As “The Big Bang Theory” fades into the refracted light on the horizon, I’ll remain indebted, for many reasons.
But two stand out: It made me laugh. And I got to meet Bob Newhart – who made me laugh.
The CBS comedy (one-hour series finale, Thursday, 8 EDT/PDT) – amazingly TV’s most-watched scripted series in its 12th season – will go out with its brainy head held high, and millions of fans still caring about what happens to an extended TV family that started with two socially stunted physicists and their less educated but often smarter neighbor.
“Big Bang” hasn’t been at its peak for a while, but that could hardly be expected this late into a 279-episode run, the longest for a comedy taped in front of a studio audience. By this point, many of the jokes and situations have been done before.
At the same time, the finely drawn characters can say nothing and still get a laugh from fans familiar with Sheldon’s smug self-satisfaction, Leonard’s indecision and Penny’s couldn’t-care-less dismissiveness, a benefit of 12 seasons of extremely slow-cooked character growth.
The super-smart scientists of CBS's 'The Big Bang Theory' could probably form their own Mensa group. (Photo: Monty Brinton, CBS)
The record-setting “Big Bang” run was almost stalled in the cradle, as the original pilot episode was thrown out and reshot, and the show survived a three-month TV writers’ strike early in its first season. Awkward, high-I.Q. roommates Sheldon (Jim Parsons) and Leonard (Johnny Galecki), their more socially adept neighbor, Penny (Kaley Cuoco), and scientist friends Howard (Simon Helberg) and Raj (Kunal Nayyar) didn’t just survive, they surmounted, as the show found its legs over the first two seasons.
The genius move for a genius show came in Season 3, when “Big Bang” introduced microbiologist Bernadette (Melissa Rauch), who waited on tables at Pasadena’s Cheesecake Factory with Penny as she earned her advanced degree, and neuroscientist Amy (Mayim Bialik), a blind date for Sheldon that, against million-to-one odds, actually took.
Bernadette and Amy offered so much more than needed gender balance. They set the stage for long-term romantic relationships for Sheldon and engineer, astronaut and would-be lothario Howard, and they formed a friendship triangle with Penny, allowing her to expand beyond playing Snow White to four emotional dwarfs. The show also benefited with the later addition of comic book store owner and hilarious sad sack Stuart (Kevin Sussman).
As the show’s audience grew, launching “Soft Kitty” and Bazinga! as pop-culture memes,so did its list of illustrious guest stars. There were legends from the sci-fi world revered by the characters (Mark Hamill of “Star Wars” and a voice performance by Leonard Nimoy of “Star Trek”), along with exalted real-world physicist Stephen Hawking.
Legendary comedian Bob Newhart, left, won an Emmy for playing Professor Proton, seen here with Sheldon (Jim Parsons). (Photo: Michael Yarish CBS)
The personal development, often at a glacial pace, gave “Big Bang” its long TV life. At the beginning, Sheldon didn’t like to be touched and friend Raj couldn’t talk to a woman. Now, Sheldon is in a loving marriage with Amy, as their Season 11 wedding led into a potential series-finale Nobel Prize, and Raj – well, at least he can now talk to a woman.
Relationships, marriages and even two children, born to Howard and Bernadette, provided welcome comic situations and opportunities for the characters to grow up and (especially) fall down.
Over time, the show’s heart grew, too. Chuck Lorre, who created “Big Bang” with Bill Prady, credits executive producer Steve Molaro with building emotion without slipping into schmaltz. I was on set for the taping of a Season 6 episode, “The Closet Reconfiguration,” which featured a beautiful scene where the friends told Howard different versions of a letter written to him by his father, who had abandoned his family.
Leonard (Johnny Galecki), right, asked Penny (Kaley Cuoco) on a date in the Season 1 finale of 'The Big Bang Theory.' They're now happily married. (Photo: Sonja Flemming, CBS)
The stories, all fictional save for one reflecting a real scientific phenomenon called quantum superposition, were sweet, sentimental – but not too much – and hilariously absurd (Hello, Sheldon!).
During other set visits, I watched already married Penny and Leonard take ceremonial vows in front of a who’s who of guest actors – Christine Baranski, Laurie Metcalf, Katey Sagal, Judd Hirsch, Jack McBrayer and Keith Carradine – that illustrated the show’s bond with great shows that preceded it. (“Taxi” veteran Hirsch underlined the importance of Galecki, as both grounded their shows so that other characters could spin wildly around them.)
But it was another pivotal episode, Sheldon and Amy’s loss of virginity in 2015’s “The Opening Night Excitation,” that illustrated the comedic maturity of “Bang” as it mixed laughs – what could be less sexy than Sheldon’s clinical reference to coitus? – with well-deserved emotion.
Officiant Bernadette (Melissa Rauch), left, shakes hands with Penny's mom (Katey Sagal) as Penny (Kaley Cuoco) hugs her dad (Keith Carradine) in a 2016 episode of 'The Big Bang Theory' that featured wedding vows for Penny and Leonard. (Photo: Monty Brinton, CBS)
That episode also gave me the chance to meet and interview the legendary Newhart, who won his only acting Emmy playing young Sheldon’s inspiration, TV scientist Professor Proton. I believe the “Big Bang” actors, themselves stars, were as much in awe as I was.
Speaking of Emmys, Parsons became a magnet of sorts, winning four for his breakout portrayal of genius misfit Sheldon. “Big Bang” was certainly worthy of a best comedy series Emmy over the course of its run, but it might have been hurt by its studio-audience format, one of TV’s oldest and sturdiest but hardly cutting edge and a style of humor that appeals to millions of fans but not necessarily Emmy voters in Los Angeles and New York. But awards are subjective, and “Big Bang” belongs with the best in its field.
With its enduring popularity, “Big Bang” could have gone on longer, and CBS, among others, wishes it had. . I’m glad it isn’t. Although the series still makes me laugh today, it started to spin its wheels last season. Yes, there have been enjoyable moments – last season’s Shamy wedding and this year’s Nobel pursuit – but the characters had reached certain plateaus in life, and the plots and jokes no longer seemed to propel it in the same way. If it wasn’t already time to leave the stage, it is now.
So, let’s salute “Big Bang” as it takes its final bow. It long ago proved its comedic excellence was much more than a theory.
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