After graduation, what do you do with all the kids who actually adored school, cherished its rituals and neatly archived their lecture notes and graded essays?
Induct them into the Brain Candy Collective.
This informal Austin group — which combines the "edutainers" from the Dionysium, Nerd Nite and Encyclopedia Show — take to heart the Roman poet Horace’s admonition "to teach and to please."
Monthly, each Austin group offers waggish lectures, debates and performances on a variety of serious and silly topics.
"People miss many things about college, but not the homework or the tests," says L.B. Deyo, who co-founded the local edition of the Dionysium in 2004. "We gave them that."
On Feb. 6, the three social groups of self-styled nerds will join forces for a combined Brain Candy show at the Alamo Drafthouse Village.
"I think the pace of technology — and computer technology in particular — has shown you can be a successful nerd," says J.C. Dwyer of Nerd Nite. "But we’ve also learned we can reach out to each other and share information without the horrible implications of seeing and touching other people."
Perhaps dangerously, Brain Candy puts those people in the same room.
The oldest of the collective’s members, the Dionysium, toasted its 100th show in 2012. Deyo can’t figure out the popularity of the show, which pulls in 100 or so monthly guests. They have paid the price of a movie ticket to gather at one of the Alamo Drafthouse theaters for lectures and music, and, especially, short formal debates.
"What I found is that I have absolutely no idea why one person comes to Dionysium and another does not," says Deyo, a programmer for a video game company and wine lover who speaks with pleasantly exaggerated precision.
As early as the year 2000, general cut-up Lefty Leibowitz set the tone for a similar New York City event called the Atheneum, which evolved into the Dionysium. Deyo imported the idea in cahoots with Austin sound engineer Buzz Moran and composer Graham Reynolds.
"We had the show up and running in a month," Deyo says of his move back to Austin from New York in 2004. (He had previously attended the University of Texas.)
Deyo, 41, grew up a confessed pool-room punk in Westchester and the Bronx, N.Y.
"My mother had to repeatedly talk them out of throwing me out of school," he grins. "All I cared about was pool. ‘The Hustler’ was a huge inspiration."
Before the Dionysium, he discovered that, while people enjoyed intellectual stimulation, there were few opportunities to indulge that inclination.
"We felt that having an abstract conversation is something that isn’t welcome in most social situations," he says. "It’s not because people are not intelligent. It’s because people are tired after a long day and want to relax and have fun. We hoped people would embrace this kind of conversation in a social setting — a safe zone."
At the Dionysium, the leaders dress in suits and drink wine. A parliamentary style — if not Robert’s Rules of Order — is followed. Speakers ceremoniously address the officers or moderators, not the guests. It can be wickedly funny, but never cruel.
"We are just being ourselves," says Deyo, who thunders onstage like an old-fashioned orator. "We have a sort of Rat Pack or Martin-and-Lewis rapport. We try to impress on people that it is fun. But there’s no question it’s more formal."
How do they find their often obscure presenters? (Admission: I’ve lectured once and debated twice. My debate record: 1-1.)
"We have a crack staff of recruiters named William Gold," Deyo jokes. "He has a real knack for getting debaters. He has arcane methods of finding them. I have no idea how he does it."
The guests and participants usually behave civilly. Usually.
"One topic we had: ‘Was the Civil War primarily about slavery?’" Deyo recalls. "So we had a prominent historian and a member of the Sons of the Confederacy. It packed the house. Confederate flags everywhere. That same night, someone read a story that was very sexual. The history professor who lost the debate stormed out. Years later, I heard that he asked if we were still doing dirty stories."
Chris Balakrishnan started Nerd Nite in Boston in 2003. Dwyer’s roommate when he lived in New York was that city’s Nerd Nite boss. When he moved to Austin in 2009, Dwyer, an anti-hunger advocate with Texas Food Bank Network, started the local version with Dan Rumney, who has since been replaced by biologist and seaweed farmer Lewis Weil.
There are now 47 Nerd Nite chapters around the world.
"We attract nerds and the nerd curious," Dwyer, 34, says. "Many of the speakers come from the audience. They come up after a show and say: ‘I happen to be obsessed with some obscure topic. And if these people can do it I can do it.’"
The organizers try to book a credentialed expert on the evening’s topic to keep things real. In front of 180 to 200 guests at the North Door nightclub, three speakers talk on topics such as robots, astronomy or machine learning.
Dwyer grew up a bookish kid in the suburbs of Chicago. Back then it wasn’t cool to be nerdy.
"I feel like the broadening of the word ‘nerd’ didn’t start until the late ’90s," he says. "With the dot.com boom, people realized you could make money being a nerd."
There is no formal debate or regular musical features at Nerd Nite. Sex, of course, is a big draw, but so was "Space Night."
"A guy from the planetarium brought in an inflatable star dome," he says. "We also had lots of visual effects on ‘Horror Night,’ including fake blood."
Like the other Brain Candy outfits, Nerd Nite appeals to the geeky kid inside us.
"The Internet has given us a platform to engage in some really deep nostalgia diving," Dwyer says. "So people can be archivists of their own childhoods."
Michael Graupmann, a writer and trainer at the Whole Foods Market headquarters, is among the most outwardly expressive of his Brain Candy colleagues. A former theater student from Arizona who did graduate work at UT, his Encyclopedia Show collaborators are Leah Moss at the McCombs School of Business and Ralph Hardesty, an elementary school teacher.
The original show was founded in Chicago in 2006 by Robbie Q. Telfer and Shannon Maney, good friends of Graupmann’s. The local edition, started in 2008, also utilizes the North Door nightclub.
The themed evenings, which cost $5, feature eight performers, five of them invited. Others come from a stable of regular speakers.
"We attract young, curious intellectuals," Graupmann, 33, says. "Also performers and appreciators of comedy. We’ve done everything from serial killers to dinosaurs to hockey."
Austin’s was the second of 16 Encyclopedia Shows across the country.
Growing up mostly in Phoenix, Graupmann recalls being a "very straight-laced teacher’s pet, afraid of doing anything wrong."
When he arrived in Austin, Graupmann carefully researched the option of duplicating the Encyclopedia Show here.
"When I first moved here, I went to everything and met as many people as possible," he says. He started with the literary readings, then stumbled on the Dionysium series and asked to meet its leaders.
"I asked a million questions," he recalls. "Our three met and started brainstorming."
He thinks that the Internet and news satires like "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" allow people to think critically about the world around them.
"We are reaching a critical mass of overeducation in a way," he says. "People have a million degrees and they have jobs that have nothing to do with them."
The most out-of-control Encyclopedia Show in Austin dealt with the the amusingly named suburb of Pflugerville.
"And we had Pflugervillians present and we were super nervous about their response," he says. "But they came up and said: ‘You nailed it. You got everything correct.’"
Graupmann thinks that, for all the comedy and entertainment, the Brain Candy Collective feeds a basic instructional hunger.
"We are trying to take information and apply it to our lives," Graupmann says. "I never stopped learning. I don’t want to stop learning. But I can’t go to classes any more because I have too many student loans."