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Television would like viewers to think that it is cool to be a nerd. The comic book obsessed Hiro saves the world in Heroes. This year, video game buff Chuck gets to save the day in his secret agent adventures. The sad truth is, nerds don’t get the girl. At least CBS’s The Big Bang Theory is honest about that.

The half hour comedy stars Johnny Galecki as Leonard, a mathematical and scientific genius living with his equally gifted roommate Sheldon (Jim Parsons). When “hottie” Penny (Kaley Cuoco) moves in next door, neither braniac can quite think of the right thing to say to a girl.

“I’m still not very good at it,” Galecki admitted, talking about his real life and his character. “I never know if someone’s flirting with me. I’m just absolutely clueless to such things. Someone really has to just beat me over the head with a club to make the point that they might have some sort of interest to me that way. It’s really pathetic.”

Many audiences may not understand the scientific theories Leonard and Sheldon recite, but everyone has something that makes them feel like an outsider. If it is not math or intellectual pursuits, maybe it’s the arts. Galecki himself considers himself a different sort of nerd.

“I suppose I’m a theater nerd. That’s what I grew up doing in lieu of any sort of sports or extra curricular activities. That’s what I was doing at night and that’s why I missed many school days, because I was on stage in the evenings. And I love theater and I still do theater. I suppose if I over-immerse myself in any one topic, it’s theater.”

Now that he is a successful actor, it seems theater paid off in dividends. Just imagine being the middle schooler who’s obsessed with acting on the professional level though. “My friends had been the people in the chorus of whatever play I was doing, who were in their 20s and 30s. If I was an outsider, it was because I was influenced by that environment, and I was wearing eyeliner and a fedora on the school bus in fifth grade. I was asking for it.”

Since academics were not his forte, reciting long monologues of technobabble is like learning a foreign language phonetically. “It’s pretty much per syllable as far as I’m concerned. To be honest, I can’t read about or even think about physics for more than 25 minutes without having an anxiety attack. It terrifies me.”

If Leonard were just a one-dimensional character, perhaps his scientific obsessions would also terrify the actor. Luckily, the character goes back to the show’s universal theme, “the outsider element of it which I think is universally relatable, feeling like you’re utterly misunderstood and confused by the world. I think we’ve all felt that way for whatever reason. His curiosity has been piqued to venture out into the real world outside of the insular world that he’s in. He has not a single tool about him to do so, so whatever confidence he feels initially in venturing out is paper thin. There’s so much growth there, there’s so many different ways to go about it.”

As the show develops, both Galecki and Parsons look for ways to express their characters’ unique quirks. “I think Parsons and I are in a competition as to who is more borderline OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). Fortunately, neither of us are up until three in the morning combing the fringe on our rugs or anything like that. He was able to inoculate into his character which I’m very jealous of. It’s very idiosyncratic between the two of us in any room.”

Roseanne brought Galecki to national attention as Darlene’s boyfriend, David. Only after 10 years out of the series TV game did Galecki feel comfortable on a soundstage again. “It feels good. It didn’t for a long time honestly, not because Roseanne was an unpleasant experience. It was not at all. It was just after five years and change, I needed a different environment and I wanted to take a break and I wanted to explore some different things. I wanted to go back and do some more theater again.”

Galecki reached the pinnacle of his theatrical ambitions when he costarred in The Little Dog Laughed on Broadway last year. “It was extremely exciting but I didn’t have any Broadway ambitions at all. I can’t sing or dance. I’m from Chicago so it just seemed like a bit of a freak science experiment that seemed to work out and we ended up there. That show when we did it Off Broadway, struck a chord. I always want to do more. I’ve been doing theater since I was seven in Chicago and I still consider that what I do.”

Over the years, he worked on easing himself back into on-camera performing. “Every once in a while, maybe every year, every other year, I’d sneak into a taping just to see how it felt. The jitters and the nausea subsided gradually through the years until I finally went to one taping. I don’t remember even which one it was. It may have been for That ‘70s Show. I just ducked my head in, which ironically was on the same stage as “Roseanne”. And it felt good. It felt exciting. I felt the environment was creative instead of another Monday in the same work space.”

Roseanne still airs daily in syndication, so Galecki was not forgotten in his 10 year absence. “It depends on where I am, literally, geographically where I am. It’s still more popular in other places. Generally the more affluent areas, you don’t get recognized as quickly as the lesser affluent areas, which is great. That’s always been the audience of the show. [It] was a blue collar show.”

Galecki himself has rarely seen his seminal work. “Honestly, the majority of the things I’ve done, I haven’t seen. Maybe that’s why I don’t feel a whole lot of pressure being a lead in a show now. I’m much more interested and excited with the process, not the product.”

Though Galecki is the biggest name on The Big Bang Theory, he shares screen time evenly with Parsons and Cuoco. “I really do feel like it’s an ensemble, and I feel like within the ensemble there’s also a two-hander between Parsons and I. So I don’t feel any pressure that way. Maybe that’s naïve of me.”

The Big Bang Theory airs Mondays at 8:30 on CBS / Issue 76 - September 2018
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