The Big Bang Theory’s Many Polish Links
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Many Polish Links, Sheldon Cooper & Leonard Hofstadter in one of the scenes in 'The Big Bang Theory', 2007-2019, photo: © 2015 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Rese, center, sheldon_cooper_leonard_hofstadtertwp.jpg
Countless words have been written about the immensely popular American TV show ‘The Big Bang Theory’, both in praise and with criticism. Rather than chiming into this often heated discussion, Culture.pl offers a look at something that may come as a bit of a surprise – the show’s many ties to Poland!
Four geeks & nine Emmys
First, a word of explanation for those who (somehow) have not heard about The Big Bang Theory – it’s an immensely popular American TV show that ran from 2007 to 2019 on the CBS network. The sitcom follows a group of four geeky guys – scientists at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California – focussing on their social and romantic lives. They befriend a street-smart waitress, whose relaxed lifestyle is much different to theirs, and the contrast that arises from this acquaintance leads to many funny situations.
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The four main characters are: the brilliant but socially dysfunctional theoretical physicist Sheldon Cooper, his roommate, the far more easy-going experimental physicist Leonard Hofstadter, the somewhat creepy but essentially good-hearted engineer Howard Wolowitz and the timid, sensitive astrophysicist Raj Koothrappali. They’re accompanied by three main female characters: the likeable actress slash waitress Penny (whose last name isn’t revealed), the sweet but tough microbiologist Bernadette Rostenkowski, and the brilliant although somewhat socially awkward neurobiologist Amy Farrah Fowler.
The series uses the comical potential of these characters to the fullest, putting them in various constellations as well as juxtaposing them with a bunch of intriguing supporting characters. Thanks to its farcical humour, carefully thought-out visual qualities and amazing acting from the well-cast performers, the series attracted audiences of up to 20 million viewers and won nine Emmy awards. It’s fair to say it was a staggering success.
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But what does the show have to do with Poland? Surprisingly, there appear to be quite a few Polish connections in The Big Bang Theory. An online search reveals only one, very brief Facebook post (in English) and one or two forum threads (in Polish) devoted to this subject, none of which are really comprehensive.
A village near Kraków
Let’s begin with the show’s characters and their ties to Poland. The most apparent example of a Big Bang character with a Polish connection is Dr Bernadette Rostenkowski. She has Polish roots and her Polishness is accentuated throughout the series as one of her characteristic traits. For example, she is referred to as ‘the little Polish girl’ (she is of modest height) and in one of the episodes there’s a conversation about her ancestors having come to America from Poland. Bernadette was also raised Catholic, and Catholicism is Poland’s dominant religion. And, it’s hard not to notice that Bernadette’s surname sounds Polish, having the characteristic ‘ski’ at the end.
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The engineer Howard Wolowitz, who is Jewish and eventually marries Bernadette, also has ties to Poland (other than through his marriage). His ancestors had lived in Poland and this may even be encoded in his surname. Apparently, the word ‘Wolowitz’ is the German translation of the name of the Polish village of Wołowice, which lies near the city of Kraków. The fact that Yiddish is quite similar to German would explain why Howard’s surname is the German-sounding version of the Polish village’s name. However, it ought to be made clear that this is speculation and that nowhere in the show is it said that the surname ‘Wolowitz’ points to a village in Poland.
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Maria Skłodowska-Curie in New York during her 1921 visit to the United States, photo: Bibliothèque nationale de France.
Now let’s take a look at some of the elements of Big Bang’s plot that make references to Poland. In the 22nd episode of season five the following conversation takes place:
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Bernadette: (…) He [Howard – ed.] set up our beautiful wedding website with cute little facts about our family histories. Do you know, for a while in Poland, my family and his family were neighbours?
Penny: Oh, that’s cool.
Amy: No, it’s not. I’ll explain it to you later.
From the ‘The Stag Convergence’ episode of ‘The Big Bang Theory’
This joke actually stirred up some commotion among viewers. People didn’t understand the punchline and were confused why it wasn’t ‘cool’ that Bernadette’s and Howard’s families had lived next to each other in Poland. As a result a few dedicated forum threads were created to clarify this joke. To the Polish viewer, on the other hand, it seems to be a pretty clear allusion to the long - and often troubled – history of Polish-Jewish relations. Jews have been living in Poland for approximately a thousand years and in this time there were periods of peaceful coexistence and tolerance but also dark episodes of hatred and violence. Amy’s saying ‘not cool’ seems to acknowledge the uneasy part of Polish-Jewish history.
On a more positive note, the show makes repeated references to the Polish scientist Maria Skłodowska-Curie who won the Nobel Prize twice: in physics in 1903 and in chemistry in 1911. She is one of the idols of the theoretical physicist Sheldon Cooper who often mentions her in his conversations and has her photo (alongside pictures of super heroes) as his screen saver. In one of the episodes, Sheldon and his friends give a talk to a class of middle-school girls to inspire them to pursue science. In his distinctive, absurd fashion, Sheldon tells them about the Pole’s success:
Allow me to inspire you with a story about a great female scientist. Polish-born, French-educated Madame Curie. Co-discoverer of radioactivity. She was a hero of science until her hair fell out, her vomit and stool became filled with blood, and she was poisoned to death by her own discovery. With a little hard work, I see no reason why that can't happen to any of you.
From ‘The Contractual Obligation Implementation’ episode of ‘The Big Bang Theory’
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At this point it might be worth adding that there is a theory according to which it wasn’t Skłodowska-Curie’s research on radioactive elements that was responsible for her illness. During World War I, she instructed medical personnel how to take X-ray pictures of wounded soldiers and at that time she could’ve been exposed to much higher radiation levels than during her pioneering work on Radium and Polonium. Her sickness – in all probability – resulted from her medical, not scientific, work. So although Sheldon’s joke may seem quite funny, it doesn’t necessarily get the facts right when it suggests that Curie was ‘poisoned to death’ because of her involvement with science.
‘A kitten climbed a fence’
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The first page of the book ‘Pieśni Ludu Polskiego’ by Oskar Kolberg, 1857, photo: National Digital Library Polona. A portrait of Oskar Kolberg, photo: courtesy of the Oskar Kolberg Museum in Przysucha
Another part of the plot that links Sheldon to Poland is the Soft Kitty song, which he asks his friends to sing to him when he feels sick. This American children’s song was originally titled Warm Kitty and first appeared in the 1937 book Songs for the Nursery School written by Laura Pendleton MacCarteney. The tune is performed a number of times throughout the show to comfort Sheldon and is definitely a viewer favourite.
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Interestingly, it’s believed that Warm Kitty originates from the Polish folk lullaby Wlazł Kotek na Płotek (editor’s translation: Kitten Climbed a Fence). Kitten Climbed a Fence is one of the most popular lullabies in Poland and has been in use – most probably – since the 18th century. The traditional music and lyrics for it were first taken down by the eminent ethnographer and folklorist Oskar Kolberg in his 1857 book Pieśni Ludu Polskiego (Songs of the Polish Folk). It is perfectly feasible that the song, after having been brought to America by Polish immigrants, influenced Laura Pendleton MacCarteney.
If you’ll listen closely you’ll find that the melodies of Warm Kitty and Kitten Climbed a Fence, although different, do share similarities. These similarities become clearer when you slow down the tempo of the Polish lullaby to match the slower tempo of the American tune. Also, both songs are about cats, even if they approach their subject matter in different ways. Soft Kitty compares a cat to a ‘little ball of fur’ whereas the Polish lullaby, as its title suggests, is about a cat that climbed a fence:
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A kitten climbed a fence and it’s winking
What a nice, short song for singing
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Actress Christine Baranski in one of the scenes in 'The Big Bang Theory', 2007-2019, fot. © 2015 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved
The Big Bang Theory also links to Poland through the Polish heritage of some of the members of the team working on the show. For example, the lead actor Johnny Galecki, who plays Leonard Hofstadter, has Polish roots. He comes from the Chicago area, a hub of the Polish diaspora in the United States. During his appearance on the Late Late Show on 21st November 2011, he had the opportunity to speak about his Polish background and explained, among other things, how his Polish surname was originally pronounced Gah-whetz-keeh (Americans pronounce it Gah–leck-eeh).
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Also, the supporting actress Christine Baranski who portrays Leonard’s mother is of Polish descent. She was born in Buffalo, New York, another centre of Polish immigration to America. Baranski has mentioned in interviews that her parents and grandparents were fluent in Polish, and that especially her grandmother had a profound influence on her, inspiring her to pursue acting:
My grandparents were actors in the Polish Theatre in Buffalo. (…) Back then there was a really strong Polish-American theatre community and they had their own theatre and the theatre was in Polish, they did plays in Polish and musicals and my grandparents were actual actors. I didn’t know my grandfather, he passed away before I was born, but my grandmother lived with us. (…) She actually wrote her own comedy show on Polish Radio. (…) She had a great influence on my life.
From the 14th March 2019 episode of ‘The Late Show with Stephen Colbert’
Another member of The Big Bang Theory team with Polish roots is, supposedly, Mark Cendrowski who was the show’s main director. Wikipedia lists him in its article on notable Polish Americans and his surname sounds Polish. However, it’s hard to find any conclusive information about Cendrowski’s Polish heritage (Wikipedia isn’t always an entirely reliable source). The director himself doesn’t seem to mention having any ties to Poland in interviews.
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It ought to be said that there are other Polish links to be found in the extensive field of The Big Bang Theory trivia, like when Sheldon Cooper talks about ‘Nicolaus Copernicus, a Polish astronomer.’ However, the ones listed here are – quite probably – the most meaningful. Putting them all in one place is in no way an attempt to dub the show ‘Polish’. Nevertheless, its numerous ties to Poland come as kind of a surprise (since they appear to be more prominent than Polish links in many other foreign TV shows) and as such have prompted the creation of this article.
Let’s end with a goodbye used by Sheldon Cooper in the show, a quote from his favourite sci-fi series Star Trek: live long and prosper!
the big bang theory
polish theatre in america
polish jewish roots
Author: Marek Kępa, Feb 2020