''The Big Bang Theory'' is TV's top-rated sitcom. That may shock you — unless you're one of the 16 million who tune in weekly for the hilarious nesting and mating rituals of a gaggle of geeks. Here's our obsessive guide to the phenom.

By Lynette Rice
Updated September 21, 2012 at 04:00 AM EDT

The Big Bang Theory

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An unusual amount of deliberation is going into making a dork sound much dorkier on the set of The Big Bang Theory. During a break from taping inside Warner Bros.’ Stage 25 — which sits directly across from the building that housed TV’s last great ensemble comedy, Friends — a stand-up comedian distracts the studio audience with magic tricks while the Big Bang writers convene an unscheduled powwow. At issue: the incongruity of Rajesh Koothrappali (Kunal Nayyar) boasting to Leonard Hofstadter (Johnny Galecki) about meeting chicks in a bar when he’s about to revert to his normal, lockjawed self at the sight of Sheldon Cooper’s (Jim Parsons) attractive new assistant. After a good 20 minutes, the writers break from their huddle and present a new plan: Nayyar needs to lose the quip about the bar and walk into Sheldon’s office stuttering, ”I hope they’re serving macaroni and chee-eeee-se” when he first lays eyes on the fox. On take 5, Nayyar nails the moment, and the audience convulses with laughter. ”Smooooooth,” replies Galecki. The cast and crew finally move to the night’s next scene.

Later, co-creator and executive producer Chuck Lorre admits that things don’t always go as planned during the Tuesday-night tapings of the CBS comedy. ”We try to get it right before we get to the stage, but it’s not a science,” he says. ”It’s an art — and it’s flawed.”

If this is his idea of imperfection, then TV could use a lot more flawed shows. Buoyed by stellar ratings (with nearly 16 million viewers, the 2011–12 season was its most watched to date), five Emmy nominations (including its second consecutive one for best comedy), and an omnipresent run in syndication (where it’s the most popular show on TBS), CBS’ comedy about four Cal Tech brainiacs and the waitress who tolerates them may be on the verge of its most successful season yet. The possibility isn’t lost on Parsons, who had an unexpected epiphany when he walked back into Apt. 4A for the start of season 6 (which premieres Sept. 27 at 8 p.m.). ”There was something very distinct that I hadn’t felt as acutely before, and not because I was ever ungrateful,” says the 39-year-old actor, who also starred in the Broadway hit Harvey this past summer. ”I don’t know if it’s because I already put in five years on the show and we’re going into year 6, or because of the upward tick in the ratings, or because I just spent the summer doing something entirely different. For the first time I felt an uncontrollable outside eye to the experience in general — this real, real disbelief of, like, ‘Look at how well this has gone!”’

Nearly 14 billion years ago, a massive explosion in outer space resulted in the formation of the universe. On a far more recent Tuesday, Chuck Lorre and his group of Big Bang writers are creating an outburst of their own inside a conference room on the Warner Bros. lot. Flanked by an Avengers mural and a life-size cutout of a Battlestar Galactica Cylon, the ravenous group of scribes (it’s their lunch hour, after all, and gourmet pizza is waiting in the other room) are objecting to a visitor’s request to explain what makes them special.

”This is like the worst Thanksgiving dinner ever!” exclaims coexecutive producer Jim Reynolds.

But the only way to appreciate TV’s top-rated comedy is to meet the nine men and one woman who help make it happen, so Lorre and co-creator/executive producer Bill Prady begrudgingly agree to introduce their team: There’s Steven Molaro, Big Bang‘s genial showrunner, who cut his teeth on Nick at Nite comedies like The Amanda Show; Steve Holland, an expert on everything Star Wars-related; Eric Kaplan, a yarmulke-wearing Harvard grad who’s considered the smartest guy in the room; Dave Goetsch, who once attended a costume party dressed as the Doppler effect; Anthony Del Broccolo, who first met Molaro while working for Publishers Clearing House; Reynolds, a dimple-faced charmer who’s been dubbed the resident hottie; and Maria Ferrari, who wooed her way onto the staff by telling Lorre how she bought her husband a hard-to-get amulet from the World of Warcraft game for their anniversary. ”One of the things that makes this writers’ room work is the emotional bravery in the room,” says Prady, the most sentimental one of the lot. ”We talk about the things in our lives that have hurt, the things we’ve wanted and we didn’t get. That’s allowed us to get to some cool stuff.”

”The writers truly love these characters,” adds Lorre, who manages to divide his time among Big Bang, Two and a Half Men, and Mike & Molly without sounding as crazy as Howard Wolowitz’s mom. ”These characters are the reason why people watch. We don’t have car chases. Helicopters don’t come up over the horizon and fire missiles. It’s just people talking. So they have to be great.”

To achieve that, the writers have made sure Leonard and his eggheaded chums have evolved (albeit at a glacial pace) over the past five seasons — lest they be dismissed as a bunch of socially inept dweebs who only gab about math. ”In the beginning, it was kind of annoying to hear people pigeonhole the show,” recalls Simon Helberg, 32, who plays mama’s boy Howard Wolowitz. ”’Oh, it’s going to be mean to nerds,’ or ‘It’s going to be a caricature.’ Everyone’s goal was to counteract that. The people who watch don’t see it as a cartoon version. These are real people.” Adds Galecki, 37: ”When you find a role, you want to take it to extreme levels immediately. You just want to run with it. But we were told to be patient.”

Their patience paid off big last season, when the show jumped an astonishing 23 percent among adults 18–49 just as its characters evolved into a group of extremely relatable young adults. The formerly introverted Leonard was now a confident thirtysomething who liked to play the field (that is, when he wasn’t blurting out marriage proposals to Penny). Penny became less of a ditz and more of a confident broad who could hold her own among the know-it-alls. Raj turned into a colorfully dressed metrosexual who fancied himself a Casanova. And Sheldon, of all people, found himself with a girlfriend, Amy Farrah Fowler — not that Parsons ever envisioned such a peculiar development in the life of a self-absorbed scientist. ”I don’t know exactly why he’s with her. Maybe that’s the beauty of it,” says Parsons. ”Maybe Sheldon doesn’t know exactly why he’s sticking with her, because articulating matters of the heart is certainly not his forte. Maybe it’s just love.”

Or maybe it’s because the woman playing Sheldon’s unlikely match has become one of the show’s biggest draws. When Mayim Bialik, 37, first joined Big Bang in 2010, she expected a temporary stint as a ”female Sheldon.” (Bialik, like her neurobiologist character, has a Ph.D., though Bialik’s is in neuroscience.) But the next thing she knew, the TV vet who was best known for headlining the ’90s comedy Blossom was upped to series-regular status. And then there was the phone call this past July from her publicist saying she earned her first Emmy nomination. ”It wasn’t even on my radar,” says Bialik. ”I was literally wondering whether Kristen Wiig was going to be nominated, because that’s who I was rooting for — until now.” At the same time, a whole new set of stories opened up for Helberg’s Howard after he shed the sleazy-lothario routine and got serious with Bernadette (the terrifically gifted Melissa Rauch), who became his wife in the season 5 finale. ”People now just say Bernadette and Howard,” says a proud Helberg. ”They see us as a unit.”

Such major strides on the show have made way for big rewards away from the camera, and not just for CBS, which now collects more than $450,000 for every 30 seconds of commercial time during Big Bang, and Warner Bros., which reportedly made a whopping $2 million per episode when it sold the reruns to TBS and stations nationwide. (Warner Bros. and EW are both owned by Time Warner.) Parsons has become the biggest beneficiary of the show’s exploding popularity, having scored that high-profile gig on Broadway this summer, along with two Emmys and a fourth consecutive nomination going into this weekend’s ceremony. But another big payoff came in the form of raises that turned into big news in and out of Hollywood. ”I don’t even understand why the Internet has made it possible to reveal contract information,” says Galecki (who, like Parsons and Cuoco, reportedly signed a new four-year contract in 2010 that took each of their salaries to roughly $200,000 an episode, with subsequent bumps for additional seasons, while Helberg snagged around $100,000 and Nayyar around $75,000). ”We didn’t sign off on that being made public. It seems tasteless, which is maybe very Midwestern of me, but I just don’t understand.” At the very least, it helped put some things in perspective for the refreshingly candid Cuoco. ”I would be lying if I said I couldn’t do Penny with my eyes closed,” says the 26-year-old actress. ”It’s such second nature to me now. But if I ever do get those moments of ‘God, this feels the same,’ I just read those articles about how much money I make and think, ‘You know, it’s not so repetitive anymore!”’

If there’s one topic that makes Parsons immediately channel his alter ego, it’s a discussion about sex with Amy. ”I love Mayim,” he says, ”but I don’t look forward to filming that scene when it happens.” You can relax, Einstein: The writers are in no hurry to consummate that relationship as the comedy heads into its sixth year. ”Given that it took two years for them to hold hands, it’s probably not something that will be happening very soon,” says Molaro. ”But who knows? Amy seems to have a lot of future plans for her and Sheldon.” She may have to add ego massaging to her busy to-do list: Her boyfriend won’t take too kindly to the revelation that his second-banana buddy Howard has gone from a nobody aerospace engineer to an actual astronaut. (Howard will remain in orbit for the first four weeks of the season, but will keep in contact with his newlywed via satellite.) Back on earth, good luck in the romance department may finally come to Raj, who fell in love with Siri (yep, the one on your iPhone) before his parents set him up with an attractive — but very unavailable — lesbian last season. ”Raj finds a new friend!” says Nayyar, 31. ”I think he’s due.” Whether Penny and Leonard run back into each other’s arms, however, remains to be seen. (In case you’ve forgotten, Theorists, she said no to Leonard’s proposal.) ”I don’t know if we are breaking up, sleeping together, or if we are fighting,” shrugs Cuoco. ”Every week is different! That’s what makes it fun to read each new script. The writers just don’t know. They say they have ideas, but they don’t know if it’s going to work out for us.”

There’s one relationship the cast is convinced will remain strong for at least another four years: the one they have with their legions of dedicated fans. Says Galecki: ”I never thought I would be saying this about anything that’s lasted after five seasons, but I’m believing and hoping we go another five, only because it all still feels very new. We just haven’t wasted fuel. It doesn’t feel like we are struggling to find the stories.”

And Parsons is hell-bent on making sure he never takes his glorious gig for granted, even if he has to make another thousand or so trips up those maddening apartment stairs. ”One day this will end,” he says. ”I’m not trying to get sentimental about it because there is still a good deal of the job to do. But I [”won’t”] wake up five years after the fact and go, ‘Oh, I wish I had realized how good I had it!”’

Playing Favorites

After five seasons, 111 episodes, and countless rounds of mystic warlords of Ka’a, the actors pick their all-time favorite episodes

Kaley Cuoco: ”The Bath Item Gift Hypothesis”

”My favorite episode will always be the Christmas episode when Penny gives Sheldon a napkin signed by Leonard Nimoy. Sheldon is so overwhelmed with emotion he proceeds to hug Penny for the first time ever! I think Jim and I had our own set of secret tears flowing.”

Simon Helberg: ”The Werewolf Transformation”

”I thought that episode so purely represented our show. Sheldon deals with needing a haircut while his barber is in the hospital, and Howard explains his grueling astronaut training via Skype to Bernadette. Nothing fancy. Just these richly layered characters having human moments with each other.”

Mayim Bialik: ”The Countdown Reflection”

”That episode was fun and emotional, not only because we were cataloguing a huge shift in all the relationships between all the characters in the show but it was a week during which we, the cast, got to spend pretty much every scene together. That made for a great way to end a great season.”

Johnny Galecki: ”The Recombination Hypothesis”

”I love when Leonard has his fantasy date with Penny. It could have been a real departure for the show, and it took a lot of courage on the part of the writers, who thought we could do it and still have it be on TBBT.”

Kunal Nayyar: ”The Beta Test Initiation”

”It was really fun to shoot the episode where I fell in love with Siri and had to act with an inanimate object. The notes I got were ‘Talk to it as if she was a real woman, caress her with your words.’ I found it really challenging because, first of all, it was hilarious.”

Burning Questions

Was Amy the first woman Sheldon ever kissed on the show?

Actually, no. His mother, played by Laurie Metcalf, gave him a buss in season 1.

Will we ever learn Penny’s last name?

Don’t hold your breath, says star Kaley Cuoco (Penny). ”Because fans are dying to know, they will never know. It’s a thing now for me. I think it’s a thing for the writers now, too. Chuck said at Comic-Con that it would be bad luck now, we can’t say what it is! It’s not going to happen. Maybe it will be Penny Hofstadter someday.”

Will the elevator get fixed before the show ends?

”I hope not,” quips exec producer Steven Molaro. ”Those stairs are the only exercise the guys seem to get.”

Will we ever meet Mrs. Wolowitz in the flesh?

”Technically, we saw her in the season 5 finale. When the satellite shot of Bernadette’s rooftop wedding to Howard was pulled wide, there was a speck in the corner. That was supposed to be Howard’s mom,” explains Molaro. Otherwise, there are no plans to have Carol Ann Susi — who voices the role of Howard’s mom — step in front of the camera.

Real Geeks

Big Bang‘s street cred with the nerd has helped the show attract some pretty brainy guest stars

Stephen Hawking: Genius extraordinaire

Sheldon’s dream came true when he met the theoretical physicist — who corrected his math.

Steve Wozniak: Cofounder of Apple

Sheldon approached him at a restaurant and called him his ”15th-favorite technological visionary.”

David Saltzberg: Science consultant

The particle physicist stays behind the camera to write equations and help with scientific plot points.

Mike Massimino: Astronaut

The NASA pro not only consults on the show but served as a crewman on Howard’s mission.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Astrophysicist

Sheldon sparred with the Hayden Planetarium head over Tyson’s role in Pluto’s demotion from planet status.

Lisa Randall: Theoretical physicist

When the Harvard professor visited the set, she appeared as a nonspeaking extra..

George Smoot: Cosmological physicist

Sheldon hoped to collaborate on a paper with the Nobel laureate — but Smoot thought he was crazy.

Episode Recaps

The Big Bang Theory

Sheldon, Leonard, Penny, Raj, and Wolowitz, Amy, Bernadette—the gang keeps growing. Bazinga!

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