Reality Check: CMU student nerds up for TBS

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Katie Correll has a degree in mechanical engineering, is studying for her master's at the Carnegie Mellon University Entertainment Technology Center and, last summer, did a puppetry internship with the creative folks of "Sesame Street."

She's interested in robotics and once worked for avant-garde puppeteer Basil Twist.

How could Ms. Correll, 24, NOT be a shoo-in to appear on "King of the Nerds"?

TBS features local woman on 'King of the Nerds'

Katie Correll is trying to be nerdy enough to win TBS' "King of the Nerds." She'll be competing In purple hair) against 10 like-minded science, fantasy and game-playing geeks when the series premieres Jan. 23. (Video courtesy of TBS; 1/11/2014)

Season two of TBS's highly entertaining reality show begins at 10 p.m. Jan. 23. Eleven self-proclaimed nerds of all geeky stripes -- including a rocket scientist, a Pokemon master and a Japanophile -- will test their reserves of brains and dork credentials in a quest for the $100,000 prize.

"I have always felt like the ETC is like a reality show, because every two weeks they give you this new assignment where you have to do it really quickly and then present and see how the judges like it," said Ms. Correll, who grew up in Yardley, Bucks County.

"Nerdvana," a California college complex that served as home and test lab for the nerds, was decorated with way-cool artifacts from fantasy fiction, television sci-fi shows and gaming worlds. Nerdvana is the sort of place where a heated discussion of which is better -- "Star Wars" or "Star Trek"? -- is settled by someone proclaiming "Firefly" the best of the bunch.

It looks very much like some parts of the ETC, where iconic robots greet visitors near the elevator, and life-sized likenesses of superheroes are on display.

"It really felt the same, down to the fact that we had a popcorn machine in Nerdvana and we have one at ETC," she said. " 'King of the Nerds' felt like a continuation of ETC in so many ways."

Ah, but does the ETC have a TARDIS? "[Nerdvana] was just the most amazing place because there were so many nerdy toys and games to play with," she said.

The show is hosted by two veterans of the "Revenge of the Nerds" film franchise, Robert Carradine and Curtis Armstrong.

"Katie was really amazing because she [was] this person who had this science bent, as well as the entertainment bent, as well as just being a great personality. She comes off so well on the show for that reason; it's a very unusual mix of talents that she has," Mr. Armstrong said.

It's difficult to miss her: Ms. Correll sports a bright purple hairstyle.

"It's been purple for two years. I kind of figured in grad school, I didn't have to look professional," she said.

She said she considered applying for the reality show as a good platform to underscore "science is not just for boys."

A member of the Society of Women Engineers as well as the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, Ms. Correll has been involved in working with girls who are leaning toward the sciences.

After she obtains her master's at ETC, she said, she hopes to pursue a doctorate in robotics. Among her upcoming projects is a robot theater performance in April that is a joint production between CMU's school of drama and the robotics institute there.

"I really want to bring robots more into the entertainment sphere."

Each week, viewers see two teams of nerds accept challenges that might feature a quiz on Harry Potter lore, robotic dodgeball or LARPing (live-action role-playing). There's also a degree of social skill involved because the losing team must put a candidate up for elimination.

"One thing that was kind of surprising with this crew of nerds was, because they'd already been exposed to season one, they were a little craftier in their gamesmanship and their behind-the-scenes connivingness," Mr. Carradine said.

"Their credentials are so extensive and so deep," he added. "Basically, Hollywood High was as far as I got, and to see these Brainiacs go at it, it's just awesome."

Mr. Armstrong said, "One of the fun things to come out of Nerdvana is the response you get out of them when faced with a challenge. Some of them get a look of utter despair and some of them are just so charged because they really do love these challenges.

"It's infectious. I just loved watching them."

After the hosts explain the episode's challenge, they retire to a room full of monitors to follow the action.

"[Viewers] will see only seconds of that, but we watch the process for hours," Mr. Armstrong said. "It's absolutely compelling, watching as they work their way through whatever the challenge is."

Mr. Carradine added, "It's like they become one brain."

Each contestant brings a certain skill set to the challenges, but even with her wide-ranging credentials, Ms. Correll worried about what she didn't know.

"I was absolutely terrified there was going to be some sort of gaming challenge. I am the least game-savvy person you've ever met," she said.

Turns out, there were enough twists to the challenges that the nerds could take nothing for granted. It's clear from watching, however, that everyone had fun.

"It was like going to nerd summer camp," Ms. Correll said. "We had more fun when we weren't competing against each other because we all wanted to just hang out and be friends. These are people I would have been instant friends with if we'd met in the real world, anyway, so we had a blast filming."


Maria Sciullo: or 412-263-1478 or Twitter @MariaSciulloPG.

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