Laughs are followed by hard-nosed revision to get script just right

One in a series of behind-the-scenes looks at Emmy hopefuls.

The table read at “The Big Bang Theory” is the first shot off the tee, with all its majesty … and uncertainty.

After all the writers’ room preparation, the initial sit-down with a new script is the CBS sitcom’s big, bold, broad swing down the fairway. Everyone hopes the aim is true, but everyone also knows how rare a hole-in-one is.

The swing itself is exhilaration: the performance of a script carefully calibrated to seem entirely natural in its hilarity, inducing laughs so unfettered that you wouldn’t be surprised to hear “You the man!” shouted at the writers.

But perhaps what’s most striking about the table-read setting is the relative hush that settles inside the studio on the Warner Bros. lot before it begins, and then — even after the ball lands smack deep down the middle — how quickly that hush returns as preparation for the next swing takes place.

A sitcom is a par-5 hole, after all — five production days to get a show to be the funniest it can be — and each of those days are precious. No stroke can be wasted.

“We have work to do,” says “Big Bang” exec producer Bill Prady. “The feeling of ‘that went great … now we can relax’ happens after we shoot, not after we read.”

And even if the tee shot is true — as it was in the case of this March table read, for the April 28 episode “The Agreement Dissection” — the challenge is far from over. Exec producer Chuck Lorre notes after the read that “20% to 30% of the script will be brand-new by the time we shoot it.”

Says Prady: “Every scene that worked well in the table read … we enjoyed. But the work that followed that day was on the stuff that didn’t work. It’s sort of a by-design focus on the negative.”

Ultimately, the difference between the table and final drafts of “The Agreement Dissection” might seem insignificant. No structural changes were made; no scenes being swapped in or out. Had they shot the table draft as-was, the episode would have been almost entirely as successful, with this unaltered exchange a perfect example:

Penny (Kaley Cuoco): “So what, did you take dance lessons?”

Sheldon (Jim Parsons): “Against my will. In the South, pre-adolescent children are forced through a process called cotillion, which indoctrinates them with all the social graces and dance skills needed to function in 18th-century Vienna.”

And yet, you always want to be better.

A good deal of the post-table work on this episode involved straightforward tightening (for sharpness or just to save time) and of course the punch-up of lines here and there, such as this moment, after Penny invites a depressed Sheldon to join her and friends for a girls’ night out.

Old: “A hen party? I don’t know if I’m up for an evening talking about coupons and shoes.”

New: “A girls’ night? Oh, I don’t know if I’m up for an evening talking about rainbows, unicorns and menstrual cramps.”

Only a few of the 40-plus pages in the script received significant top-to-bottom rewrites, but perhaps the most interesting change didn’t push the comedic envelope, but rather the emotional one.

After their night of drinking and dancing, Sheldon and his uniquely platonic friend Amy (Mayim Bialik) return to her apartment. It’s been a good night, but Sheldon is still upset about how Priya, girlfriend of his roommate Leonard, has asserted control in his own home.

In the table read, Sheldon quips in standard sitcom fashion, “Leonard’s new girlfriend is really becoming a burr under my saddle.” But in the final, the line becomes a serious one, to which Parsons brings unmistakable poignancy, even lament.

“Priya has essentially nullified my roommate agreement with Leonard, making life in the apartment very uncomfortable for me,” Sheldon says.

Amy’s reply — “And you want me to kill her? Done.” — takes us right back into the comedy realm, but those 10 altered seconds of screentime give the entire episode stakes, with the writing and acting convincing us of Sheldon’s fear that this is a lifechanging moment.

“The issue there is that the Amy character in that point in the story is drunk,” Prady recalls of the scene, “and we needed that moment to be one of those moments where you’re talking to a drunk person (and) you get them to stop and focus and call up whatever part of their brain is still functioning. It seemed Sheldon explaining in a metaphor didn’t work as well as Sheldon explaining clearly what the problem was, so that Amy could clearly focus on it.

“And,” Prady says, “I’m going to add that ‘burr on my saddle’ didn’t get a laugh.”

ROAD TO THE EMMYS: COMEDY
New comedies might not make big Emmy splash | Serious business at ‘Big Bang’ table read | Comedy conundrum: Dark and stormy vs. light | ‘Community’ student Abed analyzes the Emmys | Veteran contenders | Where it began for top comedies | Rookie comedies enter Emmy race

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