In today's television landscape, it's not always easy to compete with dangerous meth chefs, adulterous advertising executives, medieval warring factions or an aristocratic British dynasty. However, over on veteran network CBS, a little band of Caltech science geeks (and the ladies who love them) has been giving the aforementioned cable serial dramas a run for their money. After six stellar seasons, The Big Bang Theory continues to win over audiences young and old, regardless of their ability to differentiate Star Wars from Star Trek.
A few days before he headed to New York for the upfronts, Simon Helberg – who plays the bowl-haircut-sporting, tight-pants-wearing engineer and mama's boy Howard Wolowitz – checked in with Rolling Stone from L.A. to discuss the sitcom's comedic "gold mine" and to tease what's ahead for Leonard, Sheldon, Raj, Howard, Penny, Amy and Bernadette on tonight's season finale.
Howard's had a pretty incredible season on The Big Bang Theory. He went into space, started a life with new wife Bernadette and he came to terms with his father's abandonment. What's next? How can you top that?
[Laughs] It's a tough thing to top! Yeah, exactly, you end last season with a wedding and a trip to space, and I think we actually managed to top it this season. The first few episodes where I'm floating around up [in space], I mean, it's pretty groundbreaking for a sitcom, particularly to do it in a way that is organic to these characters. What I think is so brilliant about the writers is the way they've paced it out, and the way they've let things naturally occur. Who would've thought that – at least in the first couple of seasons – that this amateur, failed lothario would be the first guy to get married, and that there would actually be a girl that could tolerate him other than his mother and make him a better person. So it's very cool to see that and to have it be believable and not to have it change the dynamic to such a degree where it becomes a different show, where it's actually expanded the possibilities.
The Big Bang Theory has been renewed for a seventh season, so what are your hopes going into it?
Well, in terms of my character, they've opened up some doors with his estranged father, and I think it would be interesting to see how that manifests itself again, maybe whether we get to meet the father, or whether there's more information that we learn about him and how Howard deals with that. And Howard and Bernadette are still newlyweds, so there's a whole world of possibilities for what can go wrong in a marriage and what can go right. Also, the other characters are really starting to have an unbelievable amount of new layers, whether it's Sheldon and Amy [when they played an erotic yet tender version of Dungeons and Dragons on last week's episode] – I thought was one of the best scenes in our show. I loved that; I think it was so clever and real and true, and then Penny and Leonard are also finally, actually at a nice point – although things in the finale get turned on their head slightly. Raj is really taking big steps with Lucy, so the show feels fully formed to me now. It feels like we have this gold mine here, and we're just in it and enjoying it.
You've had some pretty incredible guest stars over the years: Stephen Hawking, Bob Newhart most recently. Anyone in particular you'd still like to get on the show?
I love when they bring in the iconic science guys or science-fiction guys, but I also love when they just bring on great actors, like when we have Christine Baranski [Leonard's mom] or Laurie Metcalf [Sheldon's mom]. We've been so lucky this season – and all the seasons. I mean, I think there can be fun with someone from Star Wars. I've actually talked to Mark Hamill about it – I know he watches the show – so whether he came on as himself or played a character, I think there could be something there. We haven't tapped all the iconic science-fiction characters yet.
You didn't have any scenes with Bob Newhart, but did you get a chance to chat with him while he was on set?
I did get to watch him rehearse and work and that was really cool. He has such a unique sensibility and delivery, and he's still as sharp as ever, but it's incredible because it's his sharpness and his ability to drive a scene; it's so understated, and it's just a very different kind of rhythm than what is on our show and from what you see these days, but it worked like gangbusters.
Nice. In last week's episode, you killed it in the Dungeons and Dragons scene with your impressions of Al Pacino, Christopher Walken, Nicolas Cage and even Kunal Nayyar (Raj). Your talent with impersonations had already been well-established on talk shows and other outlets, so whose idea was it to write this into an episode? Was it you? The writers? A collaboration between the two?
It was not me. I think they all knew that I did that, whether it was from Studio 60 or talk shows. I never pushed for it; I'm a little more reserved about it, but I actually think, and I could be wrong, that Steve Molaro, who's been running the show this season, told me that Chuck [Lorre, Big Bang co-creator] suggested it. I guess I thought he would've shied away from that, because when I first looked at it, I did have a concern of like, "OK is this going to read too much like, ‘Hey, this guy can juggle flames! So let's write it into this episode!'" But that was just my own insecurity, because I think that it worked pretty incredibly. I watched the episode and I laughed so hard at what Jim [Parsons, who plays Sheldon] was doing while I did that stuff. In seeing it on TV, to watch Sheldon get giddy is a lovely treat. And Howard is always doing voices or he knows all the languages, so I think it's totally within the realm of believability.
I agree, and even though it still worked for the scene, it did seem to me that Johnny [Galecki, who plays Leonard] and Jim were breaking character with their laughter.
[Laughs] Yeah, yeah, we laughed a lot during that episode, and we don't tend to laugh much. In fact, when we had our wrap party – they always show a gag reel – like, 40 percent of it was from that episode, because it got so silly with the six of us in that room and the voices and just the logistics of rolling the dice. It was really fun, and we don't tend to break much, but there were a few things that we just couldn't get past – but it came out really well.
Have you ever met Pacino, Cage or Walken?
I wish. Actually, when I was young, I believe I met Nicolas Cage. I think I was probably eight, and I remember seeing him at somebody's house – it was an event and he happened to be there. People would ask me if I was his son, because I looked like him at that point, so I do remember feeling some connection and just wanting to say, like, "Papa!" But yeah, since I've gotten to do all these things now, I sort of fear the moment that I see them and they'll be like, "Yooouuuu son of a bitch!" But it's all truly from a place of love and awe, because I wouldn't spend that much time [starts to laugh] watching their stuff and trying to perfect their voices and mannerisms if I didn't think they were all some of the great, genius actors of our time.
When Jim Parsons came to the Rolling Stone offices a couple of years ago, he said that when he first got the Big Bang gig, he got a book of physics and tried to study up on it but failed miserably. Did you buy Engineering for Dummies when you got hired?
[Laughs] Yeah, I had a couple of books already – I had a Richard Feynman book that was one of his more tangible, readable versions of his stuff and I had some compilations of essays by Einstein. I generally don't feel the need to do more research than is necessary to play the part for me, to inform me. I'm interested in character and people and motivations and things like that. It's not going to inform me to completely understand Einstein's theory of relativity. If I have a speech about it, then I'll learn what I need to learn to make that make sense. But I'm sure all four guys in the cast have probably the same three books sitting on our bookshelves, with the spine perfectly intact because it's never been opened.
Can you spill on tonight's season finale?
There is another adventure that presents itself that's going to take one of the guys away for some time – there's an expedition on the North Sea that Stephen Hawking's crew is organizing, and there's an opening, so one of the guys decides to take it, and it is obviously going to have a ripple effect throughout all the relationships on the show. Then people get jealous, people get afraid, or nervous. There's a going-away party, and without saying anything that's giving away too much, there's definitely some groundbreaking events that nobody has ever seen on The Big Bang Theory that will occur in this finale. It's an exciting one.