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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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Great Artists Steal

When explaining what make the Mac so good, Steve Jobs quoted Picasso saying “Good artists copy, great ones steal.” In an interesting twist of fate, that quote often gets attributed to Jobs now instead of Picasso (who may or may not have said it first). It’s a fun quote that definitely is the background for the Mac, it’s also very applicable to, y’know, art. And here that means everything.

Especially Neill Blomkamp’s filmography. Who, you ask? You might know him from the Halo: Landfall short and as the guy Peter Jackson chose to be the one to direct the Halo film. When plans for the Halo film fell through, Jackson instead gave Blomkamp the resources for District 9, an amazing piece of serious science-fiction that showed a few shades of the Halo games in its design and look. It’s subtle, but there’s some resemblance.

E
nter Elysium, the trailer for which dropped earlier this week. It’s Blomkamp’s next film and it looks just as cool as District 9. It too has some stolen design influence. Let’s look at the titular Elysium. It’s a ring-shaped megastructure, like the titular Halo (which wasn’t the first, but more on that later). So we have that look, but it doesn’t look just like a Halo but like Mass Effect’s Citadel as well (the spokes and the interior design). Artificial world inhabited mostly by the rich? Looks like the Citadel’s Presidium to me. It’s an almost uncanny resemblance. But it’s not bad. It’s a good idea, and Blomkamp’s not just copying the idea, but he’s stealing it and mixing it into his own work. He’s using it for a different story.

Halo’s a thief too, particularly from the film Aliens. How much? Halo’s Wikia has an entire article listing them. Not only are the marines’ armor very similar, but Sergeant Johnson is more or less Sergeant Apone. They even have some of the same lines. More than that, the setting of a ringworld is similar to the titular structure in Larry Niven’s  novel Ringworld. Halo took conventions, ideas, and designs (and a secondary character) and gave it a new life with a totally new story. Halo doesn’t feel or look derivative; that’s good stealing.

Uncharted is another culprit. Globetrotting treasure hunter who more often that not finds something with a supernatural power? Nathan Drake might as well be Indiana Jones without a whip. They’re often in similar predicaments: already up against crappy odds, everything goes wrong and they’ve gotta fumble —sorry, improvise— their way out. Nathan Drake is Indiana Jones set sixty years late. Yet the works as a whole are different enough. Uncharted’s supporting cast is more different and consistent than Indy’s and the plot and character arcs are very different. Uncharted takes what’s essentially the Indiana Jones mythos and reworks it for a more modern age. The end result is a fantastic video game that, for no small reason, has been called the best Indiana Jones video game.

The trick with stealing is to not take something wholesale and repeat it. As Steve Jobs said in the interview where he quoted Picasso: “It comes down to trying to expose yourself to the best things humans have done, and then try to bring those things to what you’re doing.” Just copying something isn’t enough, you have to blend it in to what you’re making. Look at Dungeons & Dragons. Much of the setting is taken from JRR Tolkien’s work; you’ve got Hobbits, Ents, and Balrogs (all of which had to be renamed in later editions). But Gygax and Arneson gave the world its own spirit, mixing in influences from other worlds as well. Super 8, Mass Effect, The Secret of Monkey Island; everyone steals from everyone else. The thing is to make it new, to make it work, to make it yours. Don’t copy; steal.

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