*Cue CBS Laugh Track*

The Big Bang Theory
The Big Bang Theory

CBS and Chuck Lorre’s The Big Bang Theory dominates as the post popular show on scripted television. Currently in its eighth season, the multi-camera sitcom has aired nearly 200 episodes and ranks as the second most watched show on TV with a twenty million viewer pull.[1] A show with this much notoriety has the rare opportunity to legitimately influence American culture in a positive way, but unfortunately The Big Bang Theory chooses not to. The premier scripted show in TV ratings happens to present some of the nastiest minority stereotypes on television. Aside from the token minority, Raj, and the dumb blonde stereotype, Penny, The Big Bang Theory’s most insidious reinforcement of stereotypes lie in the character Sheldon Cooper, played by Emmy Award winning actor Jim Parsons.

As a white, cisgender male, Sheldon seems an unlikely candidate to embody a minority. Yet, he displays behaviors consistent with a person with Asperger’s, and thus he has become an unintentional representative of the mentally handicapped. Though denied by CBS and Jim Parsons himself, several Internet theorists, including Autism Speaks, Autism Daily, and Psychology Today, have insisted that the character Sheldon presents the characteristics of a person with Asperger’s syndrome.[2] Individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome (a mild form of Autism), sometimes called “Aspies,” possess deficits in social interaction yet find themselves gifted with above average IQ levels and one interest that they predominantly excel in.[3] Ordinarily, individuals with Asperger’s think literally, obsess over routine, and struggle to assess social cues.

Consistent with these traits, Sheldon interprets language literally, cannot detect sarcasm, has difficulties understanding non-verbal communication, anxiety about adapting to change, difficulty initiating relationships and insists on talking only about subjects of personal interest.[4] Yet, CBS representatives refuse to identify Sheldon anywhere on the Autism spectrum because admitting to such would present the writers with a responsibility to get the details right and open the door to valid criticism of their exploitation of the disease as a joke. Without the right support, Autism spectrum disorders become hindering conditions that can devastate the lives of those affected and those who fall somewhere on the spectrum certainly do not find Asperger’s Syndrome funny.

Despite this, The Big Bang Theory continues to use Sheldon’s social dysfunctions and mental disorder as a punch line. For example, whenever another character sits on Sheldon’s infamous “spot on the couch,” he freaks out at the lack of respect for his compulsory routine. Sound mixers play the traditional CBS laugh track as the screen cuts back and forth from Sheldon’s visible distress and a “normal” character’s amused reaction. The characters and audience alike appear to view Sheldon’s symptoms as hilarious, and tormenting Sheldon by interfering with his routines has developed into a frequently employed gag.

Anytime Sheldon painfully misinterprets a social cue, a laugh track plays. After Penny finds out that Sheldon and his roommate Leonard broke into her apartment so they could organize she exclaims, “Do you know how creepy that is?!” To which Leonard answers, “Yes, we discussed it at great length last night.” Unable to detect sarcasm Sheldon replies, “No we didn’t,” only further enraging Penny.[5] The sound mixers then insert a laugh track between every other line to remind the audience to giggle at Sheldon’s confusion over Penny’s distress. The compulsion to join in with the contagious sound of laughter drives the audience to snicker at a fight that challenges one of Sheldon’s few relationships. Without a laugh track the individual viewer must evaluate whether or not Sheldon’s accidental self-isolation from valuable friendships remains hilarious to them.

The Big Bang Theory’s writers and directors also love to force Sheldon into uncomfortable physical intimacy. People with Asperger’s often hate physical interaction with strangers and loved ones alike, so naturally it has become another characteristic of Sheldon for The Big Bang Theory to exploit. In season two’s Christmas episode, Sheldon realizes that according to social custom he ought to hug Penny to thank her for his Christmas present.[6] Instead of Penny telling Sheldon that she understands his difficulty with hugs and that he does not have to, Penny hugs him anyway and a laugh track plays over Sheldon’s tortured expression. The show responds to his distress over a change, anxiety in social situations, and discomfort with physical interaction, seldom with compassion but instead with uproarious laughter.

On YouTube, compilation videos with clips of Sheldon’s exhibition of Asperger’s traits accumulate thousands of views and nearly as many comments. When dozens of these clips are placed side by side, the consistent set up of Sheldon’s scenes makes it obvious that The Big Bang Theory created Sheldon not to make jokes but to laugh at his mere existence. Scroll down to the comments on these videos and real people with Asperger’s cry out their distain for the show. One user, Robert Smith complains,

“Those people in denial about Sheldon having Autism want it that way so they can continue laughing at and making fun of someone who does. This includes not just the audience but the show’s producers, writers and cast… If your neighbor or their child had autism would you go over at laugh at and make fun of him/her all day? It’s not funny just because of a laugh track!”[7]

About 40% of children on the Autism spectrum experience bullying, but with The Big Bang Theory, adults continue to make fun of the commonalities of the Autism spectrum that Sheldon possesses.[8] As YouTuber “DrCerebro” objected, “I hate this show… They are showing something that is incredibly hard to live with as something funny.”[9] Not only does The Big Bang Theory refuse to acknowledge the implications of the characteristics they wrote into Sheldon, his misrepresentation and awkward, Aspie-like archetype has grown to iconic celebrity status.

Because Autism spectrum characters exist as such a rare minority on television, many viewers have simply accepted that the character of Sheldon qualifies as good representation, rather than a stereotype, simply because he remains one of the most visible characters on television. Shockingly, the organization Autism Speaks even posted an article called “Why Our Autism Community Loves Sheldon Cooper” where actor Kerry Magro describes wanting to “insure the entertainment industry was providing as realistic of a portrayal of individuals with autism as possible.”[10] Magro explains that Sheldon illustrates that people on the Autism spectrum can have a job, maintain a romantic relationship and live independently. The irony here comes from the celebration of a character’s portrayal of Autism when the show refuses to own up to that label. Sure, Sheldon has found success despite his disability but the audience and characters mock him regardless. Does the Autism community really want to accept Sheldon as an ideal representation just because of his prominence? Disrespectful depiction does not benefit the groups it represents regardless of how famous the performer becomes.

Minority and advocacy groups should not have to settle for caricatures or stereotypes to represent them and thankfully television does offer Autism spectrum characters other than Sheldon Cooper. The NBC show Parenthood offers two characters with Asperger’s: Max Braverman (Max Burkholder) and Hank Rizzoli (Ray Romono), who both receive a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome on the show and despite their struggles with it have plotlines outside of their disease as fully formed characters. Although, Parenthood identifies as a drama, Max and Hank often serve as comic relief, notably, playing off of their common identity when they feel out of place in their “normal” families.[11] However, these characters lack discussion and praise, even in Parenthood’s sixth season, as the show has about fourteen million fewer viewers than The Big Bang Theory and only ranked 57th in 2014 viewership.[12]

Because they refuse to identify Sheldon as a person with Asperger’s, advocacy groups lack the justification to correct CBS for its mockery and until such an admission comes, The Big Bang Theory will continue to use Sheldon’s struggles with his disorder as a comedic go-to. Sheldon’s symptoms of his Asperger’s have become his main identifier and his coping mechanisms persist as the writers’ idea of a gag. Sheldon Cooper has become the Asperger’s representative that the Autism/Asperger’s community neither asked for nor deserved and will continue to be as CBS already renewed the show for seasons nine and ten. But this doesn’t change the fact that The Big Bang Theory audience laughs at Sheldon instead of with him. Don’t be fooled by the laugh track. TC mark

[1] Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady, The Big Bang Theory, 2007-2015 (Burbank, CA: Warner Bros. Television).

[2] “Jim Parsons Says Sheldon Cooper Doesn’t Have Asperger’s: Likes ‘The Way It’s Handled’,” Inquisitr, September 3, 2014.

[3] “Autism and Asperger Syndrome: Some Facts and Statistics,” The National Autistic Society, accessed January 28, 2015.

[4] “Does Sheldon have Asperber’s?,” Asperger’s and Me, March 25, 2013, https://aspergersandmeblog.wordpress.com/2013/03/25/does-sheldon-have-aspergers/.

[5] “Asperger’s Traits in Sheldon Cooper,” YouTube, 7:33, from CBS’s The Big Bang Theory, posted by “hellothere2215,” February 16, 2014, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rSVhXOFtoYY.

[6] “Asperger’s Traits in Sheldon Cooper,” February 16, 2014.

[7] Robert Smith, September 2014, comment on “Asperger’s Traits in Sheldon Cooper,” YouTube, February 16, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rSVhXOFtoYY.

[8] “Autism and Asperger Syndrome: Some Facts and Statistics,” The National Autistic Society, accessed January 28, 2015.

[9] DrCerebro, comment on “Asperger’s Traits in Sheldon Cooper.”

[10] Kerry Magro, “Why Our Autism Community Loves Sheldon Cooper,” Autism Speaks, accessed January 28, 2015.

[11] Emily Orley, “With Hank, Parenthood Takes A Different Approach To Addressing Autism,” Buzzfeed, November 7, 2014.

[12] Ron Howard and Jason Katims, Parenthood, aired 2010-2015 (Universal City, CA: Universal Television).

Works Cited

“Asperger’s Traits in Sheldon Cooper,” YouTube, 7:33, from CBS’s The Big Bang Theory, posted by “hellothere2215,” February 16, 2014, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rSVhXOFtoYY.

“Autism and Asperger Syndrome: Some Facts and Statistics,” The National Autistic Society, accessed January 28, 2015.

Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady, The Big Bang Theory, 2007-2015 (Burbank, CA: Warner Bros. Television).

“Does Sheldon have Asperber’s?,” Asperger’s and Me, March 25, 2013, https://aspergersandmeblog.wordpress.com/2013/03/25/does-sheldon-have-aspergers/.

“Jim Parsons Says Sheldon Cooper Doesn’t Have Asperger’s: Likes ‘The Way It’s Handled’,” Inquisitr, September 3, 2014.

Magro, Kerry. “Why Our Autism Community Loves Sheldon Cooper,” Autism Speaks, accessed January 28, 2015.

Orley, Emily. “With Hank, Parenthood Takes A Different Approach To Addressing Autism.” Buzzfeed. November 7, 2014.

Ron Howard and Jason Katims, Parenthood, aired 2010-2015 (Universal City, CA: Universal Television).

More From Thought Catalog

  • https://thoughtcatalog.com/joanne-kirkby/2015/03/the-changing-coffee-shop-culture/ The Changing Coffee Shop Culture | Thought Catalog

    […] Read this: *Cue CBS Laugh Track* Cataloged in […]

blog comments powered by Disqus