The Big Bang Theory isn’t cool. The popular CBS sitcom, now entering its third season, follows a group of four eccentric scientists, two of them roommates. Instead of 30 Rock’s postmodern irony, you get gags about comic books and video games. There’s an actual laugh track, with big guffaws following lines like “Oh, snap!” It’s a dorky show about dorky people, but almost inexplicably, it works. Which is entirely to do with Jim Parsons, who plays socially awkward physicist Sheldon. For Parsons, the role was love at first sight. “I really felt I knew what they were doing with this rhythm, with this use of the scientific language,” says the actor. In particular, he was down with the show’s central conceit: that a nerd like Sheldon—who disdains social graces, has a near-autistic focus, and prefers Battlestar Galactica to women—is a viable leading man. A leading man, as played by Parsons, who can make a convoluted riff on space-shuttle toilets, the double meaning of the verb to go, and Star Trek laugh-out-loud funny.
Parsons is 36 but could pass for 25. “My publicist always tells me to mention how old I am, which is so awkward,” he says. “It’s not like I’m 67.” He was living in New York, an unknown subsisting on small TV parts and commercials, when he landed The Big Bang Theory. “Our first season, the talk was that the multi-camera sitcom was dead,” says Parsons of the traditional setup with a live audience, rather than the current trend favoring a single camera and no audience. “But to me, the live aspect is rooted in theater; it’s too ingrained in our DNA to ever fully go away.”
The Big Bang Theory is produced by Chuck Lorre, the creator of Two and a Half Men, another unfashionable yet popular multi-camera sitcom. (“Though our show has a very different sense of humor,” says Parsons.) Lorre wasn’t surprised when Parsons was nominated alongside Steve Carell and Alec Baldwin for an Emmy for his work last season; “Jim embodies the role—you can’t teach that. The way he walks, the way he sits, the way he holds his kitchen utensils. He even listens as Sheldon. He was so startlingly good when he read for the part that I asked him back to make sure he hadn’t gotten lucky.” Parsons remembers his audition slightly differently. “When my agent called and told me I was reading for the new Chuck Lorre sitcom, I didn’t know who that was. I thought it was Chuck Woolery, who hosted Love Connection. I thought, It’s weird he’s writing a show, but I’ll go in! Thankfully, it was not Love Connection, Part II.”