During the TCA tours, there’s an understandable tendency for the networks to pimp their newest programming, but once in awhile, they do manage to offer us a panel that shines the spotlight on an established show. In this case, it was actually two shows: “The Big Bang Theory” and “Two and a Half Men.” On the panel were Chuck Lorre (co-creator of both series, executive producer on both shows), Bill Prady (co-creator of and executive producer on “The Big Bang Theory”), and Lee Aronsohn (co-creator of “Two and a Half Men,” executive producer on both shows). I’m not going to tell you that I wouldn’t rather have had actual cast members on the panel, but given the comedic credits of this trio, it was unsurprising to find that we got quite a few laughs during the course of the conversation.
First, though, let’s go ahead and acknowledge the elephant in the room right away, shall we? You know that someone had to ask about Charlie Sheen, and while they did, one must applaud the restraint of the collected TV critics that the question didn’t come up until several minutes into the panel. Predictably, the guys went for the joke before offering up a proper answer.
“I’m sorry, what happened with Charlie?” asked Lorre, innocently.
“I don’t know,” said Aronsohn, poker-faced. “Something happened?”
Lorre then slipped into serious mode. “We put on a show last night, and it went extremely well,” he said. “We had a great week, and the audience was wonderful last night, so we’re just going about our business. Charlie is a consummate pro. He shows up and he delivers, and last night was one of our strongest episodes. It was just terrific.”
Okay, let’s get into the meat of the panel a bit more, which was – thankfully – far more about the shows themselves rather than the sordid personal lives of one of their stars.
When asked about the difficulty of coming up with the highbrow scientific-themed jokes on “The Big Bang Theory,” Prady said that, from the very beginning of the series, they always wanted to make sure that it would be real and accurate when the characters talked about their work. “Sometimes we’ll have an idea, we’ll have a general sense of the science,” he explained, “and then we have a consultant, who is an astrophysicist at UCLA, David Saltzberg, who works with us. We’ll say, ‘Can we have something about neutrinos here?’ And he’ll help us out with it. There’s some stuff we sort of try to stay current with, but we just want it to sound real and accurate.”
“The nerd references,” he added, “we handle in the writers’ room ourselves.”
“Obviously, the science has to be almost irrelevant,” said Lorre. “You have to understand the intent that the characters are trying to get across whether or not you’re an astrophysicist or not. We try to make the material work without having to understand the science. The most fun is when we sit in the room and we try and write the physics stuff ourselves. Bill will say, ‘Chuck, we can sit here forever. You’re not going to become a physicist.'”
Although they might be writing jokes about scientists, Lorre is the first to acknowledge that what they do is not scientific, particularly when it comes to figuring out what’s funny and what isn’t. “We’re guessing,” he admits. “So when the live studio audience sits quietly and observes the joke and nods amongst each other and go, ‘Hmm, that’s clever,’ we’ve failed, and we rewrite it on the spot. We’ll rewrite the scenes right in front (of the audience), we’ll shoot the scene again and try and make it work.”
When pressed to cite an example of a joke falling flat, no one could quote any specific lines, but they all agreed on a particular horrendous moment which came courtesy Kunal Nayyar, who plays Rajesh Koothrappali on the show.
“Oh, it was terrible,” said Lorre. “It was last season. It was a disaster. You could hear your career going by. It was awful. It was so quiet. The audience took back laughs from earlier in the evening. You know, it’s a free ticket to come see the show, and they were upset.”
“I can’t remember, but there was one (line) we were so excited about that we were, ‘Oh, this is going to be it, this is going to do it,'” said Prady. “The line that was in the script didn’t work, so we ran something instead. We said, ‘Oh, my God, this is great.’ And he said the line…and there was such silence that Kunal stopped because he thought maybe there was a technical problem. He did. He said…”
“’Is my mike on?’” recited Lorre, laughing.
“I think we took in five more lines ’til we found one that worked,” said Prady.
“You have to understand, it’s a self-defense mechanism,” explained Lorre. “We forget our failures as quickly as we possibly can. It’s how you move forward.”
But there are failures and then there are successes, and there’s no question that the series’ first Christmas episode belongs in the latter category. When Lorre was asked to consider when he first realized that the final segment of the episode was destined for holiday-classic status, he said that it really didn’t happen until it they were filming it. “I think everybody on the set got very moved by that last scene,” he said. “We didn’t realize it until it happened, but it was powerful just to watch it happen.”
“We were massaging it during the week in terms of exactly how the hug (between Sheldon and Penny) was going to take place and how long the hug was going to be,” said Aronsohn. “When we saw it, it was incredible.”
“In the genesis of it,” said Prady, “Chuck’s point of view was that for all Sheldon’s trying to come up with the perfect present, that (with) Penny’s natural humanity, I guess, or something, she should come up with a present that truly moves him.”
“Yeah, and there’s nothing he could physically give her, there’s no physical object he could give her that would balance the scales, which is why he was moved to demonstrate an affection, which was not in his character’s nature,” said Lorre. “I think we all knew that something special had happened, and it was predicated on the fact that we had established a character with Jim Parsons and this character that was so alienated, so difficult for him to reach across the chasm and touch another human being, that it became a moment that had some resonance. It was really something to see. Every once in a while that happens, and it’s pretty exciting. It’s just, ‘Oh, look, we did something right.’”
The Sheldon / Penny team has become a popular pairing amongst fans, but it’s fair to say that the writing staff is just as excited about them, even if they can’t always remember when they first discovered the chemistry between the characters.
Aronsohn: I think the first time we put them together was when Penny had to drive him to work.
Lorre: No, he got sick.
Aronsohn: Was that the first time?
Lorre: Sheldon got sick…
Prady: Or was it buying a…
Aronsohn: It was going shopping.
Prady: Going shopping!
Aronsohn: It was the supermarket.
Aronsohn: I remember that, yeah. And when we did that scene, all of a sudden, we knew we had a new comedy team.
“They’ve become a natural comic pairing on the show because she can tell him the truth and she’s not intimidated by him,” said Lorre. “She’s very strong. Kaley’s helped create this very formidable presence, and they bounce off each other beautifully.”
What’s impressive about “The Big Bang Theory” is that the series has allowed its characters to grow without changing them fundamentally, with Leonard and Penny hooking up, Howard getting a girlfriend, and so forth.
“The magic trick of doing a TV series is growing the series and growing the characters without fundamentally changing them,” said Lorre. “I mean, obviously Archie Bunker has to stay Archie Bunker as the series goes along, but there has to be some incremental growth; otherwise, it gets redundant pretty quickly. We have an amazing ensemble on ‘The Big Bang Theory,’ and we get to do…whatever, 23, 24 shows a year. It is an opportunity to learn more about them and get more depth to them. I think that’s something we try to do in learning about where Sheldon and Leonard come from by meeting their mothers – you know, they come from very, very different backgrounds – and that’s our attempt at also getting deeper into the characters.”
You should not, however, expect to see Sheldon settling down with a nice girl anytime soon.
“Part of his character, which I think is wonderful and unique, is he has chosen not to play in the relationship game, either heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual…any sexuality,” said Lorre. “He has said, ‘This is not for me. I’m a scientist. All I’m interested in is science and what George Lucas does.’ I think it’s terrific that we’ve stumbled into creating a character who has chosen a lifestyle for himself that’s unique, and I don’t see any reason to modify it.”
“For me, one of the keys to Sheldon is it’s like the old saying about the dog walking on his hind feet: it’s not how good he does it, it’s that he does it at all,” said Aronsohn. “That Sheldon engages other humans is the salient point for me. He tries. I mean, he means well. He just doesn’t have the tools for it. And I think what’s endearing is that he really is a stranger in a strange land, and he knows his limitations many times and tries to deal with them. The fact that he deals with them very badly is where the comedy comes from.”
It occurs to me that, with the exception of the Charlie Sheen bit that kicked off this piece, I haven’t offered up much in the way of “Two and a Half Men” information. Looking back over the transcript of the panel, I’ve now realized that the biggest reason for this is that there were almost no questions asked about “Two and a Half Men.” (This isn’t too surprising, really, as no one has ever accused the show of being a critics’ favorite.) Someone did, however, take the time to ask about how the show’s occasionally risque humor has been handled with the ever-aging Angus T. Jones, so it feels as though the least I can do is offer up Lorre’s response to the question.
“One thing we’ve done since the very beginning is we stay in touch with Angus,” he said. “We talk to Angus, we have lunch with him, and we try to get a sense of where he’s at as a young man as he’s growing up. If you watch the first few seasons of the show, he’s rarely in the room when subject matter got adult, or we wrote it so that it flew so far over his head that it was a legitimate piece of comedy in front of a young boy. As he’s gotten older, he’s more privy to the material…and, again, we’re trying to stay sensitive to the actor, not the character…so he’s never in a scene where he’s uncomfortable and he’s dealing with the material that puts him off or his parents. We have a responsibility to him as a young man on our show that he’s never in a situation where he’s uneasy, and I think we’ve been pretty good about that. He is a blast, he’s an amazing young man, and since he was nine to now when he’s 16, he’s still the best person we know, frankly. I mean, he’s just incredible.”
In closing, I can’t resist offering up the panel’s reaction to the question about why, despite the success of shows like “The Big Bang Theory” and “Two and a Half Men,” there’s still a perception that the multi-camera sitcom is dead.
“That’s something you should discuss amongst yourselves,” said Lorre, “because clearly that stigma doesn’t seem to apply to the audience.”
“It’s not something people are sitting in coffee shops discussing amongst themselves,” confirmed Aronsohn.
“‘Let’s watch that show with more than one camera tonight!'” Lorre cracked. Sobering, he added, “There’s a theatrical quality to the four-camera show, which I really like, and if you come to see them shoot and you see the immediacy of shooting in front of a live audience and hear real people respond, it’s different. It’s theater. It’s not a movie. It’s an entirely different experience, and it’s exciting and it’s terrifying at the same time.”