After some consideration, I have determined exactly what it is about The Big Bang Theory that makes me uncomfortable: It’s not funny.
Or more accurately: I don’t think it’s funny, while millions of other people — including many in my peer group! — absolutely love it.
And I think that’s ultimately the entire problem. There’s a blog post called “The Problem With The Big Bang Theory” that was passed around back in September of last year, and now for whatever reason has been getting a lot of circulation again in the past few days. In it, the author explains how the show doesn’t celebrate nerds, but simply continues to mock them. The character of Penny, the normal one, is the only character the audience is supposed to identify with; the others are supposed to be seen as weird and alien. Plus it’s a little racist, a good bit misogynist, homophobic, and it makes fun of people with genuine mental disabilities.
The only part of that post that I agree with is the one complaint that the author quickly dismisses: the show relies on lazy humor. It has references for their own sake, not as part of a well-constructed joke, or even to evoke a feeling of nostalgia and inclusion over a shared memory. The references just come across as pandering.
I wouldn’t be able to go into detail, since I’ve only seen a handful of scenes from the series and never a full episode; my opinion of the show sounds about the same as Angus T. Jones’s opinion of Two and a Half Men. But in one of those scenes, as the characters were fighting to be heard over the laughter, there was a whiteboard in the foreground covered with an Objective C class diagram. For those of us who roll our eyes whenever we’re subjected to ridiculous abuses of technology in CSI and the like, an accurate inclusion of something real computer programmers would actually use would seem to be entertainment nirvana. But in the show, it just sat there, inert. It might as well have had an arrow pointing to it, with the caption YOU RECOGNIZE THIS.
Turning It Off And Back On Again
You could contrast it with The IT Crowd, a series which inverted the power dynamic of The Big Bang Theory by making its nerds and geeks identifiable, and making its “normal” character the subject of mockery. You could say that, but you don’t have to, ’cause you got pronouns, you can say: The IT Crowd understood how to include familiar references without drawing attention to them. It made its references both more subtle and more absurd. The nerd-pandering EFF stickers and action figures and T-shirts (for which Graham Linehan requested recommendations on Twitter) are kept to the background and almost never explicitly acknowledged. The only episodes that were explicitly about technology were deliberately ridiculous, centering around Friendface or convincing someone that the Internet was a black box with a light on it.
While I think it’s true, more or less, that The IT Crowd flipped the predictable premise by making the nerds the heroes and making fun of the normals, I don’t think that says anything of merit. For one, because The IT Crowd wasn’t about IT any more than Father Ted was about Catholicism. And more importantly, because The IT Crowd didn’t choose sides. It made fun of all of its characters. It spent as much time making fun of Moss for being dysfunctional and weird, and Roy for being insecure, horny, and a little homophobic; as it made fun of Jen for being dense and shallow.
That blog post tries to compare Big Bang Theory to Community, and concludes that the latter is better, partly because the audience is meant to identify with Abed. I say that’s absurd; almost half the episodes showed how Abed is deeply dysfunctional. Community was meta-television — often self-consciously so — that made fun of the idea of protagonists vs. villains, identifying with any character over the others, and the entire premise of a situation comedy.
In fact, both Community and Big Bang Theory started with the same structure; Community presented itself as a fish-out-of-water premise with Jeff Winger as the normal guy surrounded by a bunch of crazies. It then dismantled that premise by making it clear that he was every bit as messed up as the other characters, but they all grew to depend on each other. That doesn’t sound so different from the first season or two of Big Bang Theory. The biggest difference is that Big Bang Theory focused on the old “Will They Or Won’t They?” storyline, while Community referenced it, mocked it, rejected it, and then repeatedly used it.
All of that leads me to two conclusions:
- The whole “geek chic” thing is gradually turning into something malignant; and
- Don’t attribute to complex social dynamics and inequalities of power what can be more easily explained by inequalities of talent.
For the first part: I’ve seen The Big Bang Theory described several times as “nerd blackface,” which makes this all heartbreaking because I absolutely love that term. But the problem with it is that it results in weirdly defensive over-reactions, and it relies on simplistic assumptions that act as if Revenge of the Nerds were a documentary.
For instance, that blog post, in which the author feels obliged to establish her [I'm assuming, based on the rest of the blog] geek cred. It’s always a little sad to see someone feeling it necessary to establish themselves as a geek when their blog is full of animated GIFs from Buffy the Vampire Slayer; you’ve already made it quite clear you’re a nerd, and to be clear that is awesome. It’s like a few weeks ago, when the ridiculous “fake nerd girl” kerfluffle arose, and a lot of women responded by establishing themselves as legit nerds. Instead of doing the more sensible thing and simply pointing out that the entire notion of a “fake nerd” of any type is asinine and immediately dismissible.
Another example: this honest, heartfelt, and probably well-intentioned post (in Gawker-friendly list format!) by Annalee Newitz called “Six Good Habits I Learned From Being Bullied as a Geeky Kid.” Sincere kudos to Newitz for putting herself and her experiences out there, and it’s always welcome to see a reminder not to let yourself be driven by what other people think of you. But the whole thing seems to be predicated on the old ideas that nerds are somehow more discerning than the mainstream; and that the best revenge is being successful while seeing the people who bullied you fall to obscurity and realize that their best days are behind them.
The first idea is belied by The Big Bang Theory. It’s a Chuck Lorre television series, which almost by definition means it’s mainstream. And a ton of nerds love it, to the point of buying the merchandise, identifying with the characters, and naming scientific discoveries after catch phrases from the show. Plus it’s a mainstream television series that must have a sizable percentage of nerds on staff, otherwise they wouldn’t be able to have whiteboards full of Cocoa Touch class names. (Or for that matter, have frequent guest appearances by celebrity nerd hero Wil Wheaton).
That Tumblr post specifically calls out Wheaton, Sara Gilbert, and Jim Parsons for being more or less Uncle Toms because of their participation in the show; I say that’s absurd. Their participation should be a clear sign that the whole notion of Jocks vs. Nerds is simplistic and exclusionary. “Nerd” isn’t some homogenous group — even if you try to subdivide it into geeks, dweebs, and geeky dweebs — everybody’s into weird stuff and has had their own experiences of feeling rejected or feeling like an outsider, to some degree. If that were in doubt, I’d think the revelations that Rosario Dawson knows Klingon and Vin Diesel plays D&D would’ve laid waste to that tired old notion. But still, I frequently see people trying to martyr themselves and put forth the idea that nerds are somehow The Chosen Ones, suffering nobly until their time in the spotlight. In fact, what they’re doing is anything but inclusive; it’s building an internet treehouse and attaching the sign “No Pretty People Allowed” out front.
The most blatant example of that is The Guild music video “I’m the One That’s Cool”, which I find disturbing in at least a dozen ways. How is it that a bunch of actors wearing unflattering hair styles and accentuating their overbites is not as much a case of “Nerd Blackface” as anything on The Big Bang Theory? Is it because actress and producer Felicia Day has firmly established her geek cred, while a Jewish television writer — who ends every episode of every series with a wall-of-text vanity card only legible to those who record the show and pause it — is one of those beautiful people jocks? (And while I’m at it, one of Lorre’s high-profile privileged early jobs was writing for Roseanne, just like another television series creator who never earned his geek credentials).
Even more important than the question of “who’s this coming from?” is whether it’s a good message to be sending at all. It ignores the fact that some of the biggest bullies I’ve ever encountered were nerds who themselves got bullied when younger and were trying to over-compensate for it in adulthood. Or that if you’re an adult and still complaining about the jerk who pantsed you in high school, that means you haven’t really gotten over it and moved on.
“Nerd” or “Geek” isn’t a protected class, and it shouldn’t be one. Some of the most awful people I’ve run into have been at nerd conventions, and some of the friendliest people I’ve encountered have been at board game conventions. The stuff nerds like isn’t necessarily any better or smarter than the mainstream; for the record, I don’t personally like The Guild at all, either, but I’m glad that it exists and that there are tons of people who can enjoy it. If the thing that unites a “community” of nerds is that they’re really, really invested in the stuff they enjoy, then shouldn’t that be the focus, instead of bitterness over the people who don’t appreciate it?
So essentially, I’m saying: Get off the 20-sided dice, we need the plastic.
How Not To Tell People How To Make A Rape Joke
And then there’s the attempt to attribute the problems of the show to some imbalance of power between Normals vs Nerds, or Gays vs Straights. That’s a lazy trend that I’ve been seeing more and more of lately, and it’s worse than just a Geek Pride debate because it actually intersects with genuinely serious issues.
A couple of months ago, there was an internet controversy when Daniel Tosh insulted a heckler with a stupid and insensitive comment about rape, and hundreds of people were tripping over themselves to be the most vocal to condemn it. There was a post called “How to Make a Rape Joke” on Jezebel — Internet go-to site for shallow social analysis — that correctly called out Tosh for being a moron, but then went off into straight-up BS territory by trying to establish what’s offensive vs. what’s acceptable, and trying to explain to readers how exactly to tell an offensive joke. The author insisted that it’s about context, that sexual assault is more statistically likely to be sensitive to more members of the audience than other horrific events, and that it is ultimately about making jokes from a position of power mocking those with less power. She concluded by trying to explain why when Tosh makes a rape joke it’s offensive, but when Louis CK makes a rape joke it’s funny: it’s because Louis CK has spent 20 years making it clear that he’s on the side of good, and that he’s against rape.
Which is bullshit. What makes one offensive and the other funny is that Tosh is an opportunistic hack, and Louis CK is actually an extremely talented comedian. Lindy West’s claim that there’s some kind of hierarchy of offensiveness, where sexual assault trumps cancer, AIDS, industrial accidents, and infant death, is just plain ghoulish. And her tortured attempts to explain it in terms of actuarial tables based on CDC data is 100 kinds of wrong-headed bullshit. The only difference between Tosh’s comments and Louis CK’s joke is that the author thinks one is stupid and the other is funny.
And she’s right, but for all the wrong reasons. Louis CK has built a career out of being an awkward misanthrope, and he’s made fun of women, men, rape, race, politically correct language, and repeatedly called his children little shits. A huge part of his stand-up material depends on shock value. Tosh’s depends on shock value, too. To imply, as that Jezebel article does, that Tosh actually believes what he’s saying, and he hasn’t earned the benefit of the doubt because he may actually be in support of sexual assault and complicit in “rape culture,” is ludicrous. Louis CK didn’t spend the last 20 years earning the right to not have audiences automatically assume he’s pro-rape. Unless you’re a writer for a blog that makes ad revenue off of links to controversy, you should automatically assume that no one is actually making light of rape, until they prove otherwise.
What Louis CK spent the last 20 years doing is learning how to construct a joke. Louis CK’s joke that West quotes depends on shock value just like Tosh’s comments; the difference is that one was cleverly constructed, while Tosh’s comments are the shallowest version of “wouldn’t this be shocking?” possible. Tosh’s whole schtick is firing a shotgun blast of every racist, misogynist, homophobic, or otherwise offensive thing he can think of — and from what I’ve seen, I’d guess it’s literally every single one he can think of — and grin through the whole thing because he’s being naughty and subversive. There’s little cleverness or originality to it, and he almost never takes it any farther than the initial shock value. (I’ll admit that I’ve laughed at some of Tosh’s material on the YouTube clip show, but always when he takes the joke to an absurd extreme, instead of just going for the obvious “old joke about Mexicans/blacks/gay people/asians/women”).
A lot of people have defended Tosh by pointing out that he makes fun of everything and everyone, which is something that West acknowledges and then dismisses. She tries to counter by explaining how there are things that are appropriate and inappropriate to make fun of, which is missing the point entirely. The defense, such as it is, isn’t that Tosh is making fun of the wrong things. The defense is that by making fun of everything, he’s in reality making fun of nothing. It’s simply crossing the line for its own sake. Contrast it with, say, Sarah Silverman, whose stand-up routine is a similar uninterrupted string of offensive, shocking things, but who’s a lot more clever about making it clear whom she’s mocking. To put it in Big Lebowski terms: Silverman is clearly opposed to conservatism, misogyny, racism, and anti-Semitism. Tosh believes in nothing.
What’s most heartbreaking is that the Louis CK joke that West quotes in her article isn’t really a “rape joke” at all, but instead makes fun of and dismisses her entire argument. The entire shock value of the joke comes from the initial implication that there’s ever an acceptable excuse for rape, or in fact that there are degrees of acceptability when talking about horrible things. It doesn’t depend on context at all; it’d be funny no matter who told it, because it only requires the audience to know the difference between right and wrong. Please, bloggers, if you’re going to take it upon yourselves to explain jokes to people, at least take a few minutes to study how jokes actually work.
Everything I Know About Human Interaction I Learned From Buffy the Vampire Slayer
And “how jokes work” gets back to why I’ve got a problem with that attempt at analyzing of The Big Bang Theory. It tries to drag in issues of social inequality, popular culture’s representation of women, and homophobia when the better explanation is that the jokes simply don’t work for some of us.
I blame Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Or really, the fact that popular entertainment started getting really good around the same time that self-publishing in the form of blogs became really viable. It meant that “low art” like Buffy — which was designed to be as easy to pick apart as any good parable or fairy tale — got analyzed and over-analyzed, to the point where self-apparent interpretations were accepted as genuine insight. Back when colleges first started offering courses that gave literary analysis of Watchmen, or discussed Buffy in the context of feminism or folklore, people commented on how unusual it was. But it quickly became accepted as commonplace. That, along with Oprah and TV psychologists, meant that pop psychology or social studies came to be seen as on the same level as academics.
And anyone who thinks I’m being overly dismissive of “low art” or pop culture is free to read any of my long dissertations in defense of pop culture. In brief, though: my defense of “low art” and rejection of “high art” is not that low art is as nuanced or as complex, but that art is about communication, and there’s no inherent superiority of obscurity for its own sake. A piece of entertainment that is intended to be “easily digestible” — e.g. how Buffy the Vampire Slayer used the supernatural to intensify the trials of adolescence and young adulthood — can be every bit as valid as something that invites multiple interpretations.
In any case, and whether that’s the actual cause or whether I’m full of it, the result has been a glut of shallow interpretations of media and popular culture passed off as more complex and insightful analyses. For example, using cultural context and background to determine the right way to make light of sexual assault. It’s similar to how some feminist blogs explain their use of the word “bitch;” or Dan Savage’s stunt attempt to “take back” the word “faggot;” or the people who twist themselves into knots explaining exactly how and when it is or isn’t appropriate to use the n-word, based on the race and cultural background of the speaker and his or her audience. In reality, though, it’s all much more simple: the n-word (and for that matter, the c-word) is fucking irredeemably hateful and offensive, and no one should use it, ever.
In the past few weeks, I’ve seen the same type of false logic used to try and explain how the game Cards Against Humanity is “problematic,” how certain scenes in American Horror Story are objectionable while others are fine as lurid entertainment, and why the violence in Tomb Raider is more objectionable than the violence in any other video game. With the first two, at least, it’s a misguided attempt to establish a “do not cross” line with something that exists entirely to make the “line” irrelevant. And all of them to one degree or another assume that modern audiences are primarily made up of sociopaths, unable to distinguish fantasy from reality, unable to tell even the difference between right and wrong. And yet, somehow able to discern what it is that makes death from AIDS or the Holocaust somehow less sensitive than sexual assault or racism. It assumes that the audience is actually reveling in or making light of the horrific, and then compounds that by suggesting that there are degrees of what’s horrific and what’s appropriate fodder for comedy.
Even worse than that, it makes discussions about actual issues spin out of control and descend into unproductive noise. It’s how “you don’t understand a joke” gets interpreted as “you can’t take a joke.” Or “your analysis has no merit” gets interpreted as “your premise has no merit” and then “racism/misogyny/homophobia don’t exist.” And why people so often get infuriated to hear “You’re over-thinking it,” when the actual complaint is “You’re making an easily-dismissible mockery of what is actually a serious but ultimately simple issue.”
Which is the most roundabout possible way of explaining my accusation: that article about The Big Bang Theory is over-thinking it. That’s not to say that smart, tech-savvy women aren’t grossly under-represented in the media. It’s not to say that homophobia is no big deal. It’s not to say that it’s okay to make fun of people with mental disabilities, and it’s not to undermine the damage caused by being bullied or socially ostracized.
All I’m saying is that you don’t need to mention any of that to explain why the jokes in Big Bang Theory feel uninspired and clumsy. Or if you do use that as your justification, then you have to explain why it’s okay for The IT Crowd to make fun of nerds and gay people, Community to make fun of the mentally disabled, and The Guild to pander to an audience of self-described geeks, but not okay when Big Bang Theory does the same thing.
Instead of trying to come up with a tortured explanation involving in-groups and outsiders, traditional inequities of cultural power, gender roles and role reversal, and institutionalized sexism and racism, the simplest explanation works best. All require people to be able to laugh at themselves, some people are simply better at writing jokes than others, and not everyone is going to find the same thing funny.