Geek Culture Portrayal as seen on TV

People constantly tell me that I should watch sitcoms such as Big Bang Theory or the IT Crowd. They assume I will love these shows because they have geeky protagonists that I should be able to relate to. The truth is however that these shows irk me. I’m not saying they are not entertaining or funny. That’s not it at all. It’s just that they don’t do my people justice.

The way most of these shows are set up is that the main source of comedy is the oddball, offbeat behavior of the protagonists. Basically the whole theme is “look how adorably silly these geeks can be” which strikes me as a bit patronizing. These series do nothing new. They basically continue the old tradition stared by the Revenge of the Nerds movies. They pander to the mainstream audiences by poking fan at the geeky stereotypes, just this time around they throw in a Star Trek joke or some geeky exchange. You know, stuff that will sail way over the heads of 90% of their audience, but will make you and me chuckle and feel acknowledged. And then it’s back to making jokes at the expense of the poor nerds. I believe this is how these shows get their geek cred. But the sad truth is that they still laugh mostly at us rather than with us.

Let me give you an example. Here is a clip from Big Bang Theory in which two of the protagonists discuss the problem with quantum teleportation:

This is actually an interesting subject, and I discussed it at length on this very blog. The fact that series even brings up this topic scores it major points. It is an interesting topic, and Sheldon articulates it very well. But look how the whole discussion is presented. Observe how his friend handles the conversation. Note his dismissive attitude.

There is nothing inherently funny about what Sheldon is saying. What is the joke here? The joke is “look at the goofy nerd”. That’s what kills it for me. The audience is supposed to identify with the other more mainstream and “grounded” character, but I can’t. To me he is just being an ass for no other reason than to paint his compatriot in unfavorable light as “the bigger nerd” at the table.

Of course there is nothing wrong with making fun of geeky stuff. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t laugh at ourselves every once in a while. I’m not saying the series is wrong or offensive because of this approach. That’s not the case. All I’m saying is that I am clearly not the target audience. This is not a show for geeks – it is a show about geeks, which makes them seem silly, fun and non-threatening.

I personally yearn for a real geek centric series. Something that was written from our point of view. Something that we could really relate to. Here is how you do it: you set up your geeks as your straight men, and make everyone else to be comic relief. You know, like in the real life. Make the handful of engineers or scientists to be the only rational, competent and sane people in the whole group/company. Poke fun at managers who are too dumb to live, sleazy marketing people who have more confidence than common sense, apathetic and lazy clerks etc… Make everyone else in that universe either overwhelmingly superficial, staggeringly shallow or batshit insane. I’m not saying these people should be made unlikable – make them fun silly and non-threatening.

Instead of laughing at the fact someone happens to enjoy science fiction satirize things that are shameful but socially acceptable such as:

  1. Gaps in peoples education (don’t you get tired hearing people saying silly things like “I’m not good at math”)
  2. Ignorance – cultural, geographical, scientific, etc…
  3. People’s fear of science and technology and superstitious and ritualistic way they use it
  4. Obsessions with shallow, and uninteresting reality shows and soap operas
  5. Ridiculous ways that fans of sports teams tend to behave

There is a lot of comedic potential there. It is not like these things are not funny – it is just seems easier to make cheap nerd jokes. So try to avoid that at all costs. When it comes to your geeks play it straight. Of course you can still have them do “geeky” things like discuss Science Fiction but don’t make that to be the joke. Let me give you an example: when Kevin Smith wrote Clerks he had his characters Dante and Randall have a drawn out discussion about Star Wars:

Can you spot the difference between this and the previous clip? The topic conversation is not the main joke here. Neither is the “geekiness” of the participants. Smith didn’t have a character come in rolling his eyes to signify “look how silly and nerdy these guys are”. No, he has a random guy join in the conversation on an equal footing. They all have an interesting exchange which ends up being somewhat poignant. Yes, they were talking about Star Wars but there is nothing inherently funny about it. Just like there is nothing inherently funny in having conversations about quantum physics or say Star Trek or video games. That’s something I can relate to, because I do have this types of conversations in my daily life. If Big Bang theory did the same with their teleportation discussion I would be thrilled. If they had only dared to explore the topic and come up with some intelligent banter it would be so much better. But instead the writers of that show went for the easy “LOL, Sheldon is such a nerd” cheap-shot.

Do you see where I’m coming from here. Yes, these shows you keep recommending might be funny and worth watching, but they are not made for geeks. They poke fun at us. Not that I’m offended or anything. It’s just that these shows are not what you seem to think they are. Think about it. In real life, I don’t really think of myself and my friends as “the silly nerds”. I don’t find our conversations outlandishly nerdy – though I understand they might sound as such to others. To me though they are just normal day-to-day stuff. That’s my bread and butter..

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23 Responses to Geek Culture Portrayal as seen on TV

  1. Matt` UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I quite like Big Bang Theory, but I think you’re right… it’s got the geeky references but the humour comes from “look at the massive nerd making geeky references” more often than not. Or other stereotypes (it just started a new series, centre-joke of the first episode was one of them getting his penis stuck in the death-grip of a programmable robotic hand).

    As far as shows that are for nerds rather than about nerds go, there’s always Futurama. It has all kinds of stuff going on juuuust below the surface, as an extra layer for those that get it. That, and half the plots are a twist on classic sci-fi themes like time travel.

    A recent one-off (TV movie) that might be worth your time was called “Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel”. It did a little bit of “look how nerdy this guy is, haha”, but was mostly just a funny time travel story.

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  2. Gothmog UNITED STATES Internet Explorer Windows Terminalist says:

    I LOVE this pitch. I would certainly watch it! Hell, I LIVE it!

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  3. ninjapirate89 UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    I get what you are saying, but I can tell you haven’t watched much BBT because they do poke fun at normal people too (usually at the expense of Penny, the hot chick across the hall). Out of your list of five things to satirize instead of people who enjoy science fiction, BBT has done at least 4 of them if not them all.

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  4. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Matt`:

    Thanks for the suggestion. I will check it out. :) Also, Futurama is indeed one of my all time favorite shows.

    Have you seen the new episodes yet? I’m terribly afraid to watch the new season because in case it has jumped the shark I don’t want to soil my fond memories of the series. That’s also why I never seen any of the movies.

    So, is it safe to watch the new eps?

    @ ninjapirate89:

    Guilty as charged – I have not seen much of BBT or IT Crowd. I do realize they often poke fun at other characters, but to me it seemed like the chief running gag of both series was “lol at the silly nerds”. That seems to be their favorite go-to humor. I may be wrong though. It is just my impression from watching few random episodes here and there.

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  5. mcai8sh4 UNITED KINGDOM Google Chrome Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    I also watched “Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel” and found it really enjoyable! It’s not uber geeky, but very well done (IMO).
    I do have a copy thanks to get-iplayer which if anyone wants a watch let me know (I’m sure our host could pass an email on to me). It would be a slow download, but I think it’s worth the wait.

    I don’t watch the big bang theory due to many of the points in this post. I do like the IT crowd, but only as easy watching humor.

    There should be a better representation of the ‘geek’ culture – but since we a re few and far between, I don’t think it would ever make it mainstream.

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  6. Jereme Kramer UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux says:

    The new Futurama episodes are hit or miss. I liked some of them, but some of them were pretty bad.

    If you’ve never watched Xavier Renegade Angel, its an interesting trip. It’s not necessarily involved in geek culture, but its definitely an intelligent show, and frequently mocks the insanities of society.

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  7. stwawbewwy UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Mac OS says:

    Big Bang Theory definitely has all the potential for an good comedy show, but sadly it’s yet another lazy laugh-track sitcom. If you want to turn it into a really different type of humor, try watching without the laugh track. (:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q_iEY9pSHT0

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  8. Honestly, I am typically the same way — My mom goes “oh you should meet this guy –> He works in *insert tech career field*”.

    However, Big Bang Theory is awesome :)

    I don’t think that they treat nerd/geeks any meaner than we treat ourselves. How many times have you got into a debate about something technical or geeky (I get into “philosophy of star trek” debates all the time) and realized to yourself “man I sound like a dork”.

    The humor in the clips with Sheldon isn’t because he is a nerd and the goal is “haha look at the nerd” its his personality, and how he discusses it. You really should watch two episodes (one is one tonight). If you don’t like it, then meh you wont like it. However, they do a lot of great justice to our community, and there are a ton of inside jokes that we would only get: Wil Wheton is a charater that makes a guest appearance somtimes, on his first appearance, he was wearing the fruit fucker 2000 shirt from Penny Arcade… no one would know that but someone who knows Penny Arcade.

    The second time he was on the show Sheldon was in a competition with him in a bowling match, so he called his team the “Weasly Crushers” to be a play on words, but it backfired and everyone just thought it was a “fan group”.

    Anyway… Lots of people wouldn’t get the humor there. I don’t get the humor in some things, because its not my area of geekyness… but thats why its so great, they spread themselves accross so many fields. One time Sheldon said “Oh Ubuntu how I love you” or something like that.. and it was great.

    I don’t really get the physics jokes, though I get the inside joke between applied physics and theoretical physics (Sheldon and his room mate get in this argument sometimes too). They never make a joke that makes fun of geek/nerd culture in a bad way — If you are LOOKING to take offense (like you seem to be doing as per your review), then yeah you might be offended.

    Like I said, watch two episodes, if you don’t like it… then I wont hold it against you… but give it a REAL chance… this isn’t some series that “you will like because your a nerd” … oh yeah it is… but it REALLY is.. not just some thing that uneducated people think that you would like. :P

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  9. Okay and I watched the clip, and cracked up (again) — The joke isn’t about the destruction of your life, and being rematerialized and making fun of Sheldon for it.

    Keep in mind the guy he is talking to is a theoretical physicist, hes a geeky cast member too.

    The reason that its funny is that Sheldon just comes up with random shit sometimes, and discusses it… or more like tells you how it is. It goes to my previous point that sometimes when we talk about something nerdy, we go into it, and then realize later “man I sound like a dork”.

    Let me break the clip down in a different way:

    Sheldon starts randomly talking about something that has no relevance, and really isn’t that important of a topic (at least not yet anyway).
    (insert laughter — at the situation… not Sheldon himself for being a nerd)

    Lenard knows there is no way out of conversation
    (insert laughter, because we know how he feels)

    Sheldon goes on this long speech about his topic

    Lenard is still not paying that much attention, and gives the equivalent of “mhmm”

    Thats funny because this guy is talking about something that he genuinely fears, that will never actually happen to him… Insert laughter.

    it goes on

    Now Lenard makes a jab at Sheldon, not because he is a nerd, but because hes annoying at times.

    Thats why the clip is funny they are not laughing at Sheldon, they are laughing at the situation that Sheldon has created.

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  10. ninjapirate89 UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    @ Travis McCrea:
    Its not as funny when you break it down like that, but you did it accurately. :(

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  11. Mart SINGAPORE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I think the IT Crowd makes fun of geeks but the Big Bang Theory makes fun with geeks. And there is no question which one I like better.

    The IT Crowd has its moments, but I like how BBT takes geeky topics and makes it funny for the general audience. Like how Travis McCrea has broken it down, that particular clip isn’t about making fun of geeks or quantum teleportation, but the situation in which Sheldon brings it up but Leonard just wants to enjoy his meal without random quirks from his roommate. Note that both of them are geeks. If this is a show that makes fun of geeks, I believe the writers/producers/whatever will cast this segment with a geek and a muggle, where the muggle would not understand the a thing about what was just said and the punchline would be him putting the geek down.

    I think BBT acknowledges the fact that there are not just a single type of geek but there is the normal geek (Leonard), the overly horny geek (Howard), the antisocial geek (Sheldon) and the geek-who-can’t-talk-to-girls-literally (Raj). Even Penny has developed into a likable character. In the 1st season, she was just eye candy (aka. boring) but has now become part of their ragtag group.

    By the way, Big Bang Theory has an accompanying blog titled The Big Blog Theory which discusses one or two of the physics theories that were mentioned in passing. The blog is created by Dr David Saltzberg, which I think is a consultant on the show.

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  12. JKjoker ARGENTINA Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    maybe you are looking at the IT crowd the wrong way, while it sometimes works at a nerdy level i dont think its written for nerds, i actually tried the experiment of making my computer illiterate folks watch it and they loved it (although for some reason they HATED the “talk like a football fan” ep

    i was particularly impressed by the internet episode

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iDbyYGrswtg
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UTBsm0LzSP0

    its so simplistic its so ridiculous and yet it works so well, i sat down to think how would could i make a joke on ppl’s ignorance of basic IT knowledge and in a way that could be transmitted to that same crowd at the same time and i just couldnt think of anything, its genius, but its probably not what you are looking for as “geek entertainment”

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  13. @ ninjapirate89:
    I am sorry that I ruined the joke, I just wanted to show how they were laughing WITH us, not AT us.

    Btw, to all my fellow Big Bang Theory watchers — Who are you most like (I know that they are all supposed to be a part of our personalities, but pick two) , and who do you think Luke is?

    I myself, am a Sheldon / Leonard — I am not really INTO tech and stuff… I just surround myself with it. I am anti-social, but in my group of friends I am typically the one with a girlfriend.

    lol and I see Luke as Sheldon — Look at this post… it should be clear :P

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  14. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ Jereme Kramer:

    I just can’t get into Xavier. I think it is one of these shows that can’t be enjoyed fully without some pharmaceutical enhancement. Most of it is disjointed noise to me, though it did make me laugh a few times, and I do acknowledge that it often does make some interesting points. I also hate their cheep looking animation and character models fished out of the deepest end of the uncanny valley.

    @ stwawbewwy:

    Wow, what a difference. It actually made me crack up. I love how the missing laugh track adds these prolonged awkward pauses. Why do we even have laugh tracks anyway?

    @ Mart:

    Thanks for the link to that blog. Very refreshing to see a show hire a real scientist consultant instead of just making stuff up, and looking stuff up on Wikipedia – which seems to be the norm these days.

    @ JKjoker:

    Yes, the internet clip is indeed quite funny and quite clever. I never said these series don’t have funny scenes – they do. As I said, they both do a lot of fan service directed at us geeks which is likely why everyone keeps recommending them to me.

    @ Travis McCrea:

    Yes, unfortunately I think I am very much Sheldon like. Well minus the brilliant theoretical physicist stuff. I usually try to conceal it when I’m amongst strangers and not externalize this stuff the way he does though. :P

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  15. :P I wrote two entries that combined were about as long as your whole blog, and the only thing you care to comment on is the little joke meaningless thing at the end?

    lol … like I said… Sheldon. :P

    hehe in your above comment you said “the series don’t have funny clips” instead of doesn’t. I find it entertaining, because I rarely see you make grammar mistakes like that… so I have to point it out.

    So now go… go and watch the show … I was wrong before they moved from monday to Thursday (or some other day, I think its Thursday, look it up.. or just set your DVR… or just download the torrent… or watch it on the site)

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  16. I agree with you. Those series are boring, I’m geek, but those series just show a bad caricature of some geeks. I’m quite far from that profile…

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  17. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Travis McCrea:

    Well, it was 2am in the morning and I was about to go to sleep, so I just kept it short. I do see your point though.

    Yes the humor in the clip is character driven, stemming from the fact that Sheldon suddenly goes on an off-topic rant that while well thought out comes literally out of nowhere, most likely being unrelated to the previous conversation.

    On the other hand, the fact remains that they purposefully ramp up Sheldon’s character to maximize the geekiness just to be able to make that joke. So my point still stands – I’m kinda tired of seeing geeks being mostly portrayed as comic relief.

    That said, this does not really offend me or anything. BBT is one of the very few shows out there that does have a lot of geek aimed fan service, and thanks to that blog link posted above I’m gaining new appreciation on just how much research goes into each episode.

    Also sometimes they are spot on – whether intentionally, or by accident. For example, I saw one episode where all characters are trying to help Leonard to figure out Football when he gets invited to watch a game with a girl and some of her jock friends. Funny thing is that something like this has happened to me – I had friends giving me crash course in the game, teams and players in the car on the way to a superbowl party so that I could at least pretend that I know what is going on.

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  18. ninjapirate89 UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    @ Travis McCrea:
    I’d say I’m a mix of Sheldon and Rajesh.

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  19. ninjapirate89 UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    @ Travis McCrea:
    I’d say I’m a mix of Sheldon and Raj.

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  20. :P So then its not making fun of us, its pointing out truth! These are the chronically of my life… if it makes people laugh, great.

    I do see your point. I also was not actually upset you didn’t respond to everything else… just giving you shit.

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  21. I think this are shows not just about geeks, they are for geeks too. (at least IT-Crowd, i didn’t really watch big bang theory much)
    There are at least the same amount of jokes about “normal” people like there are jokes about geeks (“have you tried turning it on and of again?”, “this, jen, is the internet.. don’t drop it!”).
    A lot of Jokes won’t even be understood by most people. So yes.. i think they are a lot more funny if you are geek. (most normal people here in germany propably dont even know/understand the whole concept of geek and nerd… for them they are just strange acting people)

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  22. Mart SINGAPORE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ Travis McCrea:
    I think I’ll morph into all four of them depending on situation if I put on The Mask. Raj among people I don’t know, Howard among people I do know, Sheldon among people who do not share the same interests as me, and Leonard when I’m with my wife and kid. :D

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  23. Andrew Zimmerman UNITED STATES Google Chrome Windows Terminalist says:

    This is an excellent topic. I feel the shows are about painting nerds comically, and so ordinary people don’t realize why we don’t like it.
    Well, I think most people don’t think about the things they are laughing at, that’s all..

    I think some parts of the IT shows just make metaphorical analogies to our apparent, inherent separation from the world. Although I find less conflict this way, the shows paint a general public’s usual stereotype against that type of life..

    If a video showed what an ordinary lab environment was Actually like it wouldn’t be funny at all. People would probably relate with the actual Nerd rather then the Asshole sitting next to him, because in real life Nerd situations there is no Asshole;
    That guy is busy being an asshole and isn’t in the lab! :D

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