The Big Bang Theory landed its name in the television record books in 2014 when the show’s five original stars — Jim Parsons, Johnny Galecki, Kaley Cuoco, Simon Helberg and Kunal Nayyar — landed the elusive $1 million-per-episode paycheck.
But two stars who joined the cast later, Mayim Bialik and Melissa Rauch, didn’t make quite as much — $200,000 per episode. Now, in the midst of contract renegotiations for the show’s 11th and 12th seasons, the original five are reportedly taking a voluntary pay cut so their costars can get a raise.
This move marks yet another similarity between The Big Bang Theory and its ultra-successful network comedy predecessor, Friends. In 2002, the stars of Friends — Jennifer Aniston, Matt LeBlanc, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, David Schwimmer and Matthew Perry — settled a deal for what was thought to be the last season of the show (it ended up going on for two more seasons, rather than one): $22 million for a season of 22 episodes, the highest salary actors have ever received for a half-hour episode.
Friends started as an ensemble show, and in its very early days, that’s how the actors were paid: equally, at $22,500 an episode. But as the show picked up steam in season 2 — and Rachel and Ross’s relationship became a focal point — Aniston and Schwimmer began to earn more.
The tight-knit cast didn’t like that inequality, however. So when it was time for the third season, they entered into contract negotiations not as individual actors, but as a true ensemble, led by Schwimmer and Kudrow, according to Entertainment Weekly. As such, Aniston and Schwimmer’s salaries went down in order to match the rest of the cast’s.
It stuck: From then on, the cast was paid the same per episode for the rest of the show’s eight remaining seasons, and salary negotiations were conducted with all six stars in the room. Season by season, that number went up, from $75,000 in season 3, all the way up to $1 million by seasons 9 and 10.
The biggest jump actually came between seasons 6 and 7, when everyone went from $125,000 an episode to $750,000. Those negotiations were so tense and down to the wire that NBC executives weren’t sure if they’d be able to renew the show at all.
Though in retrospect, Friends creator Martha Kauffman says the infamous $1 million an episode salaries were “kind of ridiculous,” the cast members have defended them.
For Kudrow, it was about making the most of her moment in the spotlight. Actors, she said, are “basically freelance,” so you need to prepare for the moment when, inevitably, you’re out of work again. She also argued that each of the Friends actors were so much a part of the show that it couldn’t exist without them — and they deserved to profit off of that. It was perhaps that mentality that led the Friends actors to earn royalties from syndication rights, a first for actors on a show that didn’t include their name in the title (think Seinfeld). According to USA Today, each cast member still banks $20 million annually from syndication.
“Especially actors on shows where they’re character-driven and the actors are the characters, they’re necessary, and I don’t think it’s out of line to ask that, you know, ‘Make me a partner in this endeavor in some way,’ ” she said.
LeBlanc echoed Kudrow’s claims, and said that while you can’t put a price on comedy — and thus, determine if those high salaries were “worth it” — as a working individual, you have to take what you can get.
“Were we worth $1 million? To me, that’s such a strange question,” he told HuffPost Live. “It’s like, well, that’s irrelevant. Are you worth it? How do you put a price on how funny something is? We were in a position to get it. If you’re in a position in any job, no matter what the job is — if you’re driving a milk truck or installing TVs or an upholsterer for a couch — if you’re in a position to get a raise and you don’t get it, you’re stupid. You know what I mean? We were in a position and we were able to pull it off. ‘Worth it’ has nothing to do with it.”
The actors kept this true ensemble mentality going in other facets, too: For example, they would enter themselves in the same acting categories for award shows. The hope was that though they’d be competing against one another, no star would be labeled “lead” while another was “supporting.” (The categories they submitted themselves in varied from year to year.)
While there’s some debate about whether or not the group tactic was a successful one for winning awards (only Kudrow and Aniston won an Emmys for Friends) it definitely brought in the cash — even if took a pay cut to get it.