It was four or five years ago when I was first introduced to The Big Bang Theory by none other than my high school algebra II teacher. That day’s lecture had trickled off into a tangent, as I had come to expect them to, and he was cracking joke after self-deprecating joke about being an old man who lives on his own and harbors a strong passion for mathematics of all things. Soon enough, he began to tout The Big Bang Theory as one of the best shows on television at the time, and the only show he knew of that really portrayed people like him in an accurate light. I had heard of the show before but never bothered to watch it, and, figuring the show was specifically about a bunch of guys who were head-over-heels obsessed with math, assumed I wouldn’t be able to relate.
A few days later, I decided to sit through a few episodes, if only to see what all the fuss was about. I was immediately surprised by the amount of nerdy references the writers had managed to include, from things like the Nintendo 64 or the Lord Of The Rings trilogy to quantum physics. It also featured characters who differed from most other sitcoms I had tried to watch in a very important way: they cared about the kinds of things I cared about. After multiple consecutive summers spent inhaling Hot Pockets while grinding in MMOs, I was satisfied to see characters on TV doing things like inviting friends over for gaming marathons. Being a high school freshman at the time, I had trouble relating when the characters on other sitcoms dragged me through failed relationship after failed relationship, their social lives a vicious cycle of wine and random parties and bad dating situations. But the people on this show — even Sheldon Cooper in all his neuroticism and naivety — seemed real to me. These people were my people.
Is ‘The Big Bang Theory’ Really A Geek Friendly Show?
My initial excitement for the series carried me through a roughly year-long streak of watching every new episode when it aired , but after awhile my obsession faded and I didn’t go out of my way to keep up with the show anymore. It was around this time that the internet seemed to be especially ruthless toward the show, with images like this one increasing in popularity. People also began uploading videos of episodes with the laugh track removed to showcase the lack of any real comedy. Though my interest in the show had waned, I was confused at the discrepancy between the high ratings the show received and the individual opinions I read. How could one of the most popular comedies on television receive so much criticism from the groups it intended to portray?
After revisiting the show a few years later, I have finally discovered what may be a fundamental problem with The Big Bang Theory. Yes, the characters are stereotypical nerds with careers in scientific fields. Yes, they cosplay. Yes, they are gamers. And yes, there are plenty of nerdy references to be found. But this doesn’t make up for the fact that these traits are often portrayed in a negative light. Part of the reason the no-laugh-track videos on YouTube are so jarring is that they draw attention to the fact that most of the “jokes” on the show are really just statements made by the characters which exemplify their nerdy traits. The humor in the show seems to cater to an audience that views Leonard, Sheldon, and the gang from an “average” person’s perspective — for instance, the perspective of Penny. To provide a more specific example, here is a transcript of the opening scene from Season 1, Episode 3. I noted every time a laugh track played in the episode to show which lines the writers/producers were encouraging their audience to laugh at:
Scene: Sheldon and Leonard’s apartment. Sheldon, Leonard, Howard and Raj are using laptops. All are wearing microphone headsets.
Howard: Alright, just a few more feet, and…. here we are gentlemen, the Gates of Elzebub.
Sheldon: Good lord!
Leonard: Don’t panic, this is what the last 97 hours have been about.
Howard: Stay frosty, there’s a horde of armed goblins on the other side of that gate guarding the Sword of Azeroth.
Leonard: Warriors, unsheathe your weapons, magic wielders raise your wands.
Sheldon: Lock and load.
Howard: Raj, blow up the gates.
The placement of the laugh tracks in this particular segment of the show highlights the way it portrays the characters’ “nerdy” tendencies as objects of humor. The references that the characters make in this scene and others of its kind may capture the interest of the geek community, but this is a case where context is just as important as content. And in context, these references serve less as a way to welcome viewers who resemble the characters and more as a more covert way of enforcing the stereotype of the sci-fi nerd that appears all over television.
Of course, stereotypes and tropes are an important part of storytelling, and when used in the right way, they can help the viewer better grasp the main ideas of the plot. But in the case of The Big Bang Theory, the danger is that people assume that in a show about nerds, the characters will rise above these stereotypes when most of the time, they do not. Is this a reason to stop watching? For some people, maybe. But more important than whether or not we continue to watch is whether or not we are willing to hold a lens up to the things we consume and ask ourselves what they’re really portraying.