Attack of the Warrior Geeks

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It's hard to go broke overestimating a boy's yen to see stuff get smashed to hell. Climb Arnold Schwarzenegger's money pile sometime and ask him. Cousins Trey Roski, 35, and Greg Munson, 34, knew this desire well as kids. "We collected remote-controlled helicopters," recalls Roski. "Greg would put them together, and I'd break them." Says Munson: "Whatever we built--Legos, Lincoln Logs--the end result would be destroying it."

Those twin lusts for remote control and destruction can probably explain much of world history--or at least why Roski and Munson's BattleBots (Tuesdays, 10:30 p.m. E.T.) has become Comedy Central's hottest new series since South Park. It's a simple recipe. Take some homemade, remote-controlled robots (which look more like armored lawn mowers than androids). Give them WWF-style names like Mauler and Vlad the Impaler. Put them in a Plexiglas cage, and let them hammer, buzz-saw and ram the motor oil out of each other. Throw in campy announcers and a good-looking blond to interview contestants, and you've got a license to mint ratings.

The cousins got hooked on robot fighting when it became a sort of geek tractor-pull attraction for the San Francisco-area nerdoisie in the mid-'90s. In 1999 they started mounting competitions for pay-per-view. (A similar program, Robot Wars, is a hit in Britain and is rerun on some PBS stations.) They shopped a series to cable networks, and Comedy Central bit, seeing a good fit for its young male audience. (Anyone who argues that demolition isn't comedy has obviously never seen David Letterman drop a watermelon off a six-story building.)

BattleBots got a huge boost when Jay Leno--a longtime machine buff and tinkerer with an extensive motorcycle collection--began plugging it on the Tonight Show, and last fall he became the show's first celebrity contestant. Chin-Killa, built and operated for Leno by NBC technicians, was fronted with a metal facsimile of Leno's face and used his legendary protruding chin as a battering ram to defeat Ginsu, a rival BattleBot wielding a nasty set of rotary saw blades. "I like anything that rolls and explodes," Leno says. "And it seems like a good outlet for kids--a chance to use technology and a youthful enthusiasm for mindless violence without anybody getting hurt." (Less obsessive kids will soon be able to indulge those impulses too. Tiger unveiled a line of miniature BattleBots--including Vlad the Impaler, $15--at the Toy Fair last week; they're scheduled for a fall release, angling to be the hot toys of Christmas 2001.)

One of the biggest attractions of the show is that it invests its geeks (mostly, but not all, male) with the heroic trappings once reserved for jocks. Putting its contestants in an over-the-top, Thunderdome-like setting, BattleBots is at heart about feeding the class brain's fantasy of winning power, popularity and even sex appeal through smarts. Between fights, shapely correspondent Heidi Mark flirtatiously chats up players, one of whom talks about taking his invention into the streets to cruise women: "Chicks approach guys with BattleBots a lot easier than they would, um, a person without a BattleBot."

Nerd mystique, it seems, did not crash with the NASDAQ, and from the Internet to Iraq to Kosovo, remote control is our society's preferred means of combat. So if yesterday's Army grunts had G.I. Joe, what better model for tomorrow's push-button conquistadors than these butt-whuppin' machine masters? The lesson, at least, is apparently not lost on the U.S. Army, which is sponsoring the current season of BattleBots. All hail the Warrior Geek.