Q&A: From Philosophy to The Big Bang

Many scientists who watch The Big Bang Theory identify with its talented, geeky, and socially awkward characters: Sheldon, Leonard, Howard, Raj, Amy, and Bernadette. They also likely wonder how the CBS sitcom manages to get it so right. After his appearance at the AAAS meeting in Boston last month, Big Bang Theory co-executive producer Eric Kaplan sat down with Science Careers to discuss the show, his job, and his path into comedy writing.

Kaplan is now doing a Ph.D. at the University of California (UC), Berkeley, in the philosophy of mind, a branch of philosophy that explores the nature of the mind, consciousness, and mental functions in relation to the body and that considers whether insights from the natural sciences will eventually prove sufficient to explain mental states and properties.

It’s OK to be so passionately interested in something that you don’t put time into dressing the way other people do, for example.

This Q&A was edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: What is your university background?

E.K.: I went to Harvard where I majored in comparative religion. I did my dissertation on the concept of truth in Nietzsche and Madhyamaka Buddhist philosophy. I went to Thailand after college and studied Buddhism. I was a Buddhist monk for a while. And then I came back and I thought I was going to go into comedy writing with a friend of mine, but he became very self-conscious and so I went to grad school.

I had been interested in philosophy since I was a pretty young kid so I liked this, and I was doing analytic philosophy and phenomenology. And at a certain point, I went down to visit a friend in San Diego and a mutual friend of ours, Dan Greaney, was there, who’s a writer for The Simpsons. I said, “Do you think I have what it takes? Can I become a comedy writer?” And he said, “I think you could.”

I had completed all my coursework and my oral exams, so I thought, “Why don’t I take a year and see if I can make it as a writer?” I had done writing but I just never had the guts to take a run at it professionally. So I got my writing samples together and I ended up getting a job with David Letterman in New York. So that was my first TV job and then a job led to a job and ultimately I have been at The Big Bang Theory for my fifth year.

Q: And so right now you’re also a Ph.D. student at UC Berkeley?

E.K.: Yeah, I am working on a Ph.D. on Merleau-Ponty externalism and self-knowledge, though not very rigorously because I’ve got a lot of other things to do. There is a kind of a puzzle in the philosophy of mind, which goes like this: People have made a pretty strong case for a view called externalism, that it’s the things that are external to your head that determine the content of your thoughts. And then there is another belief, which goes back at least to Descartes, that says, the one thing that I can know for certain is the contents of my own mind. It is possible that the external world doesn’t exist, but I know what I think. These two ideas don’t agree with one another.

So, I’m going to argue that I get to understand the world and myself at the same time so that, for example, I don’t know if I’m courageous or not until I see how I behave in conditions of danger. And I don’t have a fully clear understanding of myself because the language that I use has a history that I don’t know and a future that I don’t know. So it’s not true that I have a perfectly clear grip on myself and now I have to figure out what’s happening in the world. Rather, I have certain skills for coping with the world and myself, and as I master them I’m able to understand who I am and the world.

Q: How did the idea forcome about?

E.K.: There were two writers who were friends named Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady. Bill wanted to develop a show about his experiences as a computer programmer, and he and Chuck worked on it together through Warner Bros. and CBS, and they decided that it would be better to make the characters scientists rather than software developers. The reason, they say, is that people could write equations on boards rather than see characters hunched over their screens, but I think they also thought that science is just intrinsically more interesting, and it catches your imagination more than computer programming.

I think, in certain respects, the character of Sheldon is a self-portrait by Bill Prady, particularly in the sense of lecturing people about stuff they’re not interested in. That is a signature move of Bill and is something that he put into the character.

Q: So what is your role at ?

E.K.: I’m a writer and a producer. I’m not in charge, but I contribute to a group effort of deciding what the stories will be and writing them, and then overseeing the production during that week, giving notes to the actors, helping to figure out where the sets will be, figuring out how to cast, that kind of thing.

Q: How do you find ideas for the show and make sure that the science is correct?

E.K.: Well, first of all, we have a consultant who is a professor from UCLA [UC Los Angeles] named David Saltzberg, so we run everything by him. We also read the paper and look at the Internet. So when the Higgs boson was discovered, I was like, what is the Higgs boson? So I looked around on Wikipedia, and it turns out that the Higgs boson was hypothesized by a team of six physicists, one of whom was Higgs. So how did Higgs get his name on it? That started a story about Sheldon’s vanity and his wish to win a Nobel Prize, and then, since Higgs was going to win a Nobel Prize for work that he had done 20 years ago, Sheldon wanted to look at work that he’d done 20 years ago when he was 5, and so then he wanted to go to his boxes of stuff that he wrote when he was a little kid.

Q: Isintended as a message to scientists that they should change the way they behave, like being a bit more social, for example?

E.K.: No, we don’t want people to behave differently than they do. I feel that there’s a message to everybody else, that they should be more tolerant of weirdoes. I personally believe that people put too much time in worrying about what other people will think. First of all, people care much less than you think they will. And, secondly, it could just well be that actually people might be like, “Hey, it’s pretty cool that you’re a weirdo. I like that. Maybe I’ll be a weirdo, too.” So my message is that it’s OK to be strange, and it’s OK to be so passionately interested in something that you don’t put time into dressing the way other people do, for example.

Q: So the show rather aims to celebrate the work that scientists do?

E.K.: Absolutely.

Q: Do you think that the series is also helping the public understand what science is about?

E.K.: I think so. I’ve heard that adolescents see the characters in the show and that it makes some more interested in science. They feel like, “Oh, this is an activity that’s done by human beings like me, and those guys on TV seem like they’re having fun doing it.”

Q: What advice would you have for anyone wishing to make the transition to comedy writing?

E.K.: It’s important to write and to get a job writing as quickly as you can. Even if you can’t get a job for a television show, for example, you can get a job writing for the Web. Even if it doesn’t pay that well, at least you have the experience of writing as your job: responding to criticism, imagining the audience, hitting deadlines, and so forth.

Q: How do you enter the sitcom industry?

E.K.: Unlike academia, there is no set path. Sylvester Stallone became a movie star by writing a script and saying, “The only way you can make this script is if I can be in it—Rocky.” The Onion was a comedy magazine in Madison, Wisconsin, and a lot of people became comedy writers from working on that because this magazine was really funny and it started to get noticed and then they went out to Hollywood. But it’s very unpredictable. It’s kind of like, figure out if you have a friend of a friend of a friend who has anything like the kind of job you want to get and get that person’s time, and see if they’ll give you some ideas or if they’re willing to read your work and give feedback on it.

Q: Was there any time when you felt like you were not going anywhere and wanted to give up?

Q: What skills are you using in your job that you think scientists also get from their training?

E.K.: There is an aspect of science, which is a curiosity about life and an openness to different ways of approaching life and a passion and commitment to engaging with life. And I think that all applies to writing. Well, the thing about what makes writing a little different from regular science is that you have to get better and better at responding to unique situations, but you don’t have a set of laws that you can follow. Now, I think truly creative scientists are sort of in the same boat, but there is an aspect of science where, you know, people have isolated this enzyme and now I want to isolate another enzyme and I’m going to do the same thing basically.

Q: What do you enjoy most in your job?

E.K.: I enjoy being funny, actually, and I enjoy seeing an emotional connection with the audience.    

Q: What do you find most challenging in working on the show?

E.K.: I find it’s challenging to be truthful to human behavior, because it has to be entertaining, it has to be funny, it has to be short, it has to be paced up. There’s a lot of things that have to happen and they are all pushing in the direction of fake, and you have to push back. I want people to watch it and to feel that it’s not phony.

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