Sheldon Cooper, Ph.D, Sc.D, has an IQ of 187. He’s a theoretical physicist focusing on quantum mechanics and string theory. He enjoys comic books, sci-fi and online role-playing games.
There is no doubt he is the king of the nerds.
He’s convinced he’s more intelligent than anyone else (and probably is), so he constantly shows off his knowledge and points out other people’s faults whenever the opportunity arises. He’s rigidly logical, extremely stubborn and completely asocial.
And yet, he steals almost every scene of Big Bang Theory as he absolutely hilarious. Why do we find him so likable?
A pragmatic analysis of Sheldon
The reason we love this unlikely sitcom hero can be partly answered by some of my own linguistic research. For my English Language degree, I studied how the characters in Big Bang Theory create humour by breaking the social conventions of language. To do this, I compared Sheldon’s geeky, socially unaware character with Penny’s, as she is his polar opposite.
To demonstrate this personality clash, I used a pragmatic approach called Grice’s Theory of Implicature (1975). This is the idea that we have a framework of conversational expectations, and that when they are broken, we look for the implicature (a different meaning).
Grice suggests that we all abide by certain conversational rules or ‘maxims’, but they can be broken in different ways to create different implied meanings. I aimed to find out how this varied between Sheldon and Penny in order to create humour.
I found that Sheldon unintentionally breaks Grice’s maxims as he doesn’t understand the rules of conversation and therefore doesn’t realise that he is:
a) Speaking too much
b) Taking something literally
c) Going off on a tangent
Penny however intentionally breaks conversational rules by being sarcastic and rhetorical – the former involves saying the opposite of what you mean, and the latter involves being blindingly obvious. This often confuses Sheldon as he can’t quite grasp sarcasm or rhetorical speak.
According to Piazza, Bednarek and Rossi (2011), linguistic deviance can be used in television discourse, not only to create humour, but to create an interpretation of a character as ‘abnormal’. It seems that both types are in action in Big Bang Theory – Penny breaks rules on purpose for comedic effect, while Sheldon deviates from the norm, signifying his eccentric personality. This creates further humour.
However, I also found that on some occasions Sheldon tries to change his behaviour. We all know that Sheldon has difficulty keeping secrets. In one episode, ‘The Loobenfeld Decay‘, Leonard lies to Penny about his plans for the evening so that he doesn’t have to see her performance in an amateur version of Rent (he doesn’t think she can sing very well).
Sheldon gets roped into this lie and feels very uncomfortable about it. In one scene, Leonard tries to teach Sheldon how to tell a white lie. Sheldon comes up with “When we played chess earlier you were terrific and I can’t wait to play you again” – which, under the circumstances, just sounds like he was being sarcastic as he was obviously lying.
We can also see that as the series progress, Sheldon starts to get better at identifying sarcasm and human emotions.
The lovable robot
So even though Sheldon is an unapologetic genius who avoids human contact and is confused by people’s feelings, he still tries to function normally. Seeing Sheldon’s soft side can be quite heart-warming. Like when he gets sick and needs Penny to sing the lullaby ‘Soft Kitty’ to him. And it’s a big moment when he hugs Penny for the first time. He even manages to get a girlfriend later in the series.
It’s also hard not to laugh when he gets into situations he’s not used to, such as when he gets drunk from only one sip of alcohol, or when a woman asks to sleep in his bed, only for him to assume he had to sleep somewhere else.
Not only that, but I’m sure a lot viewers can identify with some of Sheldon’s behaviours. Everyone has a slightly nerdy or eccentric side. I’m sure many people have difficulty coping when they are interrupted, when they have to keep a secret or when they hear arguing. It’s hard to put on a smile when someone else succeeds and you don’t.
This is why we love Sheldon. His oddities make us laugh and his sensitive side brings a tear to the eye. Although we know we aren’t as intelligent, bizarre and socially awkward as he is, there are things that do make sense to us. He points out the absurdities of life and questions why we act the way we do. He’s not afraid to stand up for himself, even if he is at odds with others.
However I think I’m right in saying that there some people out there who know a lot about something but will refrain from going on about it as they don’t want to appear geeky.
But I think we can all learn a lesson from Sheldon. Don’t worry what people think of you. Speak your mind, even if you think people won’t agree with you. And if you’re passionate about something, embrace it and be proud of it…just don’t go as far as mixing hydrogen peroxide and saturated potassium iodide with dish soap and deploy it in your rival’s lab for foamy vengeance…