The CBS hit The Big Bang Theory had an inauspicious start in the fall of 2007, initially dismissed by many critics as a clunky throwback sitcom, about four broadly cartoonish nerds and their sexy neighbor. But the show quickly improved, and in its second season has become an example of how the old sitcom formula of multiple cameras and a live studio audience can still wring reliable laughs. A major reason for the show’s success? Jim Parsons, a Texas-born-and-bred self-described “theater geek” who plays the role of Sheldon Cooper, a fussy theoretical physicist whose superior attitude and neurotic behavior tics have made him The Big Bang Theory’s breakout character. Parsons spoke with The A.V. Club about finding the humanity in a stand-offish character, working on a series often derided for being old-fashioned, and how his passion for the stage is affecting his opinion of the current season of American Idol.
The A.V. Club: Are you done shooting The Big Bang Theory for this season?
Jim Parsons: Not yet. We’ll shoot one more tonight and then we have two more, which we’ll do over the next two weeks. This year we went later than usual because a lot of our staff works on Two And A Half Men as well.
AVC: Any big cliffhangers? Anybody get married? Anybody die?
JP: There could be. [Laughs.] We are the saddest cast at giving out information to reporters, because we don’t know anything! I find it incredible, and I mean this literally, that I’ve found out more information about our show from friends who’ve read about casting calls than I have from the people working here. On one episode we had a new girl moving upstairs, and I specifically remember that about four weeks before I got the script, a friend said, “Oh they’re casting for an upstairs neighbor.” You’re kidding! We don’t hear anything. We’ll get the next episode’s script hand-delivered to us tonight after we’re finished taping. I don’t think it’s some kind of top-secret governmental lockdown thing, I just think they don’t want us to be hashing out next week’s episode in our minds while we’re still working on this week’s. Which for me, frankly, I’m fine with. And two, they’re typically writing up until the last minute.
AVC: The Big Bang Theory does maintain some continuity between episodes, but it’s not like you’re Lost.
JP: Absolutely. There’s a certain definitive end to every episode and then we start up again. It’s more… the relationships have kind of naturally evolved. The easy example is that Sheldon and Penny are somewhat more… I don’t want to say comfortable together, but they’re used to each other now. It’s not quite as jarring when they find themselves alone together anymore. They don’t necessarily have to comment on that fact. They now have a little bit of a routine that they fall into. But like you say, you don’t need to have seen 10 episodes to catch up with that. It’s not that big of a deal.
AVC: Does Sheldon and Penny spending so much more time together have anything to do with how well you and Kaley Cuoco play off each other? Are the writers just working to your strengths?
JP: That could be. I mean, they haven’t said as much. From the end of last season and into this season even more strongly, I’ve felt that Sheldon and Penny are kind of the North and South Pole of character types on this show. Sheldon’s extremely cerebral and absorbed in that world of science, and Penny’s maybe the only one on the show with her feet in the real world. If anybody has street sense on this show, it’s definitely Penny. And so I felt last season, and I still feel now, that it’s good for the character dynamics to throw these two opposites together. It’s very fortunate that Kaley and I do enjoy working together.
It reminds me of when I first read with Johnny, too. There was just no predicting it. I had no reason to think we would or wouldn’t do scenes well together. I guess some people would call that chemistry, some people would call it… I don’t know, maybe “rhythm.” There is something about the way Kaley and I work together and Johnny and I work together that is complementary. And maybe it has to do with our characters. Now that I’m saying it out loud I’m reaching for words, sorry. I think maybe we fill the void left by the other characters in a lot of ways, and that makes for a complete whole.
But that’s a conversation for my psychiatrist. [Laughs.]
AVC: This next question isn’t intended to stir up controversy, but given that Big Bang Theory is such an ensemble show, has there been any concern among the cast that the balance this season has shifted more towards your character?
JP: I guess the easiest answer is also the most honest one, which is that there’s been no hint of that at all. Maybe this is just an inside feeling, from working on the show, but it feels like there’s a natural ebb and flow to the whole process. It doesn’t feel like, when you get an episode or even two in a row with a lot of Sheldon and Penny together, that “that’s what the show is now.” It feels more like there will be more episodes on the horizon about Wolowitz and his mother, or Leonard and Leslie, or Leonard and some other woman. Or maybe even Penny again! It feels more cyclical than permanent.
AVC: This has been discussed a great deal, but clearly there are some elements of Sheldon’s character that have rung true with people who have firsthand experience with Asperger’s or other forms of autism. The writers have purposely tried to avoid tagging the character with a diagnosis, since that gives you all more freedom to take the character wherever you like, but have you personally done any kind of research into Asperger’s?
JP: When I was first asked about it, I literally hadn’t… Well, I’d heard of the disease. Do they call it a disease? I don’t want to be…
AVC: A disorder.
JP: Disorder, thank you. How ridiculous now, looking back, that I said that. I’d heard of the disorder but I didn’t know what it was at all. And when I asked the writers if Sheldon had Asperger’s, they said, “No, he does not. That’s not what we’re doing.” Okay. But it made me curious. And I don’t know why, but Johnny read that book Look Me In The Eye by Augusten Burroughs’ brother [John Elder Robison], who wrote about his life with Asperger’s. I think Johnny purchased it and took it with him on a trip, and when he came back he said, “You’ve got to read this. You’re gonna die. The Sheldon comparisons.” And I immediately went and I got it. And that was as much “research” as I’ve done on it. Which was very fun research, because it was very applicable human stories about living with Asperger’s. And the comparisons were undeniable. A majority of what I read in that book touched on aspects of Sheldon. Since then, the more I’ve heard about it or talked about it with people who know more about it than I do, it seems that Asperger’s is not such an uncommon thing for extremely smart people to have. Or, like Sheldon, to have aspects of. There’s an awful lot of people who seem to border on that genius level that are also dealing with an Asperger’s-like detachment from emotional life as we know it. Even though really it just seems like detachment.
Anyway, I haven’t broached the topic again with the writers, but, you know, I do wonder. “Okay, so we’re not writing a character with Asperger’s, but what Aspergerian stories are you pulling some of this from?” I believe one of our writers has a relative that has Asperger’s. And like I say, I think a lot of this really intellectual work that somebody like Sheldon does, the way his brain works, it’s so focused on the intellectual topics at hand that thinking he’s autistic is an easy leap for people watching the show to make. The way Sheldon goes “Huh?” to a social and emotional situation because he’s so focused on what he’s doing. His brain is so wrapped up in it.
AVC: Have you known anyone in your life that was Sheldon-like?
JP: There was one peer of mine in elementary school. We continued to go to school, I believe, all the way through high school. We weren’t in the same friend group or whatever, but he was in a class of mine in second or third grade, I can’t remember. He was a genius, there was no denying that. It was different than Sheldon, maybe because he was younger, but he for sure acted out in ways like eating paper or eating bark off of trees or whatever. It was just more of an outlandishness, which if I had to do more of my armchair psychology, was like him acting out because he didn’t fit in. He didn’t belong, and that obviously wasn’t okay with him.
But this is where Sheldon differs. Sheldon, for the most part, as far as we know from what’s been written so far, is okay with it. He actually is, in a lot of ways, quite pleased with himself. He enjoys the life he leads, and is very comfortable with himself. I do think, though—and there’s been things in the scripts hinting at this—that he had to travel a while to find that place. I like to think that this boy I knew was probably the same and found his own peace eventually. “I’m different, but I’m good different. It’s not a bad thing that I’m different. My brain just works differently, and I understand things in a different way than most people do.” Like I say, Sheldon has talked of “swirlies” and such thing in his past. There’s been mention of the terror of going to children’s birthday parties with bouncy castles and clowns, where he was uncomfortable and things made no sense. And maybe he still harbors some of those feelings for a small outburst every now and then, when he’s pressed into an uncomfortable situation. But for the most part it doesn’t bother Sheldon that he doesn’t fit in. It’s more of a curiosity now. A mystery to be solved.
AVC: Have you reached the point, here in the second year, that you can speak for the character to the writers? Where you could say, “I don’t think Sheldon would do this?”
JP: I definitely think I could. Much to their credit, they haven’t given me much reason to. We were blocking a scene the other day, and somebody suggested that perhaps Penny should pat Sheldon on the arm or whatever, and I went, “You don’t touch Sheldon! Do you want him to explode?” It’s much more conversations of that nature. One of the things that I’ve been so lucky with, working with these writers as an actor, is that they’ve been so clear on Sheldon from very early on. And while the character has deepened due to all of us working on it together, it’s very rarely deviated from some essential things such as that. He’s not a touchy-feely person… little things like that. There’s just a clarity on the part of the writers.
And I have to say as an actor, I’m pretty willing to try whatever they want. That’s another reason why I don’t find myself saying, “I don’t think Sheldon would do that,” or, “I don’t think that’s the way I would say that.” I enjoy when they write something that’s out of the norm or what-have-you, because I very much believe that Sheldon is whatever we say he is. It’s up to us to play it, and to believe it, and everyone else will accept it. This is our creation here. My role as an actor is to support that. It’s their role as writers to go, “No, no, no, we’re not going to go there.” Except for that rare exception when we do go there and it’s all the more fun. [Laughs]
AVC: Big Bang Theory has been renewed for two more seasons already, so it obviously gets strong ratings, and it’s even drawn more critical approval than it did when it debuted. Still, your show isn’t talked about in the same breath as something like The Office or 30 Rock. As an actor, do you pay attention to that sort of thing? Does it bother you at all not to be thought of as “cool?”
JP: No. The first thing that always comes to my head when I think of something like that is that I’m so happy and grateful to be working. And I don’t say that in a pat, “easy answer” way. It’s only an easy answer because it’s so damn true. To have a job you can count on as an actor is so rare, whether that means belonging to a regional theater company or being on TV. And of course TV pays better than theater. [Laughs.] So no, I don’t think about it in that way. It’s hard to say what defines a hit, because high ratings aren’t always what makes a hit show. Nor does critical acclaim necessarily translate to high numbers. It’s more a combination of how much revenue you bring in combined with how much the people running the network like your show. So I guess my long-ass answer to the question is, “No.” It doesn’t bother me. I’m very happy.
AVC: Forget about “hit,” though. What about the coolness factor?
JP: No, you’re right, we’re not… We still use the old tried-and-true formula of multi-camera in front of a live audience, and since we’re still on the red-hot heels of “single camera’s the way to go and that’s the way of the future,” then yeah, we’re not thought of as cool. But I feel like the single-camera wave has settled down to a degree. I’m not saying that making a multi-camera sitcom in front of a live audience is suddenly new again. But at the same time, it’s not like that style went away for ten years and now it’s back. Also one thing I think that has a lot to do with any perceived lack of coolness is that we do hope to appeal to a broad audience. That’s one of our goals. But that doesn’t mean we try to dumb anything down either. We have a core .001% who would rip us up on the blogs if we got something wrong either scientifically or comics-wise or what-have-you. And we try to remain very true to that niche audience. Still, we’re not necessarily… specialized? Is that what I’m saying?
AVC: I’ve interviewed show-runners for other series, and when I asked them to name their favorite shows, The Big Bang Theory has often been mentioned. But there’s apparently still a lot of bias out there against multi-camera sitcoms. It’s as though “multi-camera” equals “traditional,” which equals “outdated.”
JP: Right. I agree with that, and that’s something I have no control over as an actor. I guess you can like a style or not, and you either watch it or you don’t. But I do sometimes question whether that’s what’s kept some people from actually watching the show. Have they actually seen it? Do they actually know what we’re doing? Or do they just presume that it’s a multi-camera show about a couple of nerds and the pretty girl next door, and that doesn’t necessarily strike them as something they might like. Look, I understand that some of them have watched it and they still don’t like it, and that’s fine. But I think there’s solid work being done here, and I think that people who work in the business have a respect and a love for it. I’m certainly grateful for that.
AVC: A lot of your training and background is in theater. Do you find that working on a multi-camera sitcom is more like theater than working on a film is?
JP: Yes. There’s not a doubt about it. There’s probably many many reasons, but with just the live audience alone, there’s a clear comparison. There’s no audience to wonderfully get in your way when you’re doing a single-camera anything, whether it’s a sitcom or drama or film. And I do mean that in the best way. The audience is a force to be dealt with, and while sometimes editing on the laughter in shows can make it sound a little false, or catch your ear wrong, the bottom line is that for our show, that’s part of the experience. Some people just aren’t into that and don’t care, but it’s part of the experience of watching it, so the writers and directors and cast have to deal with that live human force that is, for better or for worse, an invisible other character on the show every week. They’re not thrown in afterwards… unless it’s a heavy technical scene, and then yes, sometimes that has to happen. But 99.9% of the time the laughter you hear comes from a live audience.
Taping day is without a doubt the best day of the week here for me—and I think for all of us. Kaley did a lot of work in front of an audience on 8 Simple Rules, and the rest of us have all done a decent amount of theater. It’s amazing to me, because just like in the theater there’s always something in every episode that you can’t figure out why it isn’t working, and then you do it front of the audience, and you’re like, “Oh, because they weren’t here!” [Laughs.] You try not to think about them while you’re working, because you don’t know what they’re going to do. But these scripts are meant to be performed in front of an audience. And I love that part.
AVC: Do you watch a lot of TV on your own time?
JP: Um, I’m up and down. I’ve always loved TV very much, and as a child I was so religious with it, but now it’s more when it fits in. I used to love—and I don’t get to see it much anymore—Friday Night Lights. I had a lot of time between filming the first pilot and going to series on Big Bang Theory and that was when Friday Night Lights’ first season it came out. When I do get to see it now, there’s still such a wonderful quality that goes into the work: the actors, the writing, and the whole way it looks. It’s just a beautiful show.
AVC: And it’s set in Texas, where you’re from.
JP: I am from Texas. But please tell people, it’s not a football show! I think that there’s such confusion about that. Football lies there underneath the whole thing but it’s just a damn good slice-of-life drama.
I’m also a big American Idol fan. I think it’s just great fun.
AVC: Who are you pulling for?
JP: Definitely Adam. It was interesting to find out how much theater he’d done. Because the first time I saw him, I thought, “This is gonna make me uncomfortable. Don’t push the envelope too far, you’re gonna make me, you know…” [Laughs.] And then he’d just settle in and give such a solid performance. And so satisfying, because it’s surprising. He’s pushed to the edge a lot of times. One of the judges asked him a few weeks ago about something he’d done and his answer was “I just rehearsed it rehearsed it rehearsed it.” And I thought, “Well, that’s it.” He doesn’t leave a bunch of stuff to chance. He’s really talented, and he really works his ass off. That’s the draw for me of him. I feel like that’s the essence of good acting. He works his butt off, and yet makes it seem like he’s doing it fresh for the first time, when you see it out there.
AVC: He’s got a great voice, but he’s maybe a bit too theatrical.
JP: Definitely. That exact thing that may be his undoing in the end is what’s drawing me to him.
AVC: Anything else you watch religiously?
JP: I’m a big news junkie. And one of my favorite quirky, can’t-be-that-big-an-audience-but- it’s-been-on-the-air-forever is The McLaughlin Group. Oh my God, change the set! I don’t know when the show was first on the air, but nothing’s changed, obviously. And I wouldn’t want them to change it, actually; I love it. Crotchety fighting, and 30 minutes of just yelling about politics.
AVC: Knowing that you’re locked in for the next couple of years, have you been able to think much about your career beyond Big Bang Theory—or even what you want to do on the hiatus, that sort of thing?
JP: I’ve thought about hiatus work. It’s been hard to get mentally specific about it, because you get so wrapped up in the show that it’s hard to go, “What I really want to do is blah blah blah.” I don’t find that I have the mental room for that. All I know at this point is that I would love to do something different, just to, you know, exercise a different acting muscle. Or even just for the résumé. My manager and my agent discuss it with me all the time.
As far as the future goes, you know, I don’t know. I guess my future hinges much more for me on the job I have right now. The most I can do is just do this job and this character the best and the strongest I know how. It’s certainly seen by more people than any theater I’ve ever done. But it’s the same story for me in a lot of ways, what I’m doing right now. You just pour yourself into it, and it’ll lead to something else. Whenever this road ends, or even during this trip as we’re going down it, I will do other things.