Now entering its eighth season, The Big Bang Theory is a ratings juggernaut. Pulling in approximately 18 million viewers a week, it’s no wonder that CBS is eager to keep the show on the air as long as possible: Back in March, The Big Bang Theory was renewed for a whopping three seasons, with the core cast all signing new contracts over the summer. That renewal comes on the heels of one of the show’s strongest seasons to date, during which it dug deeper into its characters than ever before. With The Big Bang Theory’s latest season premiere set to air September 22, The A.V. Club chatted with co-star Johnny Galecki about emotionally-stunted characters, what he learned from his time on Roseanne, and dreading the day the show ends.
The A.V. Club: This past season, the show hit a lot more emotional notes than it had previously. Does the dramatic focus come from the writers’ and actors’ increased comfort with the characters at this point?
Johnny Galecki: Sure, and I think we understand one another as creative people a lot more. I think there’s a healthy and warranted ego that the writers have right now while writing for these characters, and I think, after having worked together for years with this cast, they’re encouraged by our capabilities as actors with these characters in our hands. Maybe not in episode three, but by episode 163, there’s a level of comfort there. But also, a lot of that healthy and warranted ego is due to the audience’s reaction. I mean, those are storylines you really need to earn, especially within the genre of sitcom. There are few shows that could pull off more emotionally geared episodes in their first couple of seasons. I suppose All In The Family would be an argument against that.
AVC: And sitcoms tend to be episodic, where individual episodes only loosely tie in to one another. It seems like The Big Bang Theory is more interested in constructing longer arcs for these characters.
JG: Yeah, I think early on [executive producer] Chuck Lorre talked about the fact that these characters grow at a snail’s pace. They evolve at the speed of molasses. [Laughs.] And I think that was his design for the long term of the show, but also to kind of calm us as actors, because when you find a role you love, you want to run with it. You get overexcited. And a lot of these characters’ growth has always been two steps forward, four steps back. But, over time, in terms of storylines, there are things that happen—you’d be irresponsible, both as a storyteller and an actor, if you didn’t mature these characters. I mean, I couldn’t play Leonard the same way after Penny told him she didn’t love him. That changes a person. So, there have been storylines that have been turning points. It doesn’t mean you wouldn’t recognize Leonard in the next episode, but they do need to grow.
AVC: And that emotional growth seems to tie in with the show’s use of pop culture. The characters’ emotions, actions and feelings aren’t part of a movie or comic book—they have an effect on the people around them.
JG: Yeah, I agree. There are certain topics within pop culture that we try to avoid because we think they might be too Twitter-worthy this week, but six months from now they won’t be nearly as funny. And these shows last a very long time. So you have to be aware of that responsibility toward it. But this was always a world we wanted to reflect. It was never a world of characters we created—we all knew people like this, especially [creator] Bill Prady. And we, as the cast, did our research at UCLA and shadowed physicists, and it’s a world that we, as a society, are all very aware of now. Scientists are not these guys in lab coats deep in the inner bowels of universities and hospitals with their Bunsen burners. They’re the people molding the culture that we live in, the future of our culture, and the technology we rely on every day. These are the rock stars of our time right now.
AVC: So the process of bringing these characters to life is about humanizing them—viewing these emotionally guarded individuals as regular people?
JG: Well, I think the fact that they were so guarded made them regular people. People who have been underdogs don’t generally keep putting their necks out. They become guarded. They become protective. That’s what made them human. So, I think they’ve become more available emotionally due to the relationships with one another, and with the women in their lives.
AVC: How much did the show’s dynamic change with the addition of Melissa Rauch and Mayim Bialik, as Bernadette and Amy, respectively?
JG: I think it gave the guys reason to lessen their guard. Early on, if there was ego among them, it was due to either just their own foolery, or completely unwarranted chips on their shoulders—which I always find funny because I think we’re always guilty of that, as humans. I think it gave us license to go into those more emotional storylines that you mentioned as well, because they needed to learn by the example of these women in their lives: They are worthwhile; they do have something to offer that isn’t just solving equations.
AVC: It’s interesting the way the show has given an arc to Penny that legitimizes her desires and goals. Success means something different to every person, and Penny’s desires are just as wonderful as Leonard’s or Sheldon’s.
JG: And just as desperate, in that there’s this wonderful hope. Like, I forget which season it was, but I love when we finally saw Penny act on stage. The writers made a decision that she was actually going to be a really good actress. I thought that was such a wonderful choice. It would have been so easy to play the comedy of that and watch Penny fail and flounder; I thought that was a really smart and mature choice, that they let her dream be something reachable. It doesn’t mean that she doesn’t have all of these other issues in the way that we all often do. Just, we’re often capable of much more than we allow ourselves to believe, and I was really proud to be a part of that episode for that reason.
AVC: Is The Big Bang Theory essentially a show about growing up, even though the main characters are adults with tenured research positions?
JG: Absolutely. They still have their obstacles, whether it’s how they were bullied on the schoolyard, or how their parents treated them, or how their parents still treat them. [Laughs.] And as we go on, they often find their growth in one another. And I think that’s something that, at least initially, made the show universally relatable.
AVC: And that might have been a tough sell originally, convincing people that audiences would relate to these characters despite their somewhat niche interests.
JG: It was literally a hard show to sell, I think. I mean, what was the tagline? Like, “two nerds and a hot blonde”? I wouldn’t watch that show. And yet, I couldn’t come up with a better way to market it, and on the surface that’s what the show was. I knew from my first conversations with Chuck Lorre, before a word was even written on the page, that this was not going to be a series version of Revenge Of The Nerds—with all due respect to that great movie. These were going to be real guys who are lucky enough to be that brilliant, but also unlucky enough to be that brilliant.
AVC: After so many seasons together, what have you learned from your fellow cast members, all of whom bring something different to the table in terms of comedy?
JG: You learn something new every single week. And Chuck has said it before: It’s kind of like reinventing the wheel every week. You can never rely on what you think is going to work. There are still things in front of that live audience, 180-ish episodes in, that surprise me. There’s something I think has worked fantastically all week, and all of a sudden doesn’t in front of 300 people. And we stop and we fix it on the fly, because we’re not there to amuse ourselves. And then sometimes, a beat gets a laugh that none of us foresaw. So I think we learn something every week from the audience. What’s frustrating is that even those lessons are hard to rely on. You think you can apply them to the next episode, and then you learn something new. The truth of the matter is that there’s no magic bag of tricks.
AVC: One of your other more notable roles was on Roseanne. Because of that experience, did you already have a sense of how to approach a sitcom and these on-the-fly adjustments?
JG: My experience makes me a bit more schooled in rolling with those changes in front of the audience—it’s something I really like, and I think the cast finds it exciting. But as far as the show working as a whole, I had no idea. That’s not to say that I didn’t have faith in it, but I’ve done quite a few things that I thought would strike a chord and they didn’t. See, you don’t know about those because nobody saw them. [Laughs.] But there’s no recipe, no matter how hard you work or how hard you commit. I think a lot of it has to do with chemistry, and I did feel that. I had a new excitement for the show when they hired Kaley [Cuoco-Sweeting] and Kunal [Nayyar] and Simon [Helberg] for the second pilot that we did. With everyone doing their thing at the table reading, it just made sense. And that’s not something that you can necessarily foresee or cast. It just happens or it doesn’t.
AVC: Now that the show has been on the air for so long, do you find yourself thinking about the end?
JG: We do—especially Kaley and I, because we were both on shows that ended. It’s a very emotional thing. We’re talking about over 100 people that you’ve spent the better part of a decade with, and spending more time with them than your own family—and the purpose of it all, the adrenaline of the weekly live audience. It goes from 100 to zero real quick when you say goodbye to a show and a character that you can’t help but grow close to and protective of, as silly as that sounds. So yeah, we do talk about it a lot, and we recognize, very much so, that it will be absolutely disastrous when that day comes. [Laughs.] But I think that’s a good thing to keep in mind, because it makes us excited and driven every day that we’re still there. With an opportunity like this, you don’t want to look back on a single day and think, “I could have been more present that day. I could have been more appreciative, more generous.” That’s something that you’ll regret for a long time.