"That's in very poor taste," I thought. "I hope The Big Bang Theory realizes how offensive that is."
After all, it's not like Stephen Hawking can control the fact that he's in a wheelchair. He has ALS, an extremely unfunny degenerative neurological disease that has left him paralyzed and unable to speak -- that's why he communicates through a speech-generating computer. Making light of his illness by turning him into a literal plaything would be disrespectful to anyone with ALS, let alone someone who has given so much to the world as Stephen Hawking.
It turns out I was wrong to doubt The Big Bang Theory, because the plot of the toy Stephen Hawking section of the episode was a one-sided debate about how offensive and tasteless it is. And I forgot that Stephen Hawking has a sense of humor about himself.
Howard (Simon Helberg) found the toy in question among some other old stuff of his. Howard made the remote-controlled Hawking, which zips around and does tricks, has glow-in-the-dark eyes and says things like "gentlemen, start your wheelchairs, vroom vroom!"
He's real proud of it, but when he shows it to Bernadette (Melissa Rauch), she's not impressed. She's like "Howard, that's offensive." He's like "nah." They call in Raj (Kunal Nayyar) for a second opinion. Raj wisely says that he doesn't trust the sensitivity judgement of the guy who showed him a video of Leonard (Johnny Galecki) getting hit in the nuts like it was the funniest thing in the world.
At work, Howard and Raj take it around the school to survey their co-workers about the offensiveness of RC Hawking. They ask Amy (Mayim Bialik) if it's in poor taste; she takes one look and says "yes."
"Does it spin around and do tricks?" asks Leonard. "Yeah," says Howard. "Then yes."
Then they take it to their degenerate co-worker Barry Kripke (John Ross Bowie), who loves it.
"That is hiwawious," says Kripke. "Give me the wemote contwol, I want to dwive it into the girl's westwoom."
That settles it: it's in poor taste.
Later, Stephen Hawking himself Skypes in to talk to Leonard and Sheldon (Jim Parsons), who spent the episode consumed with jealousy of Bert's (Brian Posehn) "genius grant." Hawking tells Sheldon that he doesn't need any awards to feel good about himself.
The brilliant physicist consoles Sheldon by telling him, "I've never won a Nobel Prize." He's alright with that, though, because he got something better: he was on The Simpsons.
"Don't waste your time on jealousy, Sheldon," Hawking says. "You're too brilliant."
Sheldon can't stay jealous when Stephen Hawking tells him he's brilliant. I mean, come on. His life is awesome. Sheldon thanks the professor by telling him there should be statues of him all over the world.
"I always thought a motorized toy of me would be cool," he says.
"Don't tell Wolowitz," Leonard murmurs to Amy. Boom. Episode tied up neatly.
The episode did a good job of hammering on a tasteless joke; but not approving of it until the only person in the world who could approve it said it was alright. Howard was unambiguously wrong and the joke was on him... Right up until Stephen Hawking showed up to flip the joke on its head. As a result? This was the funniest episode of the season so far.
The Big Bang Theory airs Thursdays at 8/7c on CBS.
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