Sheldon Cooper, Ph.D, Sc.D, has an IQ of 187. He’s a theoretical physicist focusing on quantum mechanics and string theory. He enjoys video games, comic books, Sci-Fi and online role-playing. There is no doubt he is king of the nerds, and King of The Big Bang Theory.
He is completely asocial, rigidly logical, with a superiority complex. He has a strict adherence to routine, is apathetic towards others and extremely stubborn. He is convinced that he’s more intelligent than anyone else, likes to show off his knowledge and can’t understand why it’s not socially accepted to point out other people’s faults whenever the opportunity arises. Yet, he steals almost every scene of Big Bang Theory and we find his eccentricities absolutely hilarious. Why do we find this Big Banger so likable?
A pragmatic analysis of Sheldon
The reason why we love this unlikely sitcom hero can be partially answered by some of my own linguistic research. For my English Language degree this year I studied how the characters in Big Bang Theory create humour by breaking social conventions of language. To do this I compared Sheldon’s character with Penny’s, as we mostly see him as geeky and socially unaware if he is contrasted with Penny who is his complete polar opposite.
To demonstrate this identity clash I used a pragmatic approach called Grice’s Theory of Implicature (1975). This is the idea that we have a framework of conversational expectations, and that when they are broken, we look for the implicature (a different meaning). Grice suggests that we all abide by certain conversational rules or ‘maxims’, but they can be broken in different ways to create different implied meanings. I aimed to find out how this varied between Sheldon and Penny in order to create humour.
I found that Sheldon unintentionally breaks the maxims as he doesn’t understand the rules of conversation and therefore doesn’t realise that he is a) speaking too much b) taking something literally c) going off on a tangent. Penny however intentionally breaks conversational rules by being sarcastic and rhetorical – the former involves saying the opposite of what you mean, and the latter involves being blindingly obvious. This often confuses Sheldon as he cannot quite grasp sarcasm or rhetorical speak.
According to Piazza, Bednarek and Rossi (2011), linguistic deviance can be used in television discourse, not only to create humour, but to create an interpretation of a character as ‘abnormal’. It seems that both types are in action in Big Bang Theory – Penny breaks rules on purpose for comedic effect, whilst Sheldon deviates from the norm signifying his eccentric personality, which creates further humour.
However, I also found that on some occasions Sheldon tries to change his behaviour. We all know that Sheldon has difficulty keeping secrets. In one episode named Loobenfeld Decay, Leonard lies to Penny about his plans for the evening so that he doesn’t have to go see her performance in an amateur version of Rent, as he doesn’t think she can sing very well. Sheldon gets roped into this lie and feels very uncomfortable about it. In one scene, Leonard tries to teach Sheldon how to tell a white lie; Sheldon comes up with “When we played chess earlier you were terrific and I can’t wait to play you again” – which, under the circumstances just sounds like he was being sarcastic as he was obviously lying. We can also see that as the episodes progress, Sheldon starts to get better at identifying sarcasm and human emotions.
Toby: How about this for motivation? I was sexually abused in the Phillippines by a clubfooted chaplain.
Sheldon Cooper: No. We’re going with middle child and a genetic predispositon to improper serotonin production.
Sheldon’s soft side
So even though Sheldon is an unapologetic genius who is avoids human contact and is confused by people’s feelings, he still tries to function normally sometimes. Seeing Sheldon’s soft side can be quite heart-warming, for example, when he’s sick and needs Penny to sing the lullaby ‘Soft Kitty’ to him, or when he tries to hug people and later on when he gets a girl friend. It’s also hard not to laugh when he gets in situations he’s not used to such as when he got drunk from only one sip of alcohol or when a woman asked to sleep in his bed, only for him to assume he had to sleep somewhere else.
Not only that, but I’m sure a lot viewers can identify with some of Sheldon’s behaviors. Everyone has a nerdy or a slightly eccentric side. I’m sure many people have difficulty coping when they are interrupted, when they have to keep a secret or when they hear arguing. It’s hard to put on a smile when someone else succeeds and you don’t.
“Leonard, Sheldon’s hugging me!”
This is why we love Sheldon. His oddities make us laugh and his sensitive side brings a tear to the eye. Although we know we aren’t as intelligent, bizarre and socially awkward as he is, there are things that do make sense to us. He points out the absurdities of life and questions why we act the way we do. He’s not afraid to stand up for himself, even if he is at odds with others.
However I think I’m right in saying that there some people out there who know a lot about something but will refrain from going on about it as they don’t want to appear geeky, but I think we can all learn a lesson from Sheldon. Don’t worry what people think of you. Speak your mind, even if you think people won’t agree with you. And if you’re passionate about something, embrace it and be proud of it…just don’t go as far as mixing hydrogen peroxide and saturated potassium iodide with dish soap and deploy it in your rival’s lab for foamy vengeance…