Never let be said that Bill Prady wasted his chance to explore the awkwardness of his life as a young adult.
The co-creator of Warner Bros. TV’s “The Big Bang Theory” mined his experiences working as a computer programmer in the early 1980s to launch the powerhouse CBS sitcom that bows out Thursday after 12 seasons. For Prady, the finale represents the end of an era, in more ways than one.
“‘Big Bang’ began as the story of me in my early 20s, when I was in the computer business in New York and failing at romantic relationships,” Prady tells Variety. “It’s the story of that time in my life and I knew I’d get one shot to tell those stories. I don’t think I get to come back and re-explore that time again. For me, [the finale] winds up the chance I had to talk about what that time was like.”
Chuck Lorre, “Big Bang” co-creator, says bringing the show to a close with episode No. 279, was as heart-wrenching as it gets for a roomful of comedy scribes. The story and teleplay are credited to the show’s core writing and producing team for Season 12. In addition to Lorre and Prady, the credited scribes on episode titled “The Change Constant” are Steve Holland, Steven Molaro, Dave Goetsch, Eric Kaplan, Maria Ferrari, Andy Gordon, Anthony Del Broccolo, Tara Hernandez, Jeremy Howe and Adam Faberman.
“When we wrote the last episode we all lost it. Everybody kind of broke down — it was really emotional. It was very hard to write the words ‘fade out — end of series,’” Lorre says
The reality of “Big Bang” having called it a wrap hasn’t set in yet for Prady — and it probably won’t for some months. At this time of year, the show was typically in hiatus mode anyway.
“This feels normal. You finish the season, you have some time off, you go to lunch with friends you haven’t seen all year,” Prady says. “It won’t really set in until later in the summer.”
For most of its run, “Big Bang” has been primetime’s most-watched comedy series. The show has generated an estimated $1 billion and counting in syndication. To date it has collected 10 Emmy Awards, including four lead comedy actor trophies for Jim Parsons. A big factor in the show’s success that no one could have predicted was the timing of the 2007-2008 writers strike that shut down production on so many primetime series in late 2007. “Big Bang” had just premiered that September and had completed eight episodes before the strike hit.
“CBS ran those eight episodes over and over again,” Lorre recalls. “I didn’t understand it then but they were allowing the audience to binge those eight episodes.”
Prady says the downtime from the labor action was put to good use. “Somehow we magically learned a bit about the show by getting that kind of weird break that normally doesn’t happen in the first year,” he says. “We had that odd interregnum that let us think a lot about it.”
But the most significant achievement over the show’s long run was the depth of the love and friendships it inspired among the dedicated group of people who plied their trade on Stage 25 on the Warner Bros. lot.
“It’s one of those shows where everybody who worked on it loved it. Everybody was looking at every point to see what they could do to make the thing better,” Prady says. “Every special effect and every camera shot and every page of the script — everybody was truly interested in contributing. These things don’t work if a handful of people are trying to carry the energy. They work when you have dolly grips pitching story ideas. There’s a level you only get to when you have emotional buy-in from everybody who works on it.”
Lorre calls the show a “perfect ensemble” with a core clutch of actors who had the skills to grow with beloved characters over time. Parsons and co-stars Johnny Galecki, Kaley Cuoco, Simon Helberg, Kunal Nayyar, and in later seasons Mayim Bialik and Melissa Rauch, were so good the writers were encouraged to take their biggest swings, secure in the knowledge that the thesps could make it work.
“We were very fortunate in that each character in the show is portrayed by the absolute greatest actor we could have hoped for,” Lorre says. “The other factor is the characters were allowed to evolve over time. They didn’t remain the same. Had that not happened the show would’ve gotten stale and ended a long time ago.”
Lorre points to the emotional journey of Parsons’ Sheldon Cooper, a genius theoretical physicist who was beyond neurotic around most other people, particularly women as an example: “He couldn’t touch people when we started the show. Now he’s a married man with a group of friends he loves and he loves them in return.”
Bialik’s Amy Farrah Fowler became a fan favorite early on after she joined the show as a love interest for Sheldon. But that interest took seasons to bear fruit, by design. “The slowness of the relationship added to the poignancy. It gave it roots,” Lorre says.
For Prady, Sheldon and Galecki’s Leonard Hofstadter represented two extremes of his social impulses during his own early adulthood. Cuoco’s next-door neighbor Penny was the intriguing glimpse of the “regular world” that seemed so out of reach at the time.
“Sheldon connects to that part of me that was afraid of the world and liked to retreat into ‘Star Trek’ and comic books and not the world that has Pennys in it,” Prady says. “For me, that was always the sweet spot of exploring that struggle of whether or not you belong in the world. Remember, the big question in the pilot is whether or not Sheldon and Leonard can make a new friend when Penny moves in next door.”
Prady and Lorre are also quick to credit the influence of two Steves — Molaro and Holland — who held the reins as showrunners. Molaro took over from Lorre and Prady in Season 6. Holland has steered the ship for the past two seasons. Director Mark Cendrowski added an indelible stamp to some 244 of the show’s 279 installments, including the finale. (For Prady, Cendrowski also offered the fringe benefit of being a fellow rabid fan of the Detroit Tigers.)
“They brought their own sensibilities to the show,” Lorre says. “They made it much deeper and richer when they took over than it would have been had it been me holding on to it. I would have run out of gas and it would have become redundant and formulaic. They breathed a lot of life into it.”
Prady echoes that sentiment: “One of the lessons I learned from Chuck was that the project is more important than ego. The goal is to make the best show you can. And at some point you have to realize that the best person to run this production isn’t me.”
Molaro was a “strong voice” in the writers room from the first season, and it gradually became apparent he was the one to take the baton from Lorre and Prady. According to Prady, “he started to be the voice that became the show’s compass — and it was all based on what he wanted to see on this show he loved.”
Lorre also adds that Holland’s stewardship is why the show comes to a close on a high note. “We would not have had the finale we have without Steve Holland. He had a vision and it just felt like the right thing to do. I’m so proud of it,” Lorre says. “It feels not like a finale so much as a transition. Life goes on. We’re leaving them, they’re not leaving us. We’re not blowing the show up at the end. We’re just moving away.”
Lorre has been a prolific producer for decades. Four years ago, he ushered out another CBS sitcom stalwart that ran 12 seasons, “Two and a Half Men.” In his experience, the quality of the work and the joie de vivre on the “Big Bang” set is probably once-in-a-career experience, though.
With the benefit of hindsight, Lorre recalls a moment he shared with director Jim Burrows during the filming of the pilot — actually, the second “Big Bang” pilot produced after CBS passed on the first iteration — when he knew there was greatness special brewing in this den of geeks.
“It was a scene with Johnny, Jim and Kaley. Jim Burrows looked over at me with a big grin on his face. I smiled back,” says Lorre. “What was unspoken between us was that this is really working — beyond our expectations. That’s when I became convinced there was something really extraordinary happening here.”