Nerd Culture, The Big Bang Theory, and Chuck

I stopped watching The Big Bang Theory a couple years ago. Part of the reason was because I was growing tired of it, other part was I simply couldn’t be bothered to keep up with it. For a class, though, I have to write a scene for The Big Bang Theory. This means watching episodes of the show to get a hold of the rhythm and voices of the show.

I started watching Big Bang during its second season and enjoyed it for what it was; a sitcom about a bunch of nerds. I got the references they threw around, had or wanted some of the memorabilia in their rooms, and remembered when that Rebellion poster in Leonard’s room was announced. This show speaks my language.

So did Chuck, another show I began watching around the same time, although it spoke it differently than Big Bang did. In Chuck the nerd shout outs came as frequently and as accurately as in Big Bang, but in this show they felt more a part of the plot. Maybe it’d be meta gags like an entire episode following the structure of Die Hard or guest stars quoting characters they’d played in Terminator or Firefly. Other times the show would work it into the story: Chuck and Bryce speaking Klingon so they won’t be understood or Casey telling Morgan there are only three Indiana Jones movies. Chuck used nerd culture to enhance the story, partially because the protagonist himself is a nerd, partially because it’s that sort of show.

The protagonists of Big Bang are caricatures more than characters; Sheldon the insufferable genius, Raj the funny foreigner, Penny the clueless blonde, and so on. The entire premise of the show stems from their nerdiness and inability to mesh with the ‘real’ world.

Chuck of the eponymous show, is a far more rounded character. Yes, we’re told he can quote Wrath of Khan word for word and he does employ the Wookie prisoner trick on a mission, but it’s all part of who he is rather than who he is.The show’s about a normal, nerdy guy who gets brought into a world of spies and intrigue, and sometimes it’s his nerdiness that saves the day, other times it can be his sheer gumption. Chuck’s identity goes beyond his nerdy traits.

This yields different treatments of the characters and their nerdiness. Take gaming as an example. Rock Band is played for laughs in Big Bang, whereas Chuck brokenheartedly playing Guitar Hero while drinking whiskey leads to one of Season 3’s most heartfelt moments. Halo Night in Big Bang is often used as a gag or an opportunity to show how unchanging Sheldon is, even if the other guys would rather be doing something else. Early in Chuck’s first season, Chuck and Morgan are discussing something while playing Halo. The former presents Halo as being a gag in and of itself, whereas Chuck presents it as just something guys do.

And there’s the central conceit of the nerdy humor in The Big Bang Theory: It’s funny because they’re nerds. The characters playing Dungeons and Dragons or reading comics is funny in and of itself, not because of anything they do with it.

Compare Community, which just aired their second Dungeons and Dragon episode. Once again it features the characters playing a relatively realistic game of D&D. It’s funny, not because they’re playing D&D, but because of what they bring to it. Hickey using his ex-cop interrogation techniques on a hobgoblin or Dean Pelton’s overcommitment to his character’s relationship with his father. It wasn’t funny because they were playing D&D, but what they did while playing it.

Now, Chuck ended in early 2012 and I stopped watching Big Bang shortly after. In the years since I started watching these shows nerd culture has, as a whole, become far more mainstream. The Avengers happened, superhero movies are topping the box office, suddenly it seems like everyone’s watching shows like Game of Thrones or Doctor Who. Nerd culture and pop culture are overlapping more and more. Big Bang is steadily becoming out of touch with where things are headed. A recent episode has a gag about how girls don’t play D&D though I know more than a handful who play tabletop off the top of my head.

What I love about Chuck and Community is their willingness to embrace nerd culture for all that it is. For someone like me, someone who’s been neck-deep in nerd culture and general geekiness since before Iron Man became a household name, it’s great to see shows who love this and celebrate the fun of being a nerd. With regards to Big Bang, well, I’ll quote Penny Arcade: “In Big Bang being like me is the punchline.”

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1 Comment

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One response to “Nerd Culture, The Big Bang Theory, and Chuck

  1. I didn’t like the second series of Chuck onwards, but series one was brilliant.

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