Comedy is a more subjective art form than most. If someone says, “It’s just not funny,” you can’t convince them to laugh. Sure, you can explain why the joke, bit, or moment is funny, but how often does explaining a joke lead to more laughs than the joke itself? That’s why people often turn to success as evidence for comedic validation: If “Animal House,” “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “M.A.S.H.,” “Friends,” and Eddie Murphy’s stand-up are bringing in more and more fans over years and years of time, they’re probably pretty funny, right?
In the immortal words of “The Departed’s” Sergeant Dignam, “Maybe.” One could always argue against the wisdom of the crowd, and “Young Sheldon” is inviting such rebellion. The CBS spinoff is not only better than “The Big Bang Theory,” but despite fewer jokes and a more grounded tone, it’s funnier, too.
Now, before this gets too far, let’s be clear. “The Big Bang Theory” is a particularly divisive bit of mainstream comedy. With Chuck Lorre’s long-running CBS sitcom, there are longstanding complaints about counterintuitive geek mockery, forced laughs, and problematic portrayals of complicated people.
But people love it. Ratings remain huge, and viewers seem to love its prequel, too. “Young Sheldon” had a monster debut, then took a lengthy break so CBS could air Thursday Night Football games, and returned strong: It’s holding onto its “Big Bang” lead-in extremely well.
The only issue: It deserves more than just “Big Bang Theory” fans. While created by Lorre and longtime “Big Bang” producer Steven Molaro, the single-camera series is developing nicely sans laugh track. Stylistically, it’s far removed from “Big Bang”; so much so, even those who hate the older version of Sheldon Cooper might like the story of his childhood.
The series aren’t in competition — they’re meant to feed interest in each other — but after examining episodes from the current seasons, it’s kind of surprising the franchise expansion is working:
While it’s beyond my mortal powers of TV criticism to explain the former point — maybe they just like Sheldon that much? — the latter is quite clear. “The Big Bang Theory” has more jokes: No one can dispute that, even if you eliminate the aforementioned “jokes” that lack a punchline. But the jokes in “Young Sheldon” are stronger, cleaner, and more grounded in the emotional beats of the scene.
Take, for instance, a scene from “The Big Bang Theory” Season 11 premiere. Howard (Simon Helberg) has just been told by his partner Bernadette (Melissa Rauch) that she’s pregnant again. The new father is stunned by the news, deems it impossible, and starts screaming, “No!” over and over again until Bernadette gives into his dismay as well.
The live studio audience chuckles at Howard’s overly expressive behavior and even laughs when Bernadette despondently acquiesces to his panic. But all the lead up to the scene was about Bernadette being nervous to tell Howard; she had to get counsel from Penny (Kaley Cuoco) before she could muster up the courage to do so. While one could argue his unexpected adverse reaction is funny in its extremity, her disappointment isn’t funny — it’s sad. It’s very, very sad.
That runs counter to humor meant to be taken away from the scene and shows how willing “Big Bang” writers are to get a laugh no matter where they’re taking the story. Sure, Bernadette and Howard will be OK, but even when they’re clearly not OK, the show maintains its constant sentiment: Who cares what’s going on, as long as people are laughing?
In terms of long-term success, the shows are antithetical to each other. “Big Bang” relies on passive appreciation; an onslaught of constant comedy that doesn’t have to be constantly funny. It just has to seem funny. “Young Sheldon,” meanwhile, excels at the cliched old adage of capturing humor and heart. It demands attention, engagement, and delivers emotional moments that can pivot to comedy more and more often as time goes on. Its building a connection with its viewers, and that empathy is already paying off.
In Episode 4, “A Therapist, a Comic Book, and a Breakfast Sausage,” young Sheldon is traumatized by choking on a piece of meat and refuses to eat whole foods as a result. His parents take him to therapy, but Sheldon’s turning point comes when sitting in a comic book store and he’s tempted by a piece of his friend’s licorice.
Never mind that this is Sheldon’s superhero origin story — where his love for The Flash and Green Lantern begins — or that he dismisses the idea of comic books earlier in the episode. In the moment, as he feels compelled to eat a food he has to chew, the scene itself equally emphasizes import and hilarity. It’s a big deal for Sheldon to overcome his fear, but it’s also really funny watch the child sit there, staring intently at a Red Vine as his best friend watches him in utter bewilderment.
It’s no shock “Young Sheldon” puts development first; that its priority is on building up Sheldon as a character. After all, that’s why people are watching. But they consistently incorporate humor into similarly weighty situations and do so without sacrificing anything else. (The third episode focuses on his dad’s heart attack and still comes across as funny thanks to Annie Potts’ Meemaw and her inspired tomfoolery.) Audiences may feel like they’re laughing less at “Young Sheldon” than “Big Bang” because there’s no laugh track prompting them to recognize “jokes,” but the unassisted series is nevertheless a funnier experience.
“Young Sheldon” hasn’t fully delivered on the promise of its pilot just yet. There hasn’t been an episode as melancholic and meaningful, nor has the rest of the cast hinted at depths quickly plumped in the first episode. But in subsequent episodes, it’s achieved a stronger balance between comedy and drama — and surpassed its predecessor in the most unexpected of ways.
At least, it has for this viewer. Judge for yourself, but do give “Young Sheldon” a chance. It deserves mass consideration.