Adam Buckman is an AwardsLine contributor
This was the season The Big Bang Theory became ubiquitous. Perched at the top of the primetime ratings, its reruns became omnipresent on TBS and local TV stations, which together air as many as 24 episodes of the show every week. Yet the show’s ascendance to the summit of the pop-culture mountain has not altered the routines of those who work on the hit CBS show.
“That has nothing to do with what you do every day, just to try and find a good story and execute it”, cocreator and executive producer Chuck Lorre says mildly, making the achievement seem ordinary.
“There’s actually a cognitive disconnect between the impact that the show has culturally, on television, and all that stuff, and your day-to-day experience”, adds cocreator and executive producer, Bill Prady. “You drive to a lot, you go to an office, you procrastinate a little bit, you go sit in a room with writers, you do your best to write an entertaining show about the characters you have in front of you, you (do) run-throughs, you do rewrites, you shoot in front of an audience–and none of that changes”.
However, Prady says that while the average office routine remains unchanged, casual conversations are another story.
“The first thing you notice when a show starts to take off in a good way is that when you talk to people, you’re not hiding what show you’re working on”, Prady explains. “There starts to be this sense of, ‘OK, this thing has an effect on people’, and then you have an experience like the one we (had) at Comic-Con, and you see people dressed as your characters, and you start to say, ‘OK, this is kind of a thing, isn’t it?’ ”
The Comic-Con connection is particularly appropriate because the convention and others like it exist to celebrate geek chic–a social trend embraced, if not embodied, by Big Bang Theory with its socially awkward scientific geniuses who are obsessed with all things Star Trek and sci-fi.
Just this past season, lending legitimacy to this series about physicists, uber-physicist Stephen Hawking guest-starred as himself on an episode. And, as if the similarities between series star Jim Parsons’ emotionless characterization of Big Bang’s Sheldon Cooper and Star Trek’s Mr. Spock were not sufficiently obvious, Mr. Spock himself, Leonard Nimoy, finally made a cameo appearance on the show to drive that point home. (Though Nimoy didn’t physically appear, his enduring character’s voice did.)
For his part, Parsons has emerged as the most acclaimed member of the Big Bang ensemble, taking home the lead actor Emmy for the last two years and earning his fourth consecutive nom in July.
Also nominated this year: Mayim Bialik for the supporting role of Sheldon’s nerdy love interest, Amy Farrah Fowler–“a total, utter, sheer surprise”, she says of the nom, which was the first one she’s ever received.
Once the teenage star of the ’90s sitcom Blossom, Bialik took 12 years off from acting to marry and start a family. Now she’s starring in the highest-rated comedy on the air, along with Parsons, Johnny Galecki, Kaley Cuoco, Simon Helberg, Melissa Rauch, and Kunal Nayyar.
“I think it’s pretty unbelievable to have the opportunity once to be in a network TV show in my teen years, then take a 12-year break, have a few kids and (then) come back and get to be on this show”, she says. “Statistically, I don’t even know how to calculate (the odds of that happening)”.
Besides the Parsons and Bialik noms, the show received three more–comedy series, multicamera editing, and technical direction. But if there were an Emmy category to award shows for the impact they’re having on the outlets that air them, then Big Bang Theory would likely be a nominee in that fanciful category as well.
That’s because the sitcom is currently scoring big ratings in three different places–CBS, TBS, and local stations. On CBS, the show surpassed Two and a Half Men (which Lorre also produces) this past season to emerge as network television’s top-rated comedy with a total-viewer average of 15.9 million per episode at 8 p.m. Thursdays, a new time slot to which it moved last fall.
On TBS, the success of the Big Bang reruns gave a boost to Conan O’Brien’s late-night show Conan, whose ratings improved after Big Bang was installed as the show’s lead-in Tuesday through Thursday.
The challenge now, as The Big Bang Theory heads into its sixth season, is keeping the series fresh when its characters and scenarios are so well known and familiar to audiences. The producers, Lorre and Prady, both agree: It gets harder to create shows as time goes on, not easier.
“You don’t want to repeat yourself”, Lorre says. “After 100-some-odd episodes (111, to be exact), redundancy is looming”.
Adds Prady, “This is the great peculiarity of this line of work, which is that the writing of no episode is easier than the one before it. Larry Gelbart, the great writer of M*A*S*H, said (in his 1998 memoir, Laughing Matters) every time they worked out what the next story would be, the exhausting process of doing that left them convinced that that’s the last story for M*A*S*H they’d ever be able to figure out”.
However, the way last season ended gives Lorre and his writers plenty of material with which to grapple for the sixth season. Among other things, they’re dealing with the not-so-minor task of getting space-traveling scientist Howard Wolowitz (Helberg) back on solid ground.
“We will bring Wolowitz back from space”, Lorre promises. “He will linger in orbit, but we will get him back”.
As for Wolowitz himself, Helberg says he hasn’t read any scripts yet but he has some idea what’s in store. “Hopefully, he doesn’t burst into flames on the way down”, Helberg says. “From what I’ve heard, the problems he faces on Earth with (his) overbearing mother and new wife (Rauch, whose character Wolowitz married in the season finale) don’t really stay on Earth. He has some interactions with the two of them from space, and he’s getting bullied by the veteran crew that he’s onboard with, so there’s kind of no winning for him. He’s still back in high school”.
Wolowitz might feel like he’s still in high school being bullied, but thanks to his character and the others on The Big Bang Theory, the geeks are giving hope to bookish, homely teens and nerds everywhere.
In fact, Prady recently discovered that folk singer Janis Ian, whose 1975 song “At Seventeen” became an enduring anthem for those not attractive enough to be socially accepted, is a fan of the show. “So now, one of the people in my life is Janis Ian, who sends me an email after an episode airs talking about what she thought of it”, Prady reveals. “That’s more remarkable than bags of money with dollar signs on them”.