The Big Bang Theory: What Went Wrong? – Wisecrack Edition
Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on What Went Wrong in The Big Bang Theory!
Written by: Thomas Ambrosini
Directed by: Michael Luxemburg
Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Edited by: Mark Potts
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Produced by: Emily Dunbar
The Big Bang Theory: What Went Wrong? – Wisecrack Edition
What’s up, guys? Jared again. Today, we’re talking about one of the most nuanced takes on geek culture out there, the Big Bang Theory. “Bazinga.” Yeah, no, not even close. It’s bad, like really bad. In fact, it’s become somewhat of a recurring gag for us to hate on this show. So, when you sadistic maniacs asked for a What Went Wrong, we reached out to one of our unfortunate writers, Thomas. But instead of making this poor bastard watch all 5,175 minutes of this show, we just hopped on IMDB and grabbed the top 10 rated episodes. (Sorry, we cannot afford to pay this man’s therapist.) But I digress — why is a show that deals with science, comics, and all that Wisecrack good stuff so, well, bad?
After hours of grueling research, we suspect it might have something to do with references. “So it’s settled. The fate of Dr. Who’s Tardis will be decided on a Game of Thrones-inspired death-match on the battlefield of Thundercats vs. Transformers.” See, The Big Bang Theory isn’t just bad. It’s profoundly bad. It’s so bad, that it requires philosophy to understand just how bad it is. So join me, as I attempt to convince you that The Big Bang Theory is proof that Meaning is Dead. Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on The Big Bang Theory: What Went Wrong? And big shoutout to the real MVP, Thomas, for watching this garbage.
The Big Bang theory loves referentiality. They reference cornerstones of nerd culture, like Star Trek, — “Sheldon’s log. Star Date 63345.3,” or Battlestar Galactica, — “That’s my original series Battlestar Galactica flight suit,” — and even scientific facts and mathematical formulas. They’re slipped in to remind us, over and over again, that Leonard, Sheldon, and company are diehard nerds. They buy comics, perform science experiments, and sometimes describe very basic things – like slipping in a bathtub – like this: “Not surprising, you have no safety mat or adhesive stickers to allow for purchase on a surface with a low coefficient of static friction.”
Now, in case you missed the laugh track, Sheldon giving Penny the definition of friction was the joke – you see, it’s funny because it’s a reference. Now, if you’re wondering why you feel a bit cheated at the punchline here, it’s probably because that definition of friction was simply slotted in there. Any other scientific statement about the nature of reality feels like it could’ve had the same effect, here – like gravity, for instance. And, cue the next joke: “Oh my god, I’ve got to go to the emergency room.” “Well, assuming you’re correct that your right humerus is no longer seated in the glenoid socket, I would certainly think so.” They could have replaced the words “humerus” and “glenoid socket” with gibberish and most wouldn’t know the difference. And that’s the problem- the actual science isn’t the joke, but the fact THAT they’re talking about science is. Friction isn’t funny, the REFERENCE to friction is funny.
By contrast, consider this brief Futurama reference. For someone who barely understands math like me, the reference will probably evade detection. But for those who spot the symbol for aleph null – the mathematical symbol for an infinite set of countable numbers – they’ll realize the theater is implying there’s an infinite number of screens. This not only gives an easter egg for the mathematically inclined, but more importantly, the joke is the impossibility of a movie theater having infinite screens. The joke is about the SUBJECT of aleph-null, not the mere reference to it. The reference imbues the joke with additional meaning, whereas The Big Bang Theory accomplishes the opposite. “Leonard, do you recall when I said that I was going to revolutionize humanity’s understanding of the Higgs Boson particle, and you said ‘Sheldon it’s 2;00 AM get out of my bed room.’”
These jokes are at best, lazy writing, and at worst, a small step toward the complete annihilation of reality. Yes, might sound extreme, but these kind of references with no subject is exactly what kept French philosopher Jean Baudrillard up at night. To Baudrillard, we are living in a state where reality has been obliterated. He gives four levels of representation. The first level is like a picture – a perfectly accurate representation of reality. The second level of representation is the unfaithful copy – a filter that makes you look prettier, thus obscuring your actual face. Below that is the third level of representation, one that deliberately hides the fact that there’s no reality being represented – like an artist rendering of you where they’ve never actually seen you. And finally, the fourth level is reserved for when signs and representations start referencing other signs and representations, and all sense of reality is thrown out the window.
This is when people start photoshopping a photoshopped image, or making memes of other memes. In Baudrillard’s eyes, we’re already living in a world controlled by a system of fourth order simulacra – where any reference to original reality is lost. Which might explain why he technically considers our reality a simulation. Now, if we’re being optimistic, the Big Bang Theory is a distorted view of real nerd culture – the second order of representation. It gets a lot of the details wrong, but is still about real nerd culture. But, if we’re being pessimistic — and, oh, we are — it’s a show about nerd culture that has no relation to reality whatsoever, the third order of representation: a copy of something that never existed.
It has science without actual science. It’s about nerd culture without real nerds, they’re more like what someone who has never met a nerd thinks they’re like. That’s where the bad science references become relevant to Baudrillard. More often than not, jokes rely on characters cramming in whatever scientific explanation is relevant to the action. “When are roadways most slippery? Now, okay, there are three answers — none of which are correct! The correct answer is, when covered by a film of liquid sufficient to reduce the coefficient of static friction between the tire and the road to essentially zero, but not so deep as to introduce a new source of friction.” They’re references for the sake of references – jokes that don’t rely on any understanding of the science, but rather the simple recognition that it is a scientific reference. It’s the difference between Sheldon explaining how locks work when Penny’s locked out, — “I can’t get the damn key out.” “Well, it’s not surprising. That Baldwin lock on your door uses traditional edge-mounted cylinders whereas the key for your Volkswagen uses a center cylinder system,” — and when Leela and the Professor are racing in Futurama — “One more lap!” “Nah, half a lap. You forgot on the mobius strip, two laps is one is lap.” “Hahaha, you kids and your topology.”
In the former, the joke doesn’t rely on an audience understanding how locks actually work. The reality is irrelevant, as long as we recognize that Sheldon is being unnecessarily smart. Whereas in Futurama, we’re laughing at the actual science referenced in the joke. For Baudrillard, as things progress, these copies of reality end up becoming their own reality. And this is where we see Baudrillard’s dismal vision reflected in The Big Bang Theory. These copies divorced from reality, either partly or entirely, signal not only the death of meaning, but make all ideas interchangeable. Because the jokes in this show are apropos of nothing, the characters can essentially spew meaningless nonsense under the guise of a meaningful joke. Like in the show’s game, Mystic Warlords of Ka’a, which starts as a kind-of joke about Magic the Gathering, – “Invisibility spell.“ “Luminescence spell.” — and then, quickly descends into utter nonsense — “Two-headed tiger.” “Three-headed lion.” “Sulfur.” “Brimstone.”
It doesn’t matter if they said 2-headed tiger, 3-head lion, 7-headed ethical Logan Paul, or Frankfurt-school-jam-encrusted-beetle-monster. The joke will work on the audience no matter what they say, because the show functions at a level of selling you an empty joke under the guise of a meaningful one. So, here’s the big question, — “It’s not over, is it?” — if Big Bang Theory’s use of reference for reference’s sake ultimately points at nothing, then what are we laughing at? “My hair is growing at a rate of 4.6 yachtometers per femta-second.” Or, at least, what is the studio audience laughing at? “It is scientifically impossible for a person to tip a cow.” Seriously, somebody please tell me! “Her news sounded important, but what you’re forgetting is it was an achievement in the field of biology. That’s all about squishy yucky things.”
Well, after conducting a rigorous study, our team of media experts has come up with an answer: the show basically just sh*ts on its characters. “Princeton, a fine institution. The place where Albert Einstein taught, and where Leonard got his PHD, so it might have gone downhill.” Like when Leonard and Raj think about buying Howard a prostitute following a recent break up, — “She’s exactly his type, a hooker… You know, I bet if we hired her, that would cheer him up.” “We’re not going to get Wallowitz a hooker.” “I’m so lonely and horny, I may open this twenty dollar jar of peanuts and end it all.”
Or, like when Sheldon defends his girlfriend: “Stuart’s kind of interested in Amy.” “Oh, of course he is. She’s very interesting. Did you know when she was fourteen, she severed the webbing between her own toes?” As it turns out, ripping on people is actually how the philosophy of humor started. In the West, the earliest theory of humor is the Superiority Theory, which began with Plato saying that laughter was a form of scorn. The people we laugh at are generally unaware of how awful they are, which invites our laughter. Later on, Thomas Hobbes modified this a little by saying that laughter was a result of our competitive nature. When we laugh, it’s either because we’re triumphing over another or watching their downfall. Hell, even Descartes waded into the discussion, calling laughter the result of scorn, which “proceeds from our perceiving some small evil in a person whom we consider to be deserving of it”. In the end, all three philosophers agree that when we laugh, it’s at the expense of others to make ourselves feel good.
While this might seem pretty obvious, the Big Bang Theory isn’t Seinfeld. These aren’t horrible people deserving our scorn. Case in point, showrunner Chuck Lorre literally said, “the show is not about geeks or nerds, [but] about extraordinary people.” So, if they’re so extraordinary, why do they deserve to be sh*t on? Which brings us the big picture problem: instead of building up nerd culture, the Big Bang Theory kind of tears it down. When the show simply pays lip service to nerdom, mechanically inserting any reference for reference’s sake, the show reveals its contempt for real nerds. The details of nerd culture are irrelevant, as long as they sound like wanky assholes, it’s close enough. “Whatcha doing?” “I’m attempting to view my work as a fleeting peripheral image so as to engage the superior coliculus of my brain.”
And while the show can fall back on its laugh track or rip on its characters, — “How long has he been stuck?” “Intellectually? About 30 hours. Emotionally? About 29 years.” — ultimately, this does all of us nerds – from the Buffy fans to the Marvel fans – a disservice. Instead of finding ourselves reflected on screen, we see caricatures that kinda just get dumped on. So what do you think, Wisecrack? Are we being too hard on the biggest show in the world? Or are we being a bunch of jealous haters? “I’m the wingman!” Yep, not that one.