Series co-creator Bill Prady on THE BIG BANG THEORY
CBS’ THE BIG BANG THEORY is now in its eighth season. Once considered risky because of its super-smart, socially awkward scientist characters, the half-hour comedy has become one of the biggest hits on television.
Bill Prady, who co-created THE BIG BANG THEORY with fellow executive producer Chuck Lorre, attended several different Television Critics Association press tours to talk about the show. This interview is a combination of a discussion at a party CBS threw for the TCA and comments Prady made at the formal Q&A sessions for the TCA and THE BIG BANG THEORY.
Prady began his entertainment industry career at Jim Henson Productions (then called Henson Associates), writing for FRAGGLE ROCK and THE JIM HENSON HOUR, and later on THE MUPPETS CELEBRATE JIM HENSON and MUPPET*VISION 3-D. Other writing and/or producing gigs have included CAROLINE IN THE CITY, PLATYPUS MAN, DREAM ON, STAR TREK: VOYAGER, THE GILMORE GIRLS and DHARMA AND GREG (the last created by Lorre).
However, before all that, Prady was a computer programmer. This leads to a few obvious questions, such as whether computer programming has anything to do with writing for television. “When the computer goes down in the writers’ room, I can fix it,” Prady quips. More seriously, he says, “I’ve got to tell you something. Computer programming is actually much less structured and organized an activity, and it’s much more like writing poetry than people would know. But you have to ask programmers about that. They’ll tell you the flow charts they teach you in school, nobody uses them. You just kind of get there and code. Computer programming is very, very much like music.”
[easyazon_block add_to_cart=”default” align=”left” asin=”B000W91RUG” cloaking=”yes” layout=”right” localization=”default” locale=”US” nofollow=”default” new_window=”default” tag=”buzmag-20″]It’s not surprising to learn that some of the people Prady met during his programming days inspired some of the characters and incidents on THE BIG BANG THEORY. “It’s a true story that when I was a computer programmer, we worked with this guy – I’m not going to say his name – it was the early days of computers, it was the early Eighties. And we were programming in the machine language Z80 Assembler, which you program, as you know, in hexadecimal.
[easyazon_block add_to_cart=”default” align=”left” asin=”B001FB4VXU” cloaking=”yes” layout=”top” localization=”default” locale=”US” nofollow=”default” new_window=”default” tag=”buzmag-20″]“And there were two ways to convert a number to hexadecimal. One way was to look for the stupid HP calculator and shout, ‘We’re the programmers, why can’t we buy two of these things?’ And the other was just to shout at Ken and say, ‘Ken, can you convert this number to hex?’
“But then we would go out to lunch and we’d say, “Ken, can you figure the tip?’ And this was a man who could do anything in his mind with numbers, but he couldn’t figure the tip. And it was a great pleasure to try to force him to do it, because the formula for a tip is fifteen to twenty percent, depending on the quality of service. And Ken would say, ‘Well, is it the speed with which the food came out?’ And we’d say, ‘No, that could be the kitchen.’ ‘Is it that the waitress smiled at us?’ ‘No. She could just be angling for a tip.’ And we would sometimes leave him there in the restaurant.
“Ken also didn’t understand banks. It just bugged him. So his savings plan was to keep his uncashed paychecks in the drawer of his desk. Then when he needed money for something, he’d take out as many as he needed, and he’d go down and cash them, and he’d buy something. You know, twenty or thirty years ago, this person was called the absent-minded professor. And it’s an archetype, but it’s an archetype because it’s a person we know.
“For me, it’s also my father-in-law, who is a pediatric rheumatologist and the author – it’s a remarkable thing – of the protocol for treating lupus in adolescents. An unbelievable mind, but doesn’t understand that discussing my wife’s cycle at the Thanksgiving table is socially incorrect,” Prady laughs. “And I’ll say, ‘Graham, but maybe that’s not the kind of thing that’s appropriate.’ And he’ll say, ‘But it’s a natural human function, just like eating, which we’re doing here at the table.’”
Prady acknowledges having his own moments of sharing extreme attention to detail. “Chuck has gently tried to tell me that when we go up a flight of stairs, it’s not important that I always teach him the thing about the difference in tread height and how a difference of only two millimeters, when you’re going up a flight of stairs, will cause most people to trip. And that kind of thing, I don’t think it’s nerdy and I don’t think it’s geeky. I think it’s just seeing the rest of the parts of the world, and because you are, maybe you miss some of the parts people expect you to be looking at. But I think it’s a remarkable thing – I don’t think it’s a geeky thing.”
“I can’t think of anybody who’s said ‘no’ to things,” Prady replies. “In fact, even after we insulted George Lucas, they still cleared STAR WARS props for us. So no. But it’s the legal business of television – you can’t put a copyrighted product on the screen without clearing it.”“Geeky” and “nerdy” are words often associated with fandom, and the BIG BANG THEORY gang contains some of the most fannish characters on TV. They’ve attracted a host of guest stars playing themselves, including Wil Wheaton in a recurring role as an “evil” version of himself. As protective as many properties are of their images, are there ever licensing considerations in terms of what the characters are allowed to be fannish about?
The writers did have to create something, Prady adds, due to a licensing issue. “We invented the card game in the [first] Wil Wheaton episode. What we discovered was, there was a very specific problem, which was, we were going to show the game being played for money. And all the manufacturers of card games, games like MAGIC: THE GATHERING and all these card games, had a problem. It’s a very complicated problem, but it has to do with ‘selling gambling tools to children.’ In some states, you can’t sell playing cards to children, because they’re ‘gambling tools.’ So the people who make card games are very sensitive to the issue of playing for money. So no one would clear a card game. We went to several, and they all said, ‘We’d love to have the product on the show, but because you’re playing for money, we can’t do it,’ so we invented THE MYSTIC WARLORDS OF KA’A, which was our card game. And then actually, somebody wanted to make the game.” It took a while, but WARLORDS became available to the public through Cryptozoic in 2013.
One of the ultimate fan icons is Marvel icon Stan Lee. How did BIG BANG THEORY get him to make an appearance? “We actually wanted Stan Lee to autograph a prop that was used in an episode,” Prady explains. “Because we were showing it on camera, they asked us to see if we could actually get Stan Lee’s autograph, otherwise we couldn’t show the signature, and Chuck knows Stan, because he used to work at Marvel Animation, years ago. And Stan said he’d be available for a cameo, and we had a story that needed Sheldon to be rude to a celebrity.”
What sort of fans does THE BIG BANG THEORY attract? “I’ve got to say that’s been one of my favorite things about this,” Prady says, “just the enthusiastic response that we’ve gotten. One of the best things – we got a letter from Professor George Smoot, who is a Nobel Laureate and responsible, sort of, for the current codification of the actual Big Bang Theory. And it was a note saying, ‘Could I do a cameo on the show?’ And in fact, we tried to do it a couple of weeks [earlier] and he was on his way to a conference. And they said, ‘Can we try again?’ I love reviews in all of the publications [the Television Critics Association] represent, but we had a review in ‘Science,’ and it was a favorable review. And there was something online from ‘Journal of Particle Physical. From the beginning, we’ve had great respect for our characters and a desire to have their world be as real as you can make it in a comedy. But the things they are doing in there are real, and they are not stereotypes. They are real people. There was a whole group of Caltech students that came to a taping. Actually, there were two groups, the Caltech basketball team – there’s a terrific documentary of them – and then there was a group of physics students from Caltech. And we’ve had groups of people from other universities. It’s been really fun, that aspect of things.”
“I think in general we hear from a whole spectrum of people who have felt on the outside, and for a lot of reasons. And I think one of the reasons that our characters have connected with people is because they’re characters on the outside sort of looking in. I mean, in my own nerdish computer programmer life, there was always a sense that I was with a bunch of guys, but over there, there was a party going on, and we wish we were at it. It’s the other train in STARDUST MEMORIES. And we always felt, we’re sitting writing code for our computers, and over there amazing people are doing amazing things and wearing great clothes and drinking things. And we didn’t even know what they were doing.”
Regarding specific comments Prady gets from fans, he says, “I think people were surprised that they [most of the characters] don’t use Macs, because I’m not a big Mac guy. I want to know who these people are [who write in to complain about this]. It’s one of those things where I had to keep reminding myself, they play a lot of games, they do a lot of engineering. So this question – to be honest, because I’m an ex-programmer, it’s a question I think about a lot, and Chuck is a big Mac guy. I’ve always been a PC guy, but that goes to back to the fact that I used to program in Z80 Assembler, although now Macs are on an Intel Web platform, too.”
It’s hard to imagine THE BIG BANG THEORY without its stellar cast: Jim Parsons as Sheldon Cooper (a performance that’s won him four Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Emmys), Johnny Galecki as Leonard Hofstadter, Kelly Cuoco-Sweeting as Penny, Simon Helberg as Howard Wolowitz, Kunal Nayyar as Raj Koothrappali, Melissa Rauch as Bernadette and Mayim Bialik (also an Emmy winner) as Amy Farrah Fowler.
How did the producers wind up with these actors? Prady says that, as with most productions, they began by discussing their ideas with the casting directors. “We talked about the characters, and we talked about some archetypes for the characters and some people we knew. Chuck knew Johnny and Kaley and had worked with both of them. And some people were astonishing surprises to us. You know, Jim came in and was the …” Prady indicates perfection.
As for Nayyar as Raj, Prady relates, “When we were casting for that part, we were casting for an international member of the ensemble, [because] if you go into the science department at a university, it’s not [just] Americans. It’s one of the most international kinds of communities. So we saw foreign-born people. And so we saw people who were Korean and Korean-American and Latino. And then Kunal came in and it was like Jim – it was just Person Number Eight on a day of Twenty-Seven people, and he was charming.”
Some of the actors were not the original choices for their roles, Prady notes. “You know we did the pilot twice, right? We did the pilot, and then we did it again a year later, and we kept Johnny and Jim. The amazing thing about the ensemble on THE BIG BANG THEORY is all writers talk about writing away from actors in other experiences.” This means trying to narrow down the number of characters in a scene. Prady finds it delightful “to be on a show where you have [so many] performance where you want to write toward them, where you say, ‘Can we add this character? This character would have a great point of view in this scene’ and you want more of them. It’s a deep bench.”
A lot of the humor on BIG BANG THEORY is related to science and technology. Is it difficult for some the writers to come up with jokes based on the subject matter?
“You know,” Prady says, “one of the things from the beginning we wanted, when they talked about their work, we wanted it to be real and accurate. And we do it a couple ways. Sometimes we’ll have an idea, we’ll have a general sense of the science. And then we have a consultant, David Saltzberg, who is an astrophysicist at UCLA. We’ll say, ‘Can we have something about neutrinos here?’ and he’ll help us out with it. And there’s some stuff we try to stay current with. But we just want it to sound real and accurate. The nerd references we handle in the writers’ room ourselves. The characters may be smarter than other people, but I don’t know if they’re wiser than other people. So I think that’s where humor comes from. I think the goal always in whatever you do is, write smart dialogue. I think that these characters know specific things, but underneath, they have the same human motivations that everyone else does.”
Prady credits much of the show’s success to Lorre’s insistence on examining each scene to make sure the humor is grounded in what’s happening at the time. “I’ll tell you this – the pleasure and pain of working with Chuck is that Chuck, every minute, on every script, on every page, in every moment, says two things – ‘Do we believe the characters would do this?’ and ‘Why are we laughing?’ And as a participant in the writing process, it’s often a painful experience to confront that question, but he imposes it on himself as well as those who work with him – ‘Why are we laughing?’”
Finally, it would seem there are two obvious reasons for the title of THE BIG BANG THEORY, but Prady reveals there’s another one. “The third thing, besides the physical reference and the sexual reference, is a coming together of forces. And we think this is a coming together of forces. So that’s the thing that we liked.”
Written by Abbie Bernstein