'Big Bang Theory' Evolution: How TV's Nerdy Comedy Grew Into a Family Show

Big Bang Theory - H 2016
Courtesy of CBS

CBS' The Big Bang Theory wasn't envisioned as a traditional family comedy. But that's precisely what the nerdy show that could has become as the series, created by Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady, approaches its landmark 200th episode.

When Lorre (Two and a Half Men, Roseanne) and Prady pitched Big Bang Theory, the series — which started out as a spec — was about quantum physicists/string theory guys and their lives. To hear Lorre tell it, that statement alone was enough to elicit a slack jawed "What?!" response from network and studio development executives. 

"A show about brilliant minds was what we led with," Lorre told THR this week at Big Bang Theory's 200th episode celebration. "We never said the word 'nerd' or 'geek'; those words came later; they were attached to the show. We were more interested in these guys that were crazy smart and their inability to move through the world that the rest of us take for granted."

Lorre and Prady wrote it and, rather than shooting a traditional pilot to start, roped in Mark Roberts — with whom he'd worked on Men — and two other actors to read the early incarnations of Sheldon, Leonard (Roberts) and the character who would later become Penny. The network called later that afternoon to buy the show. Two pilots later, Amanda Walsh's "Katie" became Penny as Kaley Cuoco, Simon Helberg (Howard Wolowitz) and Kynal Nayyar (Rajesh Koothrappali) joined stars Jim Parsons (Sheldon Cooper) and Johnny Galecki (Leonard Hofstadter). (The latter, who worked with Lorre on Roseanne, never auditioned. Lorre offered him the part before the script was completed.) 

When CBS promoted the show in season one, the word "family" was nowhere to be seen in its original logline: "Leonard and Sheldon are brilliant physicists, the kind of 'beautiful minds' that understand how the universe works. But none of that genius helps them interact with people, especially women. All this begins to change when a free-spirited beauty named Penny moves in next door. Sheldon, Leonard's roommate, is quite content spending his nights playing Klingon Boggle with their socially dysfunctional friends, fellow Caltech scientists Wolowitz and Koothrappali. However, Leonard sees in Penny a whole new universe of possibilities ... including love." (Check out an image from season one, below.)

Steve Molaro joined in episode two and took over showrunning duties from Prady in season six, sharpening Big Bang Theory's focus on the relationships between its core characters — namely Leonard and Penny's (formerly) on-again, off-again relationship. Under Molaro and thanks to a then-record syndication deal with TBS, Big Bang Theory soared to new heights both creatively and among the advertiser-coveted adults 18-49 demo, becoming the top comedy on TV. The well-liked and highly regarded Molaro — who parlayed his Big Bang success into a rich overall deal with producers WBTV — is also credited with arcing out smaller creative stories for Big Bang, which unlike many other scripted series, doesn't plot out entire seasons in advance. Among them: Raj finally breaking through and overcoming his selective mutism and learning how to speak to women after having his heart broken for the first time in the season six finale; Howard and Bernadette's (Melissa Rauch) wedding in the season five finale; and Leonard and Penny's evolving romance — which saw the show's central couple finally tie the knot when they surprisingly eloped in the season nine premiere. Thursday's 200th episode will also feature a show first — the gang celebrating Sheldon's birthday with a guest-star heavy installment that packs quite an emotional moment for the formerly emotion-less character.

"This group of friends have essentially become this close-knit family and now that everyone is breaking off into these more domesticated situations, yet their core of family is still the same," Rauch says. "It speaks to the love that these characters have for each other. The writers do such a brilliant job with challenging these character dynamics yet always bringing them closer together at the end of it, which speaks to what a family is."

While Leonard, Sheldon, Raj and Howard were largely rejected by society, together they bonded over their social shortcomings enough to evolve and form a surrogate family. That family grew with the additions of Rauch's Bernadette — who was initially cast for only one episode in season three — and Emmy winner Mayim Bialik (Amy Farrah Fowler), who arrived in the season three finale.

"If you watch the show, they eat together, they work together, they very much almost live together and they bicker and they make each other miserable and love each other, which is pretty much what a family does," Lorre says, pointing to Howard and Bernadette's recent baby bombshell as an example of the show's expansion to become a more traditional family sitcom. "And now there's another family within that — it's expanding now. I think the heart and soul is that there's a family at work here, even if it's not a blood family. In some ways, the family you choose as opposed to the family you're born into is maybe more powerful because of that choice."

Beyond Howard and Bernadette's pregnancy, the series has also featured other subjects typically explored on more traditional family sitcoms, including two characters losing their virginity. Only in Big Bang's case, they were two characters in their 30s. What's more, Big Bang featured Sheldon and Amy's consummation in an episode pegged to Star Wars: The Force Awakens that drew parallels between seeing such a highly anticipated movie and coitus.

"I don't know if it was intentional but I'll say yes, that's what we wanted to do — it does feel like a family comedy," Molaro says with a laugh. The showrunner, who watches Big Bang with his 12-year-old son (who began watching it at age 8), is cognizant of that during the writing process. "How am I going to feel with what ever subject matter is going to be on TV? I think about episodes like Sheldon and Amy's consummation, which could have been a very adult story but I was perfectly comfortable watching that with my kids. It's neat that we've got these characters that are so innocent that were are able to tell the story of two adults losing their virginity in a way that I can watch it with my 12-year-old and it wasn't weird at all."

Co-star Helberg agrees and points out that Big Bang has a very diverse fan base — with fans at the taping for the 200th episode coming from across the globe — because the series celebrates the family you want, whether it's a blood relation or not. "Family is sitting around having Chinese food and talking about nothing — and it's also having children, having people die, watching relationships start and end and people grow up and people resist growing up," he says with a nod to the death of Howard's mother (voiced by the late Carol Ann Susi) and the growth for former man-child Sheldon. "That is what family is and the audience feels like part of that family. I think people connect to that."

For Howard, Bernadette helped the self-professed ladies' man develop the confidence to match his early and formerly unearned swagger. Says Rauch: "What's special is that there's been growth at all. A lot of times on shows you don't get the benefit of having a character have that journey and have that arc. The fact that these writers have been able to do that for each character, it's remarkable. Wolowitz always wanted that. Even though he may have been going about it [with overconfident swagger], it was because he wanted love. He got what he wanted and that enabled him to move forward."

Adds Helberg, who with his wife, has had two kids during Big Bang's nine-season run: "The key is time. We've watched a guy in his mid-20s go into his mid-30s and a lot can happen, as has happened in my own personal life. The writers are very in tune with these characters and who they want to become and letting them become that and taking their time doing it and listening to that rhythm. Even listening to us as people and actors, there's a lot of parallels with us and the stories — I don't know if they're tapping our phones but we're all growing."

To hear Parsons tell it, the introduction of Bialik's Amy helped evolve Sheldon from the comic book-obsessed selfish man-child who struggled to understand romance into being able to profess his love and win Amy back this season following their recent break-up.

"[The family] has expanded and that quality has been drawn out and magnified now because we're all pairing off and there's actual romance — which in one situation is going to create a family — and the others, there's always the possibility of it," Parsons says. "When Sheldon tells Amy he loves her; when Sheldon and Amy have sex — these have never been difficult episodes. These are the biggest things this character has done so far — and may do for the series — and they were just as easy and enjoyable to do as the most banal episode you can imagine."

Adds Cuoco: "It's definitely becoming more family oriented. Everyone is in relationships, people are having kids, people getting married. It just shows the evolution of the show from Day 1. These were nerds who couldn't even talk to their neighbor and now we're all closer than close. It's a beautiful story."

Prady, who teaches a sitcom writing class at USC, stresses that any show can be a "family comedy" — even if they don't feature the traditional cast of characters. "Cheers and Taxi are family comedies even though you're not with a family," he says, noting that Big Bang's central question was if it was better to be in the world or out of it, with Leonard being pulled into the world by Penny and Sheldon pulling him out of that. "I don't know that's the central question anymore. What happens after a while when characters evolve, it starts to be stories about those people you know and what they're going through in their lives."

Of the show's central characters, Nayyar's Raj is seemingly the last of the core group to partner up as his own emotional evolution was inhibited by his inability to speak to the opposite sex. "They had to grow up first and now it's his turn," says Nayyar, who singles out Raj's season six breakthrough as his character's turning point. Raj will next attempt to date both ex-girlfriend Emily (Laura Spencer) and new arrival Claire (Alessandra Torresani). "It's about time a character tried to date two women at the same time!" Nayyar jokes of what is likely going to be the subject of ridicule at one of Big Bang's regular family dinners.

"The show redefines friendship, family, tolerance and hope," WBTV CEO Peter Roth says. "Most great television series become an extension of our families and these characters definitely accomplish that." 

Sums up Galecki: "It's evolved to be a family comedy. It's very much friendship now and relationships. Thank god, because there's much less science jargon to learn now than there was in seasons one and two!"

As for if the previously announced 10th season will be the end of the road for Big Bang, Lorre says the idea is too "heartbreaking" and refuses to discuss that or the idea of continuing the series without any of its pricey cast. Says Rauch in a statement mirrored by her fellow cast members, producers and executives alike: "I hope it's a thousand episodes from now — or two thousand. I hope the whole group stays the family that they are."

The Big Bang Theory airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. on CBS. Come back to The Live Feed after the 200th episode for more from the cast and producers.