Plot summary The movie is set at fictional Adams College, where two nerds enroll due to its acclaimed computer studies department. Unfortunately, the college also displays unethical favoritism toward their football team, the Atoms. This gives the coach (John Goodman), an arrogant bully, and his team, stocked mainly by the equally obnoxious jocks of the Alpha Beta fraternity, considerable power on campus.
This power is shown when the Alpha Betas burn down their own fraternity house as a result of carelessness during a party. They pressure the dean of the campus to let them take over the freshman dorm while their house is being rebuilt, and they literally throw out the freshmen residents. The freshmen are forced to bunk in the gym until they can find new housing or join and live with fraternities. The nerds are all rejected and attempts to approach the fraternities on their own lead to them being publicly humiliated and harassed.
The nerds, with some difficulty, eventually find a rundown house that they renovate. However, the Alpha Betas and their associated sorority, the Pi Delta Pis, harass them and attempt to drive them out of the school out of pure malice. It starts with the Alpha Betas throwing a brick that reads "NERDS GET OUT" through one of the new house's windows.
When the nerds approach the campus police, they are referred to the Greek Council, which oversees fraternity affairs, only to find that Stan Gable (the head of the Alpha Betas) is the president. He bluntly overrules their complaint because they are not a fraternity. The nerds attempt to start a chapter of a national fraternity, but all of the fraternal organizations reject them, with the exception of Lambda Lambda Lambda, the only one to which they did not send a group picture. It is, however, a predominantly black organization and only one of the nerds is black (he is also openly gay), and the head of the national organization, U.N. Jefferson, is uninterested in having them join. However, the nerds press the point using a regulation that, as a petitioning group, they have the right to join with probationary status. The nerds attempt to organize a party to impress the fraternity officials. However, they are tricked by the Pis, who falsely offer to be their dates only to completely snub them on party night. Another sorority, Omega Mu (known as the Mus, which sounds like "Moos"), come in their place, but they consist of social rejects themselves and the resulting awkwardness deadens the atmosphere. In desperation, the nerds resort to lighting large marijuana joints to liven up the affair, which proves successful. However, the party is spoiled by the Alphas who let pigs loose in the frat house.
The nerds, led by Lewis, decide to retaliate. They first execute a panty raid on the Pis, which is actually a diversion during which they install hidden cameras in the sorority's attic. The nerds also saturate the Alpha's jock straps in liquid heat (a liniment that produces sensations of heat) to create an agonizing and embarrassing experience at football practice. The Lambda fraternity head is impressed with the nerds' creativity, and a charter is granted for the chapter, officially making the nerds members of Lambda Lambda Lambda (or Tri-Lambs, for short).
However, the harassment by the Alphas only worsens, and the obviously biased Greek Council refuses to respond. Deciding that they must take power themselves, the nerds compete in Adam's homecoming carnival, the winner of which will lead the council.
The Tri-Lams and Mus team up, and have a difficult time in several events, but manage to win a few others using their superior ingenuity. Some of the skills come naturally, such as Booger being able to belch the loudest. They design an ergonomically advanced javelin for the javelin throw, and they give their team member a chemical that will prevent him from feeling the effects of alcohol during another event in which drunkenness impairs the competition. They gain ground in fund-raising by selling plates with nude photos of Betty Childs (a Pi and Gable's girlfriend) which not only allows them to best the Alpha Betas, but also humiliate their female counterparts. During the carnival, one of the leading nerds (Lewis) pilfers Stan Gable's costume and tricks Betty into thinking he is Stan. Lewis and Betty have sex, after which Lewis reveals his identity to Betty. She is not upset, in fact she immediately decides that she likes Lewis better. They nerds seal their victory in the talent show with a spectacular song and dance routine using computers and sound effects.
Following a jingoistic speech by their coach, the Alphas retaliate by wrecking the Lambda house, and the nerds are again disheartened. One of the nerds (Gilbert) decides to personally confront the Alphas at the homecoming rally. When Gilbert is about to be beaten, the otherwise timid dean, himself a nerd, finally stands up to the coach and exercises his rightful authority. As the dean is about to be beaten up himself U.N. Jefferson arrives with a group of muscular Lambdas to intimidate the Alphas while Gilbert is given a chance to speak his mind to the audience. He poignantly speaks about how he and his friends were harassed, but in spite of this, he re-affirms that he is a nerd and proud of it. His friends gather around in support and call on any of the audience who have ever felt left out or picked on to join them. The entire audience does so, and the Alphas find themselves hopelessly outnumbered.
The film ends with the Dean finally gathering up the courage to tell off the football coach, and eject the Alphas from their building for the Lambda's use until the Alphas repair the damage they caused to the Lambda's house. The Dean points out to the coach that they're jocks, so they should be right at home sleeping in the gym.
Characters Lewis Skolnick (Robert Carradine): The protagonist of the film and the leader of the nerds. He has a distinctive yelping laugh that has become a hallmark of his character. Gilbert Lowell (Anthony Edwards): Lewis' best friend. He counters Lewis' generally positive attitude with mild pessimism and realism. Arnold Poindexter (Timothy Busfield): The nerdiest of the nerds. Provides mild comic relief. Characterized by coke-bottle glasses and atrocious violin playing. Harold Wormser (Andrew Cassese): He is actually middle or high school age but his parents forced him to skip a few grades because of his genius I.Q., much to his consternation, as he would much rather play video games with his friends. Dudley "Booger" Dawson (Curtis Armstrong): A disgusting, uncouth and smartmouthed pothead who supplies most of the toilet humor of the film. When asked by Toshiro why he goes by "Booger", he merely responds "I don't know" while picking his nose. Toshiro Takashi (Brian Tochi): The stereotypical intelligent Asian. Has difficulty understanding American culture but does enjoy his porn. Betty Childs (Julia Montgomery): The unattainable love interest of Lewis. She is a member of the popular girl's campus sorority, Pi-Delta-Pi. Dating Stan Gable. Lamar Latrell (Larry B. Scott): A stereotypically effeminate black gay man. He is the only one at the Tri-Lam dinner to have a date, though as Booger puts it, "Yeah, but that's with a guy." Stan Gable (Ted McGinley): The primary antagonist and the Alpha Beta President of the Greek Council that tries to revoke the Tri-Lambda's fraternity charter. He is the star quarterback of the school's football team. Fred "The Ogre" Palowakski (Donald Gibb): A fellow Alpha Beta and the stereotypical dumb, over muscled jock. Has little to no intelligence, and is the primary muscle of the team. Dean Ulich (David Wohl): The Dean of Adams College who is timid and allowed the Alpha Betas to rule until he finally shows his authority. U.N. Jefferson (Bernie Casey): The head of the Lambda Lambda Lambda fraternity chapter, who at first did not accept the nerds tills they stood up to the Alpha Betas and welcomed them to the fraternity. Judy (Michelle Meyrink): An Omega Mu whom Gilbert gets to know after she is having computer trouble and Gilbert explains to her not to worry, "the computer is your friend". He immediately makes graphics of Gilbert and Judy dancing, which impresses her. By knowing Judy, Gilbert helps get the party moving by getting Judy to bring her sorority sisters.