The Big Bang Theory and The Culture of Geek

List of The Big Bang Theory episodes (season 1)

List of The Big Bang Theory episodes (season 1) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rod recently posted a link to an article by a person who has decided that The Big Bang Theory makes them uncomfortable. The author suggests that Community is a better show because at least on Community the nerds are celebrated instead of mocked:

“And here’s my issue, here’s why The Big Bang Theory makes me feel uncomfortable. We aren’t laughing with Leonard, Sheldon, Raj and Howard. We’re laughing at them. Chuck Lorre has given us four exceptionally intelligent, nerdy main characters and he’s positioned us as an audience against them. When I watch Big Bang it becomes more and more obvious that I’m not supposed to relate to the guys (or more recently Amy Farrah-Fowler). I’m expected to relate to Penny. You only need to pay attention to the audience laughter to realise that TBBT relies on positioning us as an outsider to the nerds, as someone like Penny who doesn’t understand their references, their science, their vocabulary even, and who doesn’t care to learn.”

On the flippant side, I want my response to this article to be this:

But, while that may be cute, it’s not really constructive. So I want to spend some time looking at my response to The Big Bang Theory.

 

A few words of preface:

First, I own all five seasons of the show (yes, even the newest season that was just released. I bought it as soon as it came out). I think this is important to note, for two reasons: first, I only buy tv shows on DVD that I will watch more than once. In the case of TBBT, it has been watched more than once, and is often my “I want some noise in the background, that I can both ignore and pay attention to as needed.” Second, I think that there is a big difference between watching the show on DVD and watching the show on television. I don’t have any tv channels in my house, mainly because I can’t stand all the commercials (particularly the ones that repeat every, single commercial break). I say this because I have found that when I watch TBBT on network television while at someone’s house, the show has a distinctly different feel than it does when watching it without commercials. TBBT becomes less funny when it’s interrupted by commercials every 6.5 minutes.

Second, if you didn’t already know, and because it needs to be said, I am a geek. I am a nerd. I have jokingly said that in this house TBBT is actually called, “These Are My People.” I am a Star-Trek watching, Firefly-loving, super-hero fan. I get the World of Warcraft references. I get the physics and math humour. And most importantly, I, like the four guys on TBBT, have been ridiculed, mocked, bullied and swirlied because I wasn’t a “cool kid”. I was a geek before it was cool to be a geek. My geek cred is solid and official (just ask my husband).

Third, I’m not a fan of Community (sorry basically everyone in Caronport who says that I should be watching Community). I choose TBBT over Community.

So is TBBT laughing at instead of with the characters and is that a bad thing?

I don’t think that it is a bad thing. I think that there is a lot to laugh at, and I don’t think the laughing at these characters is malicious or solely a product of outsiders laughing at geek culture. I am a geek, and I laugh because I identify with the characters. I laugh because, let’s face it, geeks are funny, and we do funny things. I laugh because humans are funny and do funny things.

I don’t think the author of the article is correct that the audience is pushed toward and meant to identify with Penny (primarily). I think that’s the genius of the show, you can identify with whoever you want. Geek or not, TBBT is about a community, a group of people who despite their foibles, frailties, and fanatical idiosyncrasies, care about each other. If you’re not a geek, sure maybe you’ll identify more with Penny (or Bernadette, or Mrs. Cooper, or even Mrs. Wolowitz), but I would bet that even the biggest non-geek could identify at some point, on some level with one of the four guys.

Nor, do I think that the author of the article is correct that Chuck Lorre’s goal is for us to pity the characters:

“He does, however want us to pity them. We don’t root for Leonard and Penny to get together because we think they’re a good match. We feel sorry for Leonard, we think Penny’s out of his league and we root for the underdog.”

I’m sorry, but I’m not rooting for Leonard to get together with Penny because he’s the underdog. I root for Leonard because he is a human being, with a big heart and lots to offer. Penny does not fall in love with Leonard because she is desperate or because he is conveniently located right across the hall. For all the trappings and pitfalls of a comedy show that has only 22 minutes each episode, the characters of Penny and Leonard have found and continue to have a chemistry that works. Have they played the “on again – off again” too much on the show? Probably. But sitcoms are based on the premise of conflict. So of course we’re going to see them dance together and then apart and then together again. Do I find it annoying that TBBT continues the trope of “hot girl gets ugly, fat, or geeky guy” but never the other way around? Sure. But then I also find it hugely funny that the show has done to Leonard what most shows do to women when they want them to be geeky: give them glasses and ill-fitting clothes as if that will truly hide the fact that the actor is in fact beautiful or “hot”.

 

And as for the idea that it’s bad to laugh at Sheldon’s quirks because he most probably has some form of Asperger’s, I think the author of the article misses two things. First, despite how obtuse and annoying Sheldon can be, he is still and will always be loved and a part of the gang of guys. That’s what makes the humour work. He is not just “annoying”, he is not just “affected” or “oblivious”. He is also “family.” Even when Leonard can’t take it anymore and goes to Penny to gripe and complain, Leonard never permanently moves out. Even when the roommate agreement starts to suffocate, Leonard doesn’t quit. Second, this is a comedy show. It is not real life, and it’s not meant to be. Is Sheldon autistic? I don’t know, and I don’t think that that’s the point. Most comedy in North American culture is based on the premise of caricature. Sheldon is a caricature. He’s not meant to be a real person. Neither is Leonard, Raj, Howard or even Penny. Should all Nebraskans, or all blondes, or all women, be offended that Penny is a ditzy blonde waitress who thought it would be easy to move to Hollywood and become an actress? Should all Christians be offended by Sheldon’s mother? (As an evangelical Christian, I really like Mrs. Cooper and am not offended by how she is portrayed.). These characters, no matter how much they are a caricature of some aspect of the human condition, are story-tellers.

Now, that does not mean that all episodes are created equal, or that all attempts at humour succeed. It also doesn’t mean that there isn’t a valid complaint that sometimes they beat a joke until it’s dead, and becomes not only unfunny, but crude and annoying (I think here of the relationship between Raj and Howard). Indeed, there are some jokes that are funny precisely because they continue on and on (for example, everyone being a doctor except for poor Howard. That still hasn’t gotten old, especially as someone who lives in a town that is heavily populated with PhDs). And, I am one of those people who finds Amy Farrah-Fowler annoying. I truly wish she hadn’t become a recurring character past the middle of season 4 even though I am a huge Mayim Bialik fan (I will say the episode where she conditions Sheldon to associate things he likes with her was brilliant!).

Is TBBT saying that being a geek is something to be mocked? I don’t think so. Is TBBT “a pantsing and a punch in the face” instead of “a warm hug of acceptance”? No. TBBT is a microcosm of the human experience. And let’s face it, if we can’t laugh at ourselves and at the human experience, we would become uncreative, boring people who take themselves way too seriously.

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6 thoughts on “The Big Bang Theory and The Culture of Geek

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  4. Eric

    I feel like the show positions the viewer with the geeks, on the inside of their world (e.g., never explaining sci-fi or comic book references). Also, when you get non-nerds (like other people from Penny’s circle), they’re usually portrayed in ways that make them less attractive than the nerds. Being a nerd may have drawbacks, but I’d rather hang out with them than the people Penny parties with in the first season – which is what I do every time I watch the show.

    Reply
    1. Amanda Mac Post author

      Eric,
      “Also, when you get non-nerds (like other people from Penny’s circle), they’re usually portrayed in ways that make them less attractive than the nerds.”

      Agree! Completely agree. Any of Penny’s boyfriends would be a perfect example.

      Reply

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