[Being the fourth in an intermittent series covering assorted areas in which I feel resigned to live as a minority among geeks.]
The people who hang around us the most realize that my wife and I differ from them in key ways. In small-talk situations we find ourselves fielding questions about certain movies, TV, books, genres, and other topics that never arise at elegant dinner parties. We’re not know-it-alls and we’re immediately honest in admitting when we haven’t seen or become aware of a certain work or area. If the answer lies within one of our personal proficiencies, we cheerfully oblige. I do edit myself for length because no one ever wants or truly needs my complete, passionate answer in paragraph form. I’m merciful that way. It makes me look more introverted and antisocial than I really am, but it’s for everyone’s own good. Also, people tend to wander off after the first three sentences.
Every August like clockwork, someone will ask if we’re attending GenCon. Five to six weeks after a new super-hero movie is released, they’ll ask if we’ve seen it yet. When the subjects of Star Wars or Star Trek arise on occasion, my wife tags in to the convo while I sit ringside. Once every eight to ten years when someone asks me about comics, I have to remember to limit my answers to twenty words or less, and to confine my citations to Marvel or DC titles only, because explaining the fact that hundreds of other publishers have existed throughout comics history will only frighten and confuse them. Conversely, if someone mentions sports of any kind, we have nothing to offer them and wait patiently until they can find a normal, human, sports-loving conversationalist to rescue them from us.
In the last year or so, one question has begun popping up more frequently than any other: “Do you guys watch The Big Bang Theory?”
For my wife, it’s an easy question to answer. She has no use for 98% of all network TV shows produced after 1992. Her part in the conversation is done, and she’s ready to flow to the next topic. I have my response rehearsed and down pat: I fix my gaze upon any other point in the room except the questioner, pause with a strained expression, and mumble, “No.”
They’ll say, “Really? Oh, it’s so funny!” Then they’ll try to quote a line or antic that comes to mind, smile, and wait for me to be bowled over. The most common choice is a shout of “BAZINGA!” as if this will implant fake happy memories of the show in my head and win me to their side.
Instead I bounce my gaze to a point on the opposite side of the room from the first faraway point, smile sheepishly, wince, and mutter, “Heh. Yeah, I…just don’t.”
If they’re terrible at reading body language, they’ll finish their pitch with, “Oh, you should try it! It kinda reminds me of you guys!”
My first impulse is to imagine them dying gruesomely before my eyes. Since that’s a sinful thought, I try to capture it, suppress it, nod a little, replace my smile with a blank look, and wait out the rest of the scene in silence, just like Clark Kent used to do on Smallville whenever anyone confronted him with a question he didn’t feel like answering. If I’m to continue living in peace with others, then I have no choice but to muster up a humane response.
I watched the entire first episode. In 2007 a magazine graciously sent us subscribers a promotional DVD containing the premiere episodes of both BBT and How I Met My Mother. My reaction to the latter was easy to summarize: Neil Patrick Harris was in top form, but I’m generally not amused by comedies about people striving for sex and love in that order. My reaction to the BBT pilot was even more adverse, but tougher to articulate. Everything that bugged me about the pilot has only been exacerbated by further examples and new reasons developed over the years.
Right off the bat, I was disappointed that the pilot was entirely stocked with stereotypes. The classic dumb blonde was the central figure, surrounded by the emotional good geek, the unemotional bad geek, the worse geek who thinks he’s suave, and the token nonwhite geek. I was more disappointed that all five characters were conscripted in service to a comedy about people striving for sex and love in that order. Well, except the bad geek, who appeared to suffer from a Vulcan emulation disorder.
More problematic: I simply didn’t laugh. At all. I half-smiled at the periodic table shower curtain. That’s as good as it got. Most of the jokes didn’t feel written For Geeks By Geeks. It felt like classically trained sitcom writers dusting off the old clichéd jokes about geeks and taking them for a spin at the geeks’ expense, even in lines spoken by one geek berating another. If I might borrow Johnny Carson’s old shtick and pretend that someone just shouted, “HOW BAD WAS IT?”: it was so bad, I once watched an entire episode of According to Jim that made me laugh more. The gags at the dumb blonde’s expense only worsened the feeling that I was watching corporate-approved assembly-line sitcom product.
I came away from the single viewing experience with an offended impression in my head that I couldn’t properly label until a few years later when an Internet participant under the message-board username “Front Toward Everybody” coined the right summation and crystallized my conclusion for me: “nerdsploitation minstrel show“. If the frat jocks from Revenge of the Nerds suddenly became aware enough to create a TV show spoofing and mocking their arch-nemeses, BBT is the end result I imagine.
I’ve witnessed little evidence to reverse my position. The jokes that are quoted to me every so often, whether by well-meaning friends or by easily amused magazine writers, elicit no merriment from me, and fall a few notches below the everyday chatter that online friends proffer via social networks for free. Those same samples have failed to dispel my presumption that the show revels in laughing at — not with — the issues and weaknesses of some among our crowd. I find that more saddening than snicker-worthy.
On a different level, I’m also annoyed that the show does indeed kowtow to corporate interests. I’d suspected this at first when ads for the show (produced by Warner Bros.) began appearing in titles published by DC Comics (owned by Warner Bros.) with the cast all wearing DC super-hero attire. My suspicion was confirmed this weekend when I received my subscription copy of the new issue of that same magazine that sent me the DVD in 2007. This week’s cover story about BBT (apparently they still love it to pieces) confirms on page 33, “A rule that only DC Comics products can appear in the comic-book store was lifted in honor of Marvel legend Stan Lee’s guest appearance in season 3.” I’m surprised DC didn’t bar Stan the Man from appearing and insist that the show feature special guest star Dan DiDio instead. Openly corporate favoritism is, in my opinion, highly anti-geek.
Naturally, the Nielsen commoners can’t get enough of it. It’s now the highest-rated sitcom in current production, preparing to start its sixth season this coming Thursday, September 27th. I realize the industry has rewarded it with many Emmys, which mean about as much to me as Tonys do. (Hint: as I live nowhere near Broadway, the answer is near zero.) I get that I’m supposed to dig the theme by Barenaked Ladies, who’ve composed several great songs but have never sustained a fully satisfying album from start to finish for my taste. I realize the show has garnered many renowned guests hallowed and revered to our crowd — numerous Trek actors and actual scientists, among others. How nice for the show that it has powerful friends, allies, and fans. Good for it.
Perhaps the show has matured since then and stopped falling back on easy go-to shtick. “It’s funny ’cause geeks don’t get women!” “It’s funny ’cause geeks use real big words!” “It’s funny ’cause geeks like stupid stuff!” If those have disappeared, great. I’m glad it’s experienced a miraculous, hopefully repentant turnaround. The rest of the world can continue enjoying it at their leisure for the twenty more seasons sure to come.
Meanwhile, I’ll be fine over here without it. If I want to see or read works authentically FGBG, funny or even dramatic, I’ve had plenty of options past and present about our mindset — Scott McCloud’s Zot!, Evan Dorkin’s “Eltingville Club” stories, Sideways, Frasier, High Fidelity, Phonogram, Fringe, The Nerdist channel, and the amazing, colossal, heartbreakingly underrated Community, which in its three seasons has been more magnificently FGBG than I thought humanly possible, without stooping to the lower common denominators or compromising a great taste in reference points.
Even if the Nielsen commoners take Community away from me after the new showrunners fail to appease them, I guarantee shouting “BAZINGA! BAZINGA! BAZINGA!” at me won’t change my mind.