SDCC | ‘The Big Bang Theory’ Pulls Back Curtain on Writers’ Room
The minds behind The Big Bang Theory offered fans at Comic-Con International a rare glimpse into the writing process of the hit CBS comedy.
Following a taped introduction by renowned theoretical physicist (and one-time guest star) Stephen Hawking and a Season 6 highlight reel, The Big Bang Theory writers Steve Holland, Eric Kaplan, Maria Ferrari, Jim Reynolds and David Goetsch took to the stage, along with showrunner Steven Molaro, co-creator Bill Prady and scientific adviser Dr. David Saltzberg, for a discussion moderated by series regular Melissa Rauch. They explained how they make the show happen year after year, and even tolerated an appearance by a panel-crasher dressed as a Star Wars character.
Rauch led off with the most basic of questions: “Where do the ideas come from?”
Molaro said they’re often inspired by the writers’ own lives. For instance, the recent storyline in which an ill Bernadette (Rauch) still tries to be romantic with Wolowitz (Simon Helberg) upon his return from space was based on Molaro’s own wedding night.
“I was just dying, but I thought, ‘No, I have to consummate this!’” he laughed.
Referring to another fan-favorite moment, Holland added, “I always wanted a tiara.”
Prady said the writers’ room environment involves the group — and co-creator Chuck Lorre — sitting around, with an assistant typing up the scenes. “We’ll start with ‘Interior: Penny’s Apartment, night,” he said. From there, they call out and agree upon stage direction and dialogue. It’s the method they’ve used since the series premiered in 2007.
“I don’t know how we’re not all so sick of each other,” Molaro joked.
“There’s a lot of hugging,” Reynolds offered.
“There’s a lot of arguing,” Prady added. “Last year, the best moment involved making Steve very angry.”
The scene involved the letter from Wolowitz’s father. While Molaro was convinced the audience should never learn the contents of the letter, Prady wanted to know what it said. The two went back and forth, leading Molaro to tell Prady that he was “a bad person.” In the end, Molaro won out, and the scene revolved around the characters giving Wolowitz different possible messages with one being true.
When Rauch asked whether it’s easier to work in the science or the geeky elements, Reynolds conceded they’re “more comfortable” with the geek and pop-culture references.
“The science stuff requires research,” he joked. “When we need the science, we’ll just write ‘science goes here,’ and David fills it in.”
In addition to finalizing scientific dialogue, Saltzberg fills in the whiteboard with material that’s often relevant to the episode, but sometimes just satisfies his own whims. He even once put the answers to a test he was giving to his students. “You’ll find the secret to time travel on there,” Reynolds joked.
Opening the floor to questions, a young boy in a Two-Face costume who made Comic-Con his Make-a-Wish Foundation wish asked why the show has never featured an episode in which the characters come to the convention. Prady said there are two big obstacles, the first being that the show doesn’t resume production until August. “The cast goes off like the beginning of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, he explained. The other problem is that the majority of The Big Bang Theory is filmed on a soundstage in front of an audience, and Comic-Con would involve location shooting. “We’re not good at filming out in the real world,” Prady said.
Asked what sci-fi subjects the writers have become fans of because of the series, Molaro admitted, to the disapproval of the audience, that he just can’t get into Green Lantern. “And I still don’t,” he added with a laugh.
“I like the writer Olaf Stapledon,” Kaplan interjected. “And he’s still not [referenced] on the show.”
“We need more Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” Molaro added.
The third fan question came from someone in Princess Leia’s Boushh outfit from Return of the Jedi, complete with pre-recorded Ubese dialogue and lights. After showing off all the gear, the fan asked whether the actors are anything like their characters.
“I’m nothing like my character,” Rauch said. “I’m a 6-foot-4-inch African-American dude.”
Molaro quipped, “Leonard is nice to hang out with, [Johnny] Galecki not so much.”
Seemingly antagonized by this, the fan attempted to say something else, but was unintelligible though the mask. When Rauch asked, “Who are you?” The fan ripped off the mask to reveal Galecki.
After the cheers died down, he looked up at the panelist and, quoting Jedi, said, “Someone who loves you.” Once he made his way to the stage, Galecki said, “I couldn’t stay away.”
Returning to the Q&A, a fan noted that it often looks like the actors are cracking up to their lines, and wondered whether there was a lot of improvisation on set. “There’s no improvising,” Rauch answered. “We get the script the night before the table read and it’s like Christmas morning, but even throughout the week, we still find it funny.”
Galecki added, “The writers also write on the fly during taping, so sometimes the line is new to us and sometimes the audience reaction surprises us. It can change the priority of the scene. And sometimes, we’re just charmed by ourselves.”
Prady noted that on many sitcoms, the actors don’t react to funny lines, even if they certainly would in real life. “We like to use the laughter because it would happen,” he said.
Kaplan added that much of the on-screen idiosyncrasies are a result of the writers’ room being “noticey.” While the show “recognizes the outsider and criticizes those who ignore the outsider,” the writers can’t help but call each other out on little things like “when a writer clips his nails with the office scissors.”
Another quirk noted is Kaplan’s habit of eating paper. He explained he was trying to lose weight, so he started to munch on paper to replace his snacking in the office. Once Prady noticed this, he said Kaplan was making “artisanal confetti.”
Rauch asked for a tease of Season 7, and Molaro offered a handful of hints: “We’ll see Leonard on the ship. Now that Raj can talk to women without alcohol, we’ll see more of that. Amy and Bernadette will take a trip without Penny.”
“Will Sheldon and Amy do coitus?” she asked as a follow-up.
“It’s a possibility,” Molaro said.
When a fan wondered what piece of the set the writers would like to take home, Molaro admitted he already swiped the giant Jenga blocks. Originally made by Galecki’s brother as a joke, the writers incorporated it into an episode and had prop master Scott London create the show’s version.
“It’s a dangerous game,” Galecki laughed.
Prady added, “Scott will learn at script meetings that we need giant robots or the Jenga.” At these meetings, the prop master will sigh and ask absurdly practical questions like, “How tall is the Jenga set? Do you need it fixed in stages as the game progresses?”
London was also a chef before he switched to props, and prepares the ubiquitous Chinese takeout seen on the show. “It’s really good,” Rauch explained before asking the writers why there is so much eating on the show.
“There’s a lot of eating in the writers’ room,” Prady replied.
Another fan noted the change in Penny’s character over the course of six seasons, from ditzy blonde in skimpy attire to where she is now, and wondered if it was deliberate.
“It reflected a change in Bill’s personality,” Kaplan joked.
Prady explained that it was because they got to know the character better. Calling her ditziness in the pilot an “off-series” trait, he said they found Penny by the second season. As for her wardrobe, he added, “The costuming was a specific decision based on actors and actresses we know. Once they have a little success, they want to look reasonable.”
“I always look disgusting,” Rauch added.
A geologist in attendance asked why Sheldon picks on that field. Holland said it all came from actor Jim Parsons, and doesn’t reflect the feelings of the writers on stage.
Prady regarded the fan and said, “You can admit it. It’s not really a science, right? It’s a hobby?” He then asked Saltzberg if the geologists at UCLA, where the doctor works, give him hell for the geology-bashing.
“I have to stay out of the geology building,” he said.
“They will throw rocks at you,” Holland guessed.
Playing out the scenario, Reynolds shouted, “This is feldspar! This is quartz!”
Returning to the subject of Amy and Sheldon’s relationship, Prady said he was baffled by how much she had made the intractable Sheldon move. “With Sheldon, you have a character who comes from a place of ‘no,’” he explained. “Then, [because] Amy does this and that, it becomes, ‘Yeah, he’d give in.’”
Reynolds said part of the charm of their relationship is its glacial pace. He also joked that it means the show can last longer. “We have kids who need to go to college,” he added.
“It moves at a geologic pace,” Kaplan quipped.
Asked if the geeky aspect of the show appealed to the writers, Goetsch said he wrote a laundry list of geeky things in his life before meeting with the producers for the job. His winning story involved what would become one of the show’s most beloved Halloween costumes. “In college, I dressed as the Doppler Effect,” he said to cheers from the crowd. As he got drunk that night, he proceeded to make the Doppler sound effect in hopes of explaining himself.
Ferrari and her husband are avid World of Warcraft players, and one year, when money was tight, they agreed to give each other in-game gifts for their wedding anniversary. She did the grind for some rare loot to compliment his character, but he bought her real-world, high-end chocolates. “That’s not what we agreed on!” she recalled shouting.
The writers all agreed that Ferrari is the most hardcore gamer of the group. Kaplan noted, “She’ll find whatever is in the environment and make a game out of it.”
With a group as quick and varied as these writers, in-jokes inevitably make their way onto the show, and when a fan asked if that was the case, Prady said the show’s infamous “Bazinga” came from that very place.
“Names of people [also make it in],” he added. “‘Wolowitz’ was the name of my partner when I was in the computer business.”
Holland said, “We used the name of real bullies. Then Jim asked us to remove [the name of] his because he was still afraid.”
“He was a cop who got kicked off the force!” Reynolds explained.
When a fan asked how Sheldon would approach people cutting in line at Comic-Con, Prady suggested, “Sheldon would believe there’s a citizen’s arrest. A line creates an implied contract.”
Looking again to Season 7, another fan asked which of the characters will get tenure. Molaro admitted they still don’t know, but it will be answered at some point. Kaplan added that perhaps it’s best not to find out at the Comic-Con panel.
“Ideally, you should pretend [the show is] real,” he clarified. A big Wizard of Oz fan, Kaplan said he was glad there was never an Oz-centric convention he could go to and meet the stars. “It would be harder for me to enjoy the Cowardly Lion as a fictional character.”
Prady added, “I can’t stress enough how much you just entered the writing room. [Something like that] is easily 30 percent of the day.”
“It’s 30 percent that, 30 percent of eating, and five minutes of writing,” Molaro said.
The Big Bang Theory returns Sept. 26 on CBS.