The self-proclaimed “geek community” hates it. Critics are lukewarm about it. It’s fairly undecorated awards-wise, considering its stamina and ubiquity. But CBS’s multi-camera, laugh-track laden The Big Bang Theory has consistently been one of the most-watched shows on television throughout its 10-season run, meaning millions and millions of people are watching it on a regular basis — but who, exactly? If it’s not geeks, critics, tastemakers, or industry insiders, who’s left? Regular people? What does that even mean? Isn’t this the “nerd show?”
Before we dig into what Ranker Insights data reveals about the show’s audience, let’s first explore just how successful The Big Bang Theory really is. It rivals Seinfeld and Friends during their heydays in its eyeball-attracting dominance, pulling in a steady stream of 19-to-20 million viewers at its peak between seasons 6-9. Season 10 has also been a ratings winner, never dipping below 14 million viewers per episode. That makes it the number one comedy on television this season among adults aged 18-49. It’s also a huge hit in syndication, with reruns on TBS frequently topping the weekly ratings.
But unlike Seinfeld, Friends, or even recent ratings juggernauts such as The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, The Big Bang Theory has never really risen to the level of genuine pop-culture phenomenon, which is surprising for a show watched — and presumably adored — by so many. It has never been the kind of show you can safely assume your friends and co-workers are watching week-to-week or binge-watching as soon as a new season hits Netflix.
The watercooler talk about The Big Bang Theory, such as it is, has generally been a conversation about why it’s an insult to “real nerds” or how it can possibly be such an insanely popular show. After all, the argument goes, no one really knows anyone who even watches it, including professional TV critics such as Joe Reid from The Atlantic and Rob Hoerburger from the New York Times Magazine. How is such a massively popular show also so off-radar? Back in 2013, during the show’s ratings peak, Hoerburger admitted he had to cajole his sneering friends and elitist peers into giving it a shot, not even meeting a fellow fan until he wore his “Bazinga” t-shirt while on summer vacation and finally caught a fellow fan’s eye. “Twenty million nerds can’t be wrong,” he concluded, counting himself proudly among the pack.
But aren’t “real” nerds and/or geeks famously up-in-arms about the show? A widely-held grievance is that the show “makes nerd culture the butt of, not the subject of, the jokes.” If that’s true, then our data would reveal a fanbase largely devoid of self-proclaimed nerds, or full of folks okay with some light nerd-roasting, or maybe something in between. However, it probably wouldn’t reveal that “twenty million nerds” are what make this show so wildly popular.
The Internet, characteristically, has a lot of opinions about who watches the show or for whom the show is intended. Dan Seitz waves the “Real Nerd” banner over at Uproxx, arguing that the show’s most loathsome quality is that it’s not even aimed at nerds, despite making a whole lot of noise to that effect, but instead at “that mythical creature, The Average Television Viewer.” Tom Nicholson, in a sassy takedown over at WhatCulture, thinks The Big Bang Theory fans must be “united by a complete lack of imagination and cultural adventurousness,” a common sentiment from the show’s harshest critics. So which is it? Did the show become a 10-season-strong monster on the back of an army of culturally adventurous nerds or a bunch of hard-to-pin-down “Average Television Viewers?” What binds the show’s diehard audience together?
The mind-boggling amount of data Ranker Insights has about The Big Bang Theory fans contains the answer, and — Bazinga! — it looks like Team “Real Nerd” is onto something.
We’ll start with TV habits. You would think fans of a show that purports to celebrate nerd culture would love stereotypically nerdy TV shows such as Star Trek, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Game of Thrones, and all things Marvel and DC, right? And they do, somewhat, with affinity scores between 100% and 200% for all of those shows, meaning they’re at least twice as likely to be a fan of those shows than the average person. But the shows in the 250%-400% and above range — the shows The Big Bang Theory fans are far and away the most passionate about — reveal they really prefer far less fantastical fare.
The Big Bang Theory fans, more than anything else, love sitcoms and comedy-dramas that were made in the 1990s or feel like they could have been made in the 1990s. The kind of shows that were made back when “Average Television Viewer” was much easier to pin down, before DVR and streaming splintered the monoculture.
These throwback shows get the fanbase excited far more than anything The Big Bang Theory’s characters would actually geek out about, suggesting the show’s biggest fans don’t seek out the fantasy worlds the show constantly name-drops, but instead prefer entertainment that harkens back to a bygone era of watching TV as a nation — the “lockstep world of three networks,” to quote Scott Timberg of Salon. The Big Bang Theory fans appear to yearn for an era of TV programming that arguably provided, as Timberg puts it, “a communal sense of belonging together, sharing concerns and values at a time when politics, ethnicity and religion often divide us.” We’re talking a lot of Venus vs. Mars domestic comedies — lots of couches facing the camera. Shows starring stand-ups and industry legends, full of hugging and learning. Shows known more for consistency and crowd-pleasing, frankly, than for quality. Shows, in other words, like The Big Bang Theory.
Let’s look at the data. Even if you discount The Big Bang Theory creator Chuck Lorre’s other big hits Two and a Half Men, Mom, Grace Under Fire, Mike & Molly, and Dharma & Greg — all 250%+, by the way — you’re still left with Friends, 2 Broke Girls, How I Met Your Mother, Reba, Rules of Engagement, 8 Simple Rules, and My Wife and Kids dominating the upper echelon, with affinity scores of 225% or more. All of these shows are studio-based, multi-camera, laugh-track-heavy sitcoms. Seinfeld, which famously rejected hugging and learning, is notably absent from this tier, sitting at 71%. A mix of comfortable TV staples including popular police procedurals (NCIS, CSI: NY) and light dramedies (Hart of Dixie, with a whopping 473%, as well as 7th Heaven) round things out.
So no, The Big Bang Theory fans do not appear to share the tastes of the show’s main characters. Anything related to superheroes, for example, is walloped in the the rankings by the likes of mainstream favorites iCarly, House, Dateline, and even ‘90s cartoons such as Bobby’s World and The Wild Thornberrys. Perhaps the most damning revelation? There’s not a single iteration of Star Trek on TV with an affinity score even half as high as Ben and Kate, a 2012 sitcom FOX canceled before finishing a season. That’s pretty shocking, considering the constant stream of Trek references on The Big Bang Theory, and that multiple former Trek cast members have made cameos. Wil Wheaton (Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Wesley Crusher) even has a recurring role as a fictionalized version of himself.
It’s also telling to look at the shows The Big Bang Theory fans have the least affinity with. Unsurprisingly, single-camera, laugh-track-free critical and cult favorites such as Louie, Party Down, Broad City, Veep, Peep Show, and Master of None all have negative affinity scores, along with hip sketch comedy classics such as Mr. Show with Bob and David and The State. The Big Bang Theory fans, it appears, don’t like shows that try to break — or even stretch — the mold, preferring instead the cozy world of the American sitcom. That’s not exactly shocking, but it is out of line with the tastes of the show’s comic book-obsessed cadre of characters, who revel in their knowledge of obscure pop culture.
Based on TV affinities, The Big Bang Theory fans appear to be nostalgic, proudly uncomplicated people who appreciate consistency. They’re fairly conservative, avoiding racy, obscene, or controversial content in favor of content that likely confirms their core beliefs. They are not, in other words, your standard nerds. But that’s just TV. What else?
A look at film affinities paints a similar picture. A few nerd classics make the cut with 100%+ affinity scores, but the films The Big Bang Theory fans are the most passionate about are exactly the kinds of movies the characters would proudly mock. Michael Bay’s Transformers, for example, tops the list at an alarming 382% affinity, while two Star Wars prequels and the universally-panned Fantastic Four are all in the top ten. Meanwhile, anime classics such as Akira and Spirited Away, as well as comedy-nerd classics such as This is Spinal Tap and Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, all have negative affinity scores.
This means The Big Bang Theory fans are less likely than the average person to enjoy these films — more evidence that fan tastes do not match those of the main characters. They appear to be less discerning, leaning heavily toward the popular and populist in their entertainment, but perhaps in their politics, as well. (The Big Bang Theory fans skew, ever-so-slightly, to the Midwest, South, and Southwest, aligning nicely with Trump’s America, but that’s a topic for another day.) Proudly touting such widely-reviled films and having negative affinity for more experimental, difficult work suggests they’re not the kind of people who care about critical consensus or canon-building. Again: not nerds.
Peering across Ranker’s vast library of lists lends more credence to the idea that “nerds” are not the core fanbase of The Big Bang Theory. Fans who think the show is the “Best Show Currently On the Air” also think forgotten ‘90s late-night staple Paula Poundstone is the funniest stand-up comic of all time, with Tim Allen — a ‘90s sitcom star still plugging away on ABC’s multi-camera Last Man Standing — close behind. Users who think the show is “The Greatest TV Show of All Time” also think Julia Roberts should top the list of “Greatest Actors or Actresses of All Time.” Roberts is many things, but she’s not exactly a geek icon.
This brings us to an ugly-but-useful-for-our-purposes word: basic. If you’re unfamiliar with this mild pejorative, here’s Urban Dictionary to the rescue: “Used to describe someone devoid of defining characteristics that might make a person interesting, extraordinary, or just simply worth devoting time or attention to.” There’s also this: “An adjective used to describe any person, place, activity involving obscenely obvious behavior, dress, action.”
Julia Roberts, while undoubtedly one of the most charming and talented actresses of all time, is just about as basic an actress as you can get, at least to the hordes of fans, meme-makers, and critics that glob together, Flubber-like, to elevate a piece of entertainment to “pop culture phenomenon” status. The Big Bang Theory fans, according to Ranker Insights data, love things that cultural tastemakers — and that definitely includes nerds — consider safe, obvious, unchallenging, and above all, basic.
Everywhere you look as you pore over the data, things typically derided as “basic” keep popping up. For fast food, The Big Bang Theory fans turn to Arby’s, Taco Bell, Subway, and Papa John’s, all “basic” choices compared to, for example, the woke-ness of Chipotle or the kitschy cult cool of In-N-Out Burger. The show’s fans clearly want consistency, value, and an unchallenging, thoroughly basic menu. Musical affinities also point in this direction: fans favor safe, middle-of-the road wedding and digital jukebox staples from artists such as Shania Twain, Bryan Adams, Sting, Steve Winwood, and the Foo Fighters, while the genre-bending experimentation of Radiohead, Kanye West, Prince, or Bjork, all have negative affinity scores. (The thoroughly unbasic rapper Wiz Khalifa ranks high, but that’s likely because of his 2015 appearance with The Big Bang Theory actor Jim Parsons playing Catchphrase on The Tonight Show.)
This all lends credibility to the theory that nerd culture is ultimately the target of, not the subject of, The Big Bang Theory’s rapid-fire jokes. After all, if the show’s fans aren’t fond of the hallmarks of nerd culture — A -25% affinity with Mystery Science Theater 3000? Seriously? No affinity at all with Doctor Who? — what are they laughing at, really? Are the show’s most passionate defenders so devoted because, as Variety’s Katherine Brodsky theorizes, the culture has shifted and become more geek-friendly, and the show “lets audiences identify with and be part of that geek world?” Or are the show’s fans, happily in thrall to all things basic, just laughing at the geeks?
Ranker Insights reveals that if these fans are, in fact, geeking out vicariously through Sheldon, Leonard, Penny & Co., they aren’t exploring geek culture outside the show like you would expect. It appears they enjoy laughing at, as the show’s most vocal critics claim, what they perceive to be a caricature of nerd culture, but aren’t card-carrying members of that culture themselves.
A charitable reading of the data could lead one to conclude that the show, by inserting “geeks” into a time-tested sitcom formula, just tries to appeal to “everyone” — a sitcom-by-committee, superficially inclusive of outsiders, appealing to our most basic — and “basic” — impulses. But the hundred of thousands of The Big Bang Theory fans on Ranker suggest, instead, that the version of nerd culture the show depicts is most appealing to viewers unfamiliar with the real thing.