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After 12 Seasons, 'Big Bang' Writers Bid Farewell To Their 'Surrogate Family'

May 15, 2019
Originally published on May 15, 2019 10:03 pm

The hit TV show The Big Bang Theory is signing off after a 12 season run – and the show's writers and creators aren't quite ready to say goodbye. For more than a decade, the writers have pitched storylines and traded jabs from their creative space at Warner Bros. studios.

On their long conference table you'll find Star Wars toys, e-mail about the structure of DNA, and the collected work of physicist Richard Feynman. There are Star Trek screensavers on the TV monitors.

The Big Bang Theory was always a show for and about geeks and nerds, and that's why it's worked, says executive producer Chuck Lorre: "The characters were outliers and felt somewhat disenfranchised from the world and clung to each other – they created a surrogate family," Lorre explains. He's proud that the show connected with viewers who didn't always fit in. "This is for the rest of us who weren't the king and queen of the prom," he says.

Lorre co-created the show with Bill Prady, who long ago wrote computer software that he says was "sold in your neighborhood Radio Shack." He talked with Lorre about how brilliant his coworkers were at programming — but how bad they could be interacting with people — women in particular.

Prady knew one programmer who could do amazing calculations in his head but couldn't manage to tip the waiters in a restaurant. When he shared that story, Lorre said, "Hang on, I've never seen that guy on television."

Lorre and Prady made their Big Bang protagonists scientists, not programmers: Sheldon (Jim Parsons), a fastidious genius and his best friend and fellow physicist Leonard (Johnny Galecki). The show also features their Caltech friends Raj (Kunal Nayyar), an astrophysicist scared of talking to women, and Howard (Simon Helberg) an astronaut with an overbearing mom. Sheldon eventually marries neurobiologist Amy (Mayim Bialik) and Leonard weds Penny (Kaley Cuoco), an aspiring actor turned pharmaceutical rep who started out as their neighbor.

The writers say one of their favorite moments was when Penny gifted Sheldon a napkin from the restaurant where she worked. It was autographed, "To Sheldon: Live Long and Prosper. Leonard Nimoy."

When she apologizes for the napkin being dirty — "He wiped his mouth with it," she explains — Sheldon gasps: "I possess the DNA of Leonard Nimoy!?"

Writer Steve Molaro says this scene was key to the evolution of the show. "That was the first truly electric moment," he says. "You could just feel what we were doing vibrating."

Bill Prady, front left, and Chuck Lorre, front right, are the co-creators of The Big Bang Theory.
Mike Yarish / © 2019 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

The writers say they also treasured quieter scenes — like the time Sheldon's friends throw him a birthday party and he gets overwhelmed and Penny finds him in the bathroom. She tells Sheldon that years ago, she would never have been friends with someone like him, but now he's one of her favorite people.

"If what you need is to spend your birthday in a bathroom, I'm happy to do it with you," she tells him.

"But everyone will think I'm weird," he says.

"Sweetie," she responds, "You are weird."

Over the years, the show has welcomed appropriately nerdy guest stars: Nobel laureates, astronauts, actors from Star Wars and Star Trek — even physicist Stephen Hawking. The writers took cues from the latest scientific breakthroughs and they regularly consulted with UCLA physicist David Saltzberg to make sure their scripts were scientifically plausible.

"Sometimes you just send him the script with big blank sections to be filled in with appropriate science so that we're not ridiculed," says Lorre.

Writer Steve Holland adds "sometimes, we say things to him like 'Sheldon and Amy need to have a discovery that could be worthy of a Nobel Prize but [it] can't be something anyone else has already thought of. So: go!"

Saltzberg came up with the fictitious theory of "Super Asymmetry," which was sort of a riff on the real-life physics theory of Super Symmetry.

"Theoreticians love symmetrical equations, but the world around us is clearly asymmetrical," Saltzberg says. "What theoretical physicists often do is create a theory with lots of symmetry, but then then break it, to explain our world. ... The brilliance of Amy and Sheldon was to include asymmetry into their theory from the start.'

Saltzberg adds that he hopes a physicist watching the show would at least chuckle — and then think about it seriously. "As for details, I will need to read Amy and Sheldon's publication very closely to tell you more," he says.

Super Asymmetry may made-up, but in 2010, scientists did end up winning a Nobel Prize for research into "graphene" — a subject that was mentioned on a whiteboard in the background of The Big Bang Theory earlier that year. The prize-winning scientist cited the episode in his Nobel lecture.

Writer Dave Goetsch says he'll miss generating show ideas from real world science. Stories would catch his eye on online and he'd say: "Oh that's going to make an amazing episode." He says he can't bring himself to turn off his daily Google alert for physics news.

Most of writers have been together for 12 years, and many are now also executive producers of the show. Maria Ferrari says she'll miss this writing team. "Most jobs, you go off and you write your scripts and then you come back and you punch it up together," she says. "Here, we write it all together. That's the only thing I feel like I know how to do: is write, in this room, for this show. It is so hard to leave it behind."

Bill Prady gets emotional when he talks about how fans have connected with the show — and for him, it's personal. "All of the people who have said that they see themselves in the show because they were outsiders and people who didn't fit in — that was me," he says.

No spoilers for the show's emotional final episode — which airs Thursday on CBS — but no doubt it will end as it all began, with a Big Bang.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

One of the biggest hits in TV history signs off tomorrow after a 12-season run.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE HISTORY OF EVERYTHING")

BARENAKED LADIES: (Singing) Our whole universe was in a hot, dense state. Then nearly 14 billion years ago, expansion started. Wait. The Earth began to cool. The autotrophs began to drool.

CORNISH: "The Big Bang Theory" on CBS wraps up its story about a group of Caltech scientists and their friends. NPR's Mandalit del Barco visited the show's creative team as it prepared to disband.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: TV writers rooms are normally pretty private so that jokes and ideas can fly freely.

UNIDENTIFIED WRITER: Let the record show that Mr. Molaro rolled his eyes.

(LAUGHTER)

DEL BARCO: They're finished with their scripts, but for 12 years, the writers pitched storylines and traded jabs from their creative space at Warner Bros. Studios.

(LAUGHTER)

DEL BARCO: Their long conference table is topped by "Star Wars" toys, email about the structure of DNA, the collected work of physicist Richard Feynman and on the TV monitors a "Star Trek" screen saver. Yes, it's a show for and about geeks and nerds, and that's why it's worked, says executive producer Chuck Lorre.

CHUCK LORRE: I always thought it was because the characters were outliers and felt somewhat disenfranchised from the world and clung to each other. They created a surrogate family, and people generally feel that way. Maybe the prom king doesn't, but screw him, right? I mean, this is for the rest of us who weren't the king and queen of the prom.

DEL BARCO: Lorre co-created the show with Bill Prady, who long ago wrote computer software.

BILL PRADY: And it was sold in your neighborhood RadioShack store.

LORRE: The idea started, really, when he was discussing the brilliance of the computer programmers that you worked with and their stark inability to deal with people, women in particular.

PRADY: I mean, I remember the story that I told you, Chuck, about the guy who could do amazing calculations in his head but couldn't figure a tip in a restaurant. I told you that story, and you said, hang on; I've never seen that guy on television.

DEL BARCO: Their protagonists are physicists Leonard and Sheldon, played by Johnny Galecki and Jim Parsons, and their Caltech scientist friends Raj and Howard and Penny, played by Kaley Cuoco. She started out as their neighbor. The writers say one of their favorite moments was the episode where Penny gave Sheldon a treasure in the form of an autographed napkin.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE BIG BANG THEORY")

JIM PARSONS: (As Sheldon Cooper) To Sheldon, live long and prosper, Leonard Nimoy.

(LAUGHTER)

DEL BARCO: Writer Steve Molaro says this scene was key to the evolution of the show.

STEVE MOLARO: That was the first truly electric moment where you could just feel what we were doing vibrating. And I think it really resonated.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE BIG BANG THEORY")

KALEY CUOCO: (As Penny) He came into the restaurant. Sorry the napkin's dirty. He wiped his mouth with it.

(LAUGHTER)

PARSONS: (As Sheldon Cooper) I possess the DNA of Leonard Nimoy.

(LAUGHTER)

DEL BARCO: Steve Holland says he loved writing the show's quieter scenes.

STEVE HOLLAND: There was a wonderful moment. It was Sheldon's birthday, and they had thrown him a big party. And he gets overwhelmed and is in the bathroom. And Penny goes to the bathroom with him.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE BIG BANG THEORY")

CUOCO: (As Penny) If what you need is to spend your birthday in a bathroom, I'm happy to do it with you.

PARSONS: (As Sheldon Cooper) Well, everyone will think I'm weird.

(LAUGHTER)

CUOCO: (As Penny) Sweetie, you are weird.

(LAUGHTER)

DEL BARCO: For the scripts to be scientifically plausible, Chuck Lorre and Steve Holland say they took their cues from the latest scientific breakthroughs. And they regularly consulted with UCLA physicist David Saltzberg.

LORRE: Sometimes you just send him the script with big blank sections to be filled in with appropriate science so that we're not ridiculed.

HOLLAND: Sometimes we say things to him like, Sheldon and Amy need to have a discovery that could be worthy of a Nobel Prize but can't be something anyone else has already thought of, so go. Go.

LORRE: Come up with a Nobel Prize award-winning idea that we could put in a sitcom.

HOLLAND: Yeah. Super asymmetry was the result of that conversation, where he invented super asymmetry for us.

DEL BARCO: That's fiction. But Bill Prady says scientists did end up winning the 2010 Nobel Prize for graphene, something similar to what Professor Saltzberg suggested for the show.

PRADY: And they cited the episode in their Nobel lecture.

DEL BARCO: Writer David Goetsch says he'll miss being able to use what he learns about science.

DAVID GOETSCH: I have this Google alert for physics, and so I get one every day. And, like, I don't want to turn it off.

DEL BARCO: Like the show's characters, most of the writers in this room have been together for 12 years. Most of them are now executive producers, among them Eric Kaplan and Maria Ferrari, who says she'll miss the team.

MARIA FERRARI: Most jobs you go off and you write your script, and you come back and you punch it up together. Here, we write it all together. That's the only thing I know how to do is write in this room for this show. It is so hard to leave it behind.

ERIC KAPLAN: It's not the only thing you know how to do. Don't you know aikido?

FERRARI: I also know aikido. I know two things.

(LAUGHTER)

DEL BARCO: Then the laughs pause, and Bill Prady chokes up telling us how he connects with the show's fans.

PRADY: All of the people who have said that they see themselves in the show because they were outsiders and people who didn't fit in - that was me.

DEL BARCO: No spoilers for the show's emotional final episode. But unraveling the mystery, it all started, and it will end, with a big bang.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE HISTORY OF EVERYTHING")

BARENAKED LADIES: (Singing) Big bang - bang.

DEL BARCO: Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF AK'S "COUNTING DOWN THE DAYS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.