Stephen Hawking: How an Astrophysicist Became a Global Pop-Culture Icon

"Life would be tragic if it weren't funny," the groundbreaking scientist once said – and he made sure it was.

Who else but Hawking could debunk Albert Einstein's theories and also appear as himself on an episode of Star Trek where he beats Einstein in poker? Credit: Santi Visalli/Getty Images

For all his theories about the cosmos, Stephen Hawking may be remembered as much for his assessment of Homer Simpson's "donut-shaped universe" as his groundbreaking work on the nature of time and existence of parallel dimensions – and that's just one of Hawking's many contributions to a surprisingly robust comedic legacy.

Hawking, who died Wednesday at the age of 76, was an unlikely figure to become a beloved pop cultural touchstone. His ALS, with which he was diagnosed at the age of 21, left him with severely limited mobility, making an automated voice box his only means of communication. He was considered one of the greatest scientific minds of all time, holding the post of Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University – a title once held by Sir Isaac Newton – and his most popular book, A Brief History of Time, made complex subjects like quantum physics and the formation of black holes relatable to the non-PhD-holding reader. That's some pretty dense material (literally, in the case of black holes), and not really the stuff of comedic gold.

But even as he challenged the way we think about the universe, Hawking still made time to flex his wicked sense of humor. Who else could debunk Albert Einstein's theories and also appear as himself on an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where he beats Einstein in poker?

Hawking's IMDB page is stacked with iconic TV appearances, and though he always played himself (how could he not, really?), his alter ego version was funny for both its arrogance and self-deprecation. Thanks to a cameo on The Simpsons, there's a solid chance more people know that Hawking failed to formulate a unified field theory than actually know what it is. In a repeated guest role as himself on The Big Bang Theory, Hawking routinely schooled the show's protagonist Sheldon by being the only smarter person in the room. And in his brilliant 2014 interview with John Oliver for Last Week Tonight, he somehow comes off more biting than Oliver himself. (There's also this funny short he did for CalTech about quantum chess, in which he calls Paul Rudd a "cubic rube.")

Where another person may have understandably shied away from using his physical limitations to land a joke, Hawking played up his voice box's robotic monotone, combining it with a killer sense of timing to hilariously deadpan effect. "Be honest, is this the single greatest honor you have ever received?" John Oliver asks him in the segment. "Yes," Hawking replies. "Great! It's a little hard to read your tone of voice: Are you being sarcastic?," Oliver says, then a pause. "Yes," replies Hawking.

On the DVD commentary for his first appearance on The Simpsons, the season 10 episode "They Saved Lisa's Brain," the writers reveal that Hawking not only went to table reads for the episode but painstakingly typed in his lines, which they recorded with a mic like any other voice actor. "It's good to know that we were taking the most brilliant man in the world and using his time to record 'fruitopia' in individual syllables," joked showrunner Mike Scully. (Hawking was reportedly a fan of the show and would appear on it four times between 1999 and 2010. He even reportedly once went to a New Year's Eve party in costume as a Springfield resident.)

Beyond his pop culture alter ego, though, Hawking was a noted wit. In a 2004 interview with the New York Times, he said that "life would be tragic if it weren't funny." And he made sure it was. In her 2013 biography of Hawking, Kitty Ferguson recounts an incredible anecdote about how Hawking would roll his wheelchair over the feet of people who annoyed him, and that one of "his greatest regrets in life was not having an opportunity to run over Margaret Thatcher's toes." When asked about it, Hawking offered this denial: "A malicious rumor. I'll run over the toes of anyone who repeats it."

In 2015, Hawking was asked about the cosmological effect of Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction. "Finally, a question about something important," he said, then told any heartbroken young women to turn to theoretical physics for comfort. "It would not be beyond the realms of possibility that somewhere outside of our own universe lies another, different universe. And in that universe, Zayn is still in One Direction."

But his humor still doesn't explain why such a brilliant mind who had many other things to think about would use his limited time and energy to cameo on comedy shows. Maybe he genuinely enjoyed it, and found his appearances a nice reprieve from contemplating the nature of the known universe. Or maybe it was yet another way to illustrate, as he did time and again, that his disease and its debilitating side effects wouldn't stop him from doing anything he wanted. Or, maybe, it's because he was a professor, and appearing as himself in something as accessible as The Simpsons lowered the barrier for entry for his more academic work. 

By showing up all over nerd pop culture, he became an approachable figure that would help the non-geniuses among us gain entry into incredibly complex thoughts. It's probably not a coincidence that he started showing up on TV in 1993 with that Star Trek: TNG appearance, five years after A Brief History of Time was first published. As impossibly difficult as that book's subject matter was, it sold 10 million copies over two decades, a number that suggests plenty of people outside of the physics community tried to tackle it.

Or maybe the "why?" isn't really important. Stephen Hawking was inspiring and funny and brilliant, and if becoming an unlikely pop culture gadfly introduced new people to his scientific contributions, society is better for it. His appearances cemented his legacy as not just one of the greatest thinkers of our lifetime but as a surprising pop culture icon, and anyone sad about his death should look to theoretical physics – after all, there's probably a universe out there where Stephen Hawking is actually the showrunner on the Simpsons.