My Evening with Dr. Sheldon Cooper (But is he an Aspie role model?)

the_big_bang_theory_covers_sheldon_cooper_851x315-851x315I know, I disappeared again. Sorry.

I’ve written about obsession, my tendency to fixate on something and not let go. And that’s what keeps happening: I move from one thing to another, again and again (sometimes things like watches or video games, sometimes concepts like death or quantum physics).

In so doing, I’ve neglected my blog, I think because of my fear I’ll let people down (which, ironically, I have) by not devoting myself fully. Damn you, obsession! This time, I won’t make any promises, but I’m hoping — really hoping — I can keep that obsessive little demon at bay for a while.

Today’s post, though, is in fact about an object of my obsession, most people’s favorite sit-com, “The Big Bang Theory,” and in particular, the character Dr. Sheldon Cooper (played, amazingly, by Jim Parsons).

It’s become conventional wisdom that Sheldon is an Aspie, even though the writers have denied it. This is not a novel topic, I realize. Others have posted intelligent and insightful blogs about Sheldon and Asperger’s, including here, here and here. But I’m hoping my perspective advances the conversation.

Let me explain the title. One of my feverish aspirations (i.e., “dreams”), for the past year or so, was to see a taping of “The Big Bang Theory.” Ever since I became aware of the show — and I was a latecomer in that regard, sadly — I’ve obsessed over it. I watch it just about every day. Sometimes even multiple episodes in the same day. I’ve even gotten my wife and daughter hooked, which, given their TV show preferences, is no small feat.

The next logical step was to see it in-person, as it’s being taped. It was a realistic plan, unlike many of mine, since I live within a relatively short drive of the Warner Bros. studios in Burbank. (I should clarify: it’s a “short” drive outside of rush hour, which, in LA, lasts from 6:00 to 11:00 am and 2:30 to 7:00 pm.)

I tried to get tickets so many times. Just as Sheldon, Leonard, Howard and Raj clicked the refresh button over and over to get Comic-Con tickets in one episode, I did too, using multiple computers and smartphones.

Finally, one day, I succeeded, but I was able to get only one ticket, and it was “standby,” meaning I’d have to wait in a line for hours and hope few VIPs showed up that day. I’d also have to calculate what time I needed to arrive to maximize my chances of getting a ticket, again, like the BBT guys (although hopefully with better success). But I was not deterred, and after about five hours of waiting, I got in. (I’ll include details about the experience in a future post.)

So that’s how I spent an evening with Sheldon. Okay, perhaps “with” is an overstatement. But I was in his vicinity, at least, and I think at one point he may have looked at me.

But back to the primary topic: Sheldon and Asperger’s.

I would agree Sheldon has Aspie characteristics. That’s beyond doubt, with examples provided in the links above and some compilation videos like this one. And much of the time, he does seem to act as one would expect a person with Asperger’s to act: he doesn’t understand social conventions (and has to memorize them); he interprets statements literally and is bad at noticing sarcasm; he has trouble reading emotional states and interacting with other; he engages in many rigid routines (the three-time door knock is probably the most well-known); and he gets fixated on a subject and will converse about it at length regardless of whether others in the room are interested; and he has great difficulty seeing the world from the perspective of others. (I identify with all those traits.)

But, despite these limitations, he’s often quite adept at conversing with others, at coming up with quick witty retorts, at using humor to make light of situations (and with good timing and delivery), and at joking around with friends and colleagues. (Here’s a good compilation.) One of my favorite examples, which includes all of these things, is the scene where Sheldon is attending a lecture by famous string theorist Brian Greene.

Don’t get me wrong: it gives me great pleasure to see Sheldon use humor. It’s extremely entertaining and makes him an engaging, intriguing, interesting character. In fact, it’s probably what redeems him (in the eyes of many) for his insensitive behavior.

But there’s the rub. I suspect that many people, especially in the neurotypical community, love Sheldon not so much because of his insensitivity but because he’s so funny. It’s human nature to want to be in the company of those who make people laugh, and to look past those people’s “bad” traits. The problem is, most Aspies are not that funny.

On the contrary, what makes Aspies so unique and valuable to society (at least in my opinion) is their earnestness and loyalty, their intellect, their ability to focus and concentrate on a single subject for great lengths of time and ignore all distractions, the unique perspective they bring to all types of issues. Aspies are not known for their humor. (But if anyone feels differently, by all means, please post a comment.)

My concern is that the character of Sheldon, who, after all has his lines written by some of Hollywood’s top comedy writers, has set too high a bar. I worry that people will expect that when they interact with an Aspie, he or she will say something insensitive … but then follow up with a witty retort or a joke. But most likely, there will be no follow up; it will just be the insensitive (but truthful and insightful) comment.

But maybe my fear is unfounded; maybe people understand that Sheldon is just a TV character, and that Aspies they encounter in the real world aren’t as funny or entertaining. I certainly hope so. Even with the risks Sheldon poses, I am grateful for his creation.

By the way, the episode I saw taped (a couple weeks ago) airs today. If you watch Big Bang Theory, you probably don’t need to be told to pay attention to Sheldon’s lines. But just as a “head’s up,” watch for Sheldon’s lines when he walks into a “fusion” restaurant with Penny. His insensitive but brilliant biting humor is at its very best.

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2 thoughts on “My Evening with Dr. Sheldon Cooper (But is he an Aspie role model?)

  1. I’ve never really been a fan of the big bang theory, and probably because of how people on the spectrum are portrayed and represented. I don’t know that I can adequately explain, but not sure exactly whether it’s the characters or the situations that are supposed to be funny; I guess both. I wonder if it gives NT people the wrong idea about people on the spectrum, that it makes too much light of a disorder that can actually be very difficult for people, or that being aspie might be fun.

    And sometimes it can be fun, I suppose.

    I think it would be interesting, and maybe more realistic, if they were to remove the laugh-track from the show. Would that change the way people might interpret what’s going on? Watching the video that’s embedded in this post, neither the speaker nor the crowd are amused by Sheldon’s outburst, and rightfully so, but the laugh-track signals to viewers that this is supposed to be funny.

    Good to see that you’ve re-appeared. I do the same thing.

    • Welcome to the blog! Thanks for your comment. And sorry for the delayed response.

      I think you’re exactly right — the show may cause some to think that being an Aspie is barrels of fun, when in reality it can be a real struggle to cope with. I have mixed feelings about the “I’m actually happy I have Asperger’s because it allows me to see the world in a novel way and contribute better to society” view. I see the point, but I also think it’s wishful thinking in some cases (but maybe that’s just the natural skeptic and pessimist talking).

      Good point too about the laugh track. I really need to write a post about the taping, because it would address your point. At the taping, there’s a guy (an emcee / B rate comedian) who encourages everyone during the break to laugh when taping resumes. People have chosen to be there, and would laugh anyway, but it certainly magnifies and ensures a steady stream of laughter. It would indeed be a very different show without the laugh track; I think many people would be unsure when to laugh and whether/when it’s appropriate. It reminds me of the Simpsons episode where Homer is attending a physics lecture. The professor makes a joke about a nucleus and everyone laughs but Homer; then the professor drops all his papers, and Homer laughs but no one else does. Humor is all in the eye of the beholder, I suppose. With Sheldon in particular, sometimes you don’t know whether to laugh or feel sorry for him or both!

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