The Big Bang Theory: your TV isn’t laughing at you

Some “true nerds” think that The Big Bang Theory is offensive, and uncomfortable. They write about it as if it were a latter-day Love Thy Neighbour. I occasionally hear the phrase “nerd blackface” and Jeff Harris covered why that’s a ugly turn of phrase: nerds are not a race, they’re not oppressed, and have not suffered generations of segregation and exclusion.

Oh, but you might go through secondary education thinking that you are a special snowflake, and that your exclusion is uniquely painful, or exclusive to your group of friends.  You hide in lockers, or run home from school to program computers, and sigh away the days listening to the Bowie, or the Smiths, or Nine Inch Nails. That experience shapes you, and the feeling of exclusion lingers. But, with a tolerable home life too, we put those experiences in perspective. We recognise exclusion as the self-inflicted wound it is, and that it stems from universal adolescent bullshit: enormous vanity, self-pity and a lack of empathy – basically comedy gold.

So it’s the point of the show, and sitcoms in general that we’re not laughing with the nerds, we’re laughing at them. Why can’t we also find them sympathetic, cheer them on, and identify with them, all at once?

The wounded Big Bang haters, without exception, feel that Leonard, Sheldon, Raj & Howard are very intelligent, yet are abused by the writers despite that virtue. They’re academically bright, but like all good sitcom characters (and Raj), they have to be naive and flawed to be funny, and for the writers to work those flaws. Nobody watches a sitcom with intelligent, well-rounded and balanced characters.

Sheldon is an over-the-hill child genius, now struggling to achieve anything in his 20s. Howard is mocked the most for his lack of PhD and home life, despite achieving among his peers when he becomes an astronaut. Where are they all going, stuck in nondescript academia forever? This is just the “dead end job” sitcom setting. It works not because Penny is injected as the “everyman” – it works because the audience do relate to the nerds. The greasy pole of academia is as slippery as anyone’s work; deadlines, presentations and flattering the right people are familiar. Nobody would watch a sitcom filled exclusively with characters and situations they can’t relate to.

The stinging criticism is, the audience is directed to laugh at who these characters truly are: Dungeons and Dragons is played by losers! Ha ha! Well, this two minute opening scene from last year is set around a D&D game, but what jokes does it frame? Old, tested sitcom stuff: Howard’s Jewish mother is an ogre, his wedding list is full of boring china and  Leonard’s girlfriend is far away so he will be taking a long shower. Raj is comfort eating  and wants to leave because he’s feeling lonely. But the punchline – D&D would be in trouble if lonely people never played it! Raj is persuaded, and picks up the dice again. Is that really a cheap jab at nerds with a nerdy hobby? Or a prime-time celebration of tabletop role-playing as a social activity, with Raj buoyed by his friends? Nobody would watch a sitcom without that glimmer of warmth.

You don’t have to like TBBT (or keep watching, or moaning about it).  It certainly went off the boil as much as any seven-season comedy. Its characters are far more inventive, silly and different than just “four nerds” – they’re not all you, or all me, or anyone I know (even if you share interests with them). It’s fundamentally optimistic. It doesn’t need “true nerds” to enjoy it, even if some of them used to. But it’s absolutely not oppressing or marginalising you, whoever you are. If it were pure cruelty, nobody would watch it either.

One thought on “The Big Bang Theory: your TV isn’t laughing at you

  1. And also, it made my kids go and find out *why* that Schrödinger joke is funny. its done a fine job of making science appealing again, as something to aspire to even, and that has to be a good thing