On Howard Wolowitz, The Schlemiel on “Big Bang Theory”


Big Bang Theory is one of the most popular sitcoms today. Each show draws between 15 and 20 million viewers.   The show has its share of “geeks” and “nerds.” But unlike the past, where nerds were looked down on, the show represents them as the norm. What makes the characters most interesting, however, is not just how they cope with reality and situations which, for people who are not-nerds, are simple, but also with how they cope with male-female relationships.   But to simply call them nerds or geeks would be to miss the fact that these characters are schlemiels.   However, unlike the schlemiels that we see portrayed by Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Jason Biggs, or Seth Rogen, these schlemiels are more intelligent and are upwardly mobile. Their greatest fault is their awkwardness. Because of their interest in science, video games, and nerdy things, they have a hard time understanding how to relate to the other sex. Their schlemieldom has to do with this inability to know what to say or do in relation to practical issues and sexuality.   The best example of such schlemieldom can be found in Howard Holowitz (Simon Helberg).

Like many a schlemiel, he is overweaned by his mother. He lives with her. And there are many moments in the show where we see him overweaned. But unlike Philp Roth’s Portnoy, he doesn’t despise his mother for making him a schlemiel.

And, regardless, he does sometimes score points with the ladies. But regardless of how many dates he goes on and regardless of how many opportunities he has to talk with women, he can’t change.   His nerdiness prevents him (and many other characters in the show) from becoming a successful heterosexual male.

His sexuality, like many a modern schlemiel, is his weak spot. In this scene, his mother calls him a “sexual criminal.”

And in this scene, Howard gets a mechanical “hand job” that reminds one of the orgasmatron in Woody Allen’s Sleeper.

Regardless, these scenes, taken together, show us that the sexual schlemiel lives on. He is a Hollywood tradition. We see sexual schlemiels in Woody Allen’s films from Annie Hall (1976) to Anything Else (2003) and Midnight in Paris (2011), in just about every Ben Stiller film, and in nearly every Jason Biggs film. We also see him in Seth Rogen’s films. But the sexual schlemiel, here, has a basis in a larger and growing culture of nerds and geeks. More importantly, since the heterosexual norms and masculinity itself are being put into question in much new film and television, we can expect to see more sexual schlemiels. For a male, being unsure of what to do and how to do it – vis-à-vis the female other – is and will become more and more of a norm in American culture. And in a show like Big Bang Theory, awkwardness is the norm.

This awkwardness arises when a culture is so immersed in science and technology that relating to the sexual other and the world become a task that one may need help with, and the best character to communicate this awkwardness is the schlemiel. As our culture becomes more and more technologically sophisticated and virtual, expect to see the schlemiel more and more often on TV and on Netflix.

Instead of a Brave New World, as Huxley envisioned, we have an Awkward New World and Howard Wolowitz is our guide.   But not everyone is happy about this new world and some people think that we need to move on to something else.  Take, for instance A.O. Scott, who in a recently essay for The New York Times Magazine called the turn – in film, TV, and culture in general – to “perpetual adolescence” into question.  Are we witnessing what we calls the “end of adulthood?”  Will a literary, filmic, and cultural movement arise to challenge the nerds and put an end to the reign of schlemiels like Sandler, Stiller, Biggs, Rogen, and Wolowitz?  Or is the schlemiel here to stay more by default than by choice?

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