Is the world ready for an Asperger's sitcom?

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Feb. 6 2009 1:33 PM

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Is the world ready for an Asperger's sitcom?

Sheldon and Leonard from THE BIG BANG THEORY on CBS. Click image to expand.
Leonard (Johnny Galecki) and Sheldon (Jim Parsons) in The Big Bang Theory

Picture a man and a woman in a car. The woman appears hungover and irate, and the man maintains a nonstop patter to engage her, oblivious to her fraying temper: "I'll say an element, and you say an element whose name starts with the last letter of the one I said." No response. "I'll start!" he blurts, ignoring her body language. He heedlessly bores through helium, mercury, ytterbium, molybdenum, and more until he reaches mendelevium—and her last nerve." Get out!" she commands. When he does, he's startled to find that she's not asking him to look at the car engine.

For some therapists, this is a familiar scene: a guy enthusiastically firing on all conversational cylinders at precisely the wrong moment and then puzzled by a hostile response. But it's not an autism spectrum disorder case study—it's a clip from The Big Bang Theory.

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How do you build a sitcom around a neurological condition without uttering its name? That's the challenge CBS faces in its show about the travails of four Caltech researchers: experimental physicist Dr. Leonard Hofstadter (played by Johnny Galecki), engineer Howard Wolowitz (Simon Helberg), astrophysicist Dr. Rajesh Koothrappali (Kunal Nayyar), and theoretical physicist Dr. Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons). The running joke of The Big Bang Theory is that these guys are brilliant at understanding the workings of the universe, yet hopeless at socializing with Penny (Kaley Cuoco), a waitress who lives next door. But a more subtle theme is that Sheldon—flat-toned, gawky, and rigidly living by byzantine rules and routines—appears to have Asperger's syndrome.

It's a resemblance that has not gone unnoticed in online forums by Aspies and those around them. "I'm the mom of a kid who has Asperger's," comments one respondent at the blog My Favorite Autistic. "I happened upon this show tonight, and I was glued to the t.v. watching it." A Canadian blog reader marvels: "It's never stated, but golly! How could he NOT be an Aspie?" And while not everyone with the condition appreciates the character, others respond in ways that simply speak volumes: "This is the first show I really get and laugh at," reads one post in a U.S. Asperger forum.

Sheldon is an exaggerated sitcom characterization, granted, and yet how else does one describe a string theorist who insists on playing Klingon Boggle and Rock Paper Scissors Lizard Spock? A prodigy who experimented with his home's staircases to find the exact variant in height at which his father would trip? Who discourses at length upon the precise parameters of Christmas gift-giving? Or who refers to engineers as "semi-skilled labor"—and is then surprised when they take offense?

"I know all of these guys," attests Discover science columnist and avowed fan Dr. Phil Plait in a phone call from his home in Boulder, Colo. Plait, a former astronomy professor who worked on the Hubble Space Telescope, recalls some colleagues who were so obliviously brusque and arrogant that "you'd want to push them into traffic"—and yet who were brilliant thinkers. "Whoever wrote The Big Bang Theory understands geeks."

He's right.

"I had a short-lived career as a computer programmer," admits co-creator Bill Prady on the phone from Warner Bros. Television. "I was a college dropout in New York City, working at a RadioShack, and I got involved creating the FilePro software for the TRS-80 at my friend Howie's place in Brooklyn." That would be Howard Wolowitz—whose name is now immortalized as one of the show's main characters.

The Big Bang Theory updated itself by making its protagonists into physicists and tossing in wheezes like the spherical cow joke—the kind of in-joke that only a science audience would even get. The tangles of equations on Sheldon and Leonard's apartment whiteboard are an actual ongoing problem written for the show by a UCLA physics professor, and there's talk of Nobel physicist George Smoot making a cameo on the show. It's a series laughing with geeks, not at them—and it's humor that finds its perfect vehicle in the geekiest of neurological conditions.

So why is Asperger's never mentioned? Producer Chuck Lorre has denied that Sheldon is meant to be on the autism spectrum. But whether intended or not, the show's writers have been asked about Asperger's so often that they're clearly aware of its subtext when having a crowd of postdocs debate whether Superman jumps or flies.

"I just think of his actions as 'Sheldony.' Some things feel instinctively correct for his character," says Prady, who recalls one software colleague who couldn't go anywhere alone that he hadn't been to before. "He'd say, 'I can't go to 47th Street Photo by myself.' And it was maybe three blocks away. It was never questioned. Quirks were never challenged—they were simply accepted as a quality of the person."

"Are these things Asperger's?" he asks. "I don't know."

Asked point-blank in this video response on a Variety blog, though, actor Jim Parsons says that he was startled when fan questions led him to descriptions of Asperger's syndrome that perfectly matched the character he'd been hired to play. So does Sheldon have it?

"The writers say no, he doesn't. ..." Parson shrugs in his response, "[But] I can say that he couldn't display more facets of it."

In the hands of lesser writers, Sheldon Cooper would simply be a perpetual straight man to the world's madcap social codes—a sort of neurological Margaret Dumont. And yet what's remarkable about The Big Bang Theory is that it actually cares about its smart characters. All its male protagonists are geeks. But instead of the geeks serving as a foil to polished Hollywood protagonists, it's the perpetually exasperated Penny—the one typical character—that is the foil for them as she explains why women might not want their advice on buying tampons.

While characters like Mr. Spock and Data hold a certain honorary status in the Asperger's community, Sheldon is different: He's a human puzzling over the fascinating life-forms of Pasadena. And with Big Bang now shown everywhere from Iceland to the Philippines, he's poised to become a pop-culture emblem of the Aspie. That might not be such a bad thing. As exasperating as he can be, Sheldon's remarkably well-adapted to his world. Beneath the sitcom pratfalls, The Big Bang Theory is a meditation on how bright people work with the absurdly mismatched abilities that they've been given. For a comedy, that's an inspired—even noble—premise to work from.

Paul Collins teaches creative writing at Portland State University, and his latest book is The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City and Sparked the Tabloid Wars. Follow him on Twitter.

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