I reached out to the fine folks of Nerd Nite Detroit and conducted an interview with them about their upcoming relaunch of their events. At first glance, “Nerd Nite Is Like the Discovery Channel™…with Beer!” Enjoy this in-depth interview about Nerd Nite Detroit.
Joe Hubbard: What is Nerd Nite about?
Bubba Ayoub: Nerd Nite is a space where people can talk about what they’re passionate about and have it be appreciated. It is nerds talking about what they care about to other nerds. We try to make it as diverse, thought provoking and provocative as possible without going into schlocky and cheesy territory. It was founded in Boston and New York. A student was working on his PHD and was going to present his thesis. His friends were all nerdy dudes who wanted to hear his thesis and talk about it. They didn’t want to do it in a classroom setting or a setting that was dry and stuffy. So they said, “Hey, let’s go do this at a bar”. At the bar, the student presented his thesis and talked about it for 15 to 20 minutes. Thus, Nerd Nite was born. They decided to do it regularly and it’s grown to be all over the world. All over the United States, a few in Germany and other countries too. That’s kinda the short version of Nerd Nite.
Jen LaDuke: I believe it’s in over 70 cities.
BA: Yeah, that sounds about right.
JL: It originated in 2003 and Detroit launched in 2013.
JH: When is Nerd Nite each month?
JL: It’s not a set date each month. We’ve always had it on a Thursday evening. Going forward, we are looking to do events every other month. It’s not like it’s the 15th of every month. We look at our schedules of what’s going on and pick a Thursday. Our next one is going to be May 21st.
BA: We try really hard to make sure Nerd Nite is not competing with anything else. We try to schedule it so that the major nerd events in the metro area aren’t happening at one time. We try to make sure that Nerd Nite isn’t happening at that time because it makes it harder on everyone and on us. Generally speaking, everyone going to these major events is a nerd and we would not want them to feel conflicted. Nerd Nite usually tends to fall on the second or third Thursday.
JH: So it is always a Thursday when you schedule something?
BA: For sure.
JH: How did you two get involved in Nerd Nite?
BA: I worked at the Henry Ford Museum a couple summers ago. As part of my job there I came and spoke at a Nerd Nite on July 2013. It was focused on makers and maker faires. I really loved it and thought it was a great thing. Immediately, I connected with everyone involved with Nerd Nite about doing a talk. I did another talk in January outside of my involvement with the Henry Ford Museum. I started coming to events regularly last year. At one point Liz, one of our co-bosses invited me on board as a co-boss. It was a great honor and I was super down for it.
JL: I found Nerd Nite originally on Meetup because I was looking for cool things to do in and around Detroit. The first Nerd Nite I went to was on April 2013. A friend and I went in a disaster scenario. It was pouring rain that day and we got soaking wet on our way in. We are in this crowded bar with all these nerds which was actually really fun. We decided to keep going to Nerd Nite. I didn’t make it to every single one but I try to make it to most of them. It was something I look forward to every month. The past few months there hasn’t been a Nerd Nite. So, I reached out to Liz on Facebook to find out when the next event would be. She told me that they were trying to get re-organized to have a relaunch event and that they would love for me to help out.
JH: Where is Nerd Nite located at?
BA: Jen, you give the good answer and I will give the cheesy answer.
JL: We generally have our events at Tangent Gallery in Detroit, which is at 715 Milwaukee. We’ve had events at other venues in the past but this seems to work the best for us right now. So, we continue to go there.
BA: The cheesy version of that is, Nerd Nite physically is in the Tangent Gallery. However, Nerd Nite really exists in the hearts of every nerd and every person who comes to see events and make them the beautiful experience that they are.
JH: I didn’t think that was a cheesy answer Bubba. I thought that was very poignant.
JH: What presentations stood out to you in the past?
JL: This is such a tough question. This is something that we talked about in one of our recent planning sessions. I have never had a bad time at Nerd Nite. There have been times I’ve gone to events thinking that I would only stay for one speaker and end up staying for all of them while having a great time. That is one of the things I really love about Nerd Nite. If I had to pick favorites, I thought the two Halloween events were really cool. Even though I’m not into scary things, I am into Halloween things. The first year we had a couple who do the onstage gore for the Evil Dead Musical when it comes to town. They demonstrated how to make really gross gore stuff made out of food products. Also, we had a student give a talk about the neuroscience of fear and what your body is going through when you feel the emotion of fear. Another time, we had a speaker talk about feminism in zombie movies. This past year for Halloween, we had the Andrew Alden Ensemble who played a live accompaniment to a screening of Night of the Living Dead. I may have not been into horror but I went to the screening anyway. The movie made me jump a couple of times and the music made me jump as well.
BA: That was one of my favorite events as well. My top event occurred in May last year. We did a literary themed event before I became a co-boss. One speaker presented using literature as a way to get the kids to take ownership of their heritage and their existence while making a positive thing out of their existence. One speaker talked about movies as literature while another spoke about video games as literature. The defining theme was literature being used as a way for people to express themselves and their stories in ways that were culturally resonant to them. I thought it was beautiful and fantastic. It was a favorite.
In January, the theme of that month was grab bag. There were three speakers and we didn’t have a set theme. I was there to talk about modulistic synthesizers in general. I arrived early to set up while it was snowing greatly. Due to the weather, the turnout was not great. The speakers and the staff were present and we were debating about whether to have the event that night. Since I went through the process of setting up my equipment, I decided to do a presentation while my friend was filming it. By the time we were done, about 10-15 people showed up and they viewed a long presentation/performance. That was a lot of fun. I didn’t want to choose that one as my favorite since it was mine and that is egotistical.
JL: It’s cool, Bubba, that you’ve been able to be on both sides of the stage. The other thing that is awesome is that we don’t always follow the speaker model that we have set up. Last July, we had a block party where we had different food options available outside and we had retro gaming set up inside. The first anniversary event of the Detroit Nerd Nite was carnival themed with different activities. We’ve had activity-based events that gave the audience a chance to mingle with each other. They had a chance get to know each other and form a sense of community in addition to nerding out about all these things that we nerd out about.
At the literature event, we did a book exchange where all our attendees were invited to bring a book and leave it on a table. Basically if you brought a book, you could take a book. I brought in a really nice copy of the Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe. Someone ended up taking it home that night.
JH: Well Bubba, you already answered one of my upcoming questions on if you were planning on doing a talk about synthesizers. You read my mind.
BA: That presentation is online and you can go watch it. I will personally talk about that at a drop of a hat. If you talk about synthesizers in my general vicinity, it’s like a homing beacon.
JH: I know how that goes when I run into someone with similar interests that I had no idea that they were into the same stuff. I will start talking to them to gauge where they’re at. Not with the nerdier than thou attitude but to see if we have common interests. I don’t care for the nerdier than thou attitude.
BA: That is one of the things that we try to keep in check. Everything that we do in Nerd Nite is meant to be inclusive. It is meant to bring people into a nerd culture that they can find meaning in. Traditionally if you told somebody that you were a nerd, they assumed that you were into comic books, you lived in your parents’ basement, you didn’t shower and you liked to play the Xbox. All of those negative stereotypes associated with the word nerd. Part of being a nerd is being into comic books if that’s who you are. Part of being a nerd is maybe being into video games. The point of Nerd Nite, as a community sharing heavy event and experience, is you don’t really experience that nerdier than thou vibe. The thing I like about Nerd Nite is the accessibility of the speakers. You can flag them down at the bar afterwards and ask for more elaboration. Without any reservation or hesitation, they will answer everything that you asked about. You can talk to them about whatever it is that you’re interested in as it relates to their talk.
It makes engaging in subjects that you’re not interested in easier. Like for me, beer. We’ve had a couple of talks about beer. I couldn’t care less about drinking. I’m, also, not of the age to drink. The subject of beer has always been boring to me. When there is a Nerd Nite presentation on beer, it always ends up being interesting. Those people still engage with me because they’re passionate and they care.
JL: I totally agree with Bubba. I have never encountered a person with an attitude of “what they know versus what you know” at Nerd Nite. You always see those stereotypes of nerds in TV or movies where they have are a “you’re not as big of a nerd as me” type of attitude. As Bubba was saying, the whole reason why people go to Nerd Nite whether to speak or listen, is because they are excited about something and they want to share that with other people who are excited to learn about it.
I’m with Bubba on the subject of beer where I don’t care about it. I attended a Nerd Nite where the speakers we’re starting a brewery. They brewed their beer by powering it with bicycles. I thought it was cool to see that innovative idea. It was nice to see them talk about it so passionately.
As Bubba mentioned, I’ve talked to speakers after their presentations to find out more about their topics. Everyone is so accessible and excited to share what we’re learning with each other. We’ve created a very welcoming environment. I can say that as someone, who started out as an attendee, who is now a co-boss as well.
JH: Do you aim for a specific theme each month when selecting guests?
JL: We try.
BA: What usually ends up happening is that we will have group calls or meetings where we will talk about the events. We’ll ask what theme will be for the event. The best event ideas always start out as jokes. Case in point, “Let’s do an event on underwater basket weaving”. Then, somebody will state that they have a scientist friend who is really into scuba diving. Next thing you know, we’ve gone from underwater basket weaving to marine biology in the Detroit River. We usually try to have a theme. The themes dictate who we will invite for speakers. There have been times where we’ve had a person interested in speaking or an organization that we wanted to partner with and we would build an event around them.
JL: Usually, we aim for a theme. Once in a while, we have speakers that don’t really correlate with each other but we’re going to do it anyways. The theme for the May event since there hasn’t been an event after Halloween is Reboot, Renew, Relaunch.
JH: Could you talk about the guests for this upcoming event?
JL: Chris Casteel is involved in prosthetics and orthotics. He is the Renew portion of the event. He is an amputee who has worked in the field of prosthetics and orthotics. He will be talking about that along with how to renew your life after limb loss.
Rebecca Frank will be speaking about disaster planning, response and recovery, exploring cultural heritage institutions and rebooting the technology of the people. The Renewing of the availability of our cultural heritage.
BA: The SuperSkull podcast group will be on because I am a huge fanboy. They are going to talk about how rebooted universes in comic books have in some form or another shaped the entire history of comic books. Every few years in comic books, there is a reboot to keep characters and stories fresh. The biggest event in comic book history arguably is when the market crashed in the early 90s. The market crashed oddly enough because of a reboot. The issue that changed everything was the death of Superman. The reason to kill off a superhero is to reboot them at some point more than likely. They generally will be talking about Rebooting universes.
JH: If someone is interested in speaking at nerd night, who do they contact?
JL: They can reach out to us on social media. We are present on Facebook and twitter. Also, we can be reached at [email protected]. There is also a tab on the website to reach us.
I would like to thank Jen and Bubba for the insightful interview on what sounds like a fun event. For more info on Nerd Nite Detroit, visit http://detroit.nerdnite.com/ . To find your way to the event, visit http://migeekscene.com/event/nerd-nite-reboot-renew-relaunch/ .
Remember folks, support your local geek events.