In the 90s, sitcoms were a sure thing. Proof: 76 million people watched the Seinfeld’s finale and the franchise earned 2.7 billion dollars since 2010. Then suddenly, the decade changed. Cable diversified, cheap reality TV got popular, and, because of genre-pushers like The Office, critics agreed the multi-camera form was dead.
So can anybody answer why the The Big Bang Theory is so popular? Chuck Lorre and his merry band of nerds must have figured something out with around 15 million viewers a week (insanely high in a Hulu/DVR/DVD watching culture), the ability to outperform every competitor in its time slot, newly minted cable syndication rights and a recent contract renewal extending through 2014. New sitcoms can’t last (i.e. ABC) and experimental sitcoms can’t draw (i.e. NBC); however, the traditional CBS style sitcom seems stronger than ever. That’s because The Big Bang Theory (henceforth, TBBT) relies on familiar half-hour comedy troupes but tweaks convention for the 21st century.
1. OLD SCHOOL: Start Broad, Get Specific: Like campaigning politicians, successful sitcoms aim for “the middle,” to avoid confusing and offending everybody. TBBT, like other Chuck Lorre shows (Two and a Half Men) use a multi-camera form over sixty years old. Location is established through a small set selection; act structure is transitioned by commercial breaks; conflicts are resolved by the episode’s end (or in part two). Since most people are of average intelligence (hence, average), never write a TV show too smart; people like TV formuliac because you can miss an episode or zone out. Don’t get complicated! The central conflict of any given TBBT episode is twofold: a) “Nerds React Poorly to Normal Things”–Leonard/Sheldon/Raj/Howard’s are unable to relate to “normal” society; or, b) “Stupid People React Poorly to Non-Normal Things”–Penny, or a non-male cast member encounters can’t relate to hyperactive nerdiness. These conflicts become the underlying conceit of every sitcom: humans can’t flourish in all situations; therefore, it’s funniest to watch them flounder.
2. WAVE OF THE FUTURE! Find a Fanbase: “How does a show about theoretical physicists play stupid?” Good question. TBBT both mocks and lauds physicists but mostly confuses them with irony (science’s true weakness). This is fundemental to TBBT‘s success. In today’s fickle television market, sucessful shows find passionate fan communities with blogs and message boards. So TBBT has jokes about Star Trek, math, Latin, memes, etc., because a sitcom’s individual jokes don’t matter: the form is so established people know when to laugh implicitly. Only smarty pants critics care about bullshit like “dialogue”. TBBT is just average intellect–corny jokes that reaffirm stereotypes like, “Nerds are weird,” “Blondes are dumb,” and “Relationships are laborious and endlessly complicated”: same shit, different sitcom. The jokes are cake, and the cake is a lie–fanservice tricking nerds into watching a show designed for adults who vote Republican (Middle America!).
3. OLD SCHOOL! Establish Strong Relationships: Critics and fans agree that TBBT‘s greatest asset is character development. Lorre and co. understand this, so they rightfully takes things slow. The entire first season minus 2 episodes develops the dynamic of the core characters (Penny/Leonard/Sheldon); season two explores Raj and Howard and introduces Penny/Leonard “sexual tension”; season three (eventually) resolves the tension introduces new love interests; season four explores the group’s dynamic (season five’s been a crapshoot thus far). A weaker sitcom sets up those first three arcs in season one: not TBBT. Lorre also casts sitcom staples (Johnny Galeck, Roseanne; Kaley Cuoco, 8 Simple Rules For…) for face recognition, and reliablity. TBBT only took one big chance; surprisingly, it’s that chance that’s won the show two Emmys.
4. WAVE OF THE FUTURE! Figure Out What’s Working, Double It: Let’s face it: Sheldon is the reason people watch this show. I like him; Grandmas in Tulsa like him; parents with autistic children like him (seriously, there’s tons of blogging about Sheldon’s ambigious mental predcament). Sheldon’s great! A cursory glace at Neilson numbers and focus groups confirms this. So, the writers recognized it and made Sheldon integral to every episode’s plot (if he’s not the star, he’s providing irreverent commentary). In fact, the writers literally invented a gender-complementary replica Sheldon. Mayim Bialik is Amy Fowler, an intensely intellectual and socially inept neurobilogist who dresses, looks, and acts exactly like Sheldon. While Bialik is funny, the character also came after allegations that Sheldon might be gay…and gays don’t play in Middle America. More Sheldon, more money!
5. WAVE OF THE FUTURE! Take advantage of Medias: Did you watch TBBT‘s Comic Con Pannel discussion? Because thousands of nerds did. Every month, I see advertisements for syndicated TBBT in my DC comicbooks. 250K Twitter followers; full-motion bus ads; constant late-night talk show cast appearences: TBBT knows how to diversifies its demographics. Since practically anyone can watch the show, any advertiser stands making money from its commercial slots. This readers, is really why TBBT is sucessful: it’s Chuck Lorre certified to make money for years and years to come.
To conclude, I present The Community Counter-Argument. Community went head-to-head with TBBT this season for Thursday night comedy superiority. The outcome: Community is on hiatus and TBBT is renewed until 2014. Critics love Community! How did this happen!? Perhaps because Community openly mocks baby-boomers, Christians, political correctness, and junior college week after week (in fact, the Christmas episode mocked all the aforementioned, simultaniously, in song, while parodying Glee). Or, because Community’s central premise is deconstructing sitcom conventions to show their trite staleness and immobility (also their endeering sentimentality, but that’s hard to catch). Maybe it’s the broad ensemble cast; the complicated plots; the truly esoteric allusions (compared to TBBT‘s facile references); Chevy Chase; etc. Whatever it is, if you ask any TV super-fan, they’ll agree: Community is a great show; TBBT a competent one. So it makes sense why Community might get canceled. Middle America doesn’t want change, commentary, or convention rejection. Middle America wants to see the same thing they saw yesterday packaged with slightly sleaker colors. This is the secret to successful entertainment writing: aim broad, go for the middle.