Young Sheldon fleshes out childhood of Big Bang Theory character

The origin story of Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory has been gestating for 10 years, say its producers

Iain Armitage (left) and Zoe Perry star in Young Sheldon, a spin-off <NO1>TV<NO>series of The Big Bang Theory.
Iain Armitage (left) and Zoe Perry star in Young Sheldon, a spin-off TVseries of The Big Bang Theory. PHOTO: WARNER TV
Chuck Lorre
Chuck Lorre

Making the new sitcom Young Sheldon was a no-brainer.

If anything had "hit" written all over it, it is the origin story of Sheldon, one of the most popular characters on The Big Bang Theory - the comedy about a group of brilliant but socially awkward scientists that has been a global hit (see other story).

And Young Sheldon will be shown on Fridays at 8.35pm, directly after the 8.10pm broadcast of Big Bang Theory on Warner TV (StarHub TV Channel 515 and Singtel TV Channel 306), giving it a good chance of retaining the latter's audience.

The new series imagines the equally awkward childhood of Sheldon, the physicist played on The Big Bang Theory (2007 to now) by Jim Parsons. Parsons co-produces the new show and narrates the story as Iain Armitage portrays a nine-year-old version of the character.

At the helm is mega-producer Chuck Lorre, creator of both shows as well as hits such as Two And A Half Men (2003 to 2015).

He tells reporters in Los Angeles that this spin-off has been gestating for 10 years.

"The origins of Sheldon have been something we've been interested in writing about for a couple of hundred episodes of The Big Bang Theory.

  • About The Big Bang Theory

  • 1 Debuting in 2007, The Big Bang Theory charted the blossoming friendship between physicists Leonard (Johnny Galecki) and Sheldon (Jim Parsons) and their neighbour Penny (Kaley Cuoco), a waitress and wannabe actress. Many jokes come from the fact that Penny is often more savvy than the two Caltech scientists with their genius-level intellects, but poor social skills. Rounding out the group are Leonard and Sheldon's equally nerdy friends, Wolowitz (Simon Helberg) and Koothrappali (Kunal Nayyar).

    2 After mixed reviews and a slow start in ratings for the first two seasons, the sitcom has become one of the most-watched shows in the United States and its core actors are some of the most handsomely rewarded on TV, with salaries of US$1 million (S$1.4 million) an episode last year. Now in its 11th season, it continues to dominate the ratings and was the top show in the US last Monday, when it drew 12.8 million viewers.

    3 The show is also a massive hit in Canada, Australia and China. Its popularity in China persisted despite the show being removed for a year - in 2014 and 2015 - from the legal video-streaming portal, where it had been getting more than one billion views since debuting in 2009.

    Chinese authorities did not explain why they pulled and reinstated the show, although when it came back, there were more stringent censorship rules in place for all streaming content in China, which required a show to first be reviewed in its entirety, and with Chinese subtitles.

    In a title card at the end of an episode, creator Chuck Lorre joked that Chinese censors were worried about "the corrosive cultural effects caused by the shenanigans of Sheldon, Leonard, Penny, Wolowitz, Koothrappali" and company.

    But through both lawful and pirated video sites, Chinese fans continue to watch and engage in lively social-media exchanges about the show, which commentators believe resonates with the country's growing population of those who self-identify as geeks or diaosi ("losers").

    Alison de Souza

"So last autumn, when Jim sent me an e-mail discussing the possibility of actually taking it a step further, it just seemed like the greatest idea in the world," says Lorre, 65, at a press event in Los Angeles earlier this year.

The Big Bang Theory has dropped a few breadcrumbs about Sheldon's childhood - for instance, that he grew up in Texas and his father, who died when he was 14, was not exactly warm and cuddly when it came to the boy.

Lorre says Young Sheldon will use those details, but also show that "there's a great deal more to George, his father, than we were led to know in Sheldon's anecdotes and that we discussed in bits and pieces over the years on Big Bang".

As one of the executive producers of the new show, Parsons, 44, will be able to continue shaping the story of this character, whom he has played for 10 years and won four Emmys and a Golden Globe for.

His own childhood was "completely different", though.

"I was not an overly bright child. I was mediocre and I didn't befuddle my parents. That came much later, with my sexuality," quips the star, who is married to graphic designer Todd Spiewak, 40, also a producer on the new show.

Nodding at Armitage, Young Sheldon's nine-year-old star, Parsons says the boy is "so much more in control as a human being than I was back then".

"Ah, thank you," says Armitage, who previously appeared in Big Little Lies (2016), which won eight Emmys, including for Outstanding Limited Series, in September.

"I don't think that's true," he adds, laughing.

When it came to shooting the pilot episode - directed by Iron Man (2008 and 2010) film-maker Jon Favreau - Parsons was able to share his insights into Sheldon with the young actor.

"I was able to interact with Iain a lot and discuss certain things that are peculiar to this character.

"And whether it was just lines or moments in general or Sheldon's take on the world, it's an interesting topic for us to go over together."

However, unlike The Big Bang Theory, which is taped in front of a studio audience and shot with multiple cameras, Young Sheldon will be a single-camera sitcom and thus more naturalistic in feel.

"It's more intimate," says Lorre. "The pacing is different, the actors aren't having to hold for laughs, they're not playing to the proscenium - they're working with one another. Also, we knew going in that we were working with a cast of young children and it seemed like the more appropriate way for them to do their best work was in a closed setting where they had the time to develop these characters."

One thing that will not change is the essence of who Sheldon is: someone who "can be so difficult and hard on his best friends, and yet, somehow, he has a quality as a person where the audience forgives him", Lorre says.

The tricky part is "when you take those same qualities and ask a nine-year-old to bring that, it's a brat".

"And so we made a decision that we're going to enter his life when he's very naive, when he's not yet become cynical.

"He has his idiosyncrasies, but he's a much more vulnerable and naive character as we enter the story in 1989."

• Young Sheldon airs on Warner TV (StarHub TV Channel 515 and Singtel TV Channel 306) on Fridays at 8.35pm.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 03, 2017, with the headline 'Science of growing up'. Subscribe