In one sense, as I take up my station in a quiet corner of Stage 25 on the Warner Bros Studios lot in Los Angeles, what is about to unfold is a typical TV sitcom “taping”.
There is an energetic studio audience and a talkative warm-up guy. And there is a level of energy sustained with great deliberacy: to keep the audience laughing, and applauding, at all the right moments.
But as the audience sit in their seats, and the warm-up guy regales them with a potted history of the show and the stage on which it is filmed, the show’s star Johnny Galecki has emerged at the side of the stage.
The 44-year-old former star of Roseanne and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is standing in the shadows, staring intently out at the crowd.
Only the most eagled-eyed in the audience could make him out in the darkness, as he takes one last mental snapshot for the sake of his memory. It seems to be a deeply personal moment.
Just a few minutes later, during the filming of a scene, Galecki’s voice breaks, and the scene has to be reset. The emotional toll is beginning to take.
The Big Bang Theory may be the funniest show on network television, but tonight the air is heavy with melancholy.
It has been a long road for the series, which began life as a pilot filmed in 2007 about two scientists, Leonard Hofstader and Sheldon Cooper, played by Galecki and Jim Parsons, a tough-as-nails roommate named Katie and a scientist colleague named Gilda.
For the show’s second pilot, Katie became Penny, played by Kaley Cuoco, and Gilda was dropped entirely, in favour of two male colleagues, aerospace engineer Howard Wolowitz (Simon Helberg) and particle astrophyicist Rajesh Koothrappali (Kunal Nayyar).
That pilot was picked up and, as they say, the rest is history.
Galecki says the success of the show – and the chemistry of its co-stars – was the stuff spun from television magic.
“There was just a synergy there,” he says. “Whatever that elusive chemistry you create, it was, it was just there.”
“I took a little walk by myself around the soundstage after we wrapped and kind of said goodbye to Leonard, as odd and crazy as that sounds,” Galecki says.
Galecki’s co-star Kunal Nayyar, who plays Koothrappali, concurs, adding that the toughest part of saying goodbye to the series after 12 seasons is losing the continued companionship of the cast and crew.
“Our family on our stage is not just seven actors, it’s 200 people,” Nayyar says. “I am going to miss that because it was a safe place, I could be myself completely.
“I am sad obviously to say goodbye to the show, but I am also excited to share the final episodes with the audience because the writers have done an incredible job handling this with care.”
Getting final episodes right is tough. (Just ask David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, the creator/showrunners of Game of Thrones.)
Big Bang‘s co-producer Steve Holland says the key creative team on the show – Holland, creators Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady and director Mark Cendrowski – took a very specific approach to the end of the series.
Rather than give the narrative a definitive underline – such as the trial which ended Seinfeld, the was-it-all-a-dream moment of Newhart or the sacking of Mary Tyler Moore in the final Mary Tyler Moore Show – the producers chose to let the lives of Leonard, Sheldon, Howard, Raj and Penny, and later additions Amy (Mayim Bialik) and Bernadette (Melissa Rauch) simply roll on.
“We talked about a lot of things and this is just what felt right to us,” Holland says.
“We are aware that there were people, fans of the show, who had things they expected to see and we tried to put that out of our minds at a certain point and just write the finale that we felt was right,” he says.
“I think some of our wish-list and fans’ wish-list hopefully lined up but at the end of the day, when we were talking about it, what really felt right was to not put a period [full stop] at the end of the sentence,” Holland adds.
“These people were still going to live their lives and we had what felt like a big emotional climax,” he says. “It felt good to us that the next day, even though you’re not going to see it, these characters were going to get up and go to work together and their lives were still going on.
“That felt really comforting to us because it was hard to say goodbye,” Holland says. “So knowing that they’re still out there in the world and they’re still friends felt really right and good for us.”
But on Stage 25 the end, as it is unfolding, is still bittersweet.
The show’s creator Chuck Lorre has stepped into the middle of the set, holding the clapperboard for what will be the final scene filmed on the studio floor.
The applause gives way to a standing ovation and for a moment, production slows to a stop.
The moment is genuinely touching; Lorre created the series more than a decade ago, launched into the impossible vacuum created by the departure of Friends, Frasier and Everybody Loves Raymond in the preceding years.
In the 12 years since The Big Bang Theory has become a television juggernaut, commanding large ratings margins and positive notices in almost every territory where it airs and, in Australia, has been a piece of programming bedrock for the Nine Network.
“This is a dream come true for all of us,” actress Kaley Cuoco says to the audience as filming wraps, fighting back tears.
“The Big Bang Theory will live on in our hearts forever,” Cuoco adds. “It’s so sweet and simple, and it’s so true. Everyone here is part of making Big Bang special, the entire crew. We love all of them.”
Bialik, who plays Sheldon’s girlfriend Amy, described it as “an overwhelming day to say the least.”
It had, she said, “all of the feelings: gratitude, sadness, joy, excitement, grief. It’s the end of a huge part of our lives and the beginning of who knows what.
“I get to play dress up for a living and I am so honoured to be a part of this cast, this crew, this staff, and this wonderful show about how these brilliant characters live, think, and love.”
The final episode of The Big Bang Theory airs on Nine in July.
Michael Idato is entertainment editor-at-large of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.