The Emmy-nominated actor reflects on his role in the hit sitcom, The Big Bang Theory.
Actor Johnny Galecki
Tavis: It is impossible to overstate the success of “The Big Bang Theory,” with its completed just now sixth season. The CBS sitcom regularly draws about 20 million viewers each week, a rare feat in today’s multichannel broadcast universe. Anchoring the series is Johnny Galecki.
Johnny Galecki: Hello, sir.
Tavis: I like saying that – Johnny Galecki.
Galecki: I like how you say it.
Tavis: Johnny Galecki.
Galecki: Music to my ears. (Laughter)
Tavis: Who plays a brilliant but nevertheless sensible physicist, providing an excellent foil to Jim Parsons’ brilliant but clueless Sheldon Cooper. Later this year, Johnny Galecki (laughter) will be seen in the independent film “CBGB.” Say that fast three times. Let’s take a look at a scene, though, from “The Big Bang Theory.”
[Clip from “The Big Bang Theory”]
Tavis: You walked in; I almost didn’t recognize you with the beard.
Galecki: Oh, yes.
Tavis: Is this your summer look?
Galecki: Summer break, yeah, absolutely. (Laughter) Pure laziness.
Tavis: Do you look forward to these breaks, or are you one of those persons who just loves to work –
Galecki: I do, I love to work, I absolutely love to work. No, so I don’t really look forward to the break. Every once in a while we have week-long hiatuses to kind of let the writers catch up and do some writing, and I don’t even like those. No, I’m happiest when I’m working.
Tavis: I’m honored to have you on.
Galecki: Oh, thanks.
Tavis: My staff told me –
Galecki: I’m honored to be on. I’m a long-time fan.
Tavis: I appreciate it, likewise. When my staff told me that we had you booked, I was like, well, it’s about time we finally got Johnny Galecki.
Galecki: Well, that’s nice.
Tavis: Then I turned to Kim, our producer, and I said, literally – don’t be offended by this – I said, “Are they still in first run?” The reason why I asked that question is I see you like five times a day.
Galecki: It’s crazy, isn’t it?
Tavis: It’s on all the time, and I literally had to go back and look again to realize that you guys are still on in first run and in syndication, and both are killing it.
Galecki: It’s a lot. It’s a lot of “Big Bang Theory.”
Tavis: It doesn’t, you’re not feeding on each other. It obviously works.
Galecki: No, it does. I think they do feed each other, benefit each other. It’s put a lot of new – the syndication has put a lot of new eyes on our prime time first runs, yeah.
Tavis: That’s amazing, though. That’s, like, almost unheard of.
Galecki: It’s been a really healthy, relatively slow climb, which is good for all of us on the show. Because I think to come out of the barrel and just be a phenomenon must be pretty jarring.
Tavis: When you say “slow climb,” you’ll have to unpack that and define that, because you’re the most successful thing on TV these days. So when you say slow climb, you mean what?
Galecki: It took five or six years. It wasn’t, say, like “Friends,” that came out of the box and was just this explosion. That was, when I started on “Roseanne,” they were in their third season, the show was number one, and number one, as you said, back then, before we all had 800 channels and Internet, that was 30, 35 million viewers a week.
So three or four lines in my first episode on that show, that changed my life the next day. So I think a slower climb, if for no other reason personally, is much more manageable.
Tavis: That one answer opens up for me two or three lanes I want to follow in. Let me jump right quick.
Tavis: Number one, that’s rare in television these days, to be allowed to have a slow build.
Tavis: You don’t hit the first two or three shows, bing.
Tavis: You’re out the door.
Galecki: I think in our case, well, there was a few different things that happened. First of all, we did a pilot. Jim and I are the only cast members that were in that pilot, and it just wasn’t good. It didn’t work.
CBS called and said, “Why don’t you give it another shot? There’s something here, there’s a chemistry between these two characters that we like, but the rest of it wasn’t really,” and you never hear that.
You hear you’re picked up or the phone just doesn’t ring. You don’t even hear no. They just go away. So that was incredibly wise of them to have that foresight, and they gave us another shot.
We re-cast the rest of the cast, and the whole thing was rewritten and we reshot it, and then ironically, that hundred-day writer’s strike that we had in the first year, I think we were only seven or eight episodes in, that actually helped us.
We might be the only show that that actually benefitted, because the network just didn’t have anything else to put on. They re-ran those seven or eight episode four times in that span of time, and that’s when the numbers really started to pick up.
So I know everyone feels like their show is the little show that could, but I feel like we looked over the edge a couple of times and survived it.
Tavis: When you say that the show, the pilot, that is, wasn’t good, you’re right about the fact this isn’t a story that we often hear, that a show got a chance to build slowly. It just doesn’t happen anymore, so we both agree on that.
But I also rarely hear an actor say to me, “I did a pilot and it wasn’t good.” It seems to me that there’s an honesty with yourself, not that it was all about you, but you were pretty clear that this pilot initially wasn’t very good. You could feel that?
Galecki: I don’t know if I felt it when we were filming it, but I went into Chuck Lorre’s office, and honestly I can only really say that out loud or in a forum like this, that it didn’t work, because Chuck has said it out loud. (Laughter) I don’t know if I would be so open about it.
But I watched it and I just wasn’t sure. I thought well, maybe it’s just not my own personal sensibilities, and that’s something that in my early twenties, I really felt like everything I did had to be of 100 percent my own tastes and sensibilities, and that’s just really elitist. You know when you’re in your idealistic twenties.
I thought, well, maybe this will be one of those things if it does go that I just necessarily won’t get. If other people do, that’s fine. If it makes other people happy, I don’t need to be number one on the list here.
But it was a shared feeling. There were some things that are intangible. You never know with this stuff. If there was a recipe, then every show would have 20 million viewers and every film would make 400 million at the box office the first weekend.
Tavis: Yet it did work for you, and I know your fans are obviously grateful that it worked for you. It’s working for you because you make it work. That’s symbiotic there.
But when you talked about the strike and how that might have benefitted the show, I sense in that a willingness on your part to acknowledge that providence does play a role in success in this town.
Tavis: Or certainly can.
Galecki: It certainly can.
Galecki: I mean –
Tavis: Because you had no control over the writer’s strike.
Galecki: Well, I think a lot – no, and I think a lot of it had to do with the pedigree of the people that are behind the camera too, and the success that Chuck had had with “Two and a Half Men” and then his relationship with the network and the studio.
They knew – Chuck felt like we could have done a better job, and they trusted that. But yeah, you take a look at any of the first few episodes of any great show, like I just re-watched the pilot of “All in the Family,” or any of the – “Seinfeld,” “Cheers,” and boy, they’re just vastly different than come a season or two in.
Nobody’s really sure of the tone, the actors don’t really know what – their characters haven’t settled yet. The writers don’t know what the actors’ strengths are.
Tavis: But the fact that that strike, and by providence, what I meant by that was the fact that that strike was happening at that moment, that it forced the network to play this over and over and over again, that is a goodly fate that just fell in your lap.
Galecki: Well, and on stage, I think it showed all of us – we all love what we do and we get along great and we love working together. But if anybody had one foot out of the water before that strike, we came back with new, fresh, very grateful eyes at that stage and the people that we were working with. It really showed us how valuable this opportunity is.
Tavis: There are folk in this town, and I don’t need to tell you this, who wait for years, some wait a lifetime, for some it never happens, no matter how gifted or talented they may be, how badly they want it, how hard they’ve worked, they just never get that one show that you now have.
In your case, lightning has struck at least a couple of times. You’re now on two – your resume will always say that you were on two iconic shows – “Roseanne” and “The Big Bang Theory.” What do you make of that? Whatever else is to come, they can’t take this from you.
Galecki: (Laughter) That’s true. You know what? I understand how incredibly rare it is. I know a lot of incredibly, profoundly talented, skilled people that aren’t given certain opportunities or any opportunities, and that aren’t working.
Beyond that, just feeling as grateful as all heck.
I can’t really dwell on it too much. There’s an element that might be uncomfortable, the degree of – I don’t like the word “luck,” but of good fortune that I’ve had an opportunities that I’ve been given. It’s hard.
Those people that you mentioned, I think one of the pitfalls of the rejection in this business is starting to question yourself and your talent, or your looks, or your height or your weight or whatever it might be.
I think a lot of people, it’s hard not to. It’s hard to keep your head up, but I think a lot of people shoot themselves in the foot by then altering themselves. You just can’t. I’m a Midwestern boy. My father –
Tavis: That’s what I like. Midwest.
Galecki: Where the worst thing in the world you can be is a hot dog, is a showoff, is to have any sort of not just vanity but healthy ego, even, about yourself can be mistaken as something just unforgiveable.
So it took me a long time to realize that to walk around without a certain amount of belief in myself, to walk onto a job with my tail between my legs wasn’t behooving anyone else.
So whether I truly believe that I can contribute something or not, it’s not going to help whoever wrote it, it’s not going to help my fellow cast mates. Even if it’s a lie for those couple hours a day, you just have to believe in yourself and the fact that you can contribute to this storytelling.
Tavis: So tell me before I let you go about your independent film work.
Galecki: Oh, I started that when they used to make a lot more independent films, near the end of “Roseanne,” and I did a film last summer called “CBGB” in Savannah about the iconic punk rock club. I play a music manager named Terry Ork, who was a real fellow, and unfortunately, he’s passed away.
But I spoke to some friends of his and sat down with people that knew him and worked with him at the time, and even though Mr. Ork was not someone who was a celebrity by any means, you’ve got to start with a character somewhere. It may as well be the truth.
So yeah, I have yet to see the movie, actually, but I hear great things about it, some great music, and it’s a massive cast. It should be a lot of fun.
Tavis: If nothing else, the music can’t be bad.
Galecki: No, exactly, exactly. (Laughter)
Tavis: I’m sure it’s fine, because you’re in it, but the music is going to be great. I’m honored to have you on.
Galecki: Oh, man, thank you so much. Anytime.
Tavis: It took a while to get you here. You come back again whenever you want to.
Galecki: Oh, please. Oh, thank you so much.
Tavis: Good to have you here.
Galecki: Thank you very much, sir.
Tavis: My man, Johnny Galecki.
Galecki: Thank you.
Tavis: From “The Big Bang Theory.” That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching. As always, keep the faith.
“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.
“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.