'The Big Bang Theory': Making a Bigger Bang

Or maybe it's because the woman playing Sheldon's unlikely match has become one of the show's biggest draws. When Mayim Bialik, 37, first joined Big Bang in 2010, she expected a temporary stint as a ''female Sheldon.'' (Bialik, like her neurobiologist character, has a Ph.D., though Bialik's is in neuroscience.) But the next thing she knew, the TV vet who was best known for headlining the '90s comedy Blossom was upped to series-regular status. And then there was the phone call this past July from her publicist saying she earned her first Emmy nomination. ''It wasn't even on my radar,'' says Bialik. ''I was literally wondering whether Kristen Wiig was going to be nominated, because that's who I was rooting for — until now.'' At the same time, a whole new set of stories opened up for Helberg's Howard after he shed the sleazy-lothario routine and got serious with Bernadette (the terrifically gifted Melissa Rauch), who became his wife in the season 5 finale. ''People now just say Bernadette and Howard,'' says a proud Helberg. ''They see us as a unit.''

Such major strides on the show have made way for big rewards away from the camera, and not just for CBS, which now collects more than $450,000 for every 30 seconds of commercial time during Big Bang, and Warner Bros., which reportedly made a whopping $2 million per episode when it sold the reruns to TBS and stations nationwide. (Warner Bros. and EW are both owned by Time Warner.) Parsons has become the biggest beneficiary of the show's exploding popularity, having scored that high-profile gig on Broadway this summer, along with two Emmys and a fourth consecutive nomination going into this weekend's ceremony. But another big payoff came in the form of raises that turned into big news in and out of Hollywood. ''I don't even understand why the Internet has made it possible to reveal contract information,'' says Galecki (who, like Parsons and Cuoco, reportedly signed a new four-year contract in 2010 that took each of their salaries to roughly $200,000 an episode, with subsequent bumps for additional seasons, while Helberg snagged around $100,000 and Nayyar around $75,000). ''We didn't sign off on that being made public. It seems tasteless, which is maybe very Midwestern of me, but I just don't understand.'' At the very least, it helped put some things in perspective for the refreshingly candid Cuoco. ''I would be lying if I said I couldn't do Penny with my eyes closed,'' says the 26-year-old actress. ''It's such second nature to me now. But if I ever do get those moments of 'God, this feels the same,' I just read those articles about how much money I make and think, 'You know, it's not so repetitive anymore!'''

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