Mirror, mirror…

Can with a TV remote.
Obviously not actually me, as there is only one remote in the picture…
Several years ago I was reading about the new shows coming out the next season, and one, The Big Bang Theory, sounded like exactly the sort of show that I would hate. So I didn’t make any attempt to watch any episodes. Not very long after the season started, I heard from a few different acquaintances that it was not a good show. The specific comments were that it made fun of nerds by portraying them in completely exaggerated, stereotypical, and unrealistic ways. So I continued to ignore it for all of the first season.

And then another nerdy/geek/fannish friend happened to mention, midway through the second season, that he was strangely addicted to the show. I mentioned the reasons I had assumed I wouldn’t like it, and he said, “Oh, me too!” Then he explained how his wife (a person who has been even more immersed in fannish culture than either her hubby or me) had watched the first season on Netflix. “I tried to ignore, and work on stuff on my computer. But it kept making me laugh… and it usually made me laugh because the characters acted exactly like some of our friends.”

So, I had the TiVo record some reruns for me, and I watched them.

Actor Jim Parsons as Dr. Sheldon Cooper.
Series co-creator Bill Prady says Sheldon was patterned after a programmer he knew in college.
The first thing I noticed was that, one of the people who had most emphatically explained to me that the show’s portrayal of fans was unrealistic? She is, down to the tiniest personality trait, exactly like Dr. Sheldon Cooper. Including the difficulty understanding other people’s senses of humor, facetious comments, or other tasks requiring a lot of empathy and reading of non-verbal cues.

Simon Helberg as Howard Wolowitz.
Thinks of himself as a ladies’ man, but mostly came off as creepy.
Another fannish acquaintance who had gone on at length about the exaggerated and unrealistic nature of the show is someone who I have never been able to think of as a friend because whenever I encounter him, I am reminded of the way, twenty-some years ago when I first became acquainted with him, that he constantly made sleazy attempts at flirting with me (now ex-) wife. And every other woman who he came in contact with. In other words, an awful lot like Howard Wolowitz, but without any of the characters’ redeeming qualities.

Kunal Nayyar as Dr. Rajesh Koothrappali
Series co-creator, Bill Prady, says that Raj (including his social anxiety disorder) is based on a former co-worker.
Another of the people who had told me the same sorts of things about why the show was awful, had a lot in common with Dr. Raj Koothrappali. His social anxiety problems weren’t so bad that he was literally mute around girls, the way Raj on the show is. For one thing, the fan is openly gay, rather than just being very metrosexual to the point that lots of other characters on the show assume he is gay. But otherwise, he has a great deal in common with the character of Raj, including the fact that he used to try to pretend that his parents weren’t wealthy, and that his parents used to try to set him up on dates (with girls before he came out, later with guys) which never ended well.

My main take away was that I have known (and sometimes been very good friends with) a lot of nerds/geeks/fans who bear quite striking resemblances in personality to each of the nerdy characters on the show. And just about every joke on the show is something that I have heard some of those friends say or have seen them do.

Especially me.

Johnny Galecki as Dr. Leonard Hofstadtler.
According to the show’s creators, Leonard is supposed to be the series’ straight man.
Watching those first episodes, I thought that of all the characters, I was most like Dr. Leonard Hofstadtler. Leonard is a theoretical physicist and interested in all the same nerdy things as his friends, but generally is better at socially interacting with non-nerds. His role in many scenes is to either act as a mediator/translator for his less socially apt friends, or to provide the foil for their jokes. He’s nerdy, but not always overly so.

I wasn’t entirely like Leonard. After those first many episodes, I saw myself as mostly Leonard with a sprinkling of Raj. And I was okay with that. Until, I believe it was a re-run from the first season (because my TiVo was collecting a lot of those at the time), when Penny was trying to help Sheldon pick out a gift for Leonard’s surprise birthday party, and Sheldon explained why he couldn’t buy a particular gift for Leonard. And one sentence in that rant, was something that I had said, in exactly the same tone of voice, more than once while I was trying to pick something out as a gift for someone.

Photo: Michael Yarish/Warner Bros. ©2012 Warner Bros. Television.
Kaley Cuoco, Melissa Rauch, Mayim Bialik as Penny, Bernadette, and Amy.
It was only the first of many times when I would hear something ridiculous, or overly pedantic, or condescending come out of Sheldon’s mouth that sounded exactly like something I had said. As I have said many times, every time I start to convince myself that I’m more like Leonard, Sheldon will say or do something that reminds me of me.

Humor is, of course, a matter of taste. Not everyone will find every show equally entertaining. And I certainly know some people who don’t like this particular show for other reasons. One friend admitted that the reason he has trouble with it is precisely because it is too accurate a representation of himself and some of his friends, and he finds it painful to watch.

But trying to claim that it isn’t an accurate representation of many nerds? That’s completely wrong. Complaining that it exaggerates? That betrays a lack of understanding of the basic premise of comedy (not unlike Sheldon). Complaining that it’s making fun of nerds in general, rather than making jokes about individual characters quirks? Make up your mind. If it isn’t accurate, how can it be making fun of all nerds?

Comedy is supposed to hold up a mirror to society so that we can see our follies and vices, and perhaps learn something about ourselves or our fellow man. Sometimes it is a funhouse mirror, distorting our own image so far that we can barely recognize ourselves. Other times, what it shows us is crystal clear—sometimes so clear, that it’s painful.

For me, every time I notice similarities between myself and Sheldon, it’s a reminder that I can be arrogant and careless of the feelings of others. It provides a motivation for me to pay attention to the needs of those around me. When I notice similarities between myself and any of the less desirable qualities of any of the characters, it also reminds me that I need to cut other people some slack, because my friends and loved ones have obviously had to endure more than a bit of annoyance from me. So the least I can do is try to endure any annoyance I encounter with as much grace as they have afforded.

Other times, well, other times, it’s just so darn funny!

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