This is the story of how an unlikely laugh-track comedy with jargon-laden dialogue and geeks who name-drop Heisenberg and Oppenheimer has won America's heart through the strength of its characters.
When “The Big Bang Theory" premiered on CBS in 2007, critics gave it a lukewarm reception ranging from "solid if well-worn setup" to "tired and mean-spirited." Over 10 million people tuned in for the pilot that introduced “the ragtag band of scientists:" the obsessive-compulsive theoretical physicist Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons); his lovable experimental physicist roommate Leonard Hofstadter (Johnny Galecki); funny aerospace engineer Howard Wolowitz (Simon Helberg); introvert astrophysicist Rajish Koothrappali (Kunal Nayyar); and aspiring actress Penny (Kaley Cuoco) who lives across the hall from Leonard and Sheldon.
But it was no breakout hit. “Big Bang” has worked hard for every new viewer, every critic it turned, and every award nomination--making its ascent to the No. 1 scripted show on broadcast television amongst 18-to-49-year-olds (the gold standard) one of the most compelling TV industry stories in a long time.
“We would have never dared to think that that could happen,” show runner Steve Molaro told TODAY in an interview. “It’s sweet that the show about underdogs is getting to be the place where it’s not the biggest underdog. I don’t think any of us thought it would reach the heights that it has, but we’re certainly grateful to everybody watching that it did.”
As “Big Bang” fought to find a footing on CBS’ established Monday night comedy line-up, the writer’s strike in Hollywood halted production for three months, truncating its freshman season.
“For us, that break in the middle was a nice time for us to take a step back and think about what direction we wanted it to head in when we were able to come back,” Molaro said. “One thing that we always wanted to do was grow Penny’s character. In those beginning episodes, she wasn’t a fully formed person yet. She was a little ditzier and that was a chance for us to flesh her out more and let the relationship between the guys and her grow, which I always felt was such a critical part of the show.”
That year, “Big Bang” ended in 68th place with an average 8.4 million viewers. The pilot stood as its most-watched episode.
Before “Big Bang’s” sophomore year began, the cast and producers were nervous about participating in their first Comic-Con convention.
“We were saying the night before that, ‘It’s going to be embarrassing if no one’s here,’” Molaro recalled. “And then we went and the place was packed and they really had been watching the show and they were liking it. That really meant a lot to us. The Comic-Con crowd had embraced it and that felt like a real victory for us. I’ll never forget that.”
That season, Leonard and Penny finally went out on a date and the audience grew by 20 percent. But something more remarkable was happening: Sheldon Cooper and his unique knock-knock-knock was becoming a classic television character.
“That moment when Sheldon hugged Penny for the first time seemed to resonate with the audience and with critics and with a lot of people,” he said. “It was such a sweet moment. That will go down as one of my favorite moments from the show forever.”
The industry agreed. Parsons was nominated for his first Emmy and so was guest star Christine Baranski. The episode that introduced her as Leonard's mother, “The Maternal Capacitance,” was that season’s highest-rated with 13.8 million viewers.
At the end of the third season, “Big Bang” moved to a golden galaxy when Parsons was nominated for a second Emmy and won. But another significant shift happened. Two new characters were introduced: Bernadette, a colleague of Penny’s at Cheesecake Factory (Melissa Rauch) who earned her Ph.D. in microbiology, landed a fancy job, and eventually stole Howard’s heart; and neurologist Amy Farrah Fowler (Mayim Bialik) whom Howard and Raj found on an Internet dating site as a possible match for Sheldon.
“We never thought about it in black and white terms—we should add women and we should add relationships,” Molaro said. “There was never a conversation like that. Melissa had such a cute take on that role and we started to realize this really opens up story possibilities for us because now we can do girls’ night when the guys are off doing something. And Mayim was great and we thought it was interesting that there was a girl interacting with Sheldon so we brought her back. It opened up so many story possibilities of these two people who have never really been in a relationship before.”
The season hit a high note of 18.5 million viewers in “The Precious Fragmentation” when the guys fought over a special ring.
"Big Bang" moved to Thursdays in its fourth season and kicked things off with a real bang: intimacy phobe Sheldon and eager Amy went on their first date with Penny tagging along and attracted 16 million viewers, the most-watched episode of that cycle.
Parsons won his second Emmy that season, and Galecki was also nominated for the first time. But, more importantly, “ Big Bang" was nominated for outstanding comedy series, adding industry acclaim to its burgeoning pop culture status.
“It’s been a truly wild ride that we’re all incredibly grateful for,” Molaro said. “It’s nice that the show is getting recognized and that the ratings have gone up. If we’re making something that is touching people and giving people good laughs and some joy for 20 minutes a week, it’s incredible to be a part of that.”
Love was in the air during the fifth season. Howie and Bernadette got married in the sweet season finale,"The Countdown Reflection." Amy and Sheldon became boyfriend-girlfriend in “The Flaming Spittoon Acquisition.” Penny and Leonard reconciled and treated their relationship like a “beta test.”
“Part of what’s helped the guys grow is the women,” Molaro said. “They can still be the same goofy, nerdy selves. But at the same time, Sheldon has a girlfriend that he holds hands with now. Even though the growth is incremental, the steps keep happening. No one wants to see Sheldon not be Sheldon. It’s just a slightly different version of Sheldon. Leonard is not the stammering geek who can barely get words out to Penny now. He’s a pretty cool guy now and it’s because of her.”
Parsons received his fourth Emmy nomination, Bialik her first, and the show was nominated for the second time. Nearly 20 million viewers watched Sheldon cope with his barber being in a coma in the most-watched episode of that cycle, "The Werewolf Transformation."
The guys may have been in the most mature relationships of their lives when the sixth season began but that didn’t stop them from dressing up in “Star Trek: The Next Generation” costumes and going on a road trip in the season’s highest-rated episode, which garnered nearly 24 million viewers.
“It’s one of my favorite episodes we’ve ever done,” Molaro said. “It’s got the endless fun of the guys dressed up in those great Star Trek Next Generation costumes, the girls reading comic books and starting off thinking comic books are stupid and falling down a rabbit hole of geeky comic book argument that any comic fans have had about the rules of Thor’s hammer.”
Parsons won his third Emmy, the show was nominated for the third time, and Raj finally was able to speak to a woman without being drunk.
“Big Bang” is on fire in its seventh season, opening with its highest-rated episode of all time, "The Hofstadter Insufficiency." In the episode, Penny and Sheldon bond while Leonard is away on a sea voyage that was filmed in the parking lot of Warner Bros. Studios.
“That opening scene of Leonard on the boat we actually shot out here in the parking lot with this incredible rig that was built,” Molaro said. “There were rain machines. The rig was on a hydraulic lift that could tilt 15 degrees in any direction. And we were pouring water and rain at Johnny and that final shot when the Kraken takes him away, which was obviously digital. But Johnny was out there in the middle of this simulated storm we were doing in the parking lot with a crane over his head hooked up with cables—that is Johnny getting yanked off that boat. He probably got yanked about 50 feet straight up in the air. And I think we did it three or four times. But he was game and was having the best time.”
Editor's note: Data used to compile this report was obtained from CBS and Nielsen.