Ben Stein is living the Revenge of the Nerds.
The bespectacled, smug-looking egghead who speaks in a monotone is dining at his favorite restaurant after a long day of taping four installments of his game show, "Win Ben Stein's Money.""My show is a giant commercial for me," he says between bites at Morton's in Beverly Hills. "And it's a commercial that sells me to all the people I went to high school with who wish they were me. I think we all want to impress the people we went to high school with."
His fellow alumni at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md., include Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein, actress Goldie Hawn and TV newswoman Con-nie Chung.
Stein has written 15 books (seven novels, eight nonfiction, including "A License to Steal: Michael Milken and the Conspiracy to Bilk a Nation"), and he still teaches law at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif.
He loves writing - for Barron's, the Wall Street Journal, the American Spectator and other periodicals - but dislikes "being modestly paid."
Ever since the 1986 comedy hit "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," the 53-year-old Stein has happily worked as an actor, usually playing a variation of himself: an owlish, superior, pedagogic know-it-all. He's played a science teacher in "The Wonder Years" and served as a pitchman in various TV commercials.
That image of a nearly insufferable Renaissance Man led longtime TV producer Al Burton to wake up one morning with the title if not the idea for a game show, "Win Ben Stein's Money."
"The title, when it came to me, was just surefire," says Burton, whose experience as a producer goes back to his days with composer-pianist-actor Oscar Levant.
Andrew Golder, an executive producer with Burton, says they developed the show for the cable Comedy Central channel "from ground zero."
They came up with two fresh twists to an old formula: the host becomes a contestant in the final rounds, and he risks his own money. Actually, the production company, a Walt Disney subsidiary, puts up the $5,000 for each show, but Stein's motivation is that the less his competitors win, the more of that pot he gets to keep.
"It really is as much a comedy show as a game show," Golder says, standing on the set after shooting a week's worth of shows.
The categories alone can amount to as many as 30 jokes a show, he notes. Among them: "Don't Put Descartes Before the Horse," "Chewed in Italy but Liechtenstein" and "There's a Right Way and a Hemingway."
Added to the whole mix, there's the unlikely chemistry between the host and sidekick Jimmy Kimmel, who plays the idiot to Stein's savant. "Pure luck on my part," Kimmel says about how he and Stein clicked.
As happy as he is with the success of "Win Ben Stein's Money," which has three Daytime Emmy nominations and began a fresh run of shows, with a Tax Day special, Stein covets a star-vehicle sitcom.
"I really expected to have my own sitcom some time ago," he says. "I don't understand why I don't, to tell you the truth. I think something's wrong."