What is comedy? What is funny? It’s intriguing that The Big Bang Theory asks these questions on the same night that its main timeslot rival, Community, welcomes back its creator, as if the Big Bang writers are protecting themselves from the forthcoming wave of attacks from Greendale enthusiasts eager to take down the three-camera antics of this harmless group of nerds and the women that love them. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that “The Hesitation Ramification” will beat Community’s season premiere in the ratings, and that’s going to garner a certain reaction that will not be very kind to what Chuck Lorre and company do over at CBS. Yet while Big Bang and Community occupy the same timeslot, they share very little else; both series feature ensembles that are extremely gifted at what they do, which are two very different types of comedy.
And that’s the thing about comedy: It’s a lot of different things to different people. Big Bang is not the same kind of funny as Community. It’s traditional and safe and comfortable playing within established sitcom boundaries, a show for people that grew up on three-camera sitcoms and may not be looking for the kind of high-concept comedy being offered at NBC. That doesn’t mean it’s not funny. I laugh at The Big Bang Theory the way I laugh at an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show or Cheers or Friends. The humor isn’t pushing limits, but it’s still fun to watch these characters exist in their heightened realities and endure these comic situations, especially when the cast has such great chemistry.
Comedy is multi-faceted and difficult to define in strict terms, which makes it something that both frustrates and fascinates Sheldon Cooper. Is comedy the classic formula of tragedy plus time? If a promiscuous sandwich, a rabbi, and Yo Mama walk into a bar, will the joke be funny? (Probably not.) In this week’s B-plot, Sheldon embarks on a journey to make himself funny, and it not only serves as a handy commentary on the nature of comedy, but also ends up sparking some solid laughs. This subplot works especially well because of how it interacts with the main plot: a Leonard and Penny story that uses an NCIS crossover to bring legitimate conflict and urgency to a relationship that has long struggled to find weight. While Sheldon tries to tap into his lighter side, Penny goes through one of her darkest periods, with Leonard caught in the middle of the emotional whirlwind.
Penny’s acting career has drifted into the background as of late, but it’s an important aspect of her character that deserves to be further explored. Getting a gig as a featured extra on NCIS flirting with Mark Harmon for one scene is a great opportunity for a struggling actress to get some national exposure, but that small role becomes something much more important when the scene is cut from the final episode. Penny’s family gathered back home to watch their girl on screen, and even if it was just a bit part, it was something. Something visible that proves she’s doing something with her life out west. Something that could have led to more if the right person was watching at just the right time. The probability of an NCIS appearance earning her a regular role on a CBS sitcom isn’t likely, but it’s easy for Penny to imagine a far-fetched dream when she’s denied satisfaction in reality.
Penny needs to see that NCIS scene. She needs to receive validation for the years of struggle, even if it’s just a few seconds on screen, and when she doesn’t, she self-destructs. Her mind jumps to all sorts of lofty hypotheticals about what could have been, and when Leonard tries to comfort her, Penny makes things worse by putting him in an awkward position that ends up hurting her. When Leonard delivers the harsh reality that three lines isn’t likely to become her big break, Penny accuses him of not believing in her and asks his honest opinion regarding the future of her acting career. Of course, she doesn’t have realistic expectations and asks him if he honestly thinks she’ll become a superstar, which is something that Leonard understands is incredibly difficult to achieve and not a logical goal for even the most talented actors.
Leonard tells Penny his truthful opinion, and she doesn’t agree, so she reacts in anger. When he apologizes later and tells her to submit a mail-in audition for the new Star Wars movie, she reacts in anger and rejects his gesture of good will, firmly pushing Penny into antagonist territory as she falls further down the self-pity spiral. Penny is the villain of the episode when she shows up drunk in Leonard’s apartment, which makes what happens next all the more brilliant. After apologizing to Leonard for insulting his Star Wars suggestion, the sad, drunk, hopeless Penny drops to her knees and proposes to Leonard, an act that leaves him speechless, and not in a good way. He’d love to marry Penny, but this isn’t the way it’s supposed to happen. He doesn’t want his girlfriend to propose to him because she’s just realized she has nothing else to live for, so she might as well enter into marriage.
Penny’s drunken mind interprets Leonard’s reluctance to say “yes” to her proposal as a blow to the future of their relationship, and she leaves his apartment without resolving anything. Penny’s actions have now added some serious drama to her relationship with Leonard, and while she’ll probably feel like shit in the morning, she doesn’t have to endure the torture Leonard goes through when he thinks he may have lost the best thing that ever happened to him. After the proposal, Sheldon and Leonard share a fantastic scene that shows how well this show can handle drama when it needs to, cutting out the laugh track for a somber conversation about Leonard’s uncertain romantic future. The Sheldon B-plot leads the audience to believe that there’s an insensitive joke on the way from the budding comedian—just as Leonard expects—but instead Sheldon responds with surprising sympathy at Leonard’s plight. Granted, that’s because he already stuck a “Kick Me!” sign on Leonard’s back, but the middle of a crisis is the perfect time for a laugh.
Going into the second half of season 7, The Big Bang Theory does a remarkable job of ramping up the character stakes in this episode, and hopefully, Penny’s actions this week have lasting consequences moving forward. Ultimately, “The Hesitation Ramification” is more of what this season has consistently delivered, providing comedy that is primarily born from character development rather than manufactured sitcom plots. Sheldon randomly dropping his pants is pretty funny out of context, but it resonates even more because we know his personality and how uncharacteristic it is for him to drop trou. This show may not have Community’s guts, but it makes up for it with plenty of heart in its character, creating a friendly, inviting environment that has proved exceptionally rewarding this season as the writers delve deeper into the relationships to keep the show moving forward.
- How amazing is that When Harry Met Sally homage scene with Bernadette faking hysterical laughter for her husband? Even better is Howard’s punchline when it’s all done: “Yeah, well I fake my orgasms.”
- A Raj and Stuart C-plot about learning how to flirt with girls? Not funny. A Raj and Stuart C-plot about taking baby steps to break free from their crippling fear of communicating with other people? Very funny.
- “I’ve never seen this show before, and now I’m starting with episode 246? It’s unnatural.”
- Great moments in Sheldon’s quest for comedy: “BRAIN LESIONS!”; surprise pants-dropping; “Knock knock knock Amy” jokes.
- “Wow! I can feel you hating me right now.”