Culture Lessons From Big Bang Theory

(photo by S.B.)

Earlier this spring I needed to spend a lot of nights at home and wanted something light to watch so I started Big Bang Theory, a 1/2 hour comedy  program that ran from 2007-2019. The main characters are 4 friends: Leonard Hofstadter (Johnny Galecki), Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons), Howard Wolowitz (Simon Helberg) and Raj Koothrappali (Kunal Nayyar) who work at a university. Sheldon and Leonard live next to Penny (Kaley Cuoco).

Unlike other ensemble comedies such as Friends, the characters of Leonard, Sheldon, Howard and Raj come from very different backgrounds but they bond over shared ‘universes’ such as similar academic niches, Star Trek, Star Wars, Marvel Comics, World of Warcraft and other massively multiplayer online games.

What I find interesting is the interplay of lessons learned in homespaces (Texas, Nebraska, India), through religions and how characters use their various abilities. People who have understandings of other cultures can stay on top, while those who are dismissive of other points-of-view lose. For example, Penny, who works as a waitress, is insulted by Leonard’s academically-oriented mother, so Penny takes her to a bar and does shots with Dr. Hofstadter, who can’t hold her liquor and does something embarrassing.

Sheldon attempts to control Leonard are thwarted by Leonard’s girlfriend, a lawyer who is from India. Realizing that pre-marital dating is not accepted by Priya Koothrappali’s conservative parents, Sheldon blackmails Leonard into agreeing to his demands by threatening to tell Priya’s parents that she is dating Leonard.

I love how characters sometimes learn to use (sometimes respect) different types of knowledge and skills. Although Sheldon usually belittles Penny, when he realizes that he is not a good teacher he asks her for help. Similarly, Amy, who has also been dismissive of Penny, invites herself to Penny and Bernadette’s get-together by repeating “I’m a girl” as, despite impressive achievements, she has never had a female friend or been on a sleepover. Amy realizes Penny has access to all sorts of knowledge Amy never had a chance to acquire.

Hence, Penny’s lack of intellectual credentials is a source of amusement at first, but gradually becomes unimportant when it’s clear she how much she can add to their lives in other ways, from rescuing Sheldon’s battle ostrich and getting Sheldon a napkin signed by Spock to including Amy in girl chat.

This is fascinating as I am always interested in how people cope (or fail to cope) with new cultural constructs. For example, Sheldon slowly learns some social codes by rote, such as saying “there, there” and offering a hot beverage when someone is upset. This is carried to the point that, when Raj arrives in a depressed mood, Sheldon goes about making him a cup of bullion as he is out of tea. A hot  beverage is required, so a hot beverage of whatever type is available must be given.

Often at the start of an episode, one person will appear to have the upper hand, only to be circumvented by another person’s use of a different kind of power. Sheldon’s eidetic memory helps him win at the card game Mystic Warlords of Ka’a but he is beaten by Wil Wheaton who has a better understanding of people’s motivations.

In another episode, Leonard and Sheldon insult the intelligence of  Zach, Penny’s boyfriend with Howard and Raj looking on and giggling. After Zach leaves, Penny tells the 4 men, “For a group of guys who claim they spent most of their lives being bullied, you can be real jerks. Shame on all of you.”

The 4 friends then go to Penny’s apartment to apologize to Zach and the 5 of them end up going to a comic book store together. Sheldon again insults Zach for wanting to read Archie comics, but then realizes that having Zach join them in a group Halloween costume contest could allow them to win. The person they ridiculed is the person who completes their superhero group; Zach agrees, dons a Superman suit and they win.

It’s a lighthearted comedy but it has good lessons about accepting and learning from people who have different knowledge bases.