The false premise behind The Big Bang’s Theory

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April 9, 2013

Fred-DonnellyROTHESAY, NB, Apr. 9, 2013/ Troy Media/ – With 20 million weekly viewers The Big Bang Theory is now the most popular American situation comedy and the second most widely watched show on television.

Part of the attraction of the series, created by Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady, is its unusual, even somewhat high-brow premise. Two research physicists at Caltech in Pasadena, California share an apartment. Sheldon (played by Jim Parsons) and Leonard (Johnny Galecki) are socially inept uber-nerds with multiple Ph.D.s. Moreover, they have two geeky friends, Howard (Simon Helberg) and Raj (Kunal Nayar). A sometime NASA astronaut, Howard, who ‘only’ has a Master’s degree in Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, until recently still lived with his mother. Meanwhile Raj, a Caltech astrophysicist, is an independently wealthy Indian immigrant who (in deliberate political incorrectness) we are constantly reminded comes from a rich family in a mainly poor country.

The picture presented in the show is a satire on American intellectual life. The four male protagonists are set before the audience as losers in terms of their lifestyles. It takes them several years to finally have some success with women, they don’t have great cars or boats or any expensive tastes. Sheldon doesn’t drive a car and Howard rides a scooter.

Their wardrobes are based mainly on tee shirts, sweaters and hoodies. They don’t travel or go out much (except when Howard goes into outer space) and only occasionally eat out at ‘The Cheesecake Factory’, a family restaurant. Typically they order Chinese or Thai take-out in a regular weekly rotation. At work, they eat in a cafeteria that looks very high-schoolish, right down to the plastic serving trays.

Aside from home computers and cellphones they spend their money on comic books, video games and action figures, a.k.a. dolls for grown men. Cultural pursuits are almost entirely lacking, although Leonard can play the cello because his parents forced him to learn it as a child. In short, the four guys live in a sort of Nerdvana where 30-year-old men buy the sort of things teenage boys desire most.

The other lead character in this very funny series is Penny (Kaley Cuoco), a good-looking blonde who lives across the hall from Sheldon and Leonard. She functions as the old vaudeville ‘straight man’ by her usually normal reactions to the idiosyncrasies, phobias and scientific baffle gab of her goofy neighbours. Penny is a community college dropout who, failing to become an actress works at the aforementioned Cheesecake Factory restaurant as a server.

Curiously Penny has her own apartment, a great wardrobe and a car. Meanwhile, the overall impression of the series is that scientists and engineers are not only social but also economic losers in southern California. In one episode Penny is asked whether physicists make a lot of money. Her reply is a put-down; ‘I don’t know. I don’t think a lot’. (‘The Dead Hooker Juxtaposition’, originally broadcast 30 March 2009.)

Here’s where the problem comes in for this situation comedy. Using websites like Glassdoor and Indeed, it is possible to get an idea of salaries for research scientists in Pasadena, California and sometimes for those working at Caltech.

According to these sources the average of 48 staff scientist salaries at Caltech is $74,920. A similar calculation for research scientists at Caltech gives an average of $89,981. Salaries for research scientists in Pasadena are in the $50,000 to $115,000 range with those at Caltech having ‘research’ designations in the high end of that pay band. Sheldon is described in the series as ‘Senior Theoretical Physicist’ at Caltech and therefore he must make about $100,000, maybe more.

Meanwhile, Penny works her shifts at The Cheesecake Factory. There is an actual franchise with that name and its salaries/wages are available on these same websites. The top earnings at Cheesecake Factory are around $37,000 and the average is $24,450 a year.

The conclusion here is obvious. In the real world, Sheldon (and probably Leonard) makes about four times what Penny does in a year. So why are Sheldon and Leonard sharing an apartment when their combined salaries are seven or eight times that of Penny who has her own apartment in the same building?

The Big Bang Theory is to be commended for introducing a number of strong female characters who are scientists and business women. At the same time, it does a bit of a disservice to higher education by unrealistically presenting Penny’s lifestyle as more than equal to those of Sheldon, Leonard and Howard. Leave out the wealthy Raj from this consideration.

In the real world of Pasadena today, it would be Penny who had to live with one or more room mates. The Caltech guys would be out of her league in terms of their ability to travel, their conspicuous consumption and perhaps their plans to put a down payment on a condo.

At a time when we want to encourage young people and women in particular to pursue careers in science, engineering and technology, will we be able counteract the popular Penny’s put-down in The Big Bang Theory?

Fred Donnelly lives in Rothesay, New Brunswick. He taught Social History 33 years at University of New Brunswick.

© Troy Media. Please contact the publisher to inquire about publication rates for this column. Our rates are based on circulation. Web sites enjoy a flat rate.

5 Responses to "The false premise behind The Big Bang’s Theory"

  1. RoseyPlum13   October 22, 2014 at 7:33 pm

    The one time Penny mentioned that she didn’t think they made a lot of money was when she was telling another female who was trying to use the guys for their money and such

  2. LarryLiebman   April 15, 2013 at 7:53 am

    As to the size of the apartments (and not that it is such a big point in the article), Leonard and Sheldon have a 2BR apartment, and Penny has a 1BR.  Further, a cursory glance shows that Penny’s apartment is much smaller than that of Leonard and Sheldon.

  3. AMENS   April 10, 2013 at 6:04 am

    Sheldon also needs a roomate to drive him places. It’s part of the Roomate Agreement.

  4. AMENS   April 10, 2013 at 6:02 am

    You need to watch a few more episodes.  Penny is constantly being prtrayed as being “overdrawn” on her checking account because of her lifestyle. Sheldon, on the other hand, has paychecks he hasn’t cashed.

  5. Civjules   April 9, 2013 at 9:21 pm

    This article seems to be arguing against itself.  Hipster tee’s, expensive skater-esque hoodies, comic books, D&D games… I buy these, read these and play these games and others like it.  ALL of the above are expensive hobbies.  A typical D&D book runs $40 bucks, now think about collecting them all.  Then branch out to the Dresden Files or any of the number of World of Darkness genre’s.  Magic the Gathering, Settlers of Catan + the expansion packs?  Expensive.
    In fact, never in the series does it show that any of the physicists are in need of money.  They have top of the line computers, every gaming console known to man, and every video game (cite the episode where someone breaks into the boys’ apartment).  They have expensive paintball gear.  AND they eat out every night of the week.  Thai food (as mentioned in the article above), pizza and so on.  They may not have a nice flashy wardrobe like Penny, because obviously it’s NOT WHAT THEIR CHARACTERS CARE ABOUT.  But they make a hell of a lot of money, and buy a ton of stuff.  Have you ever checked out all of the knickknacks in the background?  I’m pretty sure the audience is right in assuming the guys bought this stuff.  They live equally high maintenance lifestyles– in a very noticeable way.
    As for Penny not knowing how much physicist makes, that could be more of a commentary on the character of Penny being knowledgeable.  She obviously hasn’t caught on that Sheldon has boatloads of cash stashed around (that he lends her freely), that he never cashes a single one of her checks… etc.
    I’d say the above article is finding something to harp about in order to be “controversial” rather than actually making a good argument.