The Big Bang Controversy

Let me begin by noting I know a few people peripherally (writers, producers, actors) involved with the creation of the show “Big Bang Theory” (BBT). I also know many nerds who are the subject of, impacted by, or otherwise in the orbit of the show itself.

BBT, as has been typical in the past, was nominated for some Emmy awards. The show is a prime time big market television show about nerds (geeks) and geek (nerd) culture.

Let us stipulate for the moment that all of the above are facts.

I’ve heard a lot of criticism of the show itself over various topics.  In fairness and out of a sense of nerd completionism, I will list the prominent ones here. Please click and read the arguments to understand my points later.

It’s not funny, comedically lazy, and laughs at nerds not with them.

It’s misogynistic and potentially homophobic.

And a host of other complaints.

As a side note and personal pet peeve, many people have characterized the show as “geeksploitation” or “nerd blackface”, which are actually pretty terrible descriptions from a hyperbole standpoint. Society didn’t spend centuries lynching, enslaving and demeaning nerds so to use the “blackface” term is a disservice to how hurtful and horrible blackface is from a racial perspective. It also speaks to a level of defensiveness I’ll talk about in a second.

Big Bang Theory is now in its 6th year.  And while there’s always been a small undercurrent of nerd criticism it strikes me that its amped way, way up in the past year (as the show has reached a critical level of popularity) from “it’s not a funny show” to “it offends me and exploits my culture.”

The latter sort of mystifies me.

To be clear, I’m not asking anyone to find the show funny, nor am I saying you’re wrong for not liking what I like. However the sense amongst some people that the show is insulting and exploitive strikes me as a bit defensive. I feel somewhat like an ER technician watching a doctor rant about how exploitive Scrubs is.

No one that I know involved with the creation of the show would want to make a single new episode of it if they thought they were creating it A) for money and fame to the detriment of the subject matter and/or B) if the show itself caused material harm to the subject matter. The sheer amount of effort alone they put into the math, science, comic continuity, etc are not throwaway references and I think really speaks to the dedication of getting things in the culture right. They might stumble, but it’s not for lack of effort.

Likewise I take issue with the shorthand criticism that the show is laughing “at” geek culture rather than “with” geek culture.  Comedy is not a zero sum game.  Prime time comedy has to do a lot of both laughing at and with the things it is examining.  A show that did nothing but laugh “with” geek culture would actually not be all that good.

Even moreso I wonder if the defensiveness of insisting geek culture shouldn’t be mocked or poked fun of (the "BBT laughs ‘at’ geek culture and that’s wrong!”) comes from the fact a lot of geek culture has routinely been mocked and made fun of since we were kids.  Maybe it’s hard to believe that in the end Big Bang Theory isn’t some sneaky plot by the jocks to make us all feel bad.  We’re all geek versions of Carrie at the prom, just waiting for the pig’s blood.

Here’s the reason I don’t think the show is exploitive:  The people I know who watch it (who aren’t what I would call geeks) tune in to see if Leonard will get back with Penny, or what is going to happen to Walowitz in space. They don’t tune in to “see what those stupid nerds are up to this week.”

They watch it for the characters, because they like them.

Over the course of the six seasons the characters have meshed and grown, pulled together and pulled away. Like most long lived sitcoms, the setting could really be anywhere.  The nerd culture aspect gives me something to enjoy on top of the melodrama. Granted the arcs are shallow. We’re not talking deep level social commentary here.  It’s a sitcom.  But I really struggle to find the harmful exploitation. You want to see exploitation of a genre, watch some episodes of Archer. They spin exploitation into comedy gold over there.

If you don’t think the show is funny that’s one thing.  Certainly the humor variant over the six seasons goes up and down like any other comedy. If you think it’s sending the wrong message in character development about gender or orientation roles that’s fair criticism. Penny bothered me for a long time until I really got it that she’s a caricature of counterbalance to the caricature of nerds. The hamhanded “in the closet” references between Rajesh and Wolowitz are so telegraphed sometimes they can’t be forgiven as commentary. And don’t get me started on the laugh track.

But offense over perceived exploitation just strikes me as a bridge too far. People point to shows that “do it better” like Community.  I argue I don’t think a show like Community would have been greenlit if Big Bang Theory hadn’t had three seasons of success before Community aired. Keep in mind how prime time works.  If broadcaster A has a hit formula it’s not long before B and C come out with their own flavor. Furthermore Community does its own share of laughing “at” things, it’s a formula all shows have to use at some point.

In the end I suppose I’m not going to sway any opinions here. And again I’m certainly not saying anyone should like something they don’t like.  If it’s not funny to you it’s not funny to you. I remain puzzled by the reaction that a highly rated popular prime time comedy lasting six seasons that centers around geek culture should be dismissed or is offensive because it is exploitive at its core.

Isn’t this the cultural victory we kind of dreamed of when the rest of the world dismissed us? Millions of people nerds and not laughing about Lord of the Rings and science jokes!

Tell me what you think in the comments.

35 comments

  1. Mana says:

    “Society didn’t spend centuries lynching, enslaving and demeaning nerds
    so to use the ‘blackface’ term is a disservice to how hurtful and
    horrible blackface is from a racial perspective.”

    My only real issue with this is that people have gone through tough times as a nerd. Sure, not as widespread or dehumanizing as legalized slavery, but people that are “nerds” have been beaten, lynched, forced to do some things they don’t want to do and have been demeaned by others. It’s bullying.

    I think the term blackface is just lazy in its description as well, but you can’t say that people haven’t been persecuted because of their peculiar hobbies. Again not in the grand scale of slavery, but it’s just a point that skipped over a lot of gray areas.

    Otherwise good post. I like the show, but I can recognize sloppy writing and characterization at times. I’ll argue against it deserving an emmy, but I think people are picking up their pitchforks to soon for something that is supposed to be mindless fun. It’s a production about nerd culture. Sometimes they get it right, sometimes they get it wrong. As long as people still enjoy it, who cares.

  2. Dex says:

    Thanks for your post! I often wonder why it is when people don’t enjoy something, they don’t put more energy into finding something they *do* like instead of beating to death what they’re not even interested in.

  3. Consider my opinion, albeit never quite concretely fully-formed in any direction, swayed. My position has always been that of a self-labeled ‘geek’ who has never watched an episode of the show, only having read criticisms of it. I think I needed to read this for honest balance.

  4. motleylil49 says:

    Community getting greenlit had nothing to do with Big Bang, not in the way you associate it, anyway. Community is not “NBC’s flavor” of Big Bang’s formula. It’s not a show about geeks, it’s a geek show. There’s a difference. A lot of the article is good but the Community comparison is dead wrong

    • Stepto says:

      I brought it up because people brought it up to me as the show that “does it right”. I agree with you, it “does it different”

      And I really just meant that in the pitch meeting for community, it would not have gotten greenlit if there wasn’t already a proven market for the humor. I still wonder how in the hell BBT got greenlit. The pitch is awful if you think about it. :>

      • Paul C says:

        I think Channel 4’s The IT Crowd is the best example of a nerd show that “does it right”.

        (Disclaimer: I don’t find BBT funny, but I think it’s because I don’t like and can’t identify with any of the characters. They’re TOO nerdy.)

  5. My wife made me watch the show. I had my reservations. The worst part for me is I lived with all those characters, I was one of them and yes, I find nothing wrong with how I look on the small screen.

    No matter what any one brings to the small screen, someone else will find fault with it, they will be offend. That’s life. They are entitled to their opinion. They can claim that they have been violated, but the truth, with the shows little distortions is still better than watching 95% of else is on television.

    I have always enjoyed the show for entertainment, not a reality based show.

    C.

  6. Charity says:

    Thanks for this. I was starting to feel like I was missing something. I was feeling a little guilty for liking it so much.

    The thing is, I empathize with Leonard, because I have been that slightly awkward trying-too-hard person when it comes to relationships. And I empathize with Penny because I’ve been that girl who sabotages a good thing because she thinks she thinks she’s not up to it.

    I enjoy the show because I enjoy seeing people like me work through things I’ve already been through. I enjoy the show because it makes me laugh and sometimes manages to surprise me. And I enjoy the show because all too often, real life is too serious and I need to laugh — at myself or at/with people like me.

    And it makes me feel smart when I get the math and science jokes!

  7. kevinmorice says:

    The reason for the change in response to the show, is the changes in the show. Within the last couple of series the writers have become increasingly condescending to the geek nature of their characters. They have tried to twist it into a couples comedy by adding the girls (notable that they are shown as equally smart but without the same character flaws). Also at points over the last two series the writers have become almost abusive towards some of the characters and to Sheldon in particular. (French maid outfit and cleaning pee alone had me on IMDB cutting 2 points off their score?).

  8. Lillith says:

    My almost 8 year old son and I watch The Big Bang Theory regularly. He loves it, I love it. There are times that I have to look something up so I understand the references and jokes, but I like that it helps me learn things I might not have otherwise known. My son loves it for the humor (he’s a big Sheldon fan) and the superheroes; and someday will understand the more intellectual jokes. As a geek girl with PLENTY of geek/nerd friends, I LOVED the idea for a sitcom that The Big Bang Theory supplies. The plot, the characters, the jokes, ALL of it.. this is what makes the show accessible to more than just geeks/nerds.

    “Isn’t this the cultural victory we kind of dreamed of when the rest of
    the world dismissed us? Millions of people nerds and not laughing about
    Lord of the Rings and science jokes!”

    Yes, a million times, YES! That is exactly what we wanted! :D

  9. Jason Packer says:

    Speaking as a geek who has tried to watch the show, and doesn’t really enjoy it, I will say that the idea that it exploits geek culture never crossed my mind. If a culture gains enough of a following, it will be represented in arts and entertainment, that’s a simple truth.

    No, for me, there are two issues with the show.

    The first is that it is a situation comedy. And I’m sorry, but no matter how snappy your patter, no matter how funny you can be as a writer, situation comedy is going to turn that into a non-starter for me – sitcoms are the lowest form of human entertainment. It’s not the comedy, it’s the situations. Get past the need to put people into uncomfortable situations to try to milk a story out of it, and you might be able to win me back. An example I cite often: I find the show Frasier to be a horrible train-wreck of unwatchable dreck. But if you had a show that was 22 minutes of Frasier and Niles bantering at the coffee shop? That I’d watch. Ditto Luke and Lorelai from Gilmore Girls. And, reaching back a ways further, Paul and Ira from Mad About You. The characters and their banter reach me. The plots push me away.

    Second, because you have to work with the culture you’re depicting, you have to pick certain stereotypes – they exist because people fit into them in some way or other. Maybe you exaggerate them for comic effect, but regardless, they’re there. And so you have a show populated with people who are very similar to those that I interact with every day of my life in the IT world, the developer community, and the tabletop gaming community. People, unfortunately, that I would rather smack across the head with a four by four post than spend time with on a voluntary basis. There’s no way I want to spend any time watching a show about people that I despise in real life, no matter how cannily they’re written.

    So, I’m a geek, but I’m not your audience. And yet, after all that, I’m still not upset that the show exists. I get frustrated when everyone assures me that “you will love it” every time it comes up in conversation, and that people insist upon quoting it and expecting me to know it because I can write code and play RPGs. But even that doesn’t make me think that you’re exploiting my people – it’s not a geek minstrel show. It’s just television. And television sucks.

    • Stepto says:

      I totally hear you on the last bit, and I tried really hard to make the piece avoid that “you should like BBT!” tone. I get why people don’t like it and I’m cool with that.

    • Matthew Robb says:

      Wait, there were situations in Gilmore Girls? I thought it was all about the banter.

      I hear you about the sitcoms. Somehow I’ve come to terms with the idiotic nonsense that is the basis for the situations and can look beyond them…most of the time.

  10. It’s a comedy show and it survived 6 seasons even though it’s about smart and awkward young adults. I think we are luck to have it. I say to the offended folks: take your pick: “get over it” or “be offended”.

  11. here is the basics of it, the show is just a show nothing more, to get so bent out of shape because of nerd jokes is just as bad as going overboard over a debate over Picard vs. Kirk, and this kind of justifies the whole nerd jokes they put in the show. so all you are doing is making yourselves look bad by making such a fuss about it, how about just going on with something you like and ignore what you don’t like the way most reasonable nerds/geeks do, or basically most reasonable people do. How’s that for a concept?

  12. Matthew Robb says:

    If you can’t handle a sitcom poking fun at a subculture you identify with, you’re likely taking yourself way too seriously. I’m a geek, I watch the show now and again, and I find it quite amusing. You basically had it right with the use of the word “caricature”, these people aren’t real, they’re meta-people assembled from anecdotes from the land of geekdom.

    Then again, I sat and giggled through the World of Warcraft South Park episode…while playing World of Warcraft. Sure, the little know-it-all in the back of my mind tallied up the “mistakes” they made, but accuracy wasn’t the point. “Inspired by” entertainment is the point.

  13. brandi says:

    I’ve seen it. Several times. I don’t like it. But how many sitcoms do I like?

    My Mom loves it. She doesn’t understand half the show, but she thinks it’s hysterical. Any time I talk about something she doesn’t understand she asks why I don’t like Big Bang Theory. Seriously, just anytime I refer to something she doesn’t understand. The people in my life, who don’t get the references, think it is about me. And it isn’t. These aren’t the nerds I know.

    That’s what bugs me about the show. That’s why I have a much stronger opinion on it than any other sitcom, which I would just ignore. That’s like saying, “You love politics, so I got you this Romney button to wear. Happy Birthday!”

  14. RavenKilna says:

    I love this Blog post. When I first watched the show, I thought, WOW a show about nerds and geeks that is actually funny at last, hey did they just mention string theory?! It in no way that I have seen, makes fun of these people in any mean spirited way. Comedy points out our graces and our flaws and highlights them and this show is no exception. I am a woman and a nerd/geek and I was picked on growing up in school for being different. In fact I am so proud to be a nerd, now I am 42 I got a tattoo that says, NERD, I even owned a Comic book store once in England. I had an epiphany recently and it was that a couple of people I have come across who criticized the show to me in person, for it being mean or not getting who nerds are, seemed to be extremely close in character to the one or two of the actual characters on the show or maybe they have just never been to Comic Con, maybe it touched a nerve with them and they have no clue, and one of them had never even seen an episode. I recently had a long chat with a physicist who loved the show and claimed that Sheldon was not unlike another physicist he once knew. Much like a point in your post some friends who I would not describe as nerds or geeks even love the show, not because it makes fun of people but because they love the characters, they cheer them on, they have come to embrace the characters, they have even learned how to play, Rock Paper Scissors Lizard Spock, and one of them even asked me what was a good comic book to read. Being a nerd is not about being exclusive, it’s about being inclusive, it’s about being proud of who you are not hiding it, whatever your level of nerdom maybe, and I think The Big Bang Theory makes that available to a wider audience.

  15. I watched about a season’s worth, and to be honest, I never found them to be characters as much as characterizations. In an entire season, there was nothing about any of them besides Leonard that made me think they were anything but “nerd #1” etc. Leonard has some depth, the rest? Meh. Three episodes in, I could recite Sheldon’s dialog as well as he did, same thing with Raj. Leonard, him I paid attention to.

    I tried watching episodes from later seasons. Nope, no change. sheldon is still sheldon, etc.

    And it’s not that the show laughs AT nerds. I love “The IT Crowd” and it very ruthlessly laughs at IT people, and rather accurately. (and I *AM* an IT person.) It’s british, so it’s probably more mean than anything you’ll see in BBT. But, there’s something else there besides the stereotype. Roy, Moss, Jen, even by the end of the first season, the door opens up a bit, and you see them as people, as characters, not as caricatures.

    When I catch myself saying “have you tried turning it off and on again” as Roy? Yeah. Good characters.

    That’s what I find so offensive, if that’s the right word. not that BBT makes fun of nerds. But that they were so utterly lazy with the characters that they couldn’t even be bothered to try to make them people.

  16. This whole argument reminds me of previous scuffles between geek communities and cosplayers, or women like Felicia Day, who just happen to be both attractive and active in the geek community. There is some hair-splitting going on about who is a real geek, and who has the right to represent us. Will Wheaton made a lot of good arguments about what it takes to be a real geek (not much) and how hurtful and ridiculous it is for geeks not to accept people who are differently geeky than themselves (very). Miyam Bialik is a real-deal scientist. How’s that for legitimate? BBT is not blackface. It’s a very funny show that appeals to many because it has the ring of authenticity. The main characters are not suffering; they are performing in the jobs they always wanted (NASA!!!), and making smart jokes about their interesting lives. They’re not tap dancing or mugging for the amusement of their masters; they are living the lives many geeks wish they had. Bottom line: we are no longer the mocked minority, folks. Geek has gone mainstream. Let’s be the tolerant, friendly people we always wanted to meet.

  17. I don’t know what you mean by laugh track. Bill Prady has stated numerous times on Twitter that the show doesn’t use a laugh track, but records a live studio audience.

    Anyway, I agree that Leonard and maybe also Penny are designed to be the characters that people identify with, the character that is supposed to bring you into the story. The fact that the other characters (especially Sheldon) are so extreme is what causes them to be called caricatures. I don’t know anyone like Raj, Howard, or Sheldon. But at the same time, I see aspects of them (mostly Leonard, Raj, and Sheldon, not so much Howard) in myself. So at least for me, that brings me into the story, and I can appreciate it.

    • You’re correct. It’s filmed in front of a live studio audience and those are their laughs we hear.

      Comedy, and sitcoms in particular, often utilize caricatures for comedic effect, so I’m not surprised. That said, the characters do still get very human moments to balance it all out. (Just don’t tell Sheldon that!)

    • But don’t forget that the laughs we here are not neccessarily the laughs that were heard in the studio for that exact scene. Things get re-shot. We do hear the real studio laughs but since they don’t laugh the same amount for every take, usually the laughs from the take the producers like the best is used. Ken Levine talked about that a couple of times on his blog because so many shows he’s worked on were criticized for the laugh track.

  18. I’m a geek and I love the show. I don’t expect the show to cater to my specific whims, but I don’t expect that of Dr. Who, or Community, or any other show I love. I get jazzed when I see them excited about the same things I am, but I’ll admit I don’t know anybody who goes to a comic book shop (why don’t they use Comixology?) and i also don’t know anyone who got a PhD in Physics when they were a teenager. I also, should point out, that I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s and was never bullied or made to feel like less of a person because of my hobbies and interests. That said, I think the laugh track is god awful. A small part of me hates Kris Straub for pointing out the laugh track in a Chainsawsuit comic, because ever since then that’s all I hear. I do feel like there are parts where Penny is supposed to be the audience surrogate for the viewers who have no idea about some of the topics that the guys discuss, but I also feel like the addition of Bernadette and Amy has helped balance the show tremendously. That said, if you don’t like it, don’t watch it. God knows there are plenty of shows out there that I hate yet don’t spend effort ranting about.

  19. Dmitri says:

    Thank you for writing this. Until recently I wasn’t aware of the criticism the show receives and I was a bit surprised by the negative things some people had to say about it. Being a geek I think proper ‘geekhood’ also comes with a healthy dose of self-mocking and knowing you’re bit of an odd duck, in a good way. I recognise myself in dozens of the traits and quirks of Sheldon and Leonard and I know that millions of BBT watchers do too, and that they consider those two to be the heroes/good guys instead of the victim of all the jokes. I really don’t care if the writers/producers intend otherwise (which I doubt they do), like you said; enjoyment of a TV show is a personal thing and one should like it for the things that appeal to him or her and not what’s ‘supposed to be’ or what others think.

  20. Amy says:

    I enjoy BBT, though admittedly, the biggest draw for me is Jim Parsons (and now Mayim Bialik). I like to day-dream about where this show could go if it were allowed some real emotional depth; I think some of the characters (Sheldon in particular) could make for some really fascinating viewing if we could peel back the layers a bit. Alas, that’s not going to happen, and that’s okay. It’s a sitcom, and not a bad one at that. It will never take full advantage of the characters or the culture, instead just skimming along the surface for laughs; that’s what sitcoms do. I think that’s what frustrates people, or maybe it’s just what frustrates me, the unrealized potential. Yes, they’ve made a show about nerds, but they haven’t done much to dig into the actual experience of being a nerd, which could be thought-provoking without losing the humor, I think.
    I’m rambling. Point: it’s a decent show that could be more, but to blame it for its shortcomings is to lay unrealistic expectations on a well-established routine. Why is anyone expecting more?

  21. Kevin Hanson says:

    I know some of those involved in the show (behind and in front of the camera) and have been to multiple tapings. Every laugh you hear while viewing was rocorded from a live audience as that viewed joke was presented. Each ‘take’ during shooting has it’s own live studio audience reaction recorded – there is no tampering with or moving of laughter from one take to the next. What you hear is what happened.

    • Stepto says:

      I’ve heard this now from several people. But despite that fact, once it airs the laughter seems clipped and audio adjusted to the timing of the jokes, resulting in an audio impression that it’s a laugh track. Dunno who you can blame for that, people who made laugh tracks so well, or the fact in order to not have the laughs step on joke timing it sounds indistinguishable from a laugh track.

      But the show sounds indistinguishable from laugh track to me.

  22. pat collis says:

    To qualify as a geek a certain level of intelegence is required. Geek mockers are threatened by this hence the mocking.However geekiness is gradually becoming sexy(ish) and BBT is helping. Sheldon and Howard are hilarious I LOVE THE SHOW

  23. I kinda feel like this is an argument in the vein of “That’s not harmful, you’re overreacting, just laugh with the rest of us,” when in reality, your response does nothing to counter the complaints of misogyny (If Penny is so acceptable as a ‘caricature of counterbalance’ and audience insert, what is her last name?) and homophobia, the ableism against people with antisocial disorders, and the structure of the laugh track to lampoon the very subculture they are portraying.

  24. Susan Swank says:

    I checked the reference links to be well informed but honestly, the claim that the show is making fun of the geeks instead of embracing them is a conundrum in itself. Do they want a unrealistic show where geekery is celebrated and embraced by the masses or a realistic if sometimes exaggerated portrayal of geek culture in a humorous format? The truth is in the real world when you let your geek flag fly, odds are you’re gonna get mocked.

    It’s okay to like The Avengers movie or any of the superhero movies but if you start tossing out your comic book lore, you’re gonna get geek-blocked by the muggles. It’s fun and totally normal to dress up for Halloween but no matter how awesome your homemade costume is, if your cosplaying anywhere but at a con or event, your gonna get the looks and snickers treatment.

    But that’s okay– obviously not bullying and physical violence– because I tease my husband and his jock friends when they wax poetic over out their sport stats and agonize over their fantasy football drafts. (Instead of role playing mages, wizards and elves, they’re pretending that their rich sports team moguls.) He in turn teases me when I fan-rage over my favorite books being savaged for movies or movies that totally alter my beloved comic book heroes (I’m looking at you X-MEN First Class) or ignore them entirely in favor of more mainstream characters (Again, X-Men–give me my Gambit and Archangel!!)

    So yeah, all in good fun ribbing and even the not so nice snarking (I remember a comment someone posted about watching an awesome Beyonce concert only for some sport-thing to break out and totally ruin it) is a give and take thing.

    The only time I really felt like BBT was mocking the characters is The Bakersfield Expedition (S06E13). Like I said, I can see a nerd herd getting their Trek on getting grief in some middle of nowhere diner but when the cop made the crack about ‘do you want me to call your moms’ the writers totally missed the boat. Yes, I believe that could totally happen but instead of Howard coming back right then saying yeah my mom did this, why not have Leonard say ‘I called my girlfriend’, only to be met with a sarcastic ‘sure’ from Deputy Douche. Then later the girls appear, having chosen to pick their fellows up instead of arrange car rental because they wanted to get the guys to weigh in on their great comic book debate. The scene ends with the guys chiming in and as they head for the door, Leonard looks over his shoulder to give a little smirk to the Deputy.

    That scenario is much more geek friendly as it shows that being a geek doesn’t mean your some forever alone loser who still lives with your parents.

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