At the time in 2007 when CBS debuted The Big Bang Theory, critics were predicting that the multi-camera sitcom was dead. Now, twelve hit seasons later, the show’s production studio, Warner Brothers, has just renamed its stage 25 in honor of what has become a television classic.
The Big Bang Theory was also one of the rare shows to be “repiloted” — that is, to be granted the chance to shoot a second pilot episode, with changes, based upon the strength Warner and CBS executives saw in the relationship between its lead geniuses Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons) and Leonard Hofstadter (Johnny Galecki). Once the geeky duo was joined by a re-envisioned Penny, as played by Kaley Cuoco, The Big Bang was on its way to create TV history.
During the Television Critics Association Winter Tour, critics were invited for the first time in the show’s history to watch a run-through of an upcoming episode, and stayed on set to witness Warner executives Peter Roth and Kevin Tsujihara unveiling a plaque that decreed stage 25 to be called forevermore “The Big Bang Theory Stage.”
Afterwards, Monsters and Critics caught up with Big Bang Theory co-creator and showrunner Bill Prady for an exclusive interview about the show’s final episodes, its series finale, and what it continues to mean to its crew and its fans.
Monsters and Critics: What does it mean to you for Big Bang Theory to be only the fifth show in Warner Brothers history to get the honor of a soundstage dedication? And is there a message that a show built around such smart characters would be the one to earn that distinction?
Bill Prady: It’s really always hard for me to put things into a cultural context. Because when we started doing this, we started by writing a show about characters we liked in situations we related to. And you kind of hope that other people relate to them.
The thing that we found over the years is that the quality that Leonard and Sheldon and the rest of the characters had that people related to was the feeling of being an outsider, and wanting to be part of something.
So I think if we celebrated something, it wasn’t that the characters were smart. It was that there’s a value in individuality. And that that’s the legacy I would hope to leave.
Monsters and Critics: All of the show’s characters have grown so much over the twelve years we’ve known them. Now they have mates, they have lives, and they’re generally more well-adjusted. How did you grow them year to year? Was there a master plan?
Bill Prady: There was never a master plan. There’s never a plan more than about an episode or so ahead. We still don’t know what’s in the rest of the episodes this season. We genuinely don’t. We have some ideas that we like strongly, but we don’t know.
Monsters and Critics: How far into writing this final season are you?
Bill Prady: Two episodes ahead from where we are. Which is where we’ve been since the first season. About two episodes ahead.
A lot of that is a thing that I learned from [fellow executive producer] Chuck [Lorre], which is that if you plan an arc of stories, you’re committed to a path and you miss the other stories that you discover along the way.
You can’t tell them because it’s a train heading for a station. Chuck always insisted on not doing that, on not arcing stories, on not planning ahead. So every question about “Did you plan when you added…” the answer is no.
Everything from adding characters, which was never planned. It was just, well, it would be logical that we would see that person again.
Monsters and Critics: You ignited the show, particularly when you added the additional female characters — Mayim Bialik’s Amy and Melissa Rauch’s Bernadette.
Bill Prady: Right, but the characters added themselves, by virtue of what the other characters thought of them. So there was never a master plan. There was never a design. There was never a decision to approach a particular demographic.
It was always the natural evolution. You try to make fictional characters real, and in the course of doing that, if you truly listen to characters, and you say, “Well, Sheldon liked her, so why wouldn’t he want to see her again?”
The premise of the arrival of Amy was that Wolowitz [Simon Helberg] and Koothrappali [Kunal Nayyar] created a perfect online dating profile and turned up a woman who was perfect for them. So that’s what we set out to write for [just] that episode.
But the consequence of creating a character who’s perfect for somebody is, what would be the reason why that person wouldn’t want to see her again? So we said, “All right, well, let’s have her come back one more time, and see what happens.”
And then, “Oh, that went well.” There have also been some characters that didn’t go well, for whatever reason. So there was never a plan.
Monsters and Critics: For years now, fans have been speculating what could happen in the series finale. What thoughts can you share about that? Maybe the elevator starts working?
Bill Prady: All of the thoughts that we’ve had for things that would happen in the finale are the exact same thoughts that fans have, because we’re fans.
So anything any fan, or any website, any “Ten Things That Should Happen in the Finale” clickbait web site says, are similar to things we think about, because we like the show.
As to whether or not any of it happens, who knows. And I don’t mean that to be coy. I mean, at this point, who knows. We talk about stuff all the time. “Wouldn’t it be cool if?…” and “Wouldn’t it be fun if?…” and “Oh my god, we definitely should!…” But we will leave this with, at least for me, 40 or 50 things that the characters could do that we’ll never see.
Monsters and Critics: That’s for the reboot?
Bill Prady: Sure. That’s for “After B*A*N*G.”
Monsters and Critics: Do you listen to what fans say online that they want, and do you ever do them?
Bill Prady: I think it’s hard not to be exposed to that. These days, because everything is all out there. I don’t think that we’ve ever taken a suggestion deliberately, but there are so many suggestions made that you could probably reverse engineer it and find a fan suggesting something that was done. But I don’t recall particularly being in a discussion like that.
Monsters and Critics: When in the course of the twelve years did you realize this was a monster hit that could run so long?
Bill Prady: A couple of weeks ago. You know, I actually think there was a weird thing that happened during Season 1 because of the Writers’ Guild strike.
Because of the strike, we got to do only eight episodes. And CBS reran them, and saw that the episodes were holding the numbers in their third or fourth reruns. And at that point you think, maybe there’s something to this.
There was a solid feeling by I guess Season 3 or Season 4 where if you spoke to people, they knew what the show was doing. And it was definitive for me when my mother stopped mangling the name of the show.
Monsters and Critics: What did she used to call it?
Bill Prady: The Big Blog Theory was one. Because she knew it was about the internet, maybe? So that was one. And I remember she said The Big Boys Theory.
Monsters and Critics: When did you realize the impact the show has had on the study of sciences?
Bill Prady: I think the thing that happens legitimately when any profession is depicted is that there are people who say “Oh, I didn’t know that was a thing you could do for a living.”
At some point probably around year 5 or 6, there was an article that ran in the press in the United Kingdom, where somebody had decided to study if the presence of scientists regularly on television was having an impact on enrollment in the study of the sciences — and it was.
Monsters and Critics: It’s the L.A. Law effect.
Bill Prady: Yeah, when L.A. Law was on, people became lawyers. Although I don’t recall if in the history of when westerns were popular, people became cowboys. I don’t know if it’s a universal thing. You’d have go to back to the 1950s and find out, wouldn’t you.
But I do know that we made the decision right from the beginning that we wanted the science to be right — enough that if you were a scientist and were watching the show, you wouldn’t want to throw your shoes at the television. And I think the effort to make the science right and make it accurate made the show interesting to people who were doing that.
But I think the greatest impact came from when Chuck started the Big Bang Theory Scholarship. We’ve put a number of young people now through science education at UCLA. That’s been an incredibly satisfying thing. And the “Big Bang Scholars” come and visit each year. Among the so many things I will miss is the annual arrival of the Big Bang Theory scholars.
Monsters and Critics: You’ve had so many dream guest stars — Leonard Nimoy, Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking. Now William Shatner is about to appear on the show. How did that happen, at this late point in the show?
Bill Prady: It was two things. It was timing, for one, in Bill’s schedule. We had approached him a couple of times, but they were things that were really cameos. And to be honest, we had thought that was the right way to go. We often think that’s the right way to approach very famous people, to say “It’s a quick cameo and we’ll get you in and out in two hours.”
But after we asked him maybe the second time, he came back and said “I want to come and do a part. So I’ll play myself, but I would like to be an important part of the story.” And we went “Oh, well that’s much better, let’s do that!”
Then it was just a matter of waiting for that story to come along. We created a celebrity Dungeons and Dragons game — which in my mind is based on Johnny Carson’s famous poker game, that people for years were dying to get into — and then started thinking: who’s in this game?
There’s a moment in the episode where the guys try to figure out who is in the game based on who Wil Wheaton knows. We did the exact same thing they did in the episode, saying who plausibly does Wil Wheaton know? So we said he certainly knows someone from Star Trek, so that will be one person, and then tried to connect the others.
Bill is one of my favorite people to spend time with. I know him from some stuff earlier, and we’ve spent some time together, but we wound up spending a good chunk of time, and it was really exciting.
I’m from the generation who found Star Trek in reruns. And that’s an amazing story, how Star Trek was a completely dead series that found new life in reruns.
To tell another story about my mother, we were not allowed to watch TV, my sister and I, when we came home from school. But we were latch key kids — my mom worked. So she would come home and feel the top of the television to see if it was warm. But we figured out if you watched the television with a bowl of ice on top of it, then you could watch Star Trek!
Monsters and Critics: A poll earlier this week broke down the favorite series among Democrats and Republicans, and Big Bang was one of the very few shows on both lists in the top 20. What about the series makes it able to transcend political lines?
Bill Prady: I think one of the things the show does is it has respect for different points of view, and respects individuality and difference. Our characters don’t talk about politics, particularly, but I don’t think that they would agree.
We don’t know Sheldon’s politics, but he once said when it comes to Star Wars, “I’m more of an Empire man”. So where does he fit on the political spectrum? Where does Penny fit? Where do all these characters? We don’t particularly know, but we know they don’t agree.
We know that the arguments would be vociferous, and we know that somebody would say in one of those arguments “I agree with you, but not for the reason you’re saying,” so there would be disagreement among agreement. So I think that the show’s celebration of difference may be why it has such appeal, but I’m going to put that on my website. Thesis topics for undergrad sociologists — because I want the answer. Which I think is going to be a good one!
The Big Bang Theory airs Thursdays at 8/7c on CBS.