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A Supposedly Funny Show I’ll Never Watch Again

By Francis Song

Search the web today for “The Big Bang Theory,” and you’ll find that the first two pages of results1 are dedicated not to cosmologists’ longstanding theory of the origin and evolution of the universe, but to the eponymous CBS comedy about a group of scientists at Caltech. TBBT—a television show whose dialogue features a higher density of physics-speak than The Theory of Everything, a movie about Stephen Hawking—is one of the most popular shows on television. It’s easily the top comedy, ratings-wise, of the last several years: At the height of its supremacy in 2014, TBBT dominated its closest rival and erstwhile critical darling Modern Family by ten million viewers per episode. Only the amaranthine NCIS regularly commands better ratings than TBBT among scripted shows, and TBBT has even been known to trump American television’s flagship product, NBC’s Sunday Night Football, on the occasional week when the National Football League is forced, in the name of fairness to suffering fans, to feature two fundamentally uncompetitive franchises.

Some find this puzzling, but as a scientist and lifelong television aficionado, your correspondent is instead troubled by the show’s success. Before diagnosing the root of this anxiety, though, I submit to you the basic facts of the show. TBBT is, except in one important aspect to be described below, your standard network-grade sitcom. At the show’s core are theoretical physicist Sheldon Cooper (IQ: 187, height: tall), his roommate and experimental particle physicist Leonard Hofstadter (IQ: 173, height: short), and their actress and megababe-across-the-hall Penny2 (IQ: unknown, though it’s critical to the show’s premise that it be significantly lower than Leonard’s; height: approachable). Sheldon and Leonard spend most of their considerable non-working hours with aerospace engineer Howard Wolowitz (IQ: engineer, height: short) and astrophysicist Raj Koothrappali (IQ: foreign, height: short). Additional characters have been introduced over the years to orbit and merge with the original band of friends, but they are not essential to the argument that follows.

Unlike other ensemble shows of its type, TBBT’s relatively substantial 5.8 jokes per minute3 are distributed unevenly among its characters, dominated as the show is by its breakout character Sheldon. Even at the peak of the requisite, chemically inert will-they-or-won’t-they romantic tension between Leonard & Penny—underlined crassly but effectively by the titular double entendre—Sheldon was the driving force of the show. Said tension has been largely resolved and replaced with Sheldon and neurobiologist Amy Fowler’s slogging nerd-mance, so that Sheldon is now the undisputed center of the TBBT universe.4 All characters on TBBT except for Penny are nerds and geeks,5 but Sheldon is, by virtue of his nominally Genius-level intelligence, the alpha nerd of the group. This cuts both ways, though. Even in a group of socially challenged scientists, Sheldon stands out as every negative stereotype of the high-achieving physicist—childish, neurotic, tactless, captious, &c.—raised to the n-th power. So Penny teases Leonard, L. makes fun of Howard and Raj, H. and R. ridicule Sheldon, and viewers laugh at the whole operation. Thus a sort of inverse hierarchy is established in which social awkwardness is paired antipodally with intellectual wattage.

So then here’s the q. that’s all but unavoidable: Do viewers laugh with all the scientists or laugh at them? Because, notwithstanding the laugh-track, the jokes are not that funny. In fact, they are all but incomprehensible to the ordinary, possibly college-educated viewer. Consider: “What part of an inverse tangent function approaching an asymptote don’t you understand?” Or: “Why did the chicken cross the Möbius strip? To get to the same side.” And so on and so forth.

Let’s concede that there may be a small fraction of viewers who have doctorates in a technical field. We can also stipulate that not all jokes in the show fit this mold—many of them have as their subjects geek culture, to which it’s unclear whether it’s more or less accessible than high-level math—and, further, that it’s not so critical to a joke’s effectiveness qua joke that it be reducible to its parts. In which case, ADDITIONAL EVIDENCE FOR THESIS: As you know if you’ve watched any amount of prime time cable television in, say, the last 20 years, the attraction of shows that feature a group of twenty/thirty-somethings who share a particular occupation are fantasy-escapist in nature. This is especially true in CW and USA-type dramas, but also across the broad spectrum of shows, including comedies. And for such shows viewers see the well-proportioned actors and actresses and want, in a subconscious sort of way, to be a {doctor, lawyer, firefighter, police officer}. That, or the occupations of characters are entirely beside the point. In the case of TBBT, though, viewers have no such desire. To put it in crude terms, if you’re a dude on the show you aren’t gettin’ any.6 If you’re a woman, Penny isn’t intelligent enough to be a practical role model and the others are settling for the boy-men on the show, and who wants that?

In a world where most Americans don’t come into daily contact with actual, flesh-and-blood scientists, does this have the potential to exacerbate the already miserable lives of budding nerdlets and geeklets for whom your correspondent feels a deep tribal sympathy? It’s also here that we have to consider the larger cultural-historical context of the show, which both contributes to its success and renders the question more urgent. It’s been said more than once that we live in an age ruled by technology. The most successful entrepreneurs of our time, viz., Bill Gates, Larry Page, and Mark Zuckerberg, are all programmer types, a.k.a. nerds.7 Because of the ubiquity of technology, moreover, there’s a sense that the companies they lead are taking over people’s lives. They are our “overlords,” and give some folks the genuine, A-grade Howling Fantods. Psychoanalytically speaking, does a show like TBBT, which the Zeitgeist makes more relevant, do so for the very reason that they serve as an outlet for anxious viewers to say, “There go the nerds. For all their intellectual powers they are such losers—let’s be happy with our lives?”8

Does this bother you? It bothers me, and I’ll admit that my decision to cease watching TBBT is made rather easy by the enormous amount of quality programming available elsewhere that doesn’t hit so close to home. In any case, I doubt CBS will mind so much; TBBT marches on, and I suppose the eventual joke’s on me. Bazinga.


1 Be apprised that it’s necessary to de-customize, or “hide private results,” to replicate this experiment.
2 Factoid: Her last name, strangely, has never been revealed.
3 The modern exemplar of this genre, Friends, had 6.06 jokes per minute, q.v.
4 This is an empirical question, of course, one that your diligent correspondent can answer w/ some confidence. The details: As is well known in psychological research, the most representative and readily available, incentives-wise, samples of humanity comprise undergrads at elite research universities. A survey of Y— undergrads about the primary appeal of watching TBBT was carried out, the result of which largely supports the stated hypothesis. For our statistics-savvy readers, one has to compensate for the small sample size by using the t-score rather than z-score, which latter, as a rule of thumb, is only valid for 30 or more respondents.
5 It’s been said that people with strong opinions w/r/t the distinction between “geeks” and “nerds” lie at the intersection of the two groups.
6 In the early days of the show, at least. Scientists, too, find love and marriage, eventually.
7 Note, for most people there is no practical difference, socially speaking, between a programmer and a physicist.
8 Further note that there is no discernibly self-conscious irony in the way TBBT treats its subjects: it’s simply not that kind of show. TBBT was created by Chuck Lorre, the same Lorre responsible for Two and a Half Men, whose lowest-common-denominator vulgarity is eclipsed only by 2 Broke Girls. TBBT is not a postmodernist commentary on, well, anything. Incidentally, all three shows are on CBS.

[Inspired by David Foster Wallace]

Francis Song was a postdoc in computational neuroscience at NYU’s Center for Neural Science from 2013 to 2017. He is currently a research scientist at DeepMind in London.