‘Big Bang Theory’ writer Eric Kaplan offers inside look at hit show’s Jewish leanings

by Dan Pine
10.08.2015

By Dan Pine / J-Weekly / Oct. 8, 2015

Eric Kaplan isn’t sure what he’ll say when he makes an appearance next week at “Uncharted: The Berkeley Festival of Ideas.” Since he’s earning a doctorate in philosophy at U.C. Berkeley, and his talk is titled “Is Metaphysics a Laughing Matter?” Kaplan can certainly weigh in.

But his onstage conversation with New York Times writer Quentin Hardy, set for 9 a.m. Oct. 17 at Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse, will be unscripted, and that’s the thing: Kaplan is all about scripts.

His day job is a staff writer and co-producer of “The Big Bang Theory,” the highest-rated comedy on network television. Despite eight seasons writing for the show, and all the success that has come with it, the Los Angeles resident, who was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, never gave up his fascination with philosophy.

He wrote a book last year, “Does Santa Exist? A Philosophical Investigation,” which explores how human beings decide what is real and what is not.

His Ph.D. dissertation explores the humor inherent in the works of Soren Kierkegaard. Though that 19th-century Danish philosopher is not known to have been a barrel of laughs, Kaplan, 44, says he and the other great philosophers had their moments.

“When philosophers are asking questions and raising problems, they’re funny,” Kaplan says, “and when they try to answer and solve the problems, they’re less funny. That’s because humor is an enjoyable response to anxiety. If you are drawn into a situation but are afraid, then that is the kind of situation that, in the right hands, could seem funny.”

Bazinga.

That sounds like a metaview of “The Big Bang Theory.” The hit show follows the lives of several uber-nerdy Caltech scientists (and their various wives and girlfriends). Since its premiere in 2007, the show has topped the Nielsen ratings, won star Jim Parsons a shelf-full of Emmys and made Schrödinger’s Cat the world’s most famous feline.

Thanks to the show’s Jewish co-creator, Chuck Lorre, who made a much publicized trip to Israel a few years ago, and to the equally public nature of “Big Bang” co-star Mayim Bialik’s Orthodox observance, the show has a strong Jewish resonance, on and off screen.

BBTAn off-screen example was a Friday morning Torah study that Jews from the “Big Bang” crew, including Kaplan and Bialik, attended for a short while.

“We also lit Hanukkah candles in Mayim’s dressing room once,” Kaplan adds. “At Comic-Con one year, I was strict about the details of Shabbat observance. I took my wine and candle and did a little Shabbos ceremony.”

The show has always mixed highbrow concepts from science and philosophy with plenty of belly laughs. Kaplan’s fascination with philosophy has made its way into “Big Bang” storylines and characters, including Parson’s Sheldon Cooper, a brilliant yet perennially socially inept physicist.

“The character of Sheldon tries to live his life as if he’s a pure intellect trying to understand a universe that makes sense,” says Kaplan, a 1989 graduate of Harvard University. “But he’s not. He has a body, emotions, anger and fear, so a lot of the humor comes from his conflict in wanting to be the human computer. But he’s a human being.”

Though the show has only one Jewish main character, the once-sex-obsessed-now-happily-married Howard Wolowitz (played by the Jewish Simon Helberg), Jewish culture has always weaved its way into the show.

Wolowitz and his mother (voiced by the late Carol Ann Susi) had a hilariously combative relationship that often resolved itself over noodle kugel or a cringe-worthy foot massage.

But the Jewishisms have gone beyond Wolowitz. Other characters have thrown around Yiddish terms such as putz, tuchus, mishegas and oy vey, sometimes out of the mouth of Indian astrophysicist Raj Koothrappali, played by Kunal Nayyar.

Even the arguments between atheist Sheldon and his evangelical Christian mother (played by Laurie Metcalf) about the existence of God take on the tone of a talmudic disputation.

Kaplan, who previously wrote for “The Late Show with David Letterman,” “Futurama” and “Malcolm in the Middle,” explains that the creative team wanted “The Big Bang Theory” to have “scientists who are human characters. You have had the scientist who is a hero or villain, but to have just a flawed person getting his work done, or to be motivated by jealousy or envy, that had not been done in an American sitcom.”

Given that, it’s no surprise many famous real-world scientists, from Neil deGrasse Tyson to Stephen Hawking, have made guest appearances. So much of the complicated work they do is unspooled in intelligible fashion on the show.

Kaplan says he’s happy people have learned something from the show, but even for the doctoral candidate, the laughs on “The Big Bang Theory” come first.

“If it’s a fight between entertainment and information,” he says, “you know what will win.”

“Uncharted: The Berkeley Festival of Ideas” is Oct. 16-17. Eric Kaplan to appear at 9 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 17 at Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse, 2020 Addison St., Berkeley.http://www.berkeleyideas.com.