"The Big Bang Theory: Are We the Joke?" - Overdue Impressions on a Dragon*Con Panel

I think I'll have to begin this particular post by giving a bit of context to it. Back in September, as you may recall, I attended Dragon*Con in Atlanta, Georgia, United States of America. It was my first time in that country (outside of airports) since I was about two years old, which was a little bit surreal to realize. (And speaking of surreal, the United States is such a strange place. I feel like it should be the same as Canada but it's so oddly different. And no, I'm not one of these obnoxious Canadians with an inferiority complex who really wants to make the differences clear. I just think it's bizarre how in Canada when you get a little individually packaged butter, it's actual butter. In the United States, it's a "buttery taste spread" apparently made mostly from corn syrup.) It was also pretty much one of the most amazing experiences that I've ever had. I attended celebrity and fan panels, and was immersed in geekitude far deeper than I've ever been before in my entire life. Also: Atlanta was really nice and the people there were all awesome (con attendees and normals alike).

However, one of the panels that I attended really didn't satisfy. The title of this panel was in the title of this post, i.e. "The Big Bang Theory: Are We the Joke?" It set out to discuss whether this particular tv show (and seriously if you don't know what The Big Bang Theory is, I'm not going to explain it, because I doubt that this post will have anything of interest for you in it, anyway) is laughing at or with the people it portrays. It's very easy for me to state why the panel didn't satisfy me: it didn't address the question that it was supposed to. Instead, it consisted mainly of people gushing about the show and speculating about it, and saying how they saw themselves in it, and basically just not critically examining it and its audience in the way that I'd hoped for, and had come to expect based on other panels I'd been to. Someone even compared the character of Raj from The Big Bang Theory to the character of Abed from Community, which is pretty much the worst comparison that I've ever heard, because the only thing that they have in common is that they're both brown. Yikes.

So being that there was a lack of insight displayed at the actual panel, I wanted to address the question here.

What, you might ask, does this have to do with books, language, gender, engineering, or any of my other fair game topics? Not very much; it's a tv show. But bear with me just this once, please and thanks.

I need to qualify this post just a little bit further before I get into the meat of it, though. I'm actually not a huge fan of The Big Bang Theory (which I'll refer to as TBBT from now on, just for simplicity's sake). I think the first episode of the show that I watched was Wil Wheaton's first episode (I'm a huge Wil Wheaton fan, and maybe one day I'll write about how awesome Wil Wheaton is*), although I'd heard about the show a very little bit before then. I was living sans cable by the time the second season started in September 2008, and so it wasn't really on my radar. I enjoyed the first episode I saw, though, and when my sister started watching the show, I watched a bit with her, and I was always entertained. I watched Wil Wheaton's second episode, too. But I'd only seen a few episodes between that and his third episode, which aired very recently, and also featured Brent Spiner, who loves to stir shit up on Twitter.

So I'm not coming at this from the perspective of a person who has seen every single episode. I don't know if I'm going to be making any arguments that are really affected by that, though. Ok yes I am.

So, who are "we," and are "we" the joke?

"We" obviously, are the people like Sheldon, Leonard, Raj, and Howard. We are geeks/nerds, smart people into gaming, science fiction, technology, and being obsessed with make believe/things that the vast mass of society thinks of as being really lame. This line is a difficult one to draw at the moment, with a lot of sf-type stuff appearing pretty much everywhere recently (depending, of course, what you consider to be sf, but for the purposes of this post, I'm including things like Transformers, and Avatar, and, um, I'm not sure what else). It may be worth noting that I draw my geek line ("This far and no further!") at furries, Japanese articulated dolls, and LARPing, the first two of which have a bizarre sexual undertone from what I can tell, and latter of which is just... so silly. Of course, YMMV. What I mean, though, is that pretty much no one is ashamed to go to see Transformers 3**, whereas I felt I had to keep the purpose of my trip to Atlanta a secret from my coworkers. So while some activities are still too geeky for the mainstream, others are less so. But I think it's pretty clear that we're the kids who were teased for our odd interests. We were the ones in the a/v club getting excited to watch a copy of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. You know?

Next question: are we the joke?

The premise of TBBT, once I'd started watching it, made me nervous. It was a comedy about geeks, and when I watched it, I felt like I was laughing along with some of the things that they were saying. But I was concerned, because I was also laughing at them. And let's keep things realistic. In comedy, you're often supposed to be laughing at the characters. I was laughing at all of the Bluths when I watched Arrested Development (if I was laughing with anyone in that case, I guess it would've had to've been Ron Howard). And I was laughing at the people on The Office. And at The Simpsons. These aren't really sit coms, though, so my other example is M*A*S*H. (And no I'm not trying to say that TBBT compares to any of these shows, just that the concept of laughing at characters holds through pretty much all of comedy, as it should.) So why would it be a problem to laugh at the geeks on TBBT?

I'm not sure what the answer to this is, but I think that it has something to do with the way these concepts are presented, and the way the audience views the characters. Beginning with Arrested Development: this show is just one insane, long-running joke about a crazy family. The characters are clearly all completely crazy, and caricatures of real people. Or perhaps I should take this opportunity to apologize to the closeted gay, never-nude, Blue Man, unemployed psychologist community. The Office: let's go with the UK version, and say that our laughter is mostly the nervous and crushing laughter that we can't let out at work every day, and so this is our outlet. The Simpsons: agh, let's just move on to M*A*S*H.

In M*A*S*H, our heroes are the funniest guys, and a lot of the humour comes from various quips and zingers. We're really rooting for the vast majority of the main characters, and even the "antagonists" have a sort of dignity. Our laughter is at the situations that they get into, and the ways that they deal with and comment on those situations. I haven't seen every episode of this show, but in the ones I have seen, it took its characters seriously.

It's very probably misguided of me to try to compare a classic sit com set during the Korean War with a current show created by Chuck Lorre about a bunch of geeks, but I'm going to do it anyway. While TBBT does derive some of its comedy from the hijinks of the geeks, even this is largely driven by poking fun at them for being obsessive, infantile, socially inept, whatever. If this were really a show by geeks, for geeks, it would focus more on the work of the various characters (seriously you could have so much hilarity in a fictional physics lab, and also holy shit they're all brilliant why don't we respect them more?!). And the dialogue would be 90% just straight-up quoting from eight million obscure sources, and 10% regurgitation of scientific trivia. And the geeks in the audience would swoon, and the mainstream audience would be scornful.

And the show wouldn't be terribly successful, but it would be honest.

Because the geeks are the joke on this show, a lot of the time. They don't really get any respect for being brilliant, they're just these awkward people. And I do believe that there are real geeks somewhere behind this show, who care about it and who prevent the characters from descending too far into the stereotype of the fat, unwashed man playing an MMORPG in his parents' basement (for example). But I think that most of the audience doesn't care, and that they're laughing at us. And the reason I think that the audience is laughing at us is that I've been laughed at. And maybe some people are like that horrible kid in Freaks and Geeks, who just wants to play D & D with the geeks, really, except that he's afraid of being laughed at, too. But just as many people are too busy cheering for professional sports teams to understand why someone else would obsessively catalog the entire Dune series on a wiki or play a six hour table top game with a group of people who have well-known online personas thanks to their really insightful comments on some unheard of message board about antique watches.

I don't know what normal people do with their time, besides talking about and watching pro sports. And hey, geeks (including me) laugh at those normal people, too. But that's kind of the point: in a show where the geeks really are the heroes, they would be the ones laughing. They wouldn't be just a bunch of geeks on display for a mainstream audience to laugh at.

But I can't deny that I've enjoyed episodes of TBBT. I just wish it was a better version of itself. And really, there are enough old Star Trek episodes out there that I never need to watching anything else, anyway.

What do you think, readers?

*Please note that my love of Wil Wheaton doesn't extend to wanting to tell him that I want to marry him, as much as I may joke about this. But that's a whole 'nother topic on celebrity culture or some such whatnot, and I don't have time to go into it right now. And let's also note that my love of him has at various points in the past extended to getting his tweets on my phone.

**People should be ashamed, though. And probably if you're cool enough to be reading my blog, you at least thought twice about it. I hope so, anyway! This is also another topic entirely.


  1. Fantastic post! You've successfully articulated many of the reasons I found that panel sub-par, though I think I have probably seen more episodes of TBBT than you. I have a *lot* of issues with the show, but the real question of who "the joke" is does seem to be Geeks(TM).

  2. We watch it all the time. Seen every episode. Juniper has decided that he should occasionally channel Sheldon. He also corrects the science periodically (just like he does when we watch Mythbusters).

    I think that, with current comedies, we have to remember that the form is basically caricature comedy. We're watching characters who are caricatures of particular types of people, and when it comes down to it TBBT is making fun of geeks, Indians (as in the real ones, not First Nations people), Jews (especially Jewish men), and pretty well anyone who turns up on the show. Penny is an alcoholic (if you deny it you are blind), Sheldon's mother is a fundamentalist Evangelical Christian (born-again and Bible-thumping) who tries (and fails) to be inclusive of her son's friends, one of Penny's guys wasn't even as smart as she is, and Leonard's mother the psychiatrist (or whatever she is) writes parenting books and is an incredibly cold person and a poor mother to Leonard.

    The show lives and dies by the stereotypes and caricatures. So we can be offended by those stereotypes, or we can recognize that they're (usually) way OTT* and simply accept the show for what it is.

    I think that with the influx of popular SF shows, we may eventually have a more respectful show - probably a drama - that deals realistically with geeks. I have yet to see one that does a good job of it.

    *I say "usually" because I freaking married Sheldon. Except I married someone who can out-Sheldon Sheldon. For realz. So, you know. YMMV. ;)

    1. Yeah, I won't argue that the geeks aren't, like, recognizable types or anything. I think my issue is that I wish they'd use them in different ways, I guess?