On Stan Lee, Leonard Nimoy, and Coitus . . . Or, The Fleeting Pleasures of Televisual Nerdom

July 30, 2010
By | 20 Comments

A friend recently sent me The Big Bang Theory (BBT), as a surprise treat.  I was finishing up a big project, and, at the end of a long day, a sitcom seemed like just the thing for unwinding.  Episode One: our two heroes, theoretical physicists Sheldon and Leonard, enter a sperm bank, but they flee before making a deposit.  The lighting is so bright, the laugh track so loud, the sperm jokes so tired.  Why did my friend send me a mass show, when she knows that I am a niche viewer?!  Having watched 30 Rock (until it started to suck), The Office (UK version), and Sponge Bob Square Pants (until creator Steve Hillenberg left), how could I go back to such seemingly conventional comedy?

On the other hand, Battlestar Galactica was over, there was no new Trek on the horizon (What rebooted Star Trek movie?  J.J. Abrams, you are dead to me!), and I hadn’t started watching the new Dr. Who yet.  Maybe it was time to leave the safe haven of sci-fi niche nerdom and dip my toe into a mass program.  BBT had just won a People’s Choice award.  Could all the people be wrong all the time?  I’d give it a chance.  I kept watching and was soon delighted to see the boys play Klingon Boggle, order the time machine from The Time Machine on eBay, and discuss “the problem with teleportation.”  In one episode, there was a double-cameo:  Summer Glau and Nobel Prize winning physicist George Smoot.  Whammo!  This show was nerdtastic.  I even accidentally spotted a spoiler from season 3: Will Wheaton would emerge as Sheldon’s nemesis!  Though touted as “from the creator of Two and a Half Men [Chuck Lorre],” this show was not letting me down, and it didn’t really seem so “mass” after all.  This was a conventionally shot and structured (A-story, B-story, tidy resolutions, etc.) show that was apparently pitched to people who usually gravitate to the Sci-Fi Channel. (What the hell does “SyFy” mean?  SyFy, you are dead to me!)  Except then the show did let me down.

I should back up.  Season 1 was a slow build.  I smiled a lot, but rarely laughed aloud, and the premise that Leonard was in love with the hot girl living in the apartment across the hallway was pretty thin.  Hot girl’s lines were mostly limited to “huh?”  Horny friend Howard’s attempts to score by letting chicks drive the Mars Rover via remote control were maybe a little funny, but not really.  Then, season two turned hilarious.  The writing got tighter, hot girl Penny managed more resourceful retorts, peripheral characters at the comic book shop emerged (soft-spoken Stuart, non-speaking Captain Sweatpants), and sci-fi references got funnier and funnier.  Leonard Nimoy came up a lot.

Then, season 3.  Penny and Leonard become a couple, but Penny doesn’t even know who Stan Lee and Adam West are.  Sheldon is perplexed and asks, “what do you talk about after coitus?”  It’s a good question.  And what about before coitus?  The most distressing moment comes when Leonard and Penny have a fight because she believes in psychics, and he says it’s all hokum.  Leonard asks Howard how he can stay with someone whose beliefs violate all that he stands for.  Howard says he can stand by his principles and break up, but his new girlfriend will be . . . his hand.  Ow.  So Leonard stays with Penny.

We soon learn that Penny doesn’t even count Klingon as a legitimate foreign language.  To top it all off, Will Wheaton’s acting has not only not improved since his ST:TNG days, it has gotten worse.  But the biggest problem is that by the end of season 3 it is clear that the show sees women strictly as sex objects.  And I use this dated language quite deliberately.  When a show gets this misogynist, it’s time to whip out the Women’s Lib. The Sheldon character remains brilliantly conceived and executed, with not a little queer subtext, but, still, this really is a show “from the creator of Two and a Half Men.”

I thought BBT was a niche show disguised as a mass show, but it was just the reverse, and I do think this raises several interesting questions.  As media scholars, we often seize upon “complex” dramas, taking them as emblematic of post-network possibilities, but what role will the three-camera sitcom—rumors of the death of which have clearly been exaggerated—play in the post-network era?  Why did CBS create a show that pretended to target a geek demographic, when it was really looking for lads all along?  Is BBT laughing with or at nerds?  I think it’s trying to have its cake and eat it too.  And, finally, is it really beyond the networks’ ken to imagine a funny show about nerds in which women are not short-changed?  If progressive (or even slightly interesting) gender politics are only viable in the world of niche programming, and if the decidedly niche Comedy Channel is determined to pitch its programming to young males, where does this leave women in TV comedies?  Screw TV.  I’m rooting for Felicia Day, on the Internet.  While The Guild is not Trek-centric, I suspect that all the central characters on the show, male and female, would be comfortable with the notion that Klingon is a legitimate foreign language.  Kaplah!


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20 Responses to “ On Stan Lee, Leonard Nimoy, and Coitus . . . Or, The Fleeting Pleasures of Televisual Nerdom ”

  1. Jonathan Gray on July 30, 2010 at 8:11 AM

    Excellent piece, Heather. I wish I had something intelligent to say in response, but instead I’ll just say “yeah, what she said.”

    • Kristina Busse on July 30, 2010 at 3:46 PM


      I’m with you, Heather, on seeing The Guild as an oftentimes vicious but nevertheless understanding and compassionate representation of fandom.

      I was just talking with Jonathan about the difference of fanboy and fangirl representations in popular media–let’s just say that two slashers with too many cats wouldn’t get the gorgeous hunk next door (though, to be honest, they’re more likely to be with one another…oops, we can only do one stereotype at a time?)

      • Anon on August 1, 2010 at 2:06 PM

        I direct you to the plot arc in “Two Guys and a Girl” in which the ebullient Irene was introduced, in a purely comic-relief context, as the geeky cat-lady-next door with an obsessive crush on one of the titular Guys, and eventually wound up captivating the *other* of the Two Guys (i.e., the extremely attractive and funny Berg, played by a young Ryan Reynolds) with her infectious cheer, confident sexuality, and ability to understand him the way no other woman ever had.

        It was an unexpected and amazing storyline for a sitcom that up to that point had pretty much subscribed to the “I look hot and will insult you a lot and that will indicate that we have sexual tension” school of writing/casting romantic interests for its male leads.

        (I just searched YouTube for visuals and sure enough, there are Irene/Berg vids! Oh my goodness–I had forgotten just how big Jillian Bach’s grin was as Irene, and how vulnerable Ryan Reynolds allowed Berg to be with her. They were so adorable together. )

  2. Kelli Marshall on July 30, 2010 at 9:36 AM

    Great post — enjoyed it!

    “The Sheldon character remains brilliantly conceived and executed, with not a little queer subtext.”

    — I wonder if you (or anyone else out there) read Sheldon as a virtual carbon copy of David Hyde Pierce’s Niles Crane (FRASIER). See, for example, his mannerisms, stance, phobias, gait, cadence of speech, misunderstanding/fear of women, etc. Anyway, that’s usually all I think of when I watch (or used to watch) THE BIG BANG THEORY: Sheldon = Niles. =)

    • Heather Hendershot on July 30, 2010 at 7:45 PM

      Interesting. Yes, I see a parallel in terms of simultaneous niche/mass (laughing with/at) appeal and queer text/subtext. Sheldon’s naivete about sex is pretty extreme. On the one hand, this often comes across simply as infantilization. On the other hand, Sheldon is just too busy thinking for sex, and this makes him a kind of egghead version of workaholic Liz Lemon.

  3. Noel Kirkpatrick on July 30, 2010 at 9:49 AM

    I’ve actually proposed a panel paper for SCMS about this very topic, arguing that BBT is “geekist.” asserting your point that the nerds are the jokes, not the actual jokes or the situations, precisely because it’s a show intended for a mass audience on broadcast network, not a targeted demo. The science and math jokes *may* be accurate-ish, but a mass audience won’t know that and just assume it’s gobbledygook.

    Now, certainly, there’s room for nerds to watch this and derive pleasure from recognizing some of their friends in these broad nerd stereotypes (after the show hit a stride in s2, I was told by a number of people I was Leonard-esque), but I’d like to think that said nerds would take a step back and realize they’re still being picked on, just this time by an average of 14 million people a week.

    • Heather Hendershot on July 30, 2010 at 7:40 PM

      “Accurate-ish” is a good way to put it! I think that Penny’s character is crucial not only because of her obvious talent for wearing short-shorts but also as a stand-in for “normal” viewers. Thus, if the boys say anything too “insider” she can ask “what?” and a translation is immediately forthcoming.

      To the show’s credit, though, after Penny and Leonard break-up she goes back to dating dumb guys from the gym (as she puts it), and she finds herself immediately bored. One of the few good moments in season 3 is when Penny comes up on the roof, with a dumb date, as the nerds bounce a laser beam off of the moon. The date is confused, and Penny is embarrassed. In the standard nerds-getting-picked-on scenario (in, say, Revenge of the Nerds), the jock would have the upper-hand here, but, instead, he is clearly at a disadvantage.

  4. Charlotte Howell on July 30, 2010 at 11:19 AM

    Great post! I think you make a great point about the BBT using it’s ostensible niche position to make the standard sitcom format–which has fallen out of favor among most geeks I know–and the gender discrepancies that often follow with it somehow more palatable.

    I also think it’s interesting to look at its future timeslot competitor, Community, as perhaps BBT’s more niche cousin that’s just as nerdy though in a different way. Where BBT gets its nerd bona fides from the pantheon of sci-fi cultural texts, Community exemplifies the newly popular version of the nerd, a pop-culture omnivore who will recognize the strategically placed, very hairy extra watching a pool game while “Werewolves of London” plays as a Teen Wolf/Color of Money referential mash-up.

  5. Bärbel Göbel on July 30, 2010 at 12:26 PM

    Thank you for puttng eloquently what I have tried to explain to some BBT watching friends for a long time. I could never get into the show and believe the use of extra-textuality here is just a gimmick without heart or soul.

    • Heather Hendershot on July 30, 2010 at 5:27 PM

      I think you put this very well–“a gimmick without a heart or soul.” Here’s where The Guild really delivers (at least in my favorite season–season 1), as it really seems to love its characters, and references to gaming are not gimmicky, just woven into the personae.

  6. Derek Kompare on July 30, 2010 at 12:58 PM

    We’ve talked about BBT before, and this post eloquently sums up your conflicted thoughts on it. I’ve had it recommended to me (and marketed to me) from many places (including from you! 🙂 ) but I still can’t get past my ambivalence about its form and representations. There’s something about it that’s reminiscent of Will & Grace in its depiction of (its own) “queerness” for the straights, and its tendency towards misogyny, though it’s operating on a different register for a different chunk of a mass audience. Thus, while I’m sure I’d find some pleasure in parts of it, it’d be an uncomfortable pleasure, and why bother with that when there are other viable options. I challenge the Hollywood geekerati: c’mon, you can do better.

    As for the future of the multi-cam sitcom, while this coming season looks chock full of attempts to revive it (inspired by the success of 2.5 Men and BBT), I’m wondering if it’s become an inescapably “bad object” among critics and academics. I think we’d do well to ponder what it is that we liked about it in the first place, and reconsider the classics of the form (from I Love Lucy through Friends) relative to the formal expectations of television entertainment (and specifically, TV comedy) at those moments. Perhaps the single-camera style has been a poison pill of sorts after all, enabling us to forgive the shortcomings of shows produced in that style (hello 30 Rock and, lately, The Office) and permanently marginalize other ways of conceiving of TV comedy.

    • Heather Hendershot on July 30, 2010 at 5:24 PM

      Derek–Yes, I totally understand. It’s frustrating to be told to check out a show billed as “sometimes great but often terrible” when there are so many things out there to watch that are good all–or at least most–of the time. However, I’d recommend “The Bath Item Gift Hypothesis” from season 2, and (even better) “The Maternal Capacitance,” also season 2. The latter guest stars Christine Baranski in her greatest role since Bowfinger (in which she is brilliant, but underused). It is a truly brilliant performance.

      Anyone who can forgive the shortcomings of the single-camera sitcoms is very generous. I had to give up on 30 Rock completely! I do think that our new comfortableness with no laugh track, and also the new disaffected, deadpan comedy style (a la Wes Anderson, Judd Apatow, and their crew of performers) can help smooth over the deficiencies of some of these programs. A joke that is not very funny suddenly seems OK when the expectation from viewers is more cool acknowledgment (“ah, that was very wry and ironic”) rather than crude laughter (“help, I’m going to wet my pants!”).

  7. Myles McNutt on August 3, 2010 at 1:09 AM

    I’m finally reading this great piece, but I’m far too late considering my own experience with the show. I wrote it off after the pilot, in which I felt personally insulted by the notion that watching Battlestar Galactica commentaries was somehow associated with these broad caricatures of nerdom. However, I attended the PaleyFest panel for the show last year, and I saw how much people seemed to have embraced the show and its treatment of geek culture, and I thought the episode screened was pretty funny, so I started watching. And then I started writing reviews, and then those reviews started getting picked up by a Sheldon/Penny shipper community, and then I was far too fascinated by their interaction with my reviews, and the series’ inconsistency, to stop writing them.

    I’ve got a whole lot of observations to make from that experience which would be too much here, but I will extend an argument I made about the pilot while catching up with the series (which can be found here). What struck me on returning to the pilot is that the (live) laugh track is part of the problem: because we’re being instructed on what is funny, there is no way to capture the nuance of whether we’re laughing at the characters or with them. The laugh track is the result of a mass audience, and so it can easily come into conflict with niche viewers and their readings of particular scenes. It’s why I found the “geek” moments in the premiere so problematic, and why it turned me off the show for too long.

    However, over time this would change: the studio audiences would be fans of the show, and they would either have a knowledge of the geek culture being discussed (thus getting the jokes) or would have watched enough of the show to understand how the characters revere geek culture. And so the studio audience’s laughter better reflects the unique convergence of mass and niche culture, which helps the series balance out its approach to nerdom.

    Perhaps what happened in Season Three was that the writers took this balance for granted, forgetting that their audience was still from two different worlds and that storylines like Leonard and Penny’s relationship would still need to carefully negotiate those different perspectives. It seemed as if Penny became less knowledgeable about comic book culture in order to emphasize their lack of connection, while Leonard seemed at times to ignore his geeky routes entirely and at other times act as if nothing had changed. In the end, their odd chemistry became a story point which resulted in their breakup, but the series could have achieved that breakup without fussing with an all-important balance.

    As I say, I could go on forever, but there’s a quick observation – thanks for sharing these thoughts Heather, as they’ve got me excited for another year of anaylzing the series in all of its flawed glory.

    • Heather Hendershot on August 3, 2010 at 3:03 PM

      Thanks for all this, Miles. Your observations about the laugh track are provocative. You seem to be talking about the laugh track as if it were a real record of audience response–and, indeed, perhaps this is how viewers sometimes perceive it. Hence, a laugh track that in season 3 would seem ridiculous (making a niche/nerd viewer think, “Who would laugh at that feeble joke? What is the mass audience thinking?”) might in the better season 2 make that same viewer feel implicated as part of the audience. In effect, then, the track would function as stand-in for the satisfied nerd/niche viewer’s response.

      Of course, even when real studio audiences are present, laugh tracks are mercilessly tweaked by producers. Euphemistically, this is known as “sweetening,” but one might less generously call it utter fabrication of audience response. I am reminded of Andy Kaufman’s horrified response to learning he had been cast on Taxi. A sitcom? But the laughter is a recording of dead people! In any case, I suspect that when we like a show, we interpret the laugh track as more real than when we don’t like a show.

      Like you, I am interested to see what will happen in season 4, though I am also nervous. Season 3 ended with Sheldon being matched up with a girlfriend. I like the actress a lot, and it was a great cliffhanger. However, as I briefly mentioned in my initial post, Sheldon is compelling in large part for his queerness, and, on this front, the new girlfriend could take things in more or less interesting directions. Season 2 often infantilized Sheldon (as in his trip to Disney world, his attendance at a mixer with a Green Lantern lantern), and it wasn’t very interesting, as the implication was less that his sexuality was strange than that he was simply pre-sexual. However, season 2 also contains a brilliant moment in episode 6. Earlier in the episode, the boys wonder how Sheldon might reproduce, and they hypothesize that it is likely that one day he will simply eat too much Pad Thai and undergo mitosis. This is precisely what happens in the show’s coda (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=00lRB2oP08A) Now THAT is some strange sexuality! One cannot help but worry, then, about how this new girlfriend plot might turn out…

      • Myles McNutt on August 3, 2010 at 5:09 PM

        Just to clarify, the Big Bang Theory laugh track is actually the studio audience – it films live, and according to all reports uses that audience response. Sure, it may be tweaked (as you note), but the show’s producers often note how integral that live response is to their sense of timing.

        As for the girlfriend, I’m intrigued enough to put away my concerns – while his queerness is certainly a key part of his character, I think that as long as the relationship remains built around companionship rather than sex (in other words, the precise opposite of Leonard and Penny’s relationship) I think it could work out alright.

        • Heather Hendershot on August 3, 2010 at 5:42 PM

          Thanks for your note, Myles. I have no doubt that there is some tweaking going on, but, yes, the foundation for the laugh track is actually people. It’s interesting how a real studio audience now seems so old school. So much of the one-camera, reality-ish comedy (e.g. Party Down, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and so many others) depends upon long silences, awkward pauses, and moments of drawn out embarrassment and humiliation. This kind of emotionally fraught humor wouldn’t work with an audience making noises!

          As for the girlfriend, I suspect that the juvenile question driving all of season 4 may be “when are they going to do it?” So, a la Foucault, the no sex thing will really be about sex completely. But you are absolutely right that, if they can avoid the pitfalls of the Penny/Leonard relationship that you have so aptly explained, things might turn out alright!

  8. Jennifer Smith on August 3, 2010 at 2:23 PM

    Excellent piece. I haven’t watched much of the Big Bang Theory myself (maybe an episode and a half), largely because the portrayal of nerddom seemed more often than not to be coming from a place of, as you said, laughing “at” the nerds rather than with them. I also had a lot of issues with the show’s portrayal of women, especially because — and I’d love for viewers to correct me if I’m wrong — there seems to be no place in the BBT world for women who are geeks. No matter how well the show may reflect geeky passions and references, they certainly aren’t portraying the nerd world I live in, in which women are vital contributors and not just hotties-next-door.

    I have to say — and this may be an unpopular opinion — this is almost the exact same problem I have with Glee. As a former high school outcast with a passion for musical theater, I was excited for a show that might capture that experience. But no matter how many Broadway guest stars they throw into the mix, all I can see is a show that seems to revel in focusing on its conventionally pretty, straight, white, able-bodied, at least semi-popular characters and pushing all of the actual outcasts into the background — literally, in he case of the musical numbers. And that’s not even counting the reliance on crude stereotypes and a pervasive characterization of almost all women as shrews. It feels like another show that seems like a niche show come to a mass audience (singing! dorks!) but is actually a mass show pretending to be niche for a sense of edginess.

    • Heather Hendershot on August 3, 2010 at 3:16 PM

      I’m so glad that you brought up Glee. I’ve seen about as much of it as you have of BBT, so I’m not sure how informed of a response I can make, but I’ll echo your concern about the pretty conventionality that seems to infuse the new pop culture interest in nerds. This is obviously at work in High School Musical, which is (really, I mean it) one of the most disturbing films I have ever seen. The film conveys a fascist insistence on perfection, but perfection that is achieved through natural ability and not trying too hard. Sharpay is evil because she is strong-willed and tries very hard to achieve, while the good singers and athletes just happen to be perfect and succeed through expressing their own perfection to the world. There are no real outcasts in this world, except people like Sharpay who deserve to be outcasts.

      It really makes one long for the dearly departed Freaks and Geeks. Remember when the boys sit on the curb with popsicles and wonder why the hell girls would like stupid, athletic boys who will never, ever get into a good college? They decide that the librarian type is what they need to find–like Bailey, on WKRP in Cincinatti. When one of them briefly does get a cute girlfriend, she turns out to be terrible, boring, vacuous–and a Republican! There were certainly attractive people on Freaks and Geeks (Franco), but it really was such a brilliant, short-lived moment when TV dealt with outcast nerdom in a real way.

    • Jonathan Gray on August 3, 2010 at 5:14 PM

      Jennifer, if your feelings re: Glee are unpopular, at least you’re not alone. I’ve grown tired of it — the show can still be fun at times, and has some good humor in it, but it’s soooooo proud of being accepting of everyone when really it’s not all that much. I also find it hard when watching not to think that most of those supposed “outcasts” would be the cool kids in high school who thought I was a loser. Whereas, as Heather points out, I long for Freaks and Geeks — Bill, Sam, and Neal, I can recognize as my kin 🙂

    • Bärbel Göbel on August 3, 2010 at 6:18 PM

      While I have heard much similar critique on Glee, I believe that its subtleties, while making it less main stream, often go unnoticed, maybe? My favorite dialogue is still: “Just because you sleep with someone doesn’t mean you’re in a relationship with that person.” “Exactly, otherwise I would be in a relationship with Santa.” The show’s ‘quality’ lies in things left unsaid, and that includes its use of stereotypes (Names are drawn from a hat, one piece of paper reads: The other Asian kid), racism, flashy Highschool Musical look, mention/brief scenes of a girl with trisomy 21 that then sits on the side lines – for quota …

      The potential downfall of the show would be to go with the flow of its more common reading. If it stops these asides, it will be all that you have said. For now though, I am interested what else is between the lines…