Wednesday, October 08, 2014

What is behind the success of TBBT?

The eighth season of The Big Bang Theory began two weeks ago – and it began with the rather standard 18 million American viewers which keeps it the most watched show on the U.S. screens (it won the last night, too). Yesterday, the Guardian wrote a sort of interesting article about the different people's understanding of the success:
Critics be damned – here's why The Big Bang Theory is an unstoppable force with fans
Some people don't understand the modern world so they're mystified by the success. That includes most of the critics who are, after all, just representatives of the so-called "humanities".

A good TV show should only use one camera, they say, and describe the life of a high school beauty queen and a male athlete who take themselves very seriously even though they don't even have a PhD. These critics don't have a clue about physics and the culture of physicists, so none of them – and none of their friends – watches TBBT. Sheldon has won four Emmies but that's it. As a whole, the show hasn't even been nominated for the major prizes.

Well, many others have a stronger emotional attachment.

The show may be popular because of several reasons that are mentioned in the article. First, the "geek" culture is becoming mainstream. In the past, the normal attitude would be for the "majority" to look at the "geeks" as if they were sick people. That would also be exemplified by assorted superstitions – why it's bad to be very educated, and so on.

Second, the highly educated people who are people's "overlords" are shown as ordinary and usually laughable people. This removes a gap and many of the ordinary people in the supermarket, the ordinary bankers, toll-takers at the Golden Gate Bridge, as well as rocket scientists who only have a master degree from the MIT like to see that they're similar to the actual elite in some sense.

The jock and the high school beauty queen are dead, the Guardian quotes Katherine Brodsky, a stringer (which doesn't quite mean a string theorist).

Also, the article claims that the show avoids complex plots. This may sound as a controversial claim – but I guess that they mean that the characters and their situation aren't dramatically evolving in the long term which allows you to watch the show even if you skipped several episodes (or seasons). Therefore, the "previously on the show" explanations may be largely omitted. The plots confined to the 20-minute episodes (and usually one-half of each) are probably considered non-complex.

The characters have human qualities and human problems that many people recognize, despite the characters' degrees and high IQ and the exaggeration. And they're nice people once you see into them!

Technically, the show is available on all networks which helps. Haters admit that it's great that they can see the show in every hotel because if they loved the show, their life wouldn't suck as much as it sucks now.

Finally, the show is just funny. The writers of other funny shows such as MASH agree. A quantification suggests that in average, a joke takes place every 14 seconds of The Big Bang Theory. That's quite some frequency.

And that's the memo, not Bazinga.

In the comments section, many if not most commenters reveal that they hate TBBT because it symbolizes everything that is wrong with the American humor. And the laugh track is so terrible! (It's not a laugh track, it's real viewers laughing while the show is being filmed, and you may buy tickets, too.) You may always screw yourself, British sourballs. ;-)


  1. Sometimes I find that some tv shows that are referred to as comedies, amusing.
    ' Each to his own taste' said the dog licking it's balls.

  2. bazinga - it's Penny !
    Since Sheldon is so freaked out by infectious agents, I had an idea last nite - after watching BBT -to allay his fears:
    When a virus replicates within a cell, there is a mechanical effect - a "sound", and the sound an Ebola virus makes would be different from a Flu virus or an HIV virus or a Herpes virus, etc etc etc.
    When a patient has a fever we want to quickly determine whether it is just the flu, or something worse. Or maybe there is a viral duet going on.
    An inexpensive gizmo to listen in on these replication sounds would be useful.

    If we can detect the sound signature - that is like identifying atoms by their photon spectrum. The question is how. Maybe there is a detectable modulation from the 'sound' . Do you remember that spy device invented by Theramin -
    a resonant cavity inside the Great Seal served as a microphone - and he would shine radio waves on it, and pick up the modulation, so he could hear all conversations in the room.
    Or maybe some stroboscopic approach with a laser apparatus ?
    Anyway - Physics (Photonics) has a large bag of tricks for measuring stuff.
    Perhaps simpler than Coherent AntiStokes Raman Scattering !

    The signal intensity would depend on the number of replicating viruses, and increase as infection develops. So if one gets infected by touching - the signal would be loudest in the affected fingertips.

    well - the CDC is looking for some suggestions. Maybe this would be an idea ?

  3. Hi Penny, an unusual idea. ;-) For a related one they just announced minutes ago, the U.S. airports will be measuring the temperature of all passengers flying from Ebola zone countries. Does it include Spain or the whole EU? ;-)

  4. TBBT is an summation of states,

    1) Friends A bunch of heterosexuals lost in the world, including a jock.
    2) A bunch of Profoundly Gifted Friends, plus a baseline for calibration.
    3) One engineer who actually makes things (re the jock).
    4) Seinfeld Nobody ever finds their way, hence sustained tension.

    It's a shame Leonard's mom did not take Sheldon's cherry then gift Amy Farrah Fowler with cherry pie - as an experiment.

  5. Hi,

    The big bang theory was simply amazing for the first three seasons, with only some minor hiccups, but it simply went downhill after that. For me it had just set the bar so high, so whenever for example Sheldon was behaving extremely stupidly, and not in the more funny sense of simply processing things differently than most, it just felt like a betrayal of his supposedly high intelligence, and a betrayal of the characteristics they had previously given him.

    The characters in general simply became much too inconsistent, lacking in insight in the world, and the physics jokes suffered too, becoming more and more trivial, if we would get them at all.

    Because of my high expectations I would be almost annoyed by bad episodes, instead of being more rational and simply not care. Now a good episode would be surprising.

    At least we will always have the first three seasons and the great gems here and there, although rare they have become. Hopefully the writers will resurrect the spark and ingenuity that started it all.

  6. Actually, it is a laugh track. They "sweeten" the audio by adding laughing over the laughing. (Yes, it is as a stupid as it sounds, and they still do it. Compare the sound to a show with less (but still there) sweetening like Tosh.0.

    I think the success has to do with something a little more basic, myself -- it is one of the few shows that says it's OK to not be stupid.

  7. Really, its a sad commentary on the socioeconomic decline of the USA. In the 1970s when blue collar workers were thriving, Archie Bunker was the quintessential comedy guy. Some Hollywood exec went to San Diego Comic Con a decade ago and saw all the disposable income of one of the only job categories left standing after "down sizing", "out sources" and "off shoring": geeky professors who liked comic books and fantasy movies. And you could hear the sound of cash registers going off. Good times.

  8. The biggest joke of the show was a String theorist leaving String theory to study dark matter:-)

  9. I am amazed at how they have kept the writing and acting so strong for all these years. The first year or two they were establishing the characters, but now they are all well known and beloved, so the episodes needed to evolve from the early ones, as they have. The gals are great, too, much improved over the early Leslie whose character seemed wooden and unempathetic, unbelievable. She wasn't funny at all and she came across as pretentious, not super intelligent. Amy and Bernadette, in contrast, are both funny and really smart. There are no other female characters in Hollywood productions who talk the way they do.

  10. I watched from the beginning, moslty because (1) it was funny and (2) Penny's breasts. As time went on it became less funny (because less believable) and I learned that Penny's breasts were enhanced. I finally concluded that the show embodies two superficially contradictory themes that I find distasteful, at least when combined: (1) that "normal" people are better than people who have concrete merit based achievements and that (2) smart people are so smart that they can understand things that other people cannot ( and hence implicitly society needs to defer to them on important things only they understand--read, global warming). The second proposition may be true but I no not find it an attractive principle for public affairs, for two reasons: (1) as smart as "smart people" are, they are not smart enough to decide what everyone else should do, and (2) it is unlikely that the "smart people" who would put themselves forward to tell everyone else what to do would actually be all that smart. I perceive an effort to create and exploit a nerd chic by those forces which have traditionally (in words) celebrated the common man while (in fact) seeking to impose the rule of the (self described intellectual) elite (that is, themselves).

    While the show may appear to affirm the hard sciences, I am afraid it just raises their profile as a target for those who view science as a social activity more than a search for knowledge.

    But mostly its about the breasts. If you don't believe 90% of mass entertainment is about sex, I suggest you watch the last ten minutes (and for that matter the first ten minutes) of Alien again.

  11. I come from a backwater --Tasmania-- where it was definitely uncool to be a geek. It gives me a sense of satisfaction to see TBBT's success.