This week, we’re returning to the Nerd Role Models series, where we examine popular characters from geek culture, break down just why people respond to them and – critically – look at just what you can learn from them.
And considering that this the 30th anniversary of the release of my favorite movie, Ghostbusters, it’s the perfect time to take a look at the man who is perhaps singlehandedly responsible for getting quirky, funny, odd-looking nerds laid since 1984: Doctor Peter Venkman.
Now it’s almost impossible to separate Dr. Venkman from Bill Murray himself. Bill Murray is, in many ways, the human incarnation of Coyote, a mischevious trickster spirit who’s almost impossible to predict or pin down. In fact, Murray has been horning in on my act, providing some – frankly – rather excellent relationship advice while crashing a stranger’s bachelor party:
But it’s Dr. Venkman’s charm and panache that makes him so damn likable. So, what is it that we can learn from Dr. Venkman, aside from the fact that women dig a guy with an unlicensed nuclear accelerator on his back?
Well to start with…
Venkman Is Always The Coolest Bastard In the Room
One of the first things we notice about Peter Venkman is that he is always, always, the coolest, most put together motherfucker in the room. No matter what else is going on, when he rolls into a place, Dr. Venkman is absolutely in charge.
At first, it makes no sense whatsoever. Venkman is the opposite of what most people would consider an “alpha” male to be. He’s not conventionally good looking; if anything, his receding hairline, baggy eyes and lined face make him look like a hound dog rather than a memetic sex god. He’s not rich. He’s not a bad-ass. He’s not very tall. He’s not very muscular. He’s a schlubby dresser under the best of circumstances. Even as an academic, he’s not terribly impressive; he’s a joke at Columbia. When you get right down to it, he’s an absurdly overqualified exterminator.
But no matter where he goes, he dominates the room through nothing but sheer force of personality. He has almost delusional self-confidence. His personality is magnetic; people are drawn to him, they defer to him. They may try to butt heads with him and out AMOG him… but they never get the best of him.
How Can You Use This?
One of the most common mistakes I see people make is believing that there’s only one way to be a strong, attractive type, that in order to display confidence, you have to roll around like you’re Billy Bad-Ass. But then you have Venkman: a mouthy smart-assed geek who simply owns the room around him without seeming to try.
You can learn to do this as well.
Watch how Venkman carries himself. He’s never in a rush. In fact he’s so laid back that he barely seems to want to actually do anything. He doesn’t walk so much as stroll. He walks like he’s grooving to music that only he can hear, with purpose but not in any hurry. He’s always standing up straight, even when more physically imposing people try to loom over him. He doesn’t curl up into himself, he takes up space.
He doesn’t wait for others to make decisions. As soon as he has an idea, he runs with it. He doesn’t hem and haw, he doesn’t question or what-if himself, he just acts.
And more importantly: he is all out of fucks to give. Walter Peck gets in his face and he doesn’t flinch. Hell, he barely blinks; he responds with a quip. When he’s surrounded by felons in central booking, he turns and barks “Are you getting this?” at them. When he’s called in front of the mayor of New York, he makes a dick joke. When he’s watching a 50 foot marshmallow man stomp all over his city, his first thought is to make a joke about sailors on shore leave.
No matter whether he’s facing down ghosts, cops or millenia-old Babylonian gods, he keeps his cool… even when it’s clear that he is terrified out of his goddamn monkey mind.
Walter Peck blusters and yells because he can’t crack Venkman’s cool façade. People defer to him because he’s calm and level-headed, even when the situation is absolute chaos. He’s assertive without being domineering. He’s confident without being egotistical. He’s Bugs Bunny to the world’s Daffy Duck. Self-confidence and presence isn’t about being loud and brash. It’s not about playing dominance games with other people and trying to be the person to get the last word in and put other people down. It’s about being in control of yourself and being willing to assert yourself as necessary.
There’s no question that Peter Venkman is the core of what makes Ghostbusters work. Egon works as the voice that explains the plot, Ray has the enthusiasm and Winston is the straight man and voice for the audience… but Venkman is the heart. He’s easily the most popular character in the movie – both in the movie’s universe and in the real world.
And it’s because at his core, he’s the most fun character. He’s the most dynamic character of the bunch – always with a joke or a sarcastic retort.Venkman’s charm is in the fact that he never takes anything seriously. He’s not above rigging an experiment in order to impress a pretty co-ed. Even when he’s looking at incontrovertible proof that awareness and personality continue to exist after death, his first thought is to try to recreate a magician’s trick he saw on late night television.
And people respond to that charm. Dana Barret may think that Dr. Venkman resembles a gameshow host more than a scientist, but it doesn’t take very long before that frustration becomes a deep sigh and a rueful grin as he makes her smile despite herself.
How Can You Use This?
People tend to misunderstand the idea of how being fun makes you attractive. We assume that being “fun” means being a dancing monkey, performing routines and bouncing the room around like a ferret on a triple espresso. We imagine Patton Oswalt delivering his stand-up routine or the wacky comedic characters on sitcoms.
Venkman isn’t like that at all. He’s quippy, true, but he’s not exactly lining up to join the Algonquin Round Table. Half the time his jokes and antics aren’t actually funny so much as just unexpected. His entire demeanor is that he’s laughing at a joke that nobody else can hear… but he always seems like he’s having a good time. People aren’t responding to his rapier wit so much as his willingness to be silly, even goofy, at times. He’ll narrate his exiting the room after being shot down. He’ll poke his head back audaciously to ask “what, no kiss?” even as he’s being shoved out the door. It’s something that’s just so effortlessly him that you can’t help but smile.
Being fun is more than having lightning fast banter and repartee. You don’t need to be one of the Warner brothers (or the Warner sister, Dot) to be fun. You don’t need to be a comedian. You find the way that works for you, that melds with your personality. It’s the fun that’s the most important part, not the way you get there.
He Knows How To Lose
Here’s the interesting thing about Peter Venkman: he’s kind of a fuck-up.
I mean, let’s take a quick run down of his life. He’s a questionable scholar at best – his research is a joke, his experiments are rigged and his conclusions are generally pulled almost entirely out of his ass. God alone knows how he managed to pull down two doctorates.
He doesn’t bring much to the team as a Ghostbuster; he’s not as smart as Egon, he’s not as knowledgable as Ray, he doesn’t have Winston’s work ethic. If it weren’t for his personality, he’d basically just be another face in a grey jumpsuit.
He not only loses his cushy job in academia – where he’s spent his entire professional career – but he’s become such a laughingstock that he’s basically shut out of any research or teaching position.
His next job gets shut down by the federal government. His equipment gets destroyed. His building gets blown up. He’s thrown in jail. He regularly gets slimed by ghosts and to add insult to injury, his would-be girlfriend throws him aside for an accountant1 before turning into a demon dog.
But it never, ever gets to him. He always bounces back from it, stronger than before. This is because he knows how to lose.
How Can You Use This?
Watch what happens every time something goes wrong for Venkman. He grumbles. He moans. He roles his eyes. He cracks jokes.
Notice what he doesn’t do? He doesn’t whine. He doesn’t throw himself a pity party. He doesn’t throw his hands up and declare that it’s unfair and he’s irrevocably fucked. And most importantly: he doesn’t give up. No matter what happens, the very first thing he does is pick himself up, dust himself off and take another tact.
He gets thrown out of Columbia, his grants get canceled and all of his equipment gets seized? OK fine… then it’s time to take what he knows and go into the private sector with it. He gets slimed by the first ghost they encounter and then gets back up for some payback on the little spud. Getting shut down by the feds doesn’t send him into a depression spiral; you know he’s already thinking about how he’s going to get around this. When he’s thrown in jail, he’s not whining about the unfairness of it all, he’s still working on just what this all means.
Failure may be annoying. It may be tedious. It may be frustrating. But it doesn’t mean that it’s time to give up. Venkman bounces back because he sees failure as something to learn from. If one thing didn’t work, it’s time to try something else. Shit happens. Setbacks are a fact of life. It’s how you handle them that determines whether you’re going to recover from them or not.
And speaking of not giving up…
He’s A Gentleman
There’s no question that Dr. Venkman’s something of a horndog. When we first are introduced to him, he’s blatantly using a university-funded study to hit on women. His interest in Dana Barret’s case has far less to do with professional curiosity or solving the mystery of Zuul and much more in getting her to go on a date with him and he’s not going to let silly things like “getting shot down” get in his way. And you know he was the one who decided that they were going to stay and party with the lovely ladies at the nightclub after clearing out its resident poltergeist.
And here’s the thing: if he were anyone else, he’d be a first rate creeper. But he’s not. It’s one of the interesting paradoxes of his character. He’s persistent but he’s never predatory. He’s assertive without being aggressive. Yeah, he may be unprofessional as hell, but he makes it work.
Why? Because at his core, Peter Venkman’s a gentleman. Yeah, he’s unapologetic about what he wants, but he also doesn’t want to push people to the point of being uncomfortable. When Dana turns him down and asks him to leave, he does; he may do so in a uniquely Venkman manner, but he does respect her “no”. He understands that it’s much easier to turn a “no” into a genuine “yes” through being a cool, charismatic guy and giving it another try later on. Pushing her, nagging her would turn that “no” to a “hell no”, not a “yes”.
And – critically – he doesn’t take advantage of Dana when Zuul has taken her over. Despite the fact that she is literally throwing herself at him, Venkman demures; he’s far more concerned with her well being than getting his rocks off.
How Can You Use This?
There’s nothing wrong with owning your desires or your interests. The problems arise in how you express them. Peter Venkman is never anything but honest and upfront about his interest in people, but he doesn’t put his desires over other people’s comfort. Ashley (check on this) is clearly interested in him as he flirts with her. When Dana Barret isn’t interested in him at first, he pulls back and changes tactics before trying again when he knows she’s starting to warm up to him. And it’s that willingness to pull back that ultimately works for him. If he’d been pushier and less willing to back off, she not only would never speak to him again, but he would’ve cost the Ghostbusters their first paying client.
Showing interest in someone, being willing to approach them and to flirt with them doesn’t mean that you need to run roughshod over their boundaries. Being respectful isn’t the same as being neutered or “beta” and being a gentleman doesn’t mean that you can’t express your desires. Being a gentleman means respecting a “no” rather than assuming that the other person is playing games. Sometimes by being willing to take the high road, you may miss out… but when you understand the Tao of Venkman, being the good guy is what ultimately helps you get to where you want to be.
- OK, so they were possessed by Zuul and Vince Clortho; that’s still gotta sting. [↩]