End of Term Report: The Big Bang Theory

Still funny after all these years

Season 9 of The Big Bang Theory has closed out with rather less of a stinger moment than we’re used to, which will no doubt lead to another hailstorm of criticism that it isn’t as funny as it was when it started, more demands to get rid of the girls and yet more sneering from those who despise the show as the worst kind of pre-strained pap ever recorded.

Me, I still like it and here’s to season 10, coming up in September.

I’ve been a fan of TBBT since I first saw it, on C4, very early into its first season, and I’ve loved it ever since. It’s not the first sitcom I’ve found hilarious, but it is unique in being the only one that I can watch constantly and still find as funny as if I were watching it for the first time.

Of course it isn’t as funny as it used to be, and of course it’s changed over nine seasons. Nothing gets to stay as good forever, especially when it’s broadcast 207 episodes. I mean, Porridge lasted 21 episodes, Fawlty Towers 12 and The Office 12 plus two specials. And, over nine seasons, the characters have evolved as a result of their experiences: for them not to have done so would have been ridiculous.

Season 9 has been the middle of a three season order that’s allowed the show to run easily. Possibly it has gotten a little lazy. This season began with the aftermath of Leonard and Penny’s spur of the moment wedding, but the show chose to have its cake and eat it by keeping Leonard living with Sheldon. The jokes about Penny being out of Leonard’s class have only mutated slightly. It’s been business as usual, with the main developments being ones that the show, in its formative years, wouldn’t have countenanced: Sheldon having sex with Amy at mid-season, Raj having two girlfriends at the same time and, the dreaded cliche, Bernadette becoming pregnant.

I don’t laugh as often as I do. One or two episodes were a bit dull. And the season ender had the smell of unfinished business about it, as if there were was another episode to come in which the set-ups would be resolved. It felt rather unsatisfactory if that is to be left hanging over the summer.

There’s been talk that TBBT will end after the tenth season. If that’s so, then sobeit. I have loved this show for what will this time next year be a full decade precisely because it is the closest a TV sitcom has come to understanding me. It’s geek humour: its subjects, its themes, its characters’ inadequacies are all things I know from the inside out, and it has reflected me back onto the screen over and over  again. I think Kaley Cuoco is gorgeous and her comic timing is brilliant: her relationship with Leonard has gone through all the stages of my love life and I have howled in recognition more times than I could possibly ever count.

It means that I can never be entirely objective about the show, and that I really couldn’t give a damn about other people’s opinions: if you don’t like it, fuck off and watch something else. It’s not like you haven’t got a choice. For me, even half good TBBT is funnier than anything else out there at the moment, and if it doesn’t get to season 11, I will miss it more than any other series I’ve ever watched.

The Nuisance Suit Idiocy

Always go for a photo of Penny, no matter how irrelevant…

Though it’s no longer as funny as when it started, The Big Bang Theory continues to be my favourite American sitcom. It’s geek humour, and I’m a geek (as you may have worked out by now): I understand what they’re saying and thinking. And I have watched the earlier episodes at least half a dozen times now and still laugh out loud at the jokes, which is more than I can say for even Fawlty Towers or The Office.

Speaking of Big Bang Theory jokes, the show has suddenly been hit, halfway through its ninth season, with a lawsuit claiming damages, profits and legal costs involved in a breach of, I assume, copyright. It’s all to do with Soft Kitty.

For those not familiar with BBT, Soft Kitty, or rather ‘Soft Kitty’ is a two-line lullaby that Sheldon Cooper sometimes requires to send him to sleep when he’s stressed. It used to be sung to him by his ‘Mee-Maw’ (grandmother) when he was little.

Until I read about this suit, I had assumed the lullaby was created for the show, but in fact it was a genuine, pre-existing song, written in 1937 by schoolteacher Edith Newlan, and published by Kentucky-based Willis Music. The Producers acquired the rights to use the lullaby from Willis Music.

Suddenly, nine-and-a-half years after the show debuted and about five years into its reign as the most popular sitcom in America, this lawsuit emerges, brought by Ellen Newlin Chase and Margaret Chase Perry, the daughters of Ellen Newlin, in whom the copyright vested on her death in 2004 (three years before the show first appeared).

Mrs Chase and Mrs Perry, presumably as the result of a particularly slow-burning urge for justice, fairness and decency, are seeking not only the aforementioned ‘damages, profits and legal costs’ but also an immediate injunction preventing the use of ‘Soft Kitty’ in the show until they have been properly compensated for this unjust, unconscionable and horrendous breaching of their rights.

What makes this into such a massive joke is not the length of time they’ve waited before asserting their claim, but the typically overblown terms in which the suit has been brought. Mrs Chase and Mrs Perry claim that ‘The Soft Kitty lyrics are among the best-known and most popular aspects of The Big Bang Theory. They have become a signature and emblematic feature of the show and a central part of the show’s promotion.’

The Big Bang Theory will, early in 2016, broadcast its 200th episode. ‘Soft Kitty’ has been sung on the show ‘at least eight times’. If we are generous and extend that to nine, that would make once a season. ‘A signature and emblematic feature of the show’? In whose Universe?

To be serious about the suit, given that I have a legal background, I think I can make a pretty good guess at the situation (allowing for the fact that I am not versed in American law). Willis Music are the publishers of the song. As such, they would be under a duty to Mrs Newlin, and her heirs, to manage the song on her/their behalf. This would involve the commercial exploitation of the song at the best available price, in addition to resisting its misappropriation without consent. The publishing contract would, in effect, make Willis Music the agent of Mrs Newlin and entitled to make commercial decisions on her behalf. Such as selling the rights to use the song to a tyro sitcom which may or may not succeed.

But The Big Bang Theory succeeds, massively, becoming a tremendous hit. All licensable aspects of the show’s tropes and memes are exploited, including, but certainly not limited to the ‘Soft Kitty’ lyrics. One assumes that the appropriate copyright notice is affixed to all such items, because if it isn’t, serious shit will arrive on the doorstep of CBS et al.

And one also assumes that, if Willis Music were doing their job properly, the contract would have either included or reserved the appropriate rights to income based on licensing the song.

But that was then, when The Big Bang Theory was a twice-made pilot, a mere hopeful among that year’s crop of would-be TV series. Now it makes millions, and one assumes that Mrs Chase and Mrs Perry – either independently or under the influence of predatory lawyers – have decided that they’re just not getting their ‘fair share’ from their late mother’s composition, and are going for broke.

(As an aside: let me make it plain that I have always believed, and still believe, that the creator should have the primary interest in, and a proper entitlement to payment from the use of their creation, and that goes for their heirs – especially when it’s family – for as long as copyright endures. And I’m in support of the ladies if, and only if, they are being improperly denied what is due to them. But carrying on as if ‘Soft Kitty’ is the be-all and end-all of the programme when it’s no more than a minor and charming element, is risible.)

There are two possibilities here: that Willis Music did a crap job on the contract selling the rights to ‘Soft Kitty’ and the ladies are being grossly underpaid for what the song is genuinely worth – bearing in mind that that song is only worth any elevated value because of The Big Bang Theory – or that the contracts are all fair and reasonable and proper and this is a nuisance suit.

If it’s the first of these, then the joke’s off and thy should get a fair deal. But, and I am likely to be prejudiced here because I love the show, I strongly suspect the latter. After all, if Mrs Chase and Mrs Parry have a case, why are they only bringing it now? When the first suggestion has been made of a possible end to the show, after season 10?

But ‘a signature and emblematic feature of the show and a central part of the show’s promotion’? That is to laugh.

The Fall Season: The Big Bang Theory

Anndddd it’s back.

The new, and busy Fall television season in America started last night with the first episode of The Big Bang Theory season 9. It’s running on Monday nights for six weeks before reverting to its usual slot on Thursday evening.

We picked up directly from the end of last season, with Leonard and Penny en route to Las Vegas to get married, and Sheldon in a state of confusion over Amy’s saying she needed time to think about their relationship. With the rest of the cast in decidedly subordinate roles, these two situations quickly played out into disasters.

To be honest, it wasn’t that funny an episode. I still love the series, but I’m not blind to the fact that, comedy-wise, season 8 was the weakest to date, and by throwing in obvious, and serious obstacles, season 9 isn’t leaving much room for the comedy to peek around the edges.

Sheldon was Sheldon, completely misreading the situation. He was completely incapable of giving Amy the time she requested to enable her to think. He turned up outside her apartment, accompanied her (uninvited) to Howard and Bernadette’s, to watch the internet broadcast of Leonard and Penny’s wedding, and spoilt the whole situation for everyone with his petulant self-absorption, eventually pushing Amy to the point of actually breaking up with him.

I found that side of it hard to laugh at, having witnessed the entire thing in real life: a friend of mine broke up with his wife and ended up blowing his chances of resolving their issues by simply being unable to leave her alone to think, though admittedly what he was trying to do was make things better, and not be snotty and superior.

The other half of the story was a crash-course slide towards disaster. All the way through, neither Leonard nor Penny looked as prepared for marriage as they said they were, but the shit hit the fan when they arrived in the honeymoon suite, lawfully wed, only for Penny to choose that moment to admit that she was struggling to get over Leonard’s revelation about kissing one of his fellow scientists when away in the Arctic.

This promptly got worse when Leonard admitted he sees her (professionally) at work. By the time they got back, they were back to different apartments.

As a story, it was a bit too obvious a contrivance. After all, we already have one happily (mostly) married couple, and it would never do to allow Leonard’s lack of self-confidence wither, would it?

The most affecting element of all this was the closing scene, of Sheldon and Leonard in their apartment, each reacting to the crash of their relationships in opposite manners: Sheldon with bombast, arrogance and selfishness, convinced he has not an atom of responsibility for any of this, Leonard utterly dejected, facing losing what matters to him most, and blaming himself for screwing things up.

Downbeat or what?

Personally, the hardest balance I’ve always recognised is to interweave comedy and tragedy. I have always found it hard to laugh at jokes about things falling apart, and the writers haven’t made a good start on this season. Add to that the obvious contrivance of creating this rift to begin with, which I predict will lead to requests for a divorce, and no reconciliation until at least episode 16.

Of course, since the series has been renewed to a further season after this, there’s nothing to keep the writers from extending the split into next year, though personally, I’d be loathe to see that. Hopefully, whatever they do, they can throw in some stronger jokes this year. I have enjoyed The Big Bang Theory  for too long to want to see it decline too badly now.

Back with a Bang!

I am an unashamed fan of The Big Bang Theory and I have been since seeing what was probably no later than its second episode, on Channel 4, many years ago. I have belly-laughed at its jokes and its characters more often than any other comedy series I have seen, and such is the beauty of this series that there are episodes I have seen literally a half dozen times over, and still I find myself exploding in delighted roars every time I see them again.

Honestly, there is no other series about which I could say that.

So, does that make TBBT some sort of uber-comedy, perfect in every respect, an ideal never to be bettered? No, of course it doesn’t. One other thing that distinguishes TBBT from everything else I have seen is that it is a massive success in America, the top TV show on that side of the Atlantic, a series that, after completing seven seasons, was renewed for another three! I really am not used to finding myself in the middle of a mass audience for anything (except Manchester United, and that’s something completely different).

All I can say is that The Big Bang Theory is the comedy that is most perfectly attuned to my sense of humour and my experiences in life.

For those who, strange though it may be, have no idea what TBBT is about, it centres upon four highly intelligent but deeply geeky and socially inept scientists, and the beautiful, blonde, mid-western would-be actress who moves in across the landing. Penny may be considerably less smart than Leonard and Sheldon, indeed be not that clever at all, but she possesses all the street smarts and more, enough for all the geeks with plenty left over to spare.

From there, the show has expanded its cast and range,and in recent series has taken on a Friends-like aspect. Howard, the short, Jewish, sex-obsessed, mother-dominated nerd has married the short, waspish Bernadette, Sheldon, who occupies a place on the autism spectrum, who is wholly self-obsessed, has found a girlfriend in the perpetually frustrated Amy, who took nearly four seasons just to get him to kiss her.

What makes it work so spectacularly well with me is that I understand these characters. I may not be up on the latest developments in fantasy and SF in comics, TV, games, films etc., but they speak my language, and it’s a language I’m fluent at. I know the jokes, I know the references, I’ve stood in their shoes. And when it comes to the social ineptness, yearning towards but clumsiness with women, the lack of confidence, the lack of success that they all collectively and individually suffer, I’ve stood in those shoes too,and I’e currently got a pair that, in a dim light, look pretty much the same.

Penny is, of course, both a fantasy and a joy. Kaley Cuoco is gorgeous, but more important than that, she’s a superb natural comedian, with brilliant timing on pauses and double-takes. That after seven seasons she’s gotten engaged to Leonard is highly improbable, but within the characters these two have played since 2007, is entirely believable within the series (and doubtless enhanced by the fact that Cuoco and Johnny Galecki, who plays Leonard, were involved in a secret relationship in the early years of the show.

I will be honest and say that I found season seven to be patchy, unlike its predecessors. Sheldon, played briliantly by Jim Parsons, has dominated the show since its early days, but Sheldon has progressed far less than the others: it is, after all, an integral part of his character that he is both impervious and ultra-resistant to change, but it does make him very wearing on occasions, and the humiliations he heaps on the ever-hopeful Amy do come close to infringing the Law of Comedy of Embarrassment at the best of times.

Anyway, the whole point of this post is to celebrate the return of the show for season eight: the by now traditional double-episode premiere, broadcast around midnight our time in America, and already streamed and eagerly devoured here. There are new themes: Sheldon has returned from the rail trip he set out on at the end of season 7, having criss-crossed the whole of America without once leaving the train station: he has finaly got his wish to stop studying the now-exploded String Theory and change his field to Dark Matter, but has been punished horribly: he had had to accept a promotion to Junior Professor and more salary, but now has to teach. Sionce every student thinks he’s obnoxious, nobody’s signed up for his class, except Howard who, after years of Sheldon belittling him over his not having a Ph.D, has finally decided to go for it.

Meanwhile, Penny – who has cut her hair surprisingly short, without compromising Kaley Cuoco’s looks – has lucked her way into a serious non-acting job as a pharmaceutical rep for the company where Bernadette works (she gets the job because her interviewer is every bit as afraid of the tiny, squeaky-voiced Bernadette as Penny is!).

It’s still taking small steps, but with three more years at least to run, The Big Bang Theory isn’t going to let things stagnate completeky, and it has my permission to develop in this manner for as long as it likes. I’m still as into it as ever, and life is naturally sunnier, even in stressful times, by the prospect of a new episode coming back.

Penny, Leonard, Sheldon, Howard, Raj, Bernadete, Amy, Stuart – welcome back buddies!

Set a date…

For those who, like me, are fans of The Big Bang Theory, and who still find it funny even if it’s not still doing everything it did in season 1, there is a date to go on the calendar: Monday, September 22nd.

That’s the date when season 8 starts in America,with a double episode, same as last year.

Monday is not the usual Big Bang night but fret not. For some esoteric reason, the show is broadcasting in the new slot for five weeks, then will return to the regular Thursday night slot on October 30th.

That’s only 87 days away. Bring it on!