Flip through the array of scripted television today and just about every societal clique has its own show: high schoolers, twentysomethings, thirtysomethings, lawyers, doctors, cops. Heck, even vampires get plenty of airtime.
But what about the geeks?
Sure, a few shows have geek characters like Comic Book Guy on “The Simpsons” or Dwight Schrute of “The Office,” but no television show actually focused on the very real lives of the nerdy until CBS’s sitcom “The Big Bang Theory,” (which premieres its third season on Monday at 9:30 p.m. ET).
Set in the shadow of Cal Tech in Pasadena, Calif., “The Big Bang Theory” revolves around the daily lives of physicist roommates Leonard Hofstadter (Johnny Galecki) and Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons) and their friends/colleagues Howard Wolowitz (Simon Helberg) and Rajesh Koothrappali (Kunal Nayyar). What many in the mainstream would label as the nerdiest of the nerdy, these four are as brilliant in their professions as they are their knowledge of sci-fi and pop culture, but when it comes to women and social interaction ... well, let’s just say they’re stunted, a lot. It’s only when Cheesecake Factory waitress Penny (Kaley Cuoco) moves in across the hall that the guys get some lessons on how to befriend and interact with an average woman. And over two seasons, Penny continues to be indoctrinated into the perplexing, yet often charming ways of this nerd pack.
A modest hit when it debuted in 2007, it took awhile for geek audiences to embrace the show. Many initially assumed the series was just making fun of its characters, with their myriad of uptight tics, slightly nasally voices, and comic book character-emblazoned wardrobe.
“When I first saw the show, I admit I found it to be a little bit overdone,” said Craig Byrne, a 31-year-old writer of TV companion books and fan sites (KryptonSite). “But then I realized that the fact that it's grossly overdone is what makes it funny.”
Byrne said he stuck with the show and it quickly became one of his favorites. “I love ‘The Big Bang Theory’ because not only do [the writers] incorporate geek elements into their dialogue, but the characters have a lot of heart. It's almost as though they had advance mental development but somewhere along the line forgot to advance socially. The addition of Penny to their circle has given the characters a chance to grow, and has given Penny a chance to learn of a side of herself that she never knew existed.”
And Byrne isn’t alone in his conversion. According to Nielsen figures, the second season of “The Big Bang Theory” averaged 10 million viewers, up 20 percent from its freshman season. A big chunk of that increase came from the coveted, and very geek-centric, 18-49 male demo. Their approval started a swell of positive buzz among nerd-centric viewers that understood that co-creators Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady weren’t mocking their kind but actually celebrating a huge portion of the population that look, act, and talk a lot like their characters.
“We’re writing about ourselves,” Prady laughed in an exclusive interview with Newsarama. “My highly nerdish background is that I was a computer programmer. I’m also a science fiction fan and an obsessed ‘Star Trek’ fan. Whatever you want to call that group of people, nerds, or geeks, there’s a great history of portraying them homogenously; that they are all the same with tape across the bridges of their eyeglasses and have pocket protectors. The thing that I know from living in that world is that it’s remarkably heterogeneous. There are great differences and individual passions. What also exists is a greater respect for differences and a greater understanding of difference. The real-life person that I knew that couldn’t speak to women [a trait exhibited by Koothrappali], it was just an acknowledged part of his behavior and it was just dealt with. You say that’s not the guy to ask to talk to those women over there. All of these things are just matter of fact for us.”
Geeks are real people
Prady said that he and his writers made it an early goal to write these four guys as real people, which meant including idiosyncrasies that sometimes come with being a geek.
“One of the tasks of creating a series is to create interesting characters that are distinct from each other,” Prady said. “We think very carefully about why one character might have a particular reaction that another character doesn’t share. The four of them have very different backgrounds. They have had very different paths through life that affect who they are. There are things they love in common and there are things they don’t share. That also extends to their fandom. I think they are generally game to indulge each other’s passions but I don’t think it’s uniform. By making them distinct, you make them people you are interested in knowing.”
Or that you might already know. Fans often cite the fact that they see plenty of parallels in the show’s characters to their own friends and even themselves.
Will Welsh, a 36-year-old development editor says that Leonard serves as the most relatable member of the group. “He is painfully aware that he’s a geek. He doesn’t always seem comfortable in his own skin, which is a feeling that I’ve had come and go throughout most of my life. The other guys on the show, they don’t even recognize that they’re geeks — they just are and rarely view themselves from outside that window. Leonard teeters on not being a geek and occasionally wishes he wasn’t so geeky, so I see myself a lot in him.”
Leonard actually represents the more socially adept end of the scale thanks to his common problem with attracting women so he is the character most fans say they identify with the most. But the show’s undeniable break-out character is Sheldon Cooper. He represents the extreme end of the nerd scale with his obsessive routines, clueless understanding of most humor, and utter lack of humility about his mental superiority. What could have become a woefully bad cliché in most actors’ hands has instead become a delightfully exasperating misfit in large part to Parson’s beguilingly earnest approach to playing Sheldon.
“The Sheldon character is a riot,” said Tom Wakeley, a retired electrical engineer who's been a fan of the series from the beginning. “He is so inflexible, smug, and oblivious. He reminds me of some people that I met in college and during my career.”
Byrne added, “Sheldon represents many of the quirks and annoyances that we end up having but not always verbalizing. So what if he has a 'favorite spot' on the couch — we all do. But I don't think I'm quite as socially judgmental as Sheldon is. However, Sheldon totally seems to have stolen my wardrobe, with his frequent wearing of comic book-related t-shirts.”
Writing what you know
Prady said that the reason Leonard, Sheldon, Wolowitz, and Koothrappali may resonate so well is because they all reflect many of the loves that live within the actual “Big Bang” writers’ room.
“In terms of their non-work passions, they come from the passions in the room,” Prady said. “For example, the deep and abiding love this writing staff has for Ron Moore’s ‘Battlestar Galactica.’ It is deep and rich and profound, and that’s why the characters love it. And there is their love of ‘Star Trek,’ which by the way is not uniform in the room. There are people like me who know every episode of every single series and then there are people where ‘Trek’ is not their thing. The only thing we are united on is that none of us ever understood ‘Babylon 5.’ We’re all kind of mystified by ‘Babylon 5,’” he said.
The writers have even gone so far as to write nerdy pop culture icons into episodes, like last season with actress Summer Glau (‘Firefly,’ ‘Sarah Connor Chronicles’). Prady said it satisfies their own geeky hearts and the audience too, so look for more of it this season.
“In episode six, Wil Wheaton (Wesley Crusher on ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’) is going to be here and will play himself,” Prady revealed. “Because Wil lives very close to where our characters live in real life, it’s not inconceivable that they share a comic book store and they would encounter each other. Given that Wil is going to play himself, we are going to discover that Wil Wheaton is the one member of the ‘Star Trek’ family that Sheldon hates,” he said. “We will learn that he loved Wesley Crusher but there was a moment between them in the past and ever since then Wheaton is his third most hated person.”
“For years, I felt rather out of place with my peers,” said Rob Young, the 41-year-old Director of Grants & Foundations at Saint Francis University in Loretto, Penn. “Sports, something in which I was never interested, dominated conversations. ‘The Big Bang Theory’ gives me a common ground to discuss such things. The fact that they take topics long considered ‘uncool’ by the mainstream and can incorporate them into a successful show just amazes me. And even though they’re poking fun, they treat the culture with reverence.”
Remy Minnick, a thirtysomething IT professional in Los Angeles, said the show is always coming up with pop culture moments that feel plucked out of his or his friends’ lives. “There’s an episode where Penny sleeps over on the couch. Sheldon comes in to do his Saturday morning ritual of watching ‘Doctor Who’ only to find Penny sleeping on the couch and it completely throws off his day. That was definitely a ‘me’ moment,” he said. “I also know a female version of Sheldon who I introduced to the show and she out-Sheldoned Sheldon as she pointed out how he would never wear a Starfleet uniform to beam down to another planet (a.k.a. the Ren Faire in ‘The Codpiece Topology’) as he would be breaking the prime directive and he should be wearing a disguise.”
He added, “The show is smart enough where they don't always go for the ‘obvious’ joke. The guys are successful, they are sweet, they are the stars of the show and while the show is a comedy they aren't just used for comic relief. If it ever becomes all wedgies and pocket-protector jokes, then it's over for me.”
It's funny because it's real
Prady promises that’s not something fans will ever have to worry about. In fact, the show also takes great pride in the accuracy in which they write the characters’ scientific professions. UCLA physics and astronomy professor David Saltzberg is a technical consultant for “The Big Bang Theory” and has a hand in every script.
“One of the things we decided from the beginning was that the science would be accurate and when the characters talked about their work it would be legitimate,” Prady said. “When Chuck (Lorre) and I wrote the pilot, we had time to research ourselves and then we had someone check our work. In the crunch of doing a series every week, you don’t have that luxury. Although it’s interesting because in our writers’ room, a couple of them have a very strong science background so we are often able to get it close enough in the script that David Saltzberg can look at it and say that ‘it’s almost right but let me tweak these words.’ Sometimes what he’ll says is, ‘What you put in there is technically correct but it doesn’t sound like the way we say it, so let me adjust that for you.’ And then sometimes we just don’t have time, and in the script we’ll put ‘science to come’ and ask him to fill it in.”
On some shows that would be extra effort not worth the time, but Prady said it’s another way to show respect and prove they care to be precise when it comes to their very smart fanbase. So far so good, as Prady said they don’t get much critical feedback.
“I’m not really aware of much,” he said. “Every now and then I know there have been some science questions that David has answered. He’s pretty confidant that he hasn’t made any mistakes. The only outstanding mistake that I am aware of in the show comes from the world of personal grooming and tonsorial arts, which is that in the third-season finale, Sheldon mischaracterizes what a ‘van dyke’ is and we mean to address that at some point.”
And Prady wants it to be known he’s not being Sheldon-like dismissive when he says that. It comes from being secure in the knowledge that he and his team are working hard to make sure “The Big Bang Theory” is being true to itself and its audience.
“Personally, if I weren’t involved in the show, I would like watching a show where I identified with the characters and could say, ‘Hey, that’s me!’ So if other people are having that reaction to us, then ‘Yay!’”