Arts & Culture

The inspiration behind TV's creators

The cast of CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory” -- Kunal Nayyar (second to the left), Johnny Galecki (third from left), Kaley Cuoco (center), Jim Parsons (second from right) and Simon Helberg (foreground, right). Showrunners Bill Prady (left) and Chuck Lorre (right).  The idea for the show came from a man Prady knew when he worked in the computer industry in the ‘80s. (Sonja Flemming/CBS/TNS)
The cast of CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory” -- Kunal Nayyar (second to the left), Johnny Galecki (third from left), Kaley Cuoco (center), Jim Parsons (second from right) and Simon Helberg (foreground, right). Showrunners Bill Prady (left) and Chuck Lorre (right). The idea for the show came from a man Prady knew when he worked in the computer industry in the ‘80s. (Sonja Flemming/CBS/TNS)
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BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Did you ever wonder where the creators of TV shows get their ideas? Some of them are adapted from books like “Game of Thrones” or “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Others are American versions of foreign shows like “The Masked Singer” and “Jane the Virgin.” Still others are inspired by their families like “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “The Goldbergs.” But most of them rise from the fertile minds of the creators and are triggered by a variety of events.

When Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady were devising “The Big Bang Theory,” Prady remembered a nerdy guy he once worked with in the computer industry. “It was the early ‘80s. And we were programming in machine language Z80 Assembler, which you program in hexadecimal. And there were two ways to convert a number to hexadecimal. One way was to look for the stupid HP calculator and shout, ‘We’re programmers. Why can’t we buy two of these things?’ And the other was just to shout at Ken and say, ‘Ken, can you convert this number to hex?’ And he would.

“But then we would go out to lunch, and we’d say, ‘Ken, can you figure the tip?’ And this was a man who could do anything in his mind with numbers, but he couldn’t figure the tip. And it was a great pleasure to try to force him to do it, because the formula for a tip is 15 to 20 percent, depending on the quality of service. And Ken would say, ‘Well, is it the speed with which the food came out?’ And we’d say, ‘No, that could be the kitchen.’ ‘Is it that the waitress smiled at us?’ ‘No. She could just be angling for a tip.’ And we would sometimes leave him there in the restaurant,

“Twenty or 30 years ago, this person was called the absent-minded professor. And it’s an archetype, but it’s an archetype because it’s a person we know. For me, it’s also my father-in-law, who is a pediatric rheumatologist and the author — it’s a remarkable thing — of the protocol for treating lupus in adolescents. And an unbelievable mind, but doesn’t understand that discussing my wife’s cycle at the Thanksgiving table is socially incorrect.”

They wanted, says Lorre, to create a guy like Ken who understands the intricacy of analytical thought but can’t master everyday challenges. “People that can figure pi to 80 decimals like that, but can’t figure a tip on the check because the quality of service has too many intangibles,” Lorre says. Hence Sheldon was born.

For David Schulner, creator of “New Amsterdam,” it was a news report about health care that prompted his idea. “It was leading up to the election, everyone was talking about immigration and health care and having the most incredible, passionate conversations everywhere you would go. ... I mean, this is what we were all talking about, and I thought, ‘Why would I want to write about anything else?’

“So I decided to use all these great conversations we were having and look for a way in to talk about it. And I found this book ... by Dr. Eric Manheimer, who was the medical director of Bellevue in New York for 15 years.

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“And when he came in, the hospital was at its lowest point in its 264-year history. It’s the first public hospital in America. And it was his 15-year struggle to restore it to its glory. And I thought, ‘This is a great way to talk about not only great patient stories and doctor stories, but talk about health care as a system that —— no matter what side of the aisle you’re on —— everyone agrees it’s broken. And everyone wants to see a way we can fix it. So that was the way in.”

Jeff Rake, showrunner on “Manifest,” says his idea for the show percolated for a decade before it became reality. “I thought of this crazy idea 10 years ago driving in a minivan with my family halfway between L.A. and the Grand Canyon. And I told everybody in town about it, and everybody thought it was ridiculous, so I put it on the shelf,” he says.

“Then years went by, and then that Malaysia Airlines flight disappeared, and suddenly my pie-in-the-sky crazy idea didn’t feel as crazy and impossible after all. And so I dusted that old idea off the shelf, and the good people at Warner Bros. and NBC thought it was worth pursuing, and here we are 10 years later.”

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