For years The Big Bang Theory has been both background noise and a dirty little secret in my life. As a culture writer and comedian, enjoying Big Bang Theory comes with the same sort of social stigma saved for adults who proudly like System of a Down. You’re simply not supposed to like it after you grow up, or learn to lie and pretend you like Rush.
The Big Bang Theory is easy to hate on paper, from the overblown laugh track to its seemingly stereotypical characters. Being birthed by Two and a Half Men mastermind Chuck Lorre didn’t help, obviously. Lorre’s previous hit was a toxic soup of misogyny lead by a nuclear Charlie Sheen. When Big Bang Theory hit four years later the association was impossible to shake.
Which is why I’m grateful for my Grandmother. Like many people who hate Big Bang Theory, I’d never actually watched the show beyond a few passing minutes. So when she and my cousins gathered around the TV to watch an episode I hemmed and hawed and sat my ass down. And then I laughed my ass off.
For all the hell comedy snobs give laugh tracks, watching the show with their live laughter gave me a deeper appreciation for canned laughs. Laugh tracks were originally introduced to create balance in live sitcom recordings. Some jokes didn’t get the desired laugh from the live audience, so laugh tracks served to “sweeten” the response. Inversely, sometimes when jokes got too big a response, the laugh track was inserted to tone them down to not interrupt a shows flow.
But watching the show with my family’s uncontrollable cackling, I learned to appreciate the pacing laugh tracks create. Big Bang Theory could easily be shot in a multicamera format without a laugh track, but it would be exhausting. The sheer pace of the jokes require the artificial pauses of a laugh track, particularly when you consider the number of references and asides that get thrown in.
More importantly, when I got home and started watching the show by myself, always alone and away from judging eyes, the laugh track kept me company. The sound of one voice laughing alone in a room is haunting. Sometimes the sweetening of a laugh track is just improving the experience for a solo viewer. If my shame at enjoying Big Bang Theory came with a single benefit, it would be learning to love a good laugh track.
When I finally settled into watching Big Bang Theory in syndication its charms quickly overtook me. I love that it’s equally smart and dumb as hell. Big Bang Theory built entire episodes around going to see Raiders of the Lost Ark or the temptations of having a programmable robot arm. It also found time to show its characters learning about social cues, like season 2’s brilliant “The Friendship Algorithm,” where Sheldon makes his friends take a survey to figure out his most likable qualities.
It would be incredibly easy for the show to let science be an afterthought, even if the main characters are all scientists. Instead, the writers fully embraced this aspect of the characters, hiring actual scientists to fact check scripts and provide punch up.
People have made jokes about the deadly nature of being saved by Superman before. But when mathematics gets involved, you get jokes like Sheldon causally observing what the science says. “Lois Lane is falling, accelerating at an initial rate of 32 feet per second,” he explains. “Superman swoops down to save her by reaching out two arms of steel. Ms. Lane, who is now traveling at approximately 120 miles per hour, hits them, and is immediately sliced into three equal pieces.”
At its heart Big Bang Theory is a show about personal growth, which is partly why its hard to enjoy in small doses. Without knowing anything about the characters the show is insufferable, due to just how mean everyone can be to each other. But then you find yourself a few episodes deep and start to pick up the rhythms. You realize these characters are social outcasts, even the conventionally hot ones, and sarcasm and cutting comments are how they bond.
If you’ve ever hung out with a group of nerds, it’s a familiar loving form of cruelty that often tears friend circles apart in real life. Everything is a joke until it isn’t, especially when people refuse to grow up. Instead, over the course of 12 seasons The Big Bang Theory allowed its characters to grow and learn. Raj starts off so anxious he can’t speak to a woman without being drunk, eventually learning to embrace his sensitivity as an asset for finding love.
Former child prodigy Sheldon is introduced as an alpha nerd who overpowers conversation as a way to avoid intimacy. While he remains an insufferable well of trivia throughout the series, over the years you see him drop his armor to embrace love. His romance with Amy, played with crushing comedic timing by Mayim Bialik, is as sweet as it is impenetrably dorky.
Then there’s Penny, the actress who lives across the hall. Big Bang Theory wrung countless miles out of “nerds are awkward around hot girls” jokes, but Penny was the exception. Yes, they’re casually rude to her, but the same way they are to their peers. All four friends treat her like just another friend. In a world where everyone acts like she’s a dumb blonde, Penny finds a strangely safe space with the nerds across the hall.
Now, a decade after I first saw the show, and twelve years after it first aired, Big Bang Theory is coming to an end. It’s certainly time. Sitcoms shouldn’t continue when there’s nowhere left for the characters to grow and these folks stopped growing in season 10. But it’s strangely sad.
Even as a fan, I never sat down to watch it, though I’d finish every episode that popped up while channel surfing. But leaving TV means it’s about to find another life. Syndication is where shows go to retire, but streaming is where they go to be rediscovered. Like Friends, another show reviled in its time, Big Bang Theory is going to find a new audience when it hits streaming services. Its pace, mixing absurd quirks with easy laughs, makes for natural binge watching. Where syndication mixes up stories, streaming keeps things in order, making it clear when a storyline develops over a season.
I understand if you don’t like Big Bang Theory today. But in a few years when you find it on Hulu or Netflix or Duncan Donuts’ streaming service, sit down and watch a few episodes. Laugh with the canned audience. Give it a shot. Consider it a psychological experiment about the limits of your sense of humor. Tragedy plus time equals comedy, but time plus distance makes for easier second chances. These nerds deserve it.
(In honor of the show’s twelve seasons, this essay is 1,200 words.)
John-Michael Bond is Paste’s assistant comedy editor. He’s on Twitter @BondJohnBond.