As the show wraps up its 10th season, I think it’s important to look at how it evolved and all the hate/love it got throughout the time it’s been on the air. To be honest, I’m not the biggest fan of the show and I’ll go into greater detail about why later. But, I do think something should be said at how audiences responded to the show. People either loved or hated it and I’m still somewhere in-between. I used to really dislike it, but now I can see both sides looking back at the entire series. The fact that The Big Bang Theory did get so many responses and emotional ones at that, does say how thought provoking of a show it was. Full House, for example was a show that stayed on the air for a long time, had mostly good reviews and a faithful audience, but that doesn’t make it a “good” show. A good show in my opinion, is one that creates dialogues and an impact on peoples’ lives, whether they want it to or not, and I can say that The Big Bang Theory does that really well, but not always for the right reasons.
At first, like I said, I really liked The Big Bang Theory I watched it readily until the first half of the 7th season. That’s when I kind of just grew out of it. I couldn’t bother to follow it anymore, but that doesn’t mean other people abandoned the show, in fact it got three more seasons after that. I liked it because of the “smart” humor, but the more I looked into it and thought, where was the humor coming from (stereotypes, caricatures of religion and people from other countries, “women jokes”), I started to dislike it. Not only that, but the show turned into Friends, if Friends were nerds and had a single person of color in the main cast. Personally, I’m not into those sorts of sitcoms. But this article isn’t going to be me summarizing my opinions, but rather an article showcasing both sides of the binary toward The Big Bang Theory, and trying to make sense of it for myself.
The main criticism that The Big Bang Theory gets is that it’s actually anti-Nerd. We’re supposed to be laughing at the main group of men rather than with them. We’re supposed to be on Penny’s side, because like Penny the audience is an outsider. The opposite argument is that we, as the audience, are supposed to be siding with the ͚nerds because the audiences are presumably nerds. This goes on to the counter argument that the show isn’t “nerdy” enough, but a pop culture referencing machine, and makes jokes that any average audience member with the internet could get. However, I would argue that the main audience of The Big Bang Theory is average audience viewers with some knowledge of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Dr. Who, etc. So, does that mean average people are nerds and that the humor is actually nerdy? Or that the audience is just average people, trying to be nerdy because it’s cool now. There are science jokes, and pop culture jokes that rather than being nerdy, are just pop culture jokes that most audiences would get. And that’s the point, most audiences; otherwise the show wouldn’t be making its millions. Not only making themselves millions, but spurring on this whole generation of “cool nerds” or “Hollywood Nerds”; people who think they’re nerds because they watch The Big Bang Theory, but are just average viewers with access to the internet.
So this brings us to, who are we laughing at? To understand this we need to bring in the laugh track, see where it’s placed, and the foundations of most of the jokes. The laugh track is placed in the show even though it’s filmed in front of a live audience in order to induce the TV audience at home to laugh along with the live audience. I wouldn’t say that the laugh track plays exclusively with Penny͛s side or with the guys’ side. It’s pretty even. When Penny makes a “dumb blonde woman” joke or when she doesn’t understand nerdy stuff we’re not supposed to side with her, not only because she’s blonde, but because she’s a woman without a college degree. When Sheldon makes a sexist or racist joke because he’s socially inept and therefore has a get out of jail free card whenever he’s an asshole, we’re supposed to laugh with him at the expense of whatever marginalized group he’s mocking. Which seems kind of counterproductive because aren’t nerds a marginalized group? Why have them mock others who are in the same, or worse situation? There are scenes and episodes dedicated to the nerds’ former bullies, which is kind of a fantasy witnessing of what a nerdy audience member might feel towards their own bullies. But when it’s about ridiculing a group under the “nerd” group in the social hierarchy, then I think that’s a problem. Why would anybody want to bash a group that’s considered lesser, when they themselves should know what it feels like to be in that same position? So I think that though most characters get a laugh, we have to think about where the laugh is coming from and at whose expense. Sure, it’s easy to make jokes about racial and sexist stereotypes we as an audience don’t believe in, but bringing them up and giving attention and not having Sheldon learn from them is extremely problematic. MAYBE these jokes could work in a post sexist and post racist era, but we’re living in a world where discrimination exists, and Sheldon is just adding to it. I guess you could make an argument that the show is living in a “post” era where everyone is equal, but then why have these jokes anyway?
The next thing to look at is the characters and what they represent. Mainly all the characters in The Big Bang Theory are stereotypes and caricatures of people with stigmas attached to them. They play their stigma up at different degrees which creates this seemingly broad spectrum of nerdom, when in reality it just makes them all one dimensional figures save, Bernadette and Leonard as the in-between characters of the nerd spectrum. One of the reasons why I stopped watching the show wasn’t about the jokes, but about the characters, they’re all caricatures and the ones who aren’t are just bland and forgettable. Amy however has grown into a progressive character and this brings me to how the show doesn’t exist in a vacuum. There are real actors playing these stereotypes of characters. They have real thoughts and feelings, and whether they’re doing it for the money or not, they have a chance to voice an opinion after an episode, or during the creation of an episode. Mayim Biyalik (Amy) has said things about the show that she herself has put into her character to make her more of a feminist, rather than how she was portrayed when she was first introduced. But Sheldon still is as unbearable as ever and Raj, ugh, don’t get me started.
Writing this essay made me realize that the show is mostly anti-nerd. Not because of the characters or the jokes or the fact that the audience is made up of average people who think they’re nerds, but that it’ s because it’s a show about marginalization that contains marginalization. It’s a show that says “smart is the new sexy,” but Stuart and Kripke, both with degrees are not smart or sexy, but rather a loser and a villain, respectively. Though there is marginalization in the nerd vs. loser universe (i.e. every nerd is a loser, but not all losers are nerds) why make the slogan of the show “smart is the new sexy,” when it clearly isn’t. This isn’t high school anymore, this is adulthood, and though I do enjoy the occasional bully reference, nerds and losers should ban together, not put each other down. They’re adults not children, not even teenagers, why is it still okay to make fun of a guy with a lisp? Or a guy who works at a comic book store? Why is it funny to make fun of men who may not have sex like “real men”? I know they can do better than this. I personally cried when I watched the letter from Howard’s dad episode. Why not put that emotional stuff in for Raj’s character or Penny’s character, rather than have them just get the cheap laughs? Why not say, hey there are losers and there are nerds and y’know what, they can be friends? Set a positive example for audiences rather than staging a seemingly positive show, with actual negative undertones.
21 year old English major and ESL Teacher. Currently living in Fortaleza, Brazil. Feminist and kill joy with a cause.