My rating: 4 of 5 stars
It will come as no surprise that television comedy writers are disproportionately Ivy League educated individuals. What may come as a surprise is that a number of comedies—particularly animated series—have a large number of technically and mathematically educated individuals on their writing staffs. Mathematicians, computer scientists, engineers, and physicists regularly work in hidden humor that only a math geek could love—or get—into episodes of The Simpsons and Futurama. Singh’s book explores the subtle mathematical references and humor that swoosh over the heads of most viewers.
While the title doesn’t mention Futurama, it should be noted that there are four chapters devoted to that series. (This in contrast to the 14 chapters dedicated to the much older show, The Simpsons.)
Let’s assume that nerds can be categorized into three sets: nerds, super-nerds, and mega-nerds. This book takes as its core demographic the largest of these groups, run-of-the-mill nerds. How does one define these three apparently arbitrary designations? A mega-nerd would see the humor in the equation scrawled on a blackboard in the background as he (or she) watched an episode of The Simpsons. (All Hail, King of the Nerds!) A super-nerd wouldn’t get many of these jokes as he (or she) watched, but he would freeze-frame the scene, and would have enough mathematical skill to decipher the cryptic jokes. A regular nerd misses the joke altogether, but is interested enough to take the time to read an explanation of these obscure references. (These categories are contrasted with the typical TV viewer, who doesn’t get the joke, but is blissful in his ignorance.)
While much of the book is devoted to these series’ mathematical gags—which range from the elementary to the arcane—Singh offers interesting insight into the writing process on shows with a team that mixes traditional writers (English and Literature majors) with mathematical types. One of the most interesting behind-the-scenes questions is why mathematical writers work so well for the The Simpsons? Futurama, being a science fiction series–and thus aimed at the geek/nerd nexus, isn’t so much a surprise, but Homer and his family don’t have any motive to be particularly mathematical—with the possible exception of the occasional reference by brainy Lisa. The chapters are arranged by various mathematical themes, such as prime numbers, pi, statistics, topology, etc.
There are some ancillary sections that deserve mention. First, there are a series of “quizzes” that consist of jokes with the set ups written as the question and the punchline serving as the answer. These jokes get progressively more complicated—starting with crude elementary school jokes (e.g. “Why did 5 eat 6?”) and ranging to the truly obscure (e.g. “What’s big, grey, and proves the uncountability of the decimal numbers?” The answer, if you’re wondering, is “Cantor’s Diagonal Elephant.”) Second, there are five appendices that are used to go into more mathematical depth on some of the topics under discussion. This is written as a book for the masses, and so attempts are made to minimize and simplify equations. There are equations and graphic representations, but they’re kept at a relatively elementary level of mathematics.
I enjoyed reading this book and would recommend it for anyone who—like me–kind of likes mathematics, but finds it more palatable with a spoonful of sugar. In this case, the sugar is the discussion of the humorous scenes of these two comedies.