Saturday, January 26, 2013

Defending The Big Bang Theory

A good friend of mine recently asked me to read THIS Tumblr post, in which the writer intelligently and eloquently articulates why he/she can’t bring themselves to like The Big Bang Theory. There are a lot of good points made in the post but I can’t quite say I agree with them, and so I’d like to take this opportunity to defend one of my favourite TV shows. But before I do, I’d highly recommending reading the whole post for yourself, as I’ve had to cut a few bits out (partly because I’d end up repeating myself but mainly because I’ve only seen one episode of Community!).
The cast of The Big Bang Theory.

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.” 

I would actually argue that we laugh with Sheldon, Leonard, Howard and Raj more than we laugh at them. But because the paragraph’s argument is centred around the supposition that we laugh at them, let’s work with that.
Laughing at comedic characters is not something that is exclusive to The Big Bang Theory, nor is it necessarily a bad thing. When you strip comedy down to its most raw and simple form, a lot of it derives from laughing at people. In Only Fools and Horses we’re supposed to laugh at Trigger; in Gavin and Stacey we’re supposed to laugh at Uncle Bryn; in Fawlty Towers we’re supposed to laugh at Manuel and, to an extent, Basil himself; in The Vicar of Dibley we’re supposed to laugh at pretty much everyone who isn’t Geraldine or David. The list goes on. However, just because we laugh at characters it does not mean we actively dislike them. On the contrary, it’s usually those characters that become the most beloved and memorable characters in their respective shows. (I walked into my university kitchen a few months ago wearing a “Bazinga!” t-shirt with Sheldon’s face on, and the first thing one of my flatmates said to me was, “I LOVE SHELDON!!!”)
I would also argue that not being able to relate to characters isn’t necessarily a problem. In The Big Bang Theory Penny serves the exact same purpose as the companions do in Doctor Who. In Doctor Who the main character is, just like the main characters in The Big Bang Theory, far more intelligent than the audience and well outside our frame of reference. We’re not supposed to be able to relate to him. Through the companion we are able to enter his world, just as through Penny we are able to enter Sheldon, Leonard, Raj and Howard’s world. Therefore rather than simply being outsiders to their world, we’re outsiders stepping in. And actually, it’s from that collision of worlds that a lot of the comedy derives. Sheldon finds Penny’s world just as ridiculous as she finds his. Furthermore, I don’t think it’s quite accurate to say that Penny doesn’t care to learn about this strange, new culture. She might not understand Sheldon & co.’s world and she might not be as excited by its contents as they are, but that doesn’t equate to being completely unwilling to learn about it. If that were the case, we would never have had (to cite just one example) an exchange of dialogue like this:
                    Penny: Do or do not. There is no try. 
                    Leonard: Did you just quote Star Wars?!
                    Penny: I believe I quoted Empire Strikes Back!
                                  -  3.19, The Wheaton Recurrence

You can't say Penny doesn't try!
“The Big Bang Theory rarely constructs jokes. Often it relies on pop culture references as humour. I recently listened to a podcast from The Film Talk where – when reviewing the film Ted – they spoke about the psychology behind reference as joke. We laugh when we hear a pop culture reference out of nostalgia, we remember enjoying it so we laugh at the referenced rather than the reference. Laughing at a pop culture reference also shows that we understand it. It creates a sense of inclusion, we don’t want other people to think we didn’t get the reference so we laugh to show that we too understand, we too know our culture. And don’t get me wrong, I love a good pop culture reference, my all-time favourite show is Buffy The Vampire Slayer and that’s full of them. However, a reference for a reference’s sake does not count as a joke. It’s lazy humour and it’s surprising to see just how often Big Bang utilises this.”
I have to admit, this isn’t a theory that I was aware of, though I think it’s a very interesting idea. I’m inclined to disagree with it somewhat, but that’s not to say it’s universally untrue since humour works differently for different people. Personally, I’d say that even though I enjoy understanding the various pop culture references the show makes, I don’t laugh at them unless I find them genuinely funny. For example, I didn’t laugh when, in The Jiminy Conjecture, Leonard and Sheldon debated the origins of Wolverine’s bone claws, yet I killed myself laughing in The Big Bran Hypothesis when the guys animatedly discussed the scientific validity of Superman saving Lois Lane from falling to her death. I can see how The Film Talk’s theory might hold water during the actual taping of the show (which is done in front of a live audience); however, I don’t think it explains why viewers who watch the show from their living rooms laugh. They, especially if they’re watching by themselves, have no other people to ‘convince’, and therefore I’m inclined to believe that when they laugh, they’re laughing because they find it genuinely funny. Lazy humour is, I think, perhaps the wrong term for it. It’s more the verbal equivalent of slapstick; simple, effective, but still valid. – As I said, though, humour changes from person to person and I’m no psychology expert, so feel free to disagree!

Sheldon discusses Superman.
“But this specifically is not my main problem, lazy humour is one thing but cruel humour is quite another. If you watch, really watch an episode of The Big Bang Theory and pay attention to when the audience laughs it soon becomes clear that what they’re laughing at. What Chuck Lorre wants us to find funny is not the jokes which the characters are making, it’s the characters themselves. At one point Howard mentions playing Dungeons and Dragons. There is no joke attached to this, it’s not the punchline to any set up, however it is treated as one. Howard says the words “Dungeons and Dragons” and the audience laughs. They’re not laughing at a joke, they’re laughing at the fact that Howard plays D&D. And this kind of thing happens all the time throughout the show. How many times has a joke been made out of Leonard owning action figures or Sheldon collecting comics? When, in season one, Penny invites the guys to her Halloween party and they are excited about making costumes, we’re supposed to laugh at them, to think they are silly for dressing as a Hobbit or Thor when everyone else is trying to look sexy. The reason I feel uncomfortable watching The Big Bang Theory is because it’s laughing at me, at people like me.”
Here, I’d like to make reference to my earlier point about laughing at characters being perfectly normal in comedies. The characters in The Big Bang Theory are designed to be funny – just as the characters in shows such as Friends and The Simpsons are designed to be funny. And actually, a lot of the time the jokes are just as funny as the characters themselves. It’s hard for me to respond to the Dungeons and Dragons point because I don’t know which episode that scene is from – but I do disagree that we’re really laughing at them because of what they do. It’s more the enthusiasm they have for what they do that we find funny, but that’s a universal kind of humour that would work in the case of any type of character. Let me explain. At the beginning of The Weekend Vortex there’s no laughter when Raj suggests spending the weekend playing the new Star Wars video game; in The Vegas Renormalization we don’t laugh at the guys playing Star Wars Guess Who?; and in The Cushion Saturation we don’t laugh at them playing inter-departmental paintball. As I said, it’s not them or what they do that we laugh at in the show - it’s their enthusiasm. I think we would find it just as funny if, say, a typical jock-like character were equally as excited at the prospect of dressing up as a football player. We laugh at their enthusiasm not because we’re ridiculing it but because we recognise it. It’s the same kind of enthusiasm that we see in Apple fans who queue up for days just to be first to get their hands on the latest product. It’s the same kind of enthusiasm we see in Call of Duty fans whenever a new game in the series is released. It’s the same kind of enthusiasm we see in football fans when their team have made the cup final. Everybody is incredibly enthusiastic about something, and we love seeing the characters in The Big Bang Theory so unashamedly enthusiastic about what they love because it taps into the fanboy/fangirl part of all of us.

The Big Bang Theory: exposing the inner fangirl/fanboy in all of us.
 “This disdain for the main characters taints the show for me. It seems mean, bullying and like I said before, just lazy. I feel like Chuck Lorre is collectively breaking our glasses and stealing our lunch money. You see, this kind of humour only works if in fact you do relate to Penny. If you relate to Leonard, or god forbid Sheldon, you don’t feel entertained, you just feel belittled. The way that even the three guys laugh at Sheldon seems especially cruel. Yes, he’s painted as annoying, as an inconvenience and as just plain rude, however he is also read by many as autistic. So much so that my friend who works at a school for autistic children believed he had Asperger’s Syndrome and once asked me how they got away with ridiculing a character with special needs. I explained to her that no, Sheldon is not canonically autistic and she was shocked. She told me that he was a totally accurate portrayal of someone on the autistic spectrum and had many characteristics of someone with Asperger’s – specifically the inability to recognise sarcasm or understand human emotion as well as the obsession with “his spot” and his distress when routine is changed. Sheldon is consistently positioned as someone to be laughed at. It’s made to seem ok by the fact that his friends are laughing at him too and, of course, he isn’t technically autistic he’s just almost indistinguishable from someone who is.” 

I’m actually aware that a lot of people believe Sheldon to be autistic, and whilst this isn’t an idea that crossed my mind when I first started watching the show, I can understand why people think this. It’s a very difficult topic, I’ll admit, and I’m still not 100% sure what I think. But I think it’s the fact that, in my view, The Big Bang Theory hasn’t crossed the line between cruel mockery and comedy that keeps it funny. At the end of the day, Sheldon was not written as an autistic character. Pedantry is a trait associated with but not exclusive to autism. The kind of pedantry Sheldon displays stems from his arrogance, which in turn stems from his genius, and this is why it is funny. It’s because we know that, ultimately, although Sheldon may be the butt of many jokes he is also the instigator of many jokes (hence “Bazinga!”) and is still the cleverest person in whatever room he stands in. He isn’t quite as vulnerable as autistic people are which is why it is ‘safe’ to laugh at/with him. If autism had deliberately been the basis of his character then yes, it would be wrong to laugh in the way that we do. But it wasn’t, and it would be wrong, I think, to think less of Sheldon’s funniness as a character simply because he – accidentally – possesses a trait linked (but, to reiterate, not exclusive) to autism. 

Dr. Sheldon Cooper.
“I relate far more to Leonard, Raj, Howard and yes, even Sheldon than I do to Penny. When the studio audience laughs at the mention of Battlestar Galactica, at the fact that Leonard has a bat signal, at the idea that someone would wait in line to see a new cut of Indiana Jones, they are laughing at me too. They are saying they’re better than me, that I’m silly for liking those things and that makes me a target for ridicule. When I talk about alphabetising my DVD collection, or when I mention the fact that I watch certain TV box sets on certain days according to a schedule my older brother calls me Sheldon. He thinks that because I like organisation, because I, like Sheldon, am a nerd, he is superior to me. I am proud of the things that I like. I am proud of knowing a lot about those things. I am proud of being enthusiastic about the things I love and The Big Bang Theory wants to tell me not to be. It wants me to be like Penny, intellectually inferior but far more socially acceptable.
And all this wouldn’t really matter if not for the fact that The Big Bang Theory targets nerds as part of its fan base. We’re used to being ridiculed on TV but it’s usually by shows which aren’t aimed at us. The Big Bang Theory goes to Comic-Con, it sells its merchandise at Forbidden Planet. The fact that it sells merchandise at all says that wants part of a cult nerd following. The Big Bang Theory is the worst kind of bully – the one that pretends to be your friend and then takes the piss out of you behind your back. It will take your viewership, it will take your money and it will laugh in your face as it systematically puts you down.”s
For what it’s worth, in terms of interests I probably relate a lot more to Leonard, Raj, Howard and Sheldon than I do Penny, and I’ve not once felt belittled. I genuinely believe that, at its core, The Big Bang Theory is a show that celebrates people like them rather than one which ridicules them.

A celebration of nerds.
“And this isn’t even touching on the way TBBT portrays women. Most notably the fact that until recently the only female character on the show had no understanding of science or nerd culture, and the episode in which it’s treated as a miracle that a woman is in a comic book store – “she must be lost” they say. Even Amy Farrah Fowler isn’t the geek girl representative we may have hoped for. She’s portrayed as distinctly asexual and when she mentions sex it’s always played for laughs, because of course intelligent, socially awkward women shouldn’t think about sex at all. Another troubling thing about Big Bang is its insidious homophobia. We are supposed to laugh whenever Howard and Raj do something which could be considered as homosexual. The closeness of their friendship is the target of jokes as is their fear and disgust at being mistaken for a gay couple. Again Amy Farrah Fowler’s frequent references to lesbian experimentation are treated as absurd. We are supposed to laugh at her possible attraction to Penny and at Penny’s discomfort when she alludes to this. Considering Jim Parsons (who plays Sheldon) is himself gay, as is Sara Gilbert (who plays the recurring character Leslie Winkle), you would think – or at least hope for a more accepting attitude towards homosexuality. Similarly, with guest stars such as Wil Wheaton, a champion of nerd culture, you’d think they’d refrain from ridiculing nerds the way they do.”
On the whole, I don’t think I have a huge problem with the way in which women are portrayed in the show. Penny is undoubtedly the main female character, but the character of Bernadette (whose intelligence can’t be disputed) has, I believe, been around since the early episodes of the third season. Before her, Leslie Winkle, admittedly only a minor character, was frequently shown to be more than a match for Sheldon. In the case of Amy, we don’t laugh at her when she talks about sex because she’s an intelligent woman talking about sex, or because her sexuality is somewhat ambiguous, we laugh because she often talks about it in a fundamentally inappropriate way, and it comes as such a shock to our systems that in many ways the only thing we can do is laugh.
What I do have a problem with, though, are the constant race jokes that Raj (and other characters) makes about himself. Episode after episode there are allusions to the colour of his skin; there is persistent disparagement of Indian culture, and there is a sort of relentless reminder that he is foreign. Culture jokes are fine when they’re done lovingly and done well (see Bend It Like Beckham if you want a perfect example of this), but when The Big Bang Theory tries its hand at them they are tasteless and uncomfortable to watch, and that is the only gripe I have with the show.

Raj: poorly handled in the show.
 “To bring this to a close I think I found my answers:
Why don’t I like The Big Bang Theory anymore? I think at first I was so happy to see people like me represented on mainstream television that I ignored the cruelty behind the humour. As I continue to watch the programme and see more and more repeats on E4 in the daytime it’s become much clearer that actually I’m not being represented. I’m being ridiculed.
Why do I feel uncomfortable watching it? Because whenever I laugh at a joke, and I do sometimes find it funny, I feel like I’m laughing at my friends, like I’m putting myself and the people I identify with down. And that’s not a nice feeling, that’s not how I want to feel when I watch a comedy.
Why do I get so annoyed when I see people singing its praises online? Because it reminds me that however many times people say that geek is cool, that nerd is en vogue, there will always be people laughing at me and making money from me at the same time.
I’m sorry for the huge post. I just really wanted to get my view of things out there and hear what people think, whether people agree or think I’ve taken it in completely the wrong way.”
Ultimately, I’m really grateful to have had the chance to respond to such a well-written argument. I don’t agree with much of what it says but it’s good to look at both sides of the coin and it’s really made me think about why I do like The Big Bang Theory.
I think it’s a shame that there are a lot of self-professed nerds out there who don’t like the show. I’m quite the geek myself, and I genuinely believe that the show is a celebration of geekiness and nerdiness. It’s a show made for people like us which the rest of the world just happens to have fallen in love with.

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