In this series, Running the Show, The Times speaks with showrunners of your favorite TV programs about breaking into Hollywood, being the boss and more challenges of the job.
The running theme for the cast and crew on the set of the final season of “The Big Bang Theory” is the idea that it’s the senior year of a 12-year sitcom school —which explains why the actors, writers and production team posted yearbook photos around the show’s soundstage on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank.
Charged with leading the class to its graduation is Steve Holland, showrunner of the CBS comedy. The longest-running multi-camera sitcom will air a special hourlong series finale May 16.
A few weeks before the goodbye, sitting in his orange-hued Warner Bros. office, Holland is calm, not at all the ball of nerves you might expect for someone attempting to bring one of television’s most successful shows to a satisfying end.
“Everyone is trying to enjoy this as much as they possibly can,” he says. “I think we’re all incredibly aware of what a special thing this is.”
Holland joined the writing staff of “The Big Bang Theory” at the beginning of its third season, working his way up to executive producer in Season 9 and then showrunner by Season 11 in 2017 when Steven Molaro stepped down to head the show’s spin-off, “Young Sheldon.” Before his time on “The Big Bang Theory,” Holland wrote for Nickelodeon hallmarks including “All That,” “Kenan & Kel” and “iCarly,” as well as other broadcast sitcoms such as “Less than Perfect” and “Rules of Engagement.”
He worked closely with Molaro and Chuck Lorre, the show’s co-creator (with Bill Prady), to craft the show’s send-off and on this mid-April day is in the throes of writing the finale. “The last scene we’ve known for a while — actually, the last two scenes,” he says, “But there was a lot of talk about what the first scene should be.”
Taking a break from the looming deadline, Holland talks about ending the show that’s been such a bang for CBS, how his work on Nickelodeon was a good training ground, and how writing for comedy today has evolved.
On how Nickelodeon prepared him for prime time on broadcast
I worked on and off at Nickelodeon for probably 10 years, and with all those shows, you had a lot of freedom to write what you wanted. But also, these staffs weren't big, or the shows didn't have tons of money — so it felt like a boot camp. You just had to write constantly. There weren't 10 people there who were going to do it. There were three people or four people there, which just meant that you were constantly churning out drafts of things, stories of things, you know?
The goal was was the same. We never thought of it really as writing for kids. I mean, there were things that you obviously couldn't do because it was a kid show, but it was never a thing of writing down [to the audience]. If we thought it was funny and it was appropriate, we would put it in. And I think that's partly what made those shows so successful — it never felt like it was adults talking down to kids. I mean, we were all young too, but it was just us being goofy and silly and trying to make each other laugh.
On joining an already successful TV staff
It’s intimidating, joining anything when a group of people have been together already. Luckily I wasn't alone. There were about three of us that started at the same time. But yeah, you're coming into the show that other people have gotten up and running — this show that sort of has a very science-y, heady bent to it. But you have to sort of push past that and just try to see if you have anything to offer.
I had read Hawking's “Brief History of Time” to prepare. As you can see from the office, I'm a “Star Wars” guy. I'm a comic book guy. I like science, but I'm not a science guy. I'm interested in it, I read about it, but that's not a thing that I'm remotely an expert in. I also read [theoretical physicist] Richard Feynman's books. It was the most homework I've ever done for a show. Just to kind of walk in and have at least a groundwork understanding.
On how writing for comedy is different now
I think the culture always shifts. I don't know if the actual writing process has changed, but in good ways you certainly become aware of things that maybe you didn't even consider 10 years ago.
Comedy is hard, and comedy doesn’t always date super well because the culture moves, and because jokes that are fresh you'll see done over and over again. It's a continually evolving process, sort of, hopefully, like society is always a continually evolving thing. In a good way, that also opens up new stories and new opportunities to tell different kinds of stories because if nothing changed, you would run out. You would just tell the same things over and over again. But as long as people keep changing and shifting and growing, then it opens up new stories to tell.
On the afterlife of a TV show
[“The Big Bang Theory”] is obviously on a much bigger scale, but my first job was on “All That” and “Kenan and Kel.” I still meet people who are excited about that because it was a show that was a part of their life, that they had grown up on, and that they loved. It's really gratifying. When we were making “All That,” none of us were thinking this was a legacy show that people were gonna be talking about 20 years from now. We were all so young and just trying to figure out how to do this thing. With “Big Bang,” certainly, you're aware of it. You're aware of the impact that the show is having. And yeah, you just don't get to be a part of that, that many times in a career. You're lucky to get to be a part of it once. I hope it's like an old friend that people are sad to see go, but that they'll bump into in reruns, and they'll be like, "Oh, yeah, this was great." And get to hang out and relive old times.
On whether binge-watching has changed TV storytelling
It doesn't really change the way we tell stories here. I love binge-watching things, but I do think part of the reason this show means a lot to a lot of people is that they've spent 12 years with it. They've spent this amount of time, and I don't know that you get that same level of involvement when you watch a season in two days and then move on. It's just a different experience. I'm not saying it's better/worse because I do that as well. I guess it's like an early relationship. Sometimes you have these relationships that are fun and passionate, intense and short-lived. And sometimes you have these. I don't know that those [shows] that you watch over four days, and then wait a year and watch it over four days are ever going to get into your DNA the way a show that you've lived with...I think there’s obviously room for both of those things, but I don't know if they're the same.
Is it a good time to be a TV writer?
It makes me feel desperately behind on all my TV viewing because there's so much out there. It makes me feel excited about the future in a way that you can tell any kind of story. There are so many different venues and outlets that you don't have to just have a show that hits this many people if you wanted. If you had something specific and weirder and quirky, and you're like, "Well, this is only going to be for a couple of people," there's probably a place where you can do that now. I don't think that was true 10 years ago.
On memorable finales
The “Friends” finale is a big one that I remember. I'm a big “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” fan — that's a great finale. Finales are hard; endings are hard. Especially ending something after 12 years when people have so many unsure specific ideas of what they would like to see. You can't just give everybody exactly what they want to see, but we've talked a lot about finales, especially going into this year — good finales, and bad finales, and why some of them work and some of them don't.
I mean I remember watching the “MASH” finale as a kid, and I don't even think that I was that big of a “MASH.” fan. I was fairly young, but it was such a big deal. It was a huge event, way more than anything we'll ever get again. I remember specific parts of it. Not to stress myself out more, but we're aware that this is a big thing, and we're aware that people have lots of expectations.