You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Serious business at ‘Big Bang’ table read

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.”

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

More TV

  • Writers vs Agents Packaging War WGA

    Rothman Brecher Ehrich Livingston Signs Writers Guild Code

    The Rothman Brecher Ehrich Livingston agency has signed the Writers Guild of America’s Code of Conduct, allowing the agency to return to representing WGA members again. The WGA made the announcement Monday night. RBEL is joining more than 70 agencies allowed to represent WGA members thanks to agreeing to a ban of agency packaging fees [...]

  • Fiona Lang and Ryan Shiotani

    BBC Studios Hires GMs in Further Asia Reshuffle

    BBC Studios the coproduction and rights sales arm of the British Broadcasting Corporation, has appointed Fiona Lang and Ryan Shiotani as general managers in the Asia-Pacific region. Lang, currently COO for the company in Australia and New Zealand, is promoted to become BBC Studios’ GM in the same geography. Her responsibilities cover marketing, advertising, creative, [...]

  • The Lord of the Rings: The

    'Lord of the Rings' Series Renewed by Amazon for Season 2

    Amazon has given an early Season 2 renewal to its forthcoming “Lord of the Rings” series. Pre-production on the project’s first season, which is set to film in New Zealand, is currently underway — although sources tell Variety that the full cast has not yet been set. Several actors, including Markella Kavenagh, Will Poulter, and [...]

  • Editorial use only. No book cover

    'Chinatown' Prequel Series in Development at Netflix From David Fincher, Robert Towne

    A prequel series to the classic film “Chinatown” is in early development at Netflix, Variety has confirmed with sources. David Fincher and Robert Towne, the film’s writer, are attached to pen the script. It will reportedly focus on the exploits of a young Jake “J.J.” Gittes during his early days as a private investigator. Netflix declined [...]

  • TV Roundup: Pop TV Releases Teaser

    TV News Roundup: Pop TV Releases Teaser for 'Schitt's Creek's' Final Season

    In today’s TV news roundup, Pop TV releases a teaser for the final season of “Schitt’s Creek,” and Nickelodeon kicks off the holiday season with “Top Elf.” DATES Nickelodeon’s “Top Elf” series will premiere Nov. 29. “Top Elf” is a new competition series featuring guest judges Frankie Grande, Amirah Kassem, Peyton List, Alex Wassabi and [...]

  • Karen Cogan’s 'Fled' Tops The Brit

    Karen Cogan’s 'Fled' Tops The Brit List, a League Table of Unproduced British TV Scripts

    Karen Cogan’s “Fled” has come top of The Brit List, a league table of unproduced scripts from British writing talent, this year devoted to television projects. The list, similar to The Black List in the U.S., was compiled from recommendations by British production companies, talent agencies, financiers and broadcasters. Cogan, represented by Independent Talent Group, [...]

  • Viacom HQ LA

    ViacomCBS Sets HR and Inclusion Chiefs

    ViacomCBS has named corporate heads of HR and inclusion as the companies prepare for the merger that is set to close early next month. The soon-to-combine Viacom and CBS have tapped Nielsen alum Nancy Phillips to serve as exec VP and chief people officer. Viacom alum Marva Smalls will serve as global head of inclusion, [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content