The Story Behind 'Big Bang Theory's' Tribute to Carol Ann Susi

Showrunner Steve Molaro talks with THR about how the CBS comedy opted to deal with the death of one of their own.
Monty Brinton/CBS

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from "The Comic Book Store Regeneration" episode of CBS' The Big Bang Theory.]

CBS' The Big Bang Theory said farewell to one of its own during its latest episode.

During Thursday's "The Comic Book Store Regeneration" episode, Howard (Simon Helberg) learns that his mother, Debbie Wolowitz — voiced by the late Carol Ann Susi — passed away in her sleep while on vacation in Florida.

The storyline was one of two options producers on TV's No. 1 comedy series had to explore when addressing the loss of their friend and colleague, Susi, who died in November of cancer.

Here, Big Bang Theory showrunner Steve Molaro talks with The Hollywood Reporter about deciding to write Susi's passing into the show — and forgo turning to co-star Melissa Rauch (who plays Howard's wife, Bernadette) to bring her spot-on impression to the role — as well as how the character's death will have a ripple effect on the remainder of the season.

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After Carol Ann Susi passed away, what kind of discussion was there about Mrs. Wolowitz's fate?

The first thing we talked about was how sad we were that our friend was no longer with us. It took a while for that devastation to calm down before we could even think about it. We couldn't bring ourselves to start to think about it. Eventually the needs of the show [forced the issue] and we had to come up with a plan, and I don't think we could bring ourselves to replace the actor. The thought of it felt awful to us. That left us with two options: We send the character away — which seemed false and fake — or we go right into it and write it into the show, so that's what we chose to do.

Was there any conversation about having Melissa take over the voice? Her impression is spot-on.

She does and that's true, but I don't think any of us could bring ourselves to do it. The silver lining, creatively for the show, is it's just another chance for Wolowitz to grow as a person. Creatively for the show, things happen to people, and one of the things that happens is parents pass away. I think it was for the best that we wrote it in.

Will there be a funeral?

There will not be a funeral episode. This is so tricky for us and for the tone of the show to not let things get too dramatic and too sad. The way we handled it enabled us to deal with it and also jump over a funeral-type episode. But we will certainly continue to deal with — Wolowitz and Bernadette in particular —with the fallout of her passing away for a number of episodes down the line.

How will the loss of his mother impact Howard?

Aft first, he's just stunned. We're going to work our way through it with the characters and ourselves. For now, the best word I can use is stunned.

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What about for you guys, what kind of pressure did you feel to get this right for Carol Ann?

There was pressure because we're talking about an actual person we cared about very much. We were feeling pressure to pay tribute to her in a way that she deserved — and I hope we did that. The morning she passed, [executive producer] Chuck Lorre and I went down to the stage and Chuck had to deliver the news to everyone. It was a production week so everyone was there — the crew, camera people, cast — and everyone was onstage and he had to let everybody know that she was no longer with us. It was awful and everyone was crying. But what it turned into, quickly and beautifully, was an impromptu memorial where people started to share their wonderful memories of Carol Ann. It became this mixture of laughter, tears and memories. We were living in the moment of the tragedy, having just learned what happened, and the tone somehow managed to be heartbroken and celebratory of her at the same time. And we tried to capture a little bit of that at the end of [Thursday's] episode.

That final scene with Leonard's toast was such a fitting moment.

Johnny Galecki [Leonard] just killed it. After we had that impromptu memorial the morning she passed away, Johnny and I were hugging — like everybody was — and right then we found our prop person and asked to get a little picture of Carol Ann and we put it on the refrigerator [in Leonard and Sheldon's kitchen] so she's there in every episode now. It's so small you wouldn't even see it, but on the fridge is this tiny little wallet-size picture of Carol Ann that's been there since the day she passed away.

That's beautiful. It must be so hard to walk this line when it's not just a creative choice to have something happen to characters who aren't real but when it's actually based on real life.

It's tough. She was a member of our family. It takes a whole different level of reality and becomes way more intense. The relationship that we on the stage had with Carol Ann is different than the relationship people had with Mrs. Wolowitz. It's hard for us not to let our feelings about Carol Ann bleed into the show. It's unavoidable.

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Howard and Stuart (Kevin Sussman) were very much at odds fighting for Mrs. Wolowitz's love. Will this bring them closer?

It will. The intent of actually all the storylines in this episode is that everyone was at odds for different reasons and this nuclear bomb of an event drops in and levels the playing field. It makes everybody realize everything else they were fighting about seem a lot more trivial than it did five minutes earlier.  

Will there be a reading of the will? Could that be something that creates more friction between Howard and Stuart?

That hasn't come up. There has been quite a bit of fallout and we do continue to follow Howard for several episodes after this happens — not necessarily from week to week but we do touch on it more than once moving forward — but the will has not been an issue, at least not yet.

Will Howard feel tied to the comic book store since his mother funded it?

I think so, and as you saw in the episode, her furniture is now in the store. If anything, it brings everyone closer together. Personally, I'm happy to have the comic book store 2.0 back on the show and a place where they can congregate.

Viewers have never seen Debbie Wolowitz other than a glimpse from afar at Howard's wedding. Will that change?

I don't think so. Not right now. In my head, even though Carol Ann was certainly not the size that we implied Mrs. Wolowitz was, it's for me not to think of Mrs. Wolowitz and not see Carol Ann's face in my mind. So that's something we will probably think about but we haven't tackled it yet.

What about Howard's father? He left when Howard was young and Simon had that great episode where he read the letters. Might Mrs. Wolowitz's death be something that brings Howard's estranged father back into the picture?

It's a great question. It has not happened yet but it's absolutely something that we think about. At some point, I'm interested in looking further into [it].

Do you have any ideas for casting?

It's so far away, I don't think it would even happen this season but it's something that I don't have a good name or answer for right now. It's hard not to think about: Does he know this even happened? It's a very legitimate question that I don't have the answer to yet.

That'd be an amazing story for Simon.

The ways that we touch on her passing are pretty interesting, especially the one we're shooting this week. It's too soon for me to talk about it, but it can't help but affect his life in ways that I don't think he even expects. I find it interesting that the ways it creeps back up and affects him are ways that he wasn't even thinking about when it happened.

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Could this be something that pushes him into exploring children with Bernadette?

They're still reeling from all this; I don't think kids are even being discussed just yet. But who knows? There are two years to go, who knows what's going to happen.

Sheldon, who everyone assumed would tell Howard to "let it go," made an incredibly sensitive and perfect observation that Howard has friends to lean on. Why it was important for Sheldon to show such growth in this moment?

It was a very difficult scene to write. The challenge for us was to work our way through this terrible piece of news and have everybody react the way they might react and somehow try to maybe make it a little funny, if that was even possible. And that's what we attempted to do.

Why was it important to have a Nathan Fillion cameo in the same episode?

We had spoken to Nathan a few times at Comic-Con and let him know what fans we were of his and he always said he'd love to do the show. There was no specific reason other than that story fit well with the timeline of everything else going on in the episode. We just had a little fun side trip for Leonard and Raj (Kunal Nayyar) while everybody else was fighting. 

How will the loss of Howard's mother play into the season finale? What are you guys building to? I know you don't plot out too much in advance.

I can't really speak to the finale yet, but her loss is absolutely being felt for several episodes as we move forward. A few weeks ago, Leonard and Sheldon wrote a paper together for the first time based on Leonard's idea. That essentially handcuffs them together, whether they like it or not. That's another ongoing topic that we've hit more than once as we move toward the end of the season.

What about Raj and his girlfriend, Emily (Laura Spencer)? What's next for them?

They do have their first fight coming up and it's not a comfortable reason why they're having it. It's the first night that Raj is going to spend at her apartment because she has a roommate who's usually there and he ends up being alone in her apartment and like an idiot decides to snoop in her drawers. I won't go beyond that but it does not end well. (Laughs.)

Will we meet the roommate?

We don't in this episode. We could down the line, but no plans for that right now.

What about Leonard and Penny (Kaley Cuoco Sweeting) and the wedding: Will there be more wedding planning or discussion this season?

At the moment, I don't think there's anything in what we've shot right now that heavily leans into it. They're happy and moving in a direction, but we're not in a rush to get them married, which we did touch on in the episode where Leonard and Sheldon are fighting in a department store and airing all their grievances and the topic of living arrangements does come up. Even Penny says Leonard isn't going to make any big moves until Sheldon is ready. But at least we took a step forward in that episode where one night a week Leonard and Penny live together. We're sort of easing ourselves — and Sheldon — into the idea of it happening someday.

Were you sad to learn of Mrs. Wolowitz's passing? What are your hopes for the gang? Sound off in the comments section below. The Big Bang Theory airs on Thursdays at 8 p.m. on CBS.  

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