Never again will we hear the shrill voice of Debbie Wolowitz bellow “Hooow-ARD!” at the top of her lungs, for the funny — but never fully seen onscreen — lady who birthed the tight pants-wearing Howard Wolowitz is gone. In an episode that dealt with the real-life death of hilarious character actress Carol Ann Susi, Mrs. Wolowitz also passed away, failing to wake up from a nap while visiting her sister in Florida.
The Big Bang Theory showrunner Steven Molaro talks about dealing with the heartbreaking loss of the cast’s beloved co-star and honoring her and her character. He also discusses how Mrs. W’s death will affect Howard and his friends, the special guest star who provided some welcome moments of levity in the episode, and what’s ahead for Shamy and roomies Sheldon and Leonard.
Congratulations, Steve. Tone is so critical when dealing with a storyline like this one on a sitcom, and this felt like a fine tribute to Mrs. Wolowitz.
Thank you. Carol Ann Susi was a lovely lady and a member of our family that we cared about very much. So it was important to us to come up with a way of honoring her that reflected how much we care about her.
Viewers know Susi from her work on Seinfeld, The King of Queens, and most of all The Big Bang Theory, but what was she like on the set?
She was just a truly funny, very sweet, very interesting lady. She reminded me of your favorite crazy aunt, who you loved getting to visit with.
Is it true that she didn’t drive, that she took a bus everywhere in Los Angeles, even to auditions?
[Laughs.] Yes, yes. She was very New York. She didn’t have a car there, and she just stuck with it here.
Was there any consideration of not writing her death into the show? Having the character move away?
We talked about all the possibilities. It was public information that Carol Ann had passed away, so having Mrs. Wolowitz move away felt, I think, potentially like a cheat. And the thought of having another actress do the voice just didn’t seem like an option for us. I don’t think we could have brought ourselves to actually do it. That left dealing with the reality of it. We tried to find a way to do that which let the show still remain a comedy, but deal with this very difficult moment in these characters’ — especially Wolowitz’s — lives.
How did you begin tackling it?
I don’t know. I had never been involved in writing an episode like this before. There’s a lot of other things going on in this episode that have nothing to do with [her death], and that, I think, helped a lot. When the moment comes, we just tried to handle it as honestly as we could, certainly not try to force jokes in where they didn’t feel like they would belong. I think we managed to do it.
And actually, now that I think about it, the morning that Carol Ann passed away, we were obviously stunned and shaken up. We were in production that week, and everybody gathered on the stage. Chuck [Lorre] had delivered the news to everyone, and it just naturally turned into a memorial to her. Everyone on the stage cried and shared their wonderful memories and stories of Carol Ann. And even in the tension and pain of that moment, people were able to still laugh about how wonderful she was. This was 15 minutes after hearing the news. I think it was in the spirit of that… at the end of the episode, I guess we were subconsciously trying to capture that mood of sad but sweet and celebratory.
The scene where they’re all toasting her is lovely. Howard’s initial reaction was very interesting. It feels like there is a whole lot more going on underneath it.
I think he was stunned. I take it as just stunned. [His mom] was in Florida at the time, so there wasn’t a hospital he could rush to. There was nothing he could do except sit down and try to wrap his head around what just took place.
It was a nice, unselfish moment by Sheldon, too, and a very Sheldon-appropriate way of letting Howard know his friends are there for him.
Yeah, that’s a really sweet moment. We really took our time writing that and wanted to get that scene as good as we could.
Howard’s relationship with his mother also was very complicated, even more so recently with the whole Stuart situation. He mentioned earlier in the episode that, now that Stuart is getting back on his feet with the reopening of his comic book store, he hoped his relationship with his mom could get back to normal. So he’s dealing with a lot of feelings about his mom when she dies.
He is. And it seemed like everyone [else] in the episode is fighting with each other, and then this bomb drops. It levels the playing field out. Everything else becomes trivial.
What does Mrs. Wolowitz’s death mean for poor Stuart, who had made this little family for himself with her?
I think it is a sad time for everybody. And they’re adjusting to life after her death. We’ll feel our way through that, but for now, nobody is kicking him out of her house. Right now… all the things you have to deal with after someone passes away are being dealt with. And there doesn’t really seem to be a need to kick him out. So, that’s where we are right now.
Did you have specific plans in mind for Stuart and Mrs. Wolowitz? There was a bit of a will-they-won’t-they element in their relationship.
I think we had intentionally wanted to keep it vague. Is it just friendly? Is it more mother and son? Is it really romantic? To me, the fun was never quite knowing exactly what was going on.
Obviously this death will always affect Howard and Bernadette. But in the more immediate sense, we know Howard and Bernadette have gone to Florida. Will they continue to deal with this in next week’s episode?
Yeah. We will continue to deal with it throughout the rest of the season, on and off.
We’ve heard little things about Howard’s dad throughout the series. Is that something that might pop up again now, in a bigger way? Might he go look for his MIA dad after losing his mom?
Yeah, I think that is a very legitimate question you’re asking. We’ve not delved into that yet. I think his dad is always a potential storyline at some point, though. Nothing that we’re poking at just yet.
As you said, there’s a lot happening in this episode, with the comic book store reopening and looking cool, Sheldon and Amy secretly testing the intelligence of Leonard and Penny, and Raj and Leonard having a really fun run-in with guest star Nathan Fillion. How did that come about?
I had run into him at Comic-Con last year, and I’m a fan of his. And one of the other writers, Steve Holland, was with me, and we just started talking to him and telling him we were from Big Bang and big fans of his. And he’s a fan of the show and was very supportive. We just started talking about him being on the show someday, and he was certainly open to it. So when this storyline popped up, it seemed like a great little way to use him. And it just all worked out. He was just great, and we had a lot of fun with him.
That storyline, of pretending he isn’t who he is to get a little alone time in public, is something you can imagine has really happened to guys like him and another TBBT guest star, Wil Wheaton. Was there any inspiration for that story?
I think we just liked the idea. When I first talked to Nathan about it, I don’t think we quite knew the ending. At that point in time, he either was Nathan Fillion and just wanted to eat his lunch and not be bothered or he was a guy who just happened to look like Nathan Fillion. We thought those were both pretty fun ways to go, but we ultimately went with what seemed like the most satisfying and interesting ending. I thought it played very organically and real. I think he is known for being pretty great with his fans, so he managed to get away with it and just say, “Yeah, it’s me, I was just trying to have my lunch, but let’s take a picture.” I would love to have him back on again someday.
What can you say about the rest of the season?
The two things that are coming to mind are that Wolowitz and Bernadette will continue to deal with the fallout of his mother passing away. And I do think, overall, if there is any silver lining in all of this as far as the character goes, it’s an opportunity for Howard to continue to grow as a person.
And, in the episode with Stephen Hawking, Leonard and Sheldon wrote that paper together, based on Leonard’s idea. And now they are sort of handcuffed to each other because they’ve done that. That storyline continues to pop up as we move through to the end of the season.
And Shamy? Sheldon and Amy, even if it’s the tiniest thing, they are getting closer every episode.
They are. They are absolutely. And they will continue to do so throughout this season.