The A to Z of The Big Bang Theory
TV's longest-running multicamera sitcom
Though CBS wasn’t exactly jonesing for The Big Bang Theory to end after 12 seasons, the writers are giddy about the chance to go out on top. Here are 26 reasons TBBT remains the most popular comedy on TV.
Amy Farrah Fowler (Mayim Bialik)
Occupation Neurobiologist at Caltech. Biggest breakthroughs Bedding and domesticating Sheldon; making tiaras great again. Essential episodes “The Lunar Excitation” (S3, Ep 23) Sheldon and Amy first meet; “The Proposal Proposal” (S11, Ep 1) The lovers are finally engaged; “The Bow Tie Asymmetry“ (S11, Ep 24) Sheldon and Amy get married.
It took only 12 seasons before fans learned the origin story of Sheldon’s favorite word, and the answer actually came in the Dec. 6 episode of Young Sheldon, the TBBT spin-off. In an attempt to inject more frivolity into his life, Sheldon (Iain Armitage) goes to a local comic-book store and buys several novelty tricks from a Toledo, Ohio company called Bazinga. “If it’s funny, it’s a Bazinga,” reads the display. From then on, whenever Sheldon would trick a friend with his newly acquired whoopee cushion or his mixed-nuts can with a pop-out snake, he’d proclaim, “Bazinga.”
Comic Center of Pasadena
The guys aren’t the only ones who like to hang out in Stuart’s place of business. Some of the sitcom’s most memorable guest stars also browsed the shelves of the Comic Center, which was first introduced in the season 2 episode “The Hofstadter Isotope.” Among them: Neil Gaiman and Wil Wheaton as themselves, Teller as Amy’s dad Mr. Fowler, and Kate Micucci and Alessandra Torresani as Lucy and Claire, Raj’s short-term gal pals. And the NASA astronaut in the corner is a nod to all of Big Bang’s space friends, especially those who have appeared on the show.
Ever since season 1, it’s been the job of Saltzberg — a professor of astrophysics at UCLA — to assist the TBBT writers so that Sheldon, Leonard, Howard, and Raj sound and behave like actual brainiacs. “My role is to ground the show in reality,” says Saltzberg, who’s always mindful about not wanting to inject too much incomprehensible lingo into an episode. “Our job is not to explain science. It’s kind of the opposite. We might mention science for five seconds. My hope is that people will Google it to learn more.” But even coming up with those five seconds can be a challenge. "For 12 years it’s been my fear of making mistakes,” Saltzberg admits. “It’s a constant emotion.” And it was particularly stressful to craft “fill-in-the-blank physics” whenever Stephen Hawking was a guest star. “They sent my ideas to Stephen without my knowing. I was really afraid he would read it and say, ‘Well, this is just nonsense. I can’t be a part of the show,’ ” Saltzberg remembers. “Luckily he didn’t do that.”
It’s been broken since the 2007 pilot, but viewers wouldn’t learn why everyone had to take the stairs until season 3 in “The Staircase Implementation.” In a series of flashbacks, fans discover that Leonard was experimenting with a dangerous rocket-fuel concoction that he dropped in the elevator car before it exploded.
“Everyone has such specific ideas about what they think the end of the show should be,” says executive producer Steve Holland. “We know what we are driving towards and where we want to land.” He is aware that Cuoco and Parsons, along with most of the viewing audience, would like to see the elevator fixed. For now, though, Holland is keeping any repair plans — if they even exist — to himself. Galecki just hopes the final episode includes lots of emotional moments, because “none of us are going to be able to keep from crying during the last taping. We’ve got to justify it in the writing somehow.”
It was Parsons who set into motion the plan to end the show after season 12. Though CBS was eager to renew the sitcom for another two seasons, the actor told executive producer Chuck Lorre that he was ready to move out of apartment 4B for good. Since there is no comedy without Sheldon, the decision was made to wrap the show in the spring. “It just felt that it was time,” Parsons tells EW. “It speaks to a lot of things, none of them bad. There is no negative reason to stop doing Big Bang. There are good reasons. We’ve been able to do this for so many years, it doesn’t feel like there is anything left on the table. Not that we couldn’t keep doing it; the writers could still think of wonderful things for us to do. But it feels like we chewed all of the meat off this bone. At a personal level, it feels like the right time of life. I’m firmly in my middle age now. I don’t know how much longer I can wear [the T-shirts] without looking really long in the tooth.”
As a hero to Sheldon, Leonard, Howard, and Raj, the British theoretical physicist, who died in 2018, played a significant role on the sitcom even though he didn’t actually appear until 2012. He showed up in, or lent his voice to, seven episodes, beginning with “The Hawking Excitation” in 2012 and ending with “The Proposal Proposal” in May 2017 when Amy and Sheldon got married. “It was a wonderful day when he would visit the set, blurring on surreal,” remembers executive producer Steven Molaro. “To just see Stephen Hawking there, in the flesh, on the set, smiling at jokes on the show.”
International Space Station
Since one of Howard’s biggest achievements was creating a space toilet, he became an astronaut (much to Sheldon’s green-eyed chagrin) and traveled to the final frontier in season 5. “We built a little piece of the space station, and we would roll the actors around on these green carts that we would remove in post so they looked like they were floating,” remembers Molaro. “Sometimes they would lay on their stomachs with their arms and legs out so they could float them up and down manually.”
It was originally executive producer Chuck Lorre’s idea to cast TV legend Bob Newhart as Arthur, a.k.a. Professor Proton, a former children’s science show host. “I know Chuck had been trying to work with Bob for years, so he was thrilled when he agreed to do this,” recalls Molaro. Newhart’s first appearance was in the 2013 episode “The Proton Resurgence” — for which he won an Emmy — and most recently “The Planetarium Collision.”
Raj Koothrappali (Kunal Nayyar)
Occupation Astrophysicist at Caltech. Biggest breakthrough Overcoming his inability to speak to women. Essential episodes “The Bon Voyage Reaction” (S6, Ep 24) Raj speaks to a woman (Penny) without alcohol for the first time; “The Bakersfield Expedition” (S6, Ep 13) The guys dress in Star Trek outfits and go to Bakersfield Comic-Con.
Leonard Hofstadler (Johnny Galecki)
Occupation Experimental physicist at Caltech. Biggest breakthroughs Endless patience; marrying the girl next door. Essential episodes “The Matrimonial Momentum (S9, Ep 1) Penny and Leonard get married in Vegas; “The Conjugal Conjecture” (S10, Ep 1) Leonard and Penny have a wedding ceremony for friends and family. In the actor’s words “It’s kind of impossible [to imagine saying goodbye]. These characters stay in you, whether you want them to or not,” says Galecki. “When it comes to
Leonard, I’m very happy about that.”
Viewers — and Emmy voters — approved when the show started introducing moms. Sheldon’s mother Mary Cooper (Laurie Metcalf), the voice of Howard’s mom Debbie (the late Carol Ann Susi, who died in 2014), and Raj’s mother Mrs. Koothrappali (Alice Amter) were all introduced in 2007, followed by: Leonard’s mother, Dr. Beverly Hofstadter (Christine Baranski), in 2009; Penny’s mom, Susan (Katey Sagal), in 2016; and (after one episode with Annie O’Donnell playing her in 2010) Mrs. Fowler (a formidable Kathy Bates), mother to Amy, in 2018. Both Metcalf and Baranski have received Emmy nominations for their recurring roles.
Six recipients have either appeared on the show or visited the set to rub elbows with Sheldon and Leonard — Konstantin Novoselov, John “Jan” Hall, Andre Geim, Kip Thorne, Arthur “Art” McDonald, and George Smoot. Novoselov even referred to a scene with Sheldon trying to solve a physics problem on a whiteboard when he gave his acceptance lecture for the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics.
The roots of the show are based, in part, on co-creator Bill Prady’s former career as a computer programmer and the idiosyncratic men he used to work with, especially a guy who was a “fiercely brilliant human calculator” but struggled with simple tasks like visiting a shop he’d never been to before. “There wasn’t a lot of intelligence applied to the world in general,” remembers Prady.
Penny Hofstadler (Kaley Cuoco)
Occupation Pharmaceutical rep. Biggest breakthroughs Discovering a successful second act after her acting career didn’t pan out; finding love in the most unexpected place. Essential episodes “The Panty Piñata Polarization” (S2, Ep 7) Penny and Sheldon have a prank war; “The Celebration Experimentation” (S9, Ep 17) Penny comforts Sheldon when he gets overwhelmed by a party. In the actor’s words “It’s the greatest role I’ll ever play in my whole life,” says Cuoco, choking up. “This character has changed my life, and this show has changed my life. I will never forget it.”
One of the longtime costume designer’s chief duties is to maintain Sheldon’s extensive T-shirt collection festooned with superheroes and scientific images. Several of the 400-plus T-shirts have been worn repeatedly (like Aquaman, Green Arrow, and the Flash lightning bolt), and some require a true appreciation of mathematics, like the one featuring the number 73. Sheldon considers it a perfect figure because it’s the 21st prime number, it mirrors 37, and in binary, it’s a palindrome and...ugh, this hurts our brain.
Though it’s been one of TV’s highest-rated comedies since 2012, TBBT didn’t exactly bust out of the gate when it premiered 11 years ago. The show ranked 68th in its first season and 41st in its second before becoming the highest-rated show of the night in season 3. Then CBS made the risky decision to move the sitcom to Thursdays opposite NBC’s once-iconic comedy block and Fox’s still-hot American Idol, but the TBBT geeks didn’t skip a beat. By season 6, the show had hit a series high of 19 million viewers — a phenomenon the producers attributed to the sitcom’s success in syndication. The series currently averages 17.4 million viewers.
Occupation Senior theoretical physicist at Caltech. Biggest breakthroughs His super-asymmetry breakthrough with Amy; hugging Penny; telling Amy he loves her. Essential episodes “The Bath Item Gift Hypothesis” (S2, Ep 11) Sheldon is overcome by Penny’s thoughtful Christmas present; “The Opening Night Excitation” (S9, Ep 11) Sheldon and Amy have sex for the first time; “The Pants Alternative” (S3, Ep 18) Sheldon receives an award but ends up taking Penny’s advice to drink first. In the actor’s words “It has changed me in some ways,” admits Parsons. “I can’t say it’s made me smarter. Sorry. I’m not even sure it’s made me a better person because he doesn’t really bring out those kinds of qualities. If anything, I’ve helped him to be a better person. I’ll just say, ‘I’ll see you around, Sheldon. You are on syndicated repeats on TV all the damn time so I can’t avoid you.’ ”
Some of the sitcom’s best moments are when the entire cast gathers in apartment 4A to enjoy takeout in the living room. And that’s not fake grub they’re eating, insists Galecki. “Our prop master, Scott London, initially wanted to be a chef, so he takes a lot of pride in making all that food,” he says. “And it’s really good, sometimes distractingly good. He puts a lot of effort into that stuff.”
UCLA Big Bang scholars
In 2015, the cast and crew endowed a fund to provide financial aid in perpetuity to undergraduates at UCLA who are pursuing degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Thirty-five students have benefited from the program so far.
The title of season 9’s 15th episode signals a very significant moment: when Bernadette reveals she and Howard are going to have a child. The first Big Bang baby!
Wolowitz Family (Melissa Rauch and Simon Helberg)
Occupations Howard is a mechanical engineer at Caltech, while Bernadette Rostenkowski is a
Ph.D. in microbiology with a lucrative job at a pharmaceutical company. Biggest breakthroughs
He went to space, she put herself through school by waitressing at the Cheesecake Factory and quickly snapped up a sweet job. Both juggle careers and kids. Essential episodes “The Love Spell Potential” (S6, Ep 23) Howard leads Dungeons & Dragons; “The Romance Resonance” (S7, Ep 6) The pair celebrate an anniversary; “The Countdown Reflection” (S5, Ep 24) Bernadette and Howard get married on the roof before he leaves for space; “The Comic Book Store Regeneration” (S8, Ep 15) Howard learns his mother died; “The Dependence Transcendence” (S10, Ep 3) Bernadette struggles with the idea of being a mom.
With a name like Big Bang, it was only a matter of time before someone in the porn industry got the bright idea to spoof the sitcom. In 2016, Lee Roy Myers directed Big Bang Theory: A XXX Parody, which may or may not be available wherever porn videos are sold. Starring Ashlynn Brooke, Joey Brass, Rocco Reed, and a lot of other unrecognizable people (unless you watch porn, in which case these actors are probably like old friends), the film features a Leonard-like character fantasizing about a “slutty Leia” before an actual slutty Leia is beamed into the living room. It goes where you’d expect from there. A trailer for this tour de force can still be found on YouTube.
In 2016, Parsons came up with the idea of a prequel that would explain what it was like to raise a unique intellectual like Sheldon in a small Texas town. The comedy — which, unlike TBBT, is shot with a single camera and without a studio audience — features Parsons as a narrator and has already become CBS’ second-most-watched comedy.
That’s the number of times viewers have actually heard Penny’s maiden name. She’s a Hofstadter now anyway.