"You're 'The Big Bang Theory?' You do realize you're in the wrong part of the building?"
That's Griffith Observatory director E.C. Krupp, taking a stab at a little science humor as he escorts the cast of the CBS comedy juggernaut from the depths of the observatory's Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon theater up to the building's balcony. As puns go, it's inoffensive and the actors laugh good-naturedly, even if they've probably heard a variation of this joke — and a thousand other geek/comic book/science wisecracks — innumerable times over the years.
Krupp's quip is emblematic of the affection people feel toward "The Big Bang Theory," which, in its sixth season, continues to grow an audience as it explores the relationship dynamics between its socially awkward scientists — both among themselves and the equally smart and awkward women in their lives. The show doesn't lend itself to the kind of intense deconstruction of, say, Lena Dunham's "Girls," but this season its makers have demonstrated an increased willingness to deepen its characters within the boundaries of the traditional sitcom format.
The seven members of the ensemble — Jim Parsons (egotistical, empathy-challenged Sheldon), Johnny Galecki (Leonard, Sheldon's roommate and straight man), Kaley Cuoco (Penny, Leonard's level-headed, commitment-shy girlfriend), Simon Helberg (mama's boy Howard), Kunal Nayyar (Raj, forever frozen in fear by women), Melissa Rauch (Howard's microbiologist wife, Bernadette) and Mayim Bialik (Sheldon's prickly girlfriend) — along with showrunner Steven Molaro and primary director Mark Cendrowski, sat down recently for a lengthy conversation about the show, its direction and its mushrooming popularity.
Six seasons in, you hit the 20 million viewer mark for the first time. So, the obvious question: What took so long?
Helberg: I don't know. We've been out there handing out those fliers for years. I guess now it's on in syndication so much that you can't avoid seeing it.
And you've tried?
Helberg: Anything I'm on, I search out and watch. (Laughs) I have the DVR set and then just fast-forward through everyone else's scenes.
Parsons: I normally change the channel if I see it but, recently, I watched it until the end and it was really fun. It was long enough ago that things had changed. (Turning to Bialik) It was the one where you wanted sex ...
Bialik: The one?
Parsons: No, we were really going to give it to you that episode. So I call, looking for Penny's ex-lover, Zack, and I ask: "Are you the Zack that used to have coitus with Penny?" And he answers, "Coitus?" And I reply, "It means sexual intercourse. And I have the feeling I found the right Zack."
Galecki: You know, we've always been a word-of-mouth show. Early on, it was friends telling friends, "This might not sound like something you'd be into, but you should give it a shot."
Cuoco: And now it's on airplanes. You're forced to watch.
Helberg: Unless you jump out of the plane.
Cendrowski: People on the plane might be reading a book and they hear laughter and look up and there on 14 screens is "The Big Bang Theory." So they check it out.
Has that changed your ...
Parsons: Travel plans? Absolutely.
I was going to say "lives" ...
Cuoco: When you're in people's homes 10 times a day, they get comfortable around you ...
Galecki: And then when you're on TV too ...
Cuoco: Shazam! (Laughs) Have you been planning that line the whole time?
Helberg: The other thing with the syndication is we're on at dinner time, and I think that's a big thing. People tell me about going home, cooking dinner and watching the show. Kids, families ... everybody sits around the dinner table ...
What happened to family conversation at dinner time?
Parsons: It's us!
Nayyar: At least the kids are learning something about science.
So science scores have gone up in schools the past six years?
Cendrowski: You know, they have in a weird way. I've gone back to the University of Michigan and taught some classes and the physics department has seen a spike. Admissions have gone up about 150%.
Cuoco: They're the bad-asses now!
Cendrowski: What happens though when they find out they don't get a girlfriend that looks like Penny?
Cuoco: I think they'll be just fine. I always go back to the story when Jennifer Aniston was on "Friends" and with Brad Pitt and they were out together. No one could look Brad in the eye but they were all over her, touching her, calling her Rachel like they knew her. People get really comfy with you when you're on TV.
Nayyar: Our characters aren't exactly scary.
Galecki: They all have this sweet vulnerability, so, in turn, people are really sweet to us when they approach us. It's almost like they want to take us home.
Parsons: It's true. People are very nice to us.
Helberg: Sometimes they are a little handsy, though.
And when you say "handsy" ...
Helberg: I mean full penetration. (Laughs)
Cuoco: We never said there weren't any perks.
Helberg: No, just a lot of cheek pinching and back slaps.
They've had 135 episodes to get to know you. And the series has started exploring the characters in ways that go a little deeper than when it began. Was that a goal, Steve, heading into the season?
Molaro: On the writing side, we didn't go into Season 6 with the grand plan of digging in and stretching the characters. We went episode by episode with just what felt right. If you look at the season's first few episodes, it looks like Leonard and Penny are going to split. But the playful love kept growing between them ... and who wants to stop that?
Certainly not before the moment this season when Penny finally tells Leonard she loves him.
Molaro: I have a personal connection to Leonard and Penny, so when Leonard was going to get that "I love you," I was very invested in giving you guys the words that would get it right. He deserved that.
Galecki: Yes he did. (Laughs)
Cuoco: We did that scene in one take. It felt real and we didn't need to do it again.
Galecki: And I like that Leonard is less fueled by insecurity in his relationship with Penny.
Cuoco: Penny's now more insecure than he is sometimes.
Other women are hitting on him!
Galecki: There have been those relatively mature moments between them this year. The Valentine's episode where Leonard promises he would not propose anymore.
Cuoco: And her response: "Are you breaking up with me?" I have said that so many times before.
They're secure enough that, on the season finale, Leonard can take a gig overseas.
Galecki: And it's Penny who says, "You have to do this." That's love. That selflessness to say, "Forget my own desires. How can I make you the happiest?"
And then on the other side of the emotional spectrum, we saw Sheldon and Amy progress in their relationship too, even if it came through the magic of Dungeons & Dragons.
Parsons: Well, he's engaging with Amy at a sexual level but only through a medium he understands and is comfortable with. The only thing he's literally putting up for risk is what the roll of the dice says.
Bialik: It's the most explicit we've ever been. The fun thing about our characters is that they're both missing the filter for social propriety. It's sweet.
Parsons: It's funny for two characters who have such an odd way of talking to the rest of the world, they actually communicate a tremendous amount in their relationship. Especially this season, there are so many episodes where we are working things out and actually get to a resolution.
Helberg: Because there's no filter.
Bialik: That's right. (To Parsons) I pretend to be sick. You spank me.
Parsons: It's healthy in its own twisted way. We have a contract for god's sake! We know where we're coming from.
Bialik: Of these relationships, this is really "meet someone where they're at." Amy meets Sheldon exactly where he's at.
There are those who think she could do better.
Bialik: She thinks the sun rises and sets on this brilliant man.
Parsons: And she's right.
Helberg: They do share their love for Sheldon.
Raj's love life has been the subject of a fair amount of speculation among fans, particularly after this year's premiere episode where Raj and Stuart ended a night in the comic book shop with Stuart musing, "I could do worse."
Nayyar: Well, Howard was sort of Raj's crutch and after he got married ...
Parsons: I heard it too. Keep going ...
Nayyar: He's lonely and he's trying to fill that void. Everyone's married and he's looking for anyone. Stuart's also lonely and they find each other.
Helberg: And they fill each other's holes.
Nayyar: If by holes, you mean "emotional voids," then yes. Raj is just very in touch with his feminine side.
Meanwhile, Howard's always been very close to one particular female — his mother. That relationship has been largely played for laughs. But it had an emotional payoff this season as well, particularly in the episode when Sheldon found a letter from Howard's father, who had abandoned him and his mother.
Rauch: It was a nice way to show Bernadette discovering this side of Howard that she didn't know. She knew he was close to his mother but she didn't know the reason why. It's such a nice example of what marriage is, that process of always learning about each other.
Howard didn't want to read what his father wrote, so the friends come up with a solution: Everyone reads a version of the letter's contents to Howard. In the end, he wants to believe all of them. It was a beautiful moment.
Helberg: It's a fine line to go into that kind of emotional depth on a sitcom. There's always the danger of going too far to the other side and becoming a "very special episode."
Parsons: And if it becomes too sentimental, it wouldn't have been funny.
But that's Sheldon's job, right?
Parsons: To keep it unsentimental? That's one of my talents. Sucking the sentiment out of a room.
TIMELINE: Emmy winners through the years
PHOTOS: 2012 winners list
Emmys 2013 Round Tables