An Emmy for the first sitcom character with Asperger's: The Big Bang Theory's Sheldon Cooper.
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 aboutThe 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.