Xander Jeanneret moved to Los Angeles to act. He's done that. The 27-year-old has a handful of credits to his name on IMDB. He's also a cast member of Dungeon Master, the interactive theater production that leads audience members through a fantasy adventure. Right now, though, he's best known as a contestant on the second season of TBS' King of the Nerds.
When Jeanneret was cast in the series, some close to him voiced their concerns. He recalls the sentiments: "It's a reality show - are you sure you want to do this for your career?"
"It's this type of reality that I think people don't really understand," says Jeanneret in a recent phone conversation.
In the world of reality shows, King of the Nerds generates little controversy. Sure, there might be a contestant with a mean streak, but even that is a little out-of-the-ordinary for the cast. In the show, eleven contestants enter Nerdvana. They are an eclectic and accomplished group whose areas of expertise range from science and engineering to puppets to Pokémon. One by one, the members will be eliminated until the last remaining can inherit the Throne of Games. Hosted by Revenge of the Nerds stars Robert Carradine and Curtis Armstrong, King of the Nerds is similar to other competition shows. The results of an episode's challenge lead to a one-on-one battle, called a Nerd Off, that could result in elimination. It's kind of like RuPaul's Drag Race for nerds. Like Drag Race, there's a sense of compassion to the competition and a message to stay true to yourself. It's a reality show that won't send self-proclaimed nerds into defensive, rage-typing frenzies after the credits roll.
Jeanneret didn't know that when he was first approached to be on the series. That was prior to King of the Nerds' inaugural season and he declined the first request. "I thought it was going to be making fun of nerds for a laugh," he says. After watching the show, though, his curiosity was piqued. Jeanneret auditioned for the second season. After sending in his submissions, he learned that he didn't make the cut. That changed while he was back in his home state of Wisconsin. He was in a bar with his mother when the call came.
"I had to run back into the bar and say, 'Ma, we got to go. I've got to fill out this paperwork,'" he says, the traces of a Midwestern accent growing more pronounced as he tells the story.
Two weeks into the competition, he's still part of the game.
What's most interesting about the show are the skill sets that the contestants bring to Nerdvana. No two nerds are identical and episodes highlight the tension and eventual collaboration between the science minds and the creative minds. That was evident in last week's science fair challenge. Divided into two teams, the players had to build a volcano and present it in an entertaining way. For Jeanneret's team, called the Titans of Rigel, that came to a head when a science-centric teammate criticized the actor for leading the group in a round of improv exercises. In the end, though, it was both science and performance expertise that helped them nail the project.
Jeanneret is representing the theater kids. "It's an underrepresented genre of nerdom, the drama nerds," he says. "We existed. We were just as much of outcasts. We just put our feelings out on the stage."
He's also more than the theater guy. Jeanneret speaks fluent Japanese, is a prolific vlogger and an avid game player. He's a Gaymer, part of an LGBT-centric gaming community on Reddit. "It's another way for gay men and women to identify as something else besides being homosexual," says Jeanneret. "We have the same common interests and we can get together and nerd out."
Games are an important part of Jeanneret's life. "I love social games, especially tabletop games," he says. He digs video games too. Monkey Island, an adventure game, is a favorite. Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts rank high on the list too. He's also pretty heavily into Dungeons & Dragons, and meets up weekly with a group of fellow players. Right now, they're at Level 17. He explains that's pretty deep into the game.
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It's Jeanneret's experience with games and theater that might led him an advantage on Thursday night's episode. The contestants will face a LARP challenge. "That's actually my specialty and why I was brought on to the show," says Jeanneret. LARP, by the way, stands for Live Action Role Playing, and there's more to it than pretending you're someone else.
"With King of the Nerds, as silly and goofy as it is, it is an intellectual competition," says Jeanneret. It's also a show with a message not-so-hidden under the spectacular projects, occasional drama and good-spirited nerd jokes. "It's a niche market," says Jeanneret, "but it has a lot of heart and the message behind it is really great: Acceptance and being proud of who you are and not being afraid of showing it off to the world."
King of the Nerds airs Thursday nights at 10 p.m. on TBS.