Nerds on TV tend to be caricatures of nerds in real life. They play up the fact that they’re brainy and uncool, some even snorting when they laugh, all in the name of comedy. But it’s not enough to just act the part. The actors behind TV’s most famous nerds had to look the part as well.
They often dressed like someone who works at a library or comic book shop and their hairstyles made it seem like they cut it themselves. It’s no wonder some (but not all) of the actors look so different from the nerds they played on TV. See for yourself as we take a look at what TV nerds are like in real life.
Urkel’s shadow looms large
For most of us, Jaleel White is always going to be the nasally-voiced and accident-prone Steve Urkel from Family Matters. And that’s been a problem for White’s acting career. People see the iconic Urkel every time they look at White, despite the fact that they don’t talk or dress alike or even have the same posture. "I wasn’t a nerd by any stretch of the imagination and [I was] decidedly more a jock," White told TV Guide.
Urkel was famous for his suspenders and high-waist pants while White preferred Jordan sneakers and Nike jumpsuits in those days. Urkel geeked out over polka music while White opted for gangsta rap toward the end of the show’s run.
It’s not surprising White was ready to move on, famously telling TV Guide, "If you ever see me do that character again, take me out and put a bullet in my head and put me out of my misery." Now a goateed father in his 40s, White, who has landed smaller roles on TV over the years, learned to embrace his past. He’s even open to a Family Matters reunion. "I have some ideas…" he told the Hollywood Reporter.
Hey, hey, hey, hey, what is going on here, Screech?
In real life, the actor who played Screech, Dustin Diamond, is also an avid chess player. He said in a Washington Post live chat that he had been playing since he was 5 and told the AV Club that he did a lot of work with the US Chess Federation. Few are probably aware that he released a low-budget instructional chess video called Dustin Diamond Teaches Chess. More people are probably aware of another video he made.
Diamond infamously released a sex tape in 2006 for the payday. He later told Milwaukee’s FOX 6 that he regretted the decision, but it ended up being just one of many bad calls by the former child actor. Diamond was sentenced to 60 days in to jail after stabbing a man in a bar fight in 2014 and returned to prison in 2016 for violating parole. Who would have ever thought Bayside’s lovable dork would turn into an adult film actor with a police record?
It’s not unusual for fans to request the Carlton dance
It didn’t take much to get Carlton Banks to break out into dance on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. The sweater vest-wearing Princeton transfer with questionable music taste was always ready to snap his fingers and swivel his hips like he was in a Broadway musical, even when he was unexpectedly stripping or on Soul Train. And he’d do so with the cheesiest of smiles plastered across his face.
The actor who portrayed Banks, Alfonso Ribeiro, on the other hand, isn’t as enthusiastic about his trademark "Carlton dance," especially since it has come up every time he’s in public for over two decades. "I get asked to do the dance every day I leave the house," Ribeiro told ABC News. "I never want to take away their enjoyment of the moment. But … I’m not a dancing puppet."
That’s not to say he doesn’t enjoy dancing. Ribeiro — who shares Banks’ wholesome reputation as the host of the family-friendly America’s Funniest Home Videos — is a former Dancing with the Stars champion. And yes, he gave DWTS viewers what they wanted.
There’s life after Willow
Our introduction to Buffy’s studious gal pal Willow immediately established her position in the school’s social hierarchy. Popular girl Cordelia ridiculed Willow for wearing a homely plaid dress in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer series premiere and told new girl Buffy to avoid "losers" like Willow. The outcast role wasn’t that big of a stretch for Alyson Hannigan, who said she went through something similar in her younger years.
"Having not had a good experience in my personal high school life, to be able to be part of a show that reflects that — it just resonated so profoundly with me," Hannigan told The Guardian. "I was just over the moon to have been a part of it."
Hannigan went on to co-star in the American Pie film franchise and How I Met Your Mother. She told The Sun she didn’t truly gain her confidence until she was in her 30s and has said in other interviews that her fashion choices in high school probably didn’t make things any easier for her.
"I went through a phase where I thought it was awesome to wear Dr. Seuss boxer shorts over leggings with a concert shirt," Hannigan told Pop Sugar. Suddenly the homely plaid dress doesn’t sound so bad.
What would Dwight say about veganism?
Fact: Dwight Schrute is a weirdo. How else do you describe someone who wears the tuxedo his grandfather was buried in? Because he was so believable in the role of Schrute, Rainn Wilson often has to convince fans of The Office that he and his character are not the same person.
"[Everyone] thinks I’m Dwight … that I’m this kind of annoying, difficult, nerdy, creepy guy. And they don’t know Rainn Wilson," Wilson told Big Think. "Although I’m a little bit nerdy, annoying and creepy, I’m not as much as Dwight Schrute."
Wilson is the first to admit he used to be a nerd in school. He played Dungeons and Dragons and the bassoon and was part of the chess team, computer club, and marching band. But Wilson was happy. And isn’t that what matters most? "It was this weird little stinky petri dish of nerd-dom where we could just express our humor and our weirdness," Wilson told Seattle’s KUOW. "And I’m really grateful for that."
Wilson has since gotten married and had a son. He is a vegan and devoted follower of the Baha’i Faith. He and his family don’t live on a beet farm like Schrute, but they do own farm animals, including horses and pot belly pigs. They also have a zonkey because apparently that’s a real thing.
Picture Annie, but with a tongue ring
Alison Brie isn’t a goody two-shoes. She just plays them on TV, including Community overachiever Annie Edison. "The biggest misconception about me is that I’m very wholesome," Brie, who bared all in Glow, told the New York Post, adding "people would say, ‘Oh, you’re like Miss Priss,’ and I’m really not. I had a very wild 20s." Talking about her wild days, she later added, "If I was going out with you, it was going to be a crazy night."
Not as crazy: Brie’s teen years. Like Edison, who ran for student body president, Brie also got involved in extracurriculars. "I was kind of nerdy and by senior year was President of the Drama Club," Brie told the Daily Beast, "and because I was in drama, I had to have good grades so I could do the plays."
In the New York Post interview, she said she once rebelled and got her tongue pierced, but that only lasted a week. "I was too nerdy to have a tongue ring, and everybody knew it," she shared.
Chuck’s nerdiness was no act
You think computer whiz-turned-spy Chuck Bartowski is a geek? You should see the Chuck star who played him. Zachary Levi is so deep into geek culture that he launched an apparel line called Nerd Machine along with a comic convention and website called Nerd HQ. That might be hard for some to believe since Levi doesn’t fit the traditional image of what a nerd looks like, but the guy hosted a show called Geeks Who Drink. He’s proof that nerds come in all shapes and sizes.
"Growing up, I was playing video games and reading comics," Levi, who shares Bartowski’s passion for tech, told Fast Company. "I was the actor, not the athlete. I identified with nerd culture. This was before the geek chic of the last 10 years, so I got plenty of ridicule."
Levi appeared in Marvel’s Thor sequels and is set to play the titular role in DC’s Shazam. Looks like this comic book nerd got the last laugh.
There’s a reason Sheldon’s Vulcan salute was off
Sheldon Cooper wears his geekdom on his sleeve, or should we say t-shirt? The boy genius-turned-theoretical physicist — played by Emmy-winner Jim Parsons — owns a never-ending collection of superhero t-shirts. He also likes to flaunt his Star Trek fandom, spouting Klingon on occasion. Just don’t expect him to perfectly execute the Vulcan salute.
Parsons told Canadian media (via the Winnipeg Free Press) that a Big Bang Theory viewer once wrote an angry letter after he attempted Mr. Spock’s trademark hand gesture in an episode because his form wasn’t up to snub. Can you blame Parsons? He isn’t the sci-fi fanatic that he plays on TV and has never hidden that fact.
"I’m very forthcoming," Parsons told Time. "I’ve never seen Star Trek. I don’t know Dr. Who." Parsons isn’t as studious as Cooper either. In an interview with Vanity Fair, he revealed he failed meteorology in college, mostly because he skipped class and was focused on theater.
Parsons’ family members feel that he and Cooper really only have two things in common: They’re both germophobes and homebodies. Parsons’ sister, Julie, told the Poughkeepsie Journal that her brother likes to listen to talk radio and go to bed early. "I call him grandpa," she joked.
Is Bernadette’s voice real?
The first thing you’ll probably notice when hearing Melissa Rauch talk is that she sounds nothing like the character she plays on The Big Bang Theory. Dr. Bernadette Rostenkowski-Wolowitz has a voice that’s so high that the joke on the show is that the neighbor’s dog has been known to howl when hearing it. Rauch told the Rubin Report some fans are caught off guard by her real voice. "Sometimes I’ll get recognized and then they’ll hear my voice and be like ‘Oh, that’s not you,’" she revealed.
Rauch isn’t the science geek that Rostenkowski-Wolowitz is either. She’s a life-long stand up comedy fan who studied acting in college (that’s when she dropped her Jersey accent), not something as complex as microbiology, like her character.
"I definitely feel there’s science information that’s given to me in every script that are things I never thought I would learn," Rauch told the Huffington Post about working on The Big Bang Theory. "Last year, my character did experiments with rhesus monkeys. I didn’t even know rhesus monkeys existed."
Betty’s style is hard to replicate
Ugly Betty protagonist Betty Suarez isn’t your classic beauty, in case it wasn’t obvious from the title of the show. The clumsy fashion journalist played by America Ferrera started off the series with braces, thick-rimmed glasses, unkempt eyebrows, and a wardrobe that constantly clashed. But as we’ve been told so many times before, it’s what’s on the inside that counts. And that’s the appeal of Suarez, a kind-hearted underdog who wouldn’t take no for an answer in the magazine world.
Ferrera told Redbook that she could relate to the fact that "Betty was a go-getter." While speaking to high school students, she revealed (via Catholic.org) that friends and family used to tell her, "You’re Latino. That’s not really what they want in Hollywood. You’re short. You’re not the image, you know, of what a beautiful Hollywood star is." Ferrera said that while these things hurt, they didn’t stop her.
She has been just as determined in her personal life, whether it’s fighting for women’s rights or participating in the Nautica Malibu Triathlon in 2016 with her husband Ryan Piers Williams. She also found a new TV show in Superstore. Ferrera can look a little more like herself in the workplace comedy, but she admitted she missed Suarez’s wardrobe.
"As crazy as she looked, she was always wearing designer clothes," Ferrera told the UK’s Loose Women. "I tried to take some of her clothes when the show was over, actually, but I never managed to put it together the way (wardrobe designer) Pat did."