s a special ardor there and I do think it’s influenced by having been marginalized—it’s like finding your lost tribe.
GJ: I think there is a certain delight in finding your lost tribe, for sure. There’s nothing more exciting than finding a person or people who get just as excited about something as you do. (On that note, I’m now searching for an “Everybody Loves Raymond” obsessive, because there must be one out there somewhere!)
For us, the best sort of nerds are ambassadors—they won’t berate you for not having read Tolkien or snub you if you don’t know what a TARDIS is. They’ll take it as an opportunity to share something with you that they love. I think that’s really important, especially if it’s a marginalized passion. And really, it’s great storytelling of any kind that spurs fandom.
For example: follow the journey of a charismatic but flawed blond woman and her friends as she attempts to gain political power. Did I just describe Game of Thrones or Parks and Recreation?
EBF: One of my favorite episodes was when you had Peter Sagal on and he waxed nostalgic about how he had to suffer for his geekiness, whereas today “nerd” is a proud name people give themselves. Do you think nerd has gone mainstream?
GJ: Oh, absolutely. We like to say there’s no better time to be a nerd! You can buy thick-framed glasses without lenses at Urban Outfitters. We’ve hit an apex. The internet has certainly helped—it’s easier than ever before to find your tribe, even if you live in a tiny town. There are so many ways and apps and websites for specific obsessions. That said, I think it’s also a lot easier to be a thirty-something nerd than a thirteen-year-old nerd. Because being a teenager is still hard.
EBF: Other podcasts have guests pitching their latest book, movie or album. Some podcasts make recommendations. Pop Culture Happy Hour has “things that are making us happy this week.” You assign homework.
GJ: We figured homework fits within the ethos of the show—plenty of nerds asked for extra homework in school, so we’re bringing the assignments back. It’s a great way for Tricia and I to talk about the stuff we love, and a fun mechanism for talking to guests, too. Listeners seem to love it—we’ve heard from more than one person that they make homework spreadsheets, which is the most gloriously nerdy thing possible!
Elizabeth Bales Frank is a writer, researcher and MLIS candidate who lives in Astoria, New York. She is a nerd for historical fiction, English mysteries, Game of Thrones, baseball (St. Louis Cardinals), and all things Shakespearean. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in The Sun, The New York Times, Barrelhouse, Post Road, Elysian Fields Quarterly, and others. www.elizafrank.com