What‘s Funny About Science?
The Big Bang Theory and the Sitcom Impact
Dr. Judith Kohlenberger
Dr. Judith Kohlenberger is a post-doctoral researcher with a degree in English and American studies from the University of Vienna, and is currently affiliated with the Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital and the Vienna University of Economics and Business (WU).
She has a multi-disciplinary background in cultural studies, with a focus on science and technology studies (STS) and politics of representation, and has worked extensively on legitimation discourses of science in popular cultural contexts.
Her monograph The New Formula for Cool: Science, Technology, and the Popular in the American Imagination (transcript 2015) examines how “cool”, a key aesthetic and affective category in American(ized) culture, informs contem-porary representations of technoscience in fiction and film.
“Smart Is The New Sexy” is the tagline which the CBS hit sitcom The Big Bang Theory (henceforth TBBT) immediately popularized with media outlets all over the world. Indeed, the provocative slogan was soon to be proven accurate by the rapid and enduring commercial success of the show: With a peak of over twelve million viewers, the program repeatedly ranks among the highest-rated shows on CBS and has inspired a lively fan community. TBBT draws a greater audience than the last run of American Idol and has been named the most popular sitcom in the United States, second only to Two and a Half Men. With its celebration of science and geek fan culture, TBBT has fast become immensely popular, not only with viewers in the United States, but almost worldwide, and definitely also in the German-speaking world. Scientifically educated characters obsessing over Star Wars and action figures no longer serve as slightly pathetic sidekicks, such as the legendary Steve Urkel of ABC’s Family Matters or the obligatory nerd gang in every American high school drama from Beverley Hills, 90210 to American Pie. In TBBT, the nerds have taken center stage and proven to be more accessible and likeable than the markedly non-nerdy characters whom they are repeatedly contrasted with. The appeal of the geeky scientist indeed seems to reach well beyond television: Critics have come to speak of a veritable ‘geek-chic’ inspired by the sitcom, making it fashionable to wear horn-rimmed glasses, backpacks, and electronic accessories, and use scientific references in every-day speech. The former polarities of ‘Dr. Nerd’ on the one hand and ‘Mr. Cool’ on the other no longer seem to hold.
TBBT follows the traditional (domestic) sitcom format, with each episode amounting to about half an hour, including the obligatory commercial break. The series revolves around a straightforward, yet highly successful formula: Four scientists (three physicists and one engineer) in their twenties are juxtaposed with an aspiring actress, who has to earn her living as a waitress. The four male characters – experimental physicist Dr. Leonard Hofstadter, theoretical physicist Dr. Sheldon Cooper, astrophysicist Dr. Rajesh Koothrappali, and Howard Horowitz, doctoral candidate in engineering – are portrayed as highly intelligent and brilliant academics. Additionally, they regularly indulge in what are depicted as ‘geeky’ pastimes, such as their frequent visits to the local comic book store or laser tag games. Especially Leonard’s romantic pining for Penny, their new neighbor living across the hall, allows for a myriad of humorous situations mobilizing the show’s prime comic trope, i.e. the contrast between two highly dissimilar cultural groups. TBBT is thus a typical hybrid between a family and a workplace sitcom, as it blends “family comportment (living together, couch-centric) and workplace (sexual exploration, flirt-centric)” (Hartley 67).
Its comedy is chiefly created through a repeated juxtaposition of the highly divergent worlds which the male protagonists and Penny inhabit and the misunderstandings which inevitably evolve. While the male characters are from the outset established as uber-nerds with superior intellect, they are portrayed as socially dysfunctional, shy, and utterly unaware of basic social conventions. Penny, on the other hand, is repeatedly dazzled when the guys discuss physics, but displays common sense and superior social skills. The core set of characters has in later seasons been expanded to include two female scientists, Bernadette and Amy, as love interests for Howard and Sheldon.
What’s funny about science: Do we laugh AT scientists or WITH them?
One frequent source of laughter in TBBT is Sheldon’s inability to understand social conventions, rhetoric flourishes, or metaphorical statements; in accordance with the stereotype of the pragmatic, no-nonsense scientist who values facts over fancy, he takes each utterance literally. Equally, he regards social décor as unnecessary and arbitrary. Like many other classic sitcoms, TBBT places a basic incongruity at its core, namely the clash of two highly disparate professional occupations, the scientist and the waitress. More profoundly, it is based upon the ideological opposition between a rational, highly pragmatic world view, best exemplified by Sheldon but adhered to by all scientific characters, and the ‘normal,’ conventional world of common sense and emotionality, represented by Penny and other characters. This “binary, dualistic structure [is] typical of the domestic sitcom” (Feuer 70) and serves as its main source of humor by inspiring a wealth of situations which simply reiterate this basic opposition, such as the following scene in the restaurant (Season 4, Episode 13: “The Love Car Displacement.” The Big Bang Theory. Dir. Anthony Rich. Writ. Lee Aronsohn, Steven Molaro, and Steve Holland. CBS. 20 Jan. 2011.):
Hey, you guys ready to order?
Since we come in every Tuesday night
at 6:00 and order the same exact thing,
and it’s now [checks his watch] 6:08,
I believe your question not only
answers itself, but also stands
alongside such other nonsensical
queries as “Who Let the Dogs Out?”
and, uh… “How are they hanging?”
Okay, so the usual with extra spit
on Sheldon’s hamburger.
Sheldon’s mocking comment could be read as exposing and simultaneously critiquing arbitrary social norms and Western society’s tendency to polite, yet meaningless small talk. It undermines our expectations and hence succeeds in drawing laughter from the audience, who is delightfully dazzled by his unexpected fury. The ensuing laughter can hence be read as an appreciation of the fresh and unusual, perhaps even audacious and politically incorrect perspective offered by Sheldon as representative of a highly abstract and pragmatic world view. Accordingly, the viewer does not laugh to deride Sheldon, but to support his attack on standard social situations and its scientific analysis.
Humor is an excellent vehicle for voicing concerns that might otherwise be highly offensive or inappropriate, and for indicating alternative viewpoints. Hence, Sheldon’s deviance from the norm is not only pleasurable to the audience, but also reveals a deeper truth, namely the “tenuous and artificial nature of social norms” (Mills, Sitcom 87), which we ourselves may already have experienced as suffocating, limiting, or simply ridiculous. In that sense, Sheldon’s scientific abstraction is offered as a powerful alternative to the repetitive small talk routine at a typical American diner: His reply reveals its absurdity and futility. Such a perspective grants humor a highly subversive potential and appreciates comedy as a vehicle for social critique, questioning established norms and dominant ideologies.
The sitcom is often cited as offering a powerful critique of contemporary society and its hegemonic discourses. One may read TBBT as a powerful advocate for science, as it repeatedly exposes the idiosyncrasy of irrational, non-scientific behavior steeped in illogical social conventions. In the sitcom, science hence serves as a subject that disrupts and challenges societal expectations; it provides, in other words, the necessary opposition for incongruity and, consequently, humor to emerge.
In many instances, however, laughter is clearly directed at the scientists’ misfortunes, which in the case of TBBT typically involves situations that non-scientists would easily manage, but which the protagonists find trickier than their graphs and calculations. Thus, science is constructed as the ‘reason’ why the characters emerge as comic failures. The use of typical sitcom conventions, such as the stereotyping and evident de-masculinization of the protagonists, supports this: Through their clothes and their appreciation of video games, toys, and comic books, they are physically and metaphorically likened to children rather than grown men, which can be seen as an additional source of humor through devaluation.
The point is not to make viewers understand science, but to dazzle them with it and make them laugh!
All of these aspects make it somewhat tricky to interpret the major themes of a sitcom, and one of these major themes in TBBT is science. So let’s have a closer look at this “science.” TBBT is the first major American sitcom that explicitly foregrounds science (more specifically physics) as one of its central and sustained themes. This is already established by the sitcom’s title, referencing a dominant theory of how the universe came into being, and by the titles of the individual episodes, which mock the structure of typical physics formulas, such as “The Middle Earth Paradigm” or “The Panty Piñata Polarization.” The show has enlisted one of UCLA’s leading physicists, David Saltzberg, as its official science consultant to guarantee maximum scientific accuracy. The science, as TBBT franchise does not tire to boast, is accurate to the tiniest details. Cameos of real-life scientists, rather than movie stars or pop singers, further solidify its status as a show that strives to take its science seriously. Indeed, the guest appearances of Nobel laureate George Smoot and scientific media celebrity Stephen Hawking drew a large number of viewers. TBBT is even reported to have significantly improved the public image of physics: In November 2011, The Observer, for instance, headlined that “interest in A-level and university courses rises as US comedy [meaning TBBT] makes the subject ‘cool.’”
Within the narrative of a single episode, science generally assumes the role of an insider joke, as the general viewer can hardly be expected to fully understand each and every scientific reference, especially since the academic disciplines evoked not only comprise physics, but also the humanities, social sciences, and engineering. To a certain extent, science is thus constructed as special, unique, and culturally estranged, rather than being naturalized for the viewer, which is the case in films and shows that strive to smoothly incorporate scientific storylines into the narrative, such as disaster movies or crime shows.
While science is one of the show’s central themes, the audience hardly ever gets to see actual scientific practice. Certainly, this must also be attributed to the fact that “the depiction of scientific activity does not lend itself well to story telling because abstract thought or the pursuit of knowledge as such is difficult to present in images” (Weingart 32). Most science is just not visually appealing. While one or more scenes per episode take place at the university (i.e. the academic workplace), it is mostly the cafeteria or the hallway, rather than the actual laboratories. There are hardly any lab scenes in which the audience is presented with the actual production of scientific knowledge that would subsequently provoke a plot twist or lead to a happy ending.
Science (or, more precisely, the results it yields) is hence not directly integral to plot development. Rather, it is the accessories of science, such as specific props, jargon, and, above all, the (largely negative) effects of their scientific professions on the characters’ private lives that are foregrounded. This means that science in TBBT is a means to provoke narrative conflict (such as when Leonard fails to communicate efficiently with Penny due to his highly professionalized vocabulary), rather than to solve a narrative conflict already generated through other elements (e.g. crime, disaster).
Additionally, the comic effect of science is enhanced through a powerful auxiliary: geek culture and fandom. Pure science, it appears, can hardly be entertaining and enjoyable on its own; rather, repeated references to the protagonists’ various obsessions and hobbies, including video games, comic books, costume play, robots, fantasy and sci-fi, are drawn on for additional comic potential.
In those scenes, the viewer is invited to celebrate and indulge in “the joys of nerdiness” (Gioia 221), as they successfully promote a very specific version of cool that draws on exactly these ‘nerdy’ properties. Indeed, nerds and geeks like the protagonists of TBBT have shifted their roles from former antagonists and ridiculed side-kicks to the gurus of a new coolness that resonates with twenty-first-century information culture. It is this notable shift in cultural visibility that I would identify as the ‘revenge of the nerds.’ Not only have the scientists taken center stage and will, consequently, be those who the audience sympathizes with, they also display a range of common (and unique) insignia for creating a special form of ‘in-group cool,’ which has been picked up by its fans and viewers.
The look of coolness yielded by Leonard and his friends is indeed striking: Similarly to how “[m]embers of gangs use a complex set of visual symbols to express their fierce allegiance to one another” (Harris 48), one may also discern a distinct aesthetic code employed in TBBT, popularized and marketed as ‘geek chic.’ This style is shared by all four of the protagonists and includes backpacks, t-shirts with scientific jokes or slogans meaningless to the outsider, black-rimmed glasses, hooded sweaters, and training shoes.
What is, of course, highly ironic in TBBT (and the source of its recurrent comedy) is that the particular forms of insider insignia chosen to mark the protagonists as members of the same socio-cultural group are defined by their very ‘un-coolness’ by mainstream standards, i.e. their divergence from other, dominant definitions of cool, such as maintaining control in social encounters, leading a dangerous and adventurous life, being a suave and smooth talker, and wearing fashionable clothes. These traits would, at first glance, rather be attributed to Penny’s boyfriends, who might be less intelligent than the scientists, but are tall, handsome, tanned and athletic, and will effortlessly impress those girls whom the geeks pine after. Deviance from the mainstream not only serves the comic intent of the sitcom, but also helps to construct its protagonists as cool by accentuating their unconventionality and individuality (cf. Dar-Nimrod 2012), which is inspired by their identity as scientists and geeks.
TBBT serves as a prime example of how science can effectively and entertainingly be used in fiction, namely by foregrounding its comic potential through underlining the deviation from mainstream social protocols. Science is thus effectively stripped off its cognitive authority and made comic, bizarre, and laughable. The comic derision that the scientists repeatedly have to suffer is key to defusing the perceived cognitive superiority of science in everyday life, which enables the viewer to no longer perceive the subject as intimidating or threatening. As one of the first prime-time comedy programs revolving around a group of scientists, TBBT reflects how its focus on science as a profession is not only made tolerable, but indeed entertaining to an audience. Hence, what is funny about science, to resort to the title of this piece, is its narrative use for contrast and eccentricity, and the comic deviations from social norms which it repeatedly and reliably inspires.
- Dar-Nimrod, Ilan, et al. “Coolness: An Empirical Investigation.” Journal of Individual Differences 33.3 (2012): 175-185.
- Feuer, Jane. “Situation Comedy, Part 2.” The Television Genre Book. Ed. Glen Greeber. London: British Film Institute, 2001. 67-70.
- Gioia, Ted. The Birth and Death of the Cool. Golden: Speck Press, 2009.
- Harris, Daniel. “Coolness.” The American Scholar 68.4 (Autumn 1999): 39-49.
- Hartley, John. “Situation Comedy, Part 1.” The Television Genre Book. Ed. Glen Greeber. London: British Film Institute, 2001. 65-67.
- Mills, Brett. The Sitcom. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2009.
- Weingart, Peter. “Chemists and their Craft in Fiction Film.” HYLE – International Journal for Philosophy of Chemistry 12.1 (2006): 31-44.
This article is an abridged version of a chapter from Kohlenberger, Judith. The Formula for Cool: Science, Technology, and the Popular in the American Imagination. Bielefeld: Transcript, 2015.