In his new memoir Nerd Do Well British comedian and actor Simon Pegg—best known to American audiences for the feature films Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and Paul, all of which he co-wrote—comes off pretty much as you’d expect, based on his screen persona—basically a nice guy, maybe a little too smart for his own good, improvising his way out of tight corners that are occasionally of his own making.
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That’s key to the success of Nerd Do Well. Though the particulars of Pegg’s life—a dreamy childhood, the performer’s usual scrounging for work, a fraught relationship with his stepfather—are lacking in dramatic conflict, but he tells them with a winning fondness and intimacy. Pegg still has a clear line to the perceptions of childhood, and his reminiscences of teachers and schoolmates ring with affection.
And that’s pretty much what you get as far as autobiography. Childhood and adolescence figure largest, and there are bits and pieces about Pegg’s early career, but the narrative grows fragmentary as his profile grows higher. We hear quite a bit about a largely forgotten sketch show called Asylum, but Hot Fuzz and Paul are mentioned only in passing, and Hollywood vehicles like Run Fatboy Run not at all. It makes sense, in a way. Once someone becomes a public figure, the public record takes over. Nerd Do Well is best seen as a supplement, filling in the gaps in that record. Nowhere else, for instance, will you get the story of Pegg’s brief breakdancing career, or how the hit Brit sitcom The Young Ones opened his eyes.
Realizing, perhaps, that nostalgic reveries about unrequited boyhood crushes are hardly the stuff of high drama, Pegg intersperses the autobiographical chapters with an absurd running narrative in which he imagines himself as a globetrotting adventurer, rendered in pitch-perfect fan-fiction prose: “ ‘What are you doing ’ere?’ whispered the Scarlet Panther throatily, a thin film of sweat glistening on her amazing knockers, as she lay in Pegg’s muscular arms.”
As promised in the title, Pegg lets his nerd flag fly, offering extended reflections on the inner workings of comedy and his own fannish obsessions, especially Star Wars. This is the stuff that I most enjoyed because Pegg is playing on my home turf and has the cult-studs chops to back up his opinions. He also nails, in his discussion of his film studies at university, how the development of working critical faculties can sometimes ruin the simple enjoyment of the movies:
Lectures and seminars on populist cinema…enabled me to me to consider what I had previously assumed to be a disposable art form as a rich source of academic study. I was able to watch my favourite films again, then address them as historic ‘texts’, reflecting a host of psychological complexities….[which] is all very well when you’re watching Jean-Luc Godard’s Numero Deux, but slightly distracting when you’re watching The Jungle Book and feeling irked about the use of infantilised anthropomorphic proxies as racial stereotypes, while everyone else is dancing around singing ‘King of the Swingers.’
Which left me thinking, Thank God, I thought it was just me. And in the next paragraph, he counters himself by detailing the various psychological readings he had in mind while scripting Shaun of the Dead, making the argument for a well-deployed critical mindset in making a film more entertaining.
And not just in facile ways either. While much of the humor in Pegg’s movies comes from the deconstruction of standard tropes in genre films, his understanding of human nature gives them an emotional resonance as well. While never less than pants-wettingly funny, they are also surprisingly tender. Sweet, funny and moving, Nerd Do Well is about what you’d expect from Simon Pegg. Yeah, it’s that good.
Jack Feerick is a loose cannon cop on the edge who doesn’t play by the rules, and critic-at-large for Popdose.com.