Since a scheduling switch last season, popular sitcoms The Big Bang Theory and Community have shared the same time slot—Thursdays at 8 p.m., 7 Central. This has led to a pretty significant viewer war between them, with Big Bang typically coming out on top (it is one of the most popular shows on TV). But besides their airtime, it seems these two comedies have another major similarity. Both shows try to court the same core audience of viewers—nerds! Whether it's Leonard trying out his new time machine or Troy and Abed attempting to build the world's largest pillow/blanket fort, the stuff that the characters in both these shows do is undeniably geeky. But we wondered… which is the geekiest?
On the surface, this is an easy question to answer. Big Bang Theory is all about nerds; that's why, out of its main characters, the nerd-to-norm ratio is 4:1 (or 6:1 depending on if you count Bernadette and Amy Farrah Fowler)—poor Penny, all alone in her normalness. In comparison, though most of Community's main characters have their dorky moments, really only Troy and Abed can be identified as true nerds, and even that's a little shaky—Troy's only a closet nerd (he was captain of the football team in high school), and Abed might have some kind of mental disability that prevents him from interacting with others like a normal person. And yet… if we look a little closer, Community might actually have a pretty big edge on Big Bang.
But how? It's like this. It seems that in Big Bang Theory, the jokes are ON the nerds. In Community, the jokes are FOR them. This perhaps seems like a small point of contention, but it really makes all the difference in the world.
Consider the typical Big Bang formula—one or more of our main characters does something wacky that results from them being nerdy and super-smart. The episode is spent trying to bring those characters back to reality, usually by mocking them for being so out of it. Penny typically leads that charge (although to be fair, she's not immune to being the butt of the joke either). In the end, some of our characters have learned a lesson about doing things in a not-so-crazy way, and the studio audience's laughter has cowed them into submission… at least until next week!
Community is different. It's hard to nail down one specific Community formula, because the show plays with so many different formats, but typically episodes go something like this—some part of our seven-member study group decides to go on a strange adventure. The comedic possibilities of that adventure are explored, and things may or may not return to normal at the end of an episode, sometimes (but not always) with a Jeff Winger speech about the power of friendship. The difference is that in Community there's no real "normal" voice—no Penny—bringing the characters' adventures back down to reality. Sometimes Jeff will mock the group's wackiness, but then he ends up looking like a jerk. He's not the audience surrogate Penny is meant to be; he's just another crazy person who doesn't realize he's crazy.
To better illustrate this point, let's look at something very nerdy that happens in both shows—some of the main characters dress up as superheroes. In "The Justice League Recombination," everyone in the Big Bang cast dons the garb of the World's Greatest Heroes to win a Halloween costume content, but there's drama when Penny doesn't want to be Wonder Woman (spoiler: she's the only one who doesn't look ridiculous in her get-up). Fretting about the contest, Sheldon—dressed as the Flash—nervously paces his apartment. He then realizes that the Flash would pace at super-speeds, and gets a brilliant idea. "I'm going to run to the Grand Canyon," he says. Then in an instant ,"I'm back." That's a great joke, but the punchline is that someone as dorky as Sheldon would try to act like a superhero and totally miss the mark. We (along with the super-loud studio audience) laugh at him because his self-perception is ludicrously skewed; he's hopelessly uncool.
By contrast, in Community's "Foosball and Nocturnal Vigilantism," Abed—searching for a special edition Dark Knight DVD that he doesn't know has been broken—puts on a Batman costume to find it. The basic joke here is the same—Abed's a weird college kid, not a superhero, and it's funny to see him act like one. But the way the show lets Abed play Batman is worlds apart from how Sheldon gets to play Flash. When Abed steps into the costume, he becomes Batman, at least to him. No one really questions the reality of his situation like Penny would; his friends come close but stop short. Instead of laughing at him for being stupid, we laugh with Abed-as-Batman as he investigates his corrupt landlord. The show builds joke upon joke upon joke from this scenario because Abed is allowed to be weird.
And therein lies the key distinction. Community lets its characters be weird and nerdy. It wants them to be weird and nerdy. Big Bang can't have anything too out-there happen without someone calling attention to it and letting the studio/home audience get their laughs. Big Bang exists in our world. But Community exists in its own. That's probably why it has a hard time finding a large audience, but also why the audience it has rabidly supports it. Community feels no shame in its nerdiness. It's a celebration of geek culture and it's awesome.
Big Bang vs. Community—which show do you like better?