Friday, November 9, 2012

Is Being Smart Stupid?

One of my all-time favorite sitcoms pitted two highly intelligent brothers against their own humanity in Frasier.  I loved the writing on that show.  They really knew how to write double entendres, especially of the non-sexual variety, and play off puns for hilarity.  These two brothers, Frasier and Niles Crane, must have been in the top 2% in IQ and yet, they did so many stupid things.  How come they didn’t know not to do stupid things?  Were the show’s creators and writers using them to make fun of smart people?  Or to demonstrate through these two characters that high intelligence doesn’t necessarily mean being smart in every aspect of life?

One of my favorite episodes involves a Halloween costume party at Niles’ well-appointed apartment.  He’s crazy about Daphne (their father’s physical therapist/housekeeper) but thinks she doesn’t share his feelings.  Frasier’s radio producer, Roz, is waiting for a phone call from her ob-gyn to tell her whether or not she’s pregnant.  During the course of the party, Niles overhears Daphne and Frasier talking in the kitchen about Roz without using her name.  Niles believes it’s Daphne that’s pregnant and Frasier is the father.  Niles, ever the chivalrous suitor, ends up proposing to Daphne in order to save her from single motherhood.  But it’s Roz who’s pregnant.  I think this kind of eavesdropping and mistaken conclusions could happen to anyone, whether highly intelligent or not.  We forget sometimes that other people influence our behavior as much as our own intelligence and beliefs.
Another TV sitcom, The Big Bang Theory, mines this same territory.  The show’s premise involves two high-IQ researcher/academics sharing an apartment across the hall from a gorgeous blonde who’s of average intelligence, and the ways in which their lives intersect.  Sheldon represents the arrogant genius who’s socially inept with OCD tendencies.  Leonard, his roommate, is in the top 2% but has more experience with social situations and dealing with the surprises of life.  Their friends, Howard and Rajeesh, act as foils at times or as collaborators.  Penny, the gorgeous blonde, works as a waitress as she tries to break into acting in Hollywood.

The writing on this sitcom is not quite up to the same level as Frasier, but I like the ways they find to reveal the humanity of these characters.  Sheldon has the most to learn from Penny and he’s a reluctant student.  But Leonard, Howard and Rajeesh also help Sheldon learn that his genius is limited.  Again, the situations tend to be the type of everyday situations that anyone might encounter, but seen through the points of view of each of the characters.  A good friend commented to me that he doesn’t watch this show because he sees it as making fun of highly intelligent people.  I think it’s possible to interpret the show that way.  But like Frasier, The Big Bang Theory has turned out to be a window into our shared humanity, whether you’re smart or not.
We need highly intelligent people in our world, and we need to support them, encourage them to use their intelligence for progress and the benefit of humanity, not make fun of them or ostracize them.  I think it’s safe to say that most are not like Sheldon. The refreshing thing about both these shows is that the highly intelligent characters are not one-dimensional or villainous.  They are people with flaws, insecurities and desires, just like the rest of us.  Before these shows, however, I did not understand why highly intelligent people tended to be ostracized, picked on, bullied, and otherwise made to feel unwelcome in regular society.  Both these shows give one possible answer, probably more in Sheldon than in Frasier or Niles.  The socially inept genius tends to be arrogant and condescending toward others, especially about things he knows well.  But if you think about it, don’t arrogance and condescension tend to hide insecurities?  These two shows certainly make a strong case for that explanation.

They also offer the other 98% funny, poignant, and compassionate ways to deal with the arrogant and condescending 2%....  

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