A peek behind the success of “The Big Bang Theory,” one of the biggest—and definitely brainiest—sitcoms on TV today
Author Sam Polcer
AT FIRST GLANCE, the setup of “The Big Bang Theory” is familiar enough: a close-knit group of 20-something friends who pop in and out of one another’s daily lives. There’s a romantic lead, a self-professed ladies’ man and a Kramer-esque oddball. There’s at least one will-they-or-won’t-they relationship, plus angst-inducing visits from the characters’ parents and the odd high-profile guest star. Over six very successful seasons, show creator Chuck Lorre (“Two and a Half Men,” “Dharma & Greg”) has made it clear that he believes sitcom tropes aren’t meant for dabbling in—they should be celebrated.
But while the show’s plot points may adhere to formula, its premise does not. Whereas, say, “Friends” had paleontologist Ross as the gang’s most socially awkward member, the core group of “The Big Bang Theory” includes three physicists, an engineer turned astronaut, a neurobiologist and a microbiologist. Needless to say, social graces and real-world savvy come as naturally to these lovable dorks as quantum physics does to the rest of us.
As “The Big Bang Theory” wraps Season 6 this month—and looks ahead to its confirmed Season 7—Play stayed after class with Johnny Galecki (Leonard) and Jim Parsons (Sheldon) to chat about what the future holds for Leonard and Penny, which cast member is the coolest under fire and how “Bazinga!” came to be.
PLAY: Johnny, you came into “The Big Bang Theory” with five seasons of “Roseanne” under your belt, making you more or less a sitcom veteran. How soon did you know that this show was something special?
JG: At the very first table read with this incarnation of the cast, something clicked. Everyone’s choices seemed to serve everyone else’s in a way that’s very rare—and very unpredictable, too. To this day, 130-some episodes in, I can’t predict how one of my cast-mates is going to do a line. I hope they feel the same way about me.
PLAY: Jim, what was it like working with Johnny for the first time?
JP: Well, it’s interesting. I actually got the part without ever reading with another Leonard. Johnny just came in and, for whatever reason, was just excessively comfortable, I guess in the same way that I was really comfortable with my part. It allowed us to do our own thing and mix things up together … putting your own twist on it and then seeing how the other person responds.
JG: It wasn’t until I met Jim that Sheldon made sense to me. It was like, “Oh, there he is.”
PLAY: Sheldon is certainly one of the quirkiest characters on television. What attracted you to the role?
JP: From day one, I really liked the way he talked. I liked the rhythm of his speech. I understood what the writers were going for, and I thought that I could make it human at the same time. Of course, you can feel that way about a lot of things, and even if you do really good work by your own standards it doesn’t always match up with what they want.
PLAY: Lately Sheldon’s been making progress in terms of how he connects with members of the opposite sex, especially Amy (Mayim Bialik). Do you think we can expect to see him, say, serving breakfast in bed?
JP: Oh, I think that’s a leap. But I really applaud the way the writers have handled the progress he’s been having. There’s something very grounded in these new decisions he’s making about who he is, and he comes by them naturally. You get to hear his scientific thought process.
PLAY: The characters’ personalities—and costumes—are so extreme that I don’t think many viewers could imagine what the actors are like in real life. Can I ask you to describe each of them?
JG: Oh boy. [Pauses.] Kaley Cuoco [Penny] is the rock. When somebody cracks himself up with one of his own jokes on-set, you know to look at Kaley.
JP: She’s as cool as a cucumber. It’s not easy to rattle her.
JG: Simon Helberg [Howard] is one of the funniest people I’ve ever met in my life. I include every comedic legend I’ve worked with within that. And Kunal Nayyar [Raj] is all heart—he’s a giving, generous, considerate, curious soul.
JP: We all look different out of costume, but Kunal is the one about whom more people say, “Oh my God, he’s cute!” when they see him outside the show.
JG: Mayim Bialik [Amy] is opinionated with the best intentions, and is more often right than wrong.
JP: I love Mayim so much. She has injected new life into my own personal work long before I ever knew I needed it. She took that character of Amy Farrah Fowler by the horns.
JG: And Melissa Rauch [Bernadette] is just ferociously talented.
JP: She’s the funniest, funniest person. Full of surprises.
PLAY: Johnny, inquiring minds want to know: What’s going to happen with Leonard and Penny?
JG: Well, as Chuck Lorre has said, this isn’t “Lost.” We have no idea. But the thing that interested me most about the show was playing with that romantic dynamic. Those scenes are also the most challenging to do. We rehearse those scenes between Leonard and Penny more than any others because there’s love involved, and in a comedy, you really need to earn the right to approach that subject. But we’re not working backward from the end of the story. We haven’t mapped it out.
PLAY: How much of the characters’ scientific jargon do you understand?
JG: Very, very little. Sometimes even Googling a term is more confusing than anything. When we started the show, I bought a bunch of books, including Physics for Dummies. I just don’t have the mind for it.
PLAY: Have you ever been factchecked by a viewer on some point of science in the show? Any smarty-pants who has written in to say, “Well, technically …”?
JG: Oh, I’m sure that’s happened, but our team is really good about getting stuff right. I mean, when we show whiteboards with notations, if there are equations written out they’re all very correct. Chuck Lorre is big on keeping true to the science and we haven’t gotten lazy. Apparently, some of those equations on the whiteboard are funny, too—how that’s possible, I have no idea!
PLAY: Jim, rare is the TV actor who actually gets a catchphrase that sticks. Who came up with “Bazinga!”?
JP: It was one of the writers who used it on his own. I just recently found this out. He had said it in the writers room, apparently, more than once, and then they finally incorporated it. And what a strange little word.
PLAY: I’m sure he’s very proud.
JP: I hope so.
PLAY: One last thing: Lena Dunham recently told Hemispheres that she hasn’t been on an airplane in the past three years that wasn’t showing “The Big Bang Theory,” saying, “I believe it’s a thing that keeps planes aloft … it’s replaced fuel.” The show does seem to be everywhere—what’s that like for you?
JG: That quote’s hilarious. Yeah, I talked about this phenomenon on Conan’s show a couple of weeks ago, actually. I was on a flight to Japan—that’s a long, long flight—and they played the show a lot in the main cabin. That’s a little uncomfortable for me, since I’m not generally surrounded by 300 people judging my work. Guys sitting next to me, they’ve got it on, they’ll put their headphones on, and I’ve got my baseball hat pulled down tight. But it’s nice to see them enjoy it, you know.