Are we headed toward a humourless society?
I used to love The Big Bang Theory. I was not alone. The show, now in its 12th season, attracted upward of 20 million weekly viewers at its peak.
I lost interest in it a few seasons ago. There were several reasons. For one, I always feel like we build up immunity to comedy. Even if the quality of the writing doesn’t decay (which it did in this case), it just gets old.
For the most part, though, Sheldon Cooper, one of the main characters, just became insufferable to me. His obliviousness to social mores, or even basic human decency for that matter, was funny in its naivety for a few seasons, but a character incapable of personal growth gets tiresome.
For a couple of years now, I haven’t even watched any reruns, but last night I caught an old episode from 2012. I was actually taken aback by a scene in which Leonard, Howard and Raj go to a bar to pick up women.
The scene starts with Leonard and Howard abandoning Raj, then Leonard asks Howard if they should talk to some of the women.
“No, it’s way too early in the evening for that,” Howard replies. “See, first we let the lawyers and the jocks thin the herd, then we go after the weak, the old and the lame.”
Later they identify a couple of potential targets and Howard proposes a ploy to do a magic trick to break the ice and get the women laughing.
“You get it?” he says to Leonard. “They’re laughing, we’re laughing, then we get them up to about a point-one-five blood-alcohol level and tell them we’re millionaires.”
Finally, when they strike out completely and are ready to leave, they look for Raj, who they find making out with a very overweight woman at the bar. At the end of the episode, Raj wakes up in bed with her and is appalled and wants to escape, a la the old chew-off-your-own-arm gag.
Perhaps it says something about my own capacity for personal growth that I was taken aback. What used to pass for harmless geek humour, seen in the light of the #metoo movement, has taken on a disturbing misogynistic tone.
Moreover, the tropes are kind of lame. The dumb blonde, the dumber jock, the awkward nerd, the overbearing mother, the desperate fat chick, while standard comedic archetypes, eventually fall flat when they are not allowed to develop beyond one-dimension.
Of course, comedy relies on stereotypes. We recognize a kernel of truth in them and exaggeration is, frankly, funny.
And it can have utility. One of the greatest examples of this is the 1970s series All in the Family, which was social commentary wrapped up in comedic bigotry.
Comedy also relies on discomfort. The great comedians straddle the line between acceptable and unacceptable while advancing some kind of social agenda.
Joking about preying on vulnerable women or getting women drunk and deceiving them to take advantage of them sexually can hardly be looked at as serving some noble purpose and it can no longer be dismissed as innocent fun.
And, for Big Bang, it is not even an isolated gag, but one of the foundations of the show. From rigging a remote control toy car to look up Penny’s skirt to hacking a military satellite to spy on women in the America’s Next Top Model house, the guys are kind of creepy pervs.
After decades of comedians pushing the envelope and breaking down taboos, the pool of acceptable things to make fun of is shrinking.
And rightfully so. Some things just aren’t funny.