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

Previously published Slate articles made new.
Aug. 30 2010 2:10 PM

Must-Geek TV

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

Johnny Galecki and Jim Parsons on The Big Bang Theory.
Johnny Galecki and Jim Parsons on The Big Bang Theory

The 2010 Emmy for lead actor in a comedy went to Jim Parsons, who plays Dr. Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory, the popular CBS sitcom. (It was the only award for the series.) In 2009, Paul Collins took a close look at Sheldon's hilarious, geeky, gawky character and argued that although the series never describes him as such, Sheldon is the first sitcom star to have Asperger's syndrome. The article is reprinted below.

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.

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.

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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.

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