Theories on The Big Bang Theory: Why I Hated the Pilot

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Why I Hated the Pilot

June 30th, 2009

[While I’ve blogged about some episodes of the show, and even covered the PaleyFest panel about the show in April, I haven’t actually watched The Big Bang Theory with any consistency. I’m watching the show as my thesis breaks over the next few weeks, and while I have no intentions of any indepth thoughts (not that kind of show), I do have a few things to say about the show, and will stop by with them on occasion.]

For a good year, the only thing on this blog on the subject of The Big Bang Theory was an article lumping it in with Cavemen, a problematic judgment that I knew needed to be addressed but didn’t really see any rush in fixing. The show just really turned me off with its pilot, and after watching it there was absolutely nothing that could convince me to keep watching…or so I told myself.

In my head, I had sworn off the show after the pilot, never to watch again after it had offended me so – watching the first season, however, I appear to have watched at least a few of the episodes that followed, whether randomly or purposefully but without much intention. Clearly, my experience with them didn’t override my disdain for the pilot, so going back to that first episode I was still very curious to see if I could pinpoint just what it was that resulted in such vitriol.

I think I’ve found the answer: the thing that made me hate this pilot is, rather than the existence of a laugh track, the execution of said sitcom device.

I don’t particularly LIKE laugh tracks, certainly, but I understand why they’re there. This is a show written for a studio audience, by a creator who leans on it like a crutch, so of course it’s going to have a laugh track in order to keep its sense of rhythm and pacing. Plus, as Jaime Weinman pointed out on Twitter, the show was revamped following its first pilot after audience interaction discovered some major problems, so the show was in some ways saved creatively by this particularly advice.

As a result, my objection isn’t with the laugh track itself, but rather those jokes that don’t particularly work with a laugh track, at least not the same as other jokes. There are parts of this show that are the same as any other sitcom: friends hanging out, awkward social situations, quippy one-liners, and everything else in between are all represented here, and sound perfectly natural with a laugh track. However, there are moments in the pilot that aren’t something you’d see on a normal sitcom, and when the laugh track pops up on them I begin to hate the show all over again.

These moments are the “geek” moments, those moments where the crowd laughs at Sheldon and Leonard because they’re big geeks and that’s funny. I want to clarify that there’s a difference between geeky jokes, or geeky pratfalls, or geeky interactions with Penny – all of those feel like traditional sitcom scenarios but with geek references worked into them, which is actually kind of refreshing. What I’m speaking of are moments where it is nothing but Sheldon and Leonard saying things that are normal and innocuous in their lives, and yet the crowd is laughing up a storm.

As the series goes on, these moments are few and far between: Prady and Lorre have discovered what makes the characters tick to the point that when they get together for a game of World of Warcraft, we’re laughing at Sheldon being Sheldon more than we’re laughing at “grown males playing video games.” However, the pilot doesn’t have that ability: when you watch as the crowd laughs uproariously at the thought of someone watching Battlestar Galactica Season 2 again with commentary, it’s a cheap joke at the expense of, well, me. I won’t lie that this joke was pretty much my raison d’etre for hating the show after the fact, a joke that wasn’t at all funny for me and yet, because of the laugh track’s insistence, was apparently the funniest thing in the history of time.

I don’t think the line shouldn’t be present, but I think in welcoming people into the show it would have been best to tone down the laugh track on those lines that walk that fine line between self-aware observation of geek culture and an effort to laugh at these characters. The show is actually fascinating in the way it uses science and geek culture to drive story, and it’s almost always at its best when it does so, but early on there was every chance that it would simply be making fun of those elements that it purported to want to celebrate, and that line was enough for my to label it as such. If the laugh track hadn’t been there, I could have seen the show as being capable of moving in either direction, but that was so definitive in my mind that I had had enough.

The laugh track does its job when it’s required, but it also can be almost too directive: there’s nothing really funny about Sheldon or Leonard in that sequence, which tells us that their very existence is supposed to be comically sad and uncool to the audience, which isn’t really what the show boils down to. And yet, because of that all important first impression, it was what I personally boiled the show down to on any and all occasions.

Cultural Observations

  • On the pilot, I think it’s fascinating to have Raj barely speak a word the entire time since Penny was in their presence, considering he’s actually a far more empathetic character than Wolowitz, who comes across as a total putz. It’s just a sign that, outside of the core three dynamic, the show was still sort of grasping at straws.
  • Just so we’re clear, Jim Parsons has pretty well been awesome from Day one on this show, and it’s a good thing the writers’ have finally caught up to him a little.
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6 Comments

Filed under The Big Bang Theory

6 responses to “Theories on The Big Bang Theory: Why I Hated the Pilot

  1. Yeah, Lorre has two crutches: the laugh track and meanness. TWO AND A HALF MEN more or less consists of twenty-minutes of insults. I’m not a huge fan, but it sort of works for the show because all the characters are contemptible.

    The pilot clearly showed that Lorre was trying to bring the exact same format over to BIG BANG THEORY, but it didn’t work because the characters aren’t grotesques–not even Sheldon. So laughing at them, and hearing the audience laugh at them, felt unjustifiably cruel. Because it was. Ever since then, the show has been leaning further and further away from that style humor, and BBT has been better for it. It’s a good example of how characterization (and performances) can shape a show and make it something different than its creators originally intended.

  2. Rock, paper, scissors, lizard, Spock!

  3. kab

    I HATE the laugh track. It just doesn’t need it – if you don’t get it, you don’t get it.

    What I don’t understand is why they all turned on Sheldon. The series started will them all as equal friends, but now it seems as if Sheldon is a burden to the other three. The show now seems to revolve the three guys annoying Sheldon, and Sheldon annoying them.

  4. It’s kind of crazy that I googled “laugh track b…” and it is such a popular topic that autocomplete took over.

    I really like the show, but I have to consciously tune out the laugh track in order to enjoy it. Sheldon is amazing and we shouldn’t have to be prompted to laugh at his antics.

  5. Claire

    The show does not use a laugh track, it’s a live studio audience.

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