The show originally centered on five characters living in Pasadena, California: Leonard Hofstadter and Sheldon Cooper, both physicists at Caltech, who share an apartment; Penny, a waitress and aspiring actress who lives across the hall; and Leonard and Sheldon's similarly geeky and socially awkward friends and co-workers, aerospace engineer Howard Wolowitz and astrophysicist Raj Koothrappali. Over time, supporting characters were promoted to starring roles, including neuroscientist Amy Farrah Fowler, microbiologist Bernadette Rostenkowski, physicist Leslie Winkle and comic book store owner Stuart Bloom.
Cosmologist Stephen Hawking made a short guest appearance in the fifth-season episode; in the eighth season, Hawking video conferences with Sheldon and Leonard, and makes another appearance in the 200th episode. In the fifth and sixth seasons, NASA astronaut Michael J. Massimino played himself multiple times in the role of Howard's fellow astronaut. Bill Nye appeared in the seventh and twelfth seasons.
The show's pilot episode premiered on September 24, 2007. This was the second pilot produced for the show. A different pilot was produced for the 2006–07 television season but never aired. The structure of the original unaired pilot was substantially different from the series' current form. The only main characters retained in both pilots were Leonard (Johnny Galecki) and Sheldon (Jim Parsons), who are named after Sheldon Leonard, a longtime figure in episodic television as producer, director and actor. A minor character, Althea (Vernee Watson), appeared in the first scene of both pilots that was retained generally as-is. The first pilot included two female lead characters - Katie, "a street-hardened, tough-as-nails woman with a vulnerable interior" (played by Canadian actress Amanda Walsh) and Gilda, a scientist colleague and friend of the male characters (played by Iris Bahr). Sheldon and Leonard meet Katie after she breaks up with a boyfriend and they invite her to share their apartment. Gilda is threatened by Katie's presence. Test audiences reacted negatively to Katie, but they liked Sheldon and Leonard. The original pilot used Thomas Dolby's hit "She Blinded Me with Science" as its theme song.
In November 2016, it was reported that CBS was in negotiations to create a spin-off of The Big Bang Theory centered on Sheldon as a young boy. The prequel series, described as "a Malcolm in the Middle-esque single-camera family comedy" would be executive-produced by Lorre and Molaro, with Prady expected to be involved in some capacity, and intended to air in the 2017–18 season alongside The Big Bang Theory. The initial idea for the series came from Parsons, who passed it along to The Big Bang Theory producers. In early March 2017, Iain Armitage was cast as the younger Sheldon, as well as Zoe Perry as his mother, Mary Cooper. Perry is the real-life daughter of Laurie Metcalf, who portrays Mary Cooper on The Big Bang Theory.
The fourth season's second half began on June 30, 2011. Season 5 began airing on November 3, 2011, at 8:00 p.m. as part of E4's Comedy Thursdays, acting as a lead-in to the channel's newest comedy, Perfect Couples. Episode 19, the highest-viewed episode of the season, attracted 1.4 million viewers. Season 6 premiered on November 15, 2012, with 1.89 million viewers and a further 469,000 on the time shift channel, bringing the total to 2.31 million, E4's highest viewing ratings of 2012, and the highest the channel had received since June 2011. The sixth season returned in mid-2013 to finish airing the remaining episodes. Season 7 premiered on E4 on October 31, 2013 at 8:30pm and hit multiple ratings records this season. The second half of season seven aired in mid 2014. The eighth season premiered on E4 on October 23, 2014 at 8:30 p.m. During its eighth season, The Big Bang Theory shared its 8:30 p.m. time period with fellow CBS comedy, 2 Broke Girls. Following the airing of the first eight episodes of that show's fourth season, The Big Bang Theory returned to finish airing its eighth season on March 19, 2015.
When Leonard receives a braggy Christmas letter from his brother, he feels bad about how little he and Penny have achieved in the past year. Leonard wonders if he and Penny should be thinking about the next step after two years of marriage, like buying a house or having a baby. Penny tells him she wants to do all those things someday, but she has a bunch of stuff she would like to do first.