The Big Bang Theory celebrates intelligence, awkwardness, and the way a nerd's mind works. For that reason, you'd think audiences have seen the stars as dorky as they can get on the show. Unfortunately, it could always be worse.
Playing a nerd on TV is one thing, being a nerd in high school is something else entirely, and as we know, no one escapes those four years totally unscathed. Even the stars of one of the most successful sitcoms of all time have a few awkward photos in the family album that they probably cringe at.
Here's what some of the stars of The Big Bang Theory looked like in high school, where they didn't have to pretend to be awkward.
At first glance, Kunal Nayyar's role on The Big Bang Theory seems like the easiest of all. Since Raj Koothrappali literally can't speak in front of women, and women make up more than half the people on Earth, you'd think he'd get an easy ride spending half his screen time standing there looking uncomfortable.
Yet judging by the old portrait of Nayyar from his younger days, he isn't quite as introverted as his character is. High school-era Nayyar wears a big genuine smile that the self-conscious Koothrappali would be hard-pressed to bring forth.
Nayyar may not be embarassed by this old photo of himself -- overall, he just looks like an aged-down version of the man we see on CBS every week. Still, somewhere deep down, he knows the pain of his tongue-tied character very well. Otherwise he'd have no way of putting on such a stellar, wordless performance every time a girl sets foot on screen.
John Galecki may have had the least conventional adolescence out of all of his co-stars. Born in Belgium to American parents, he grew up in Illinois as the eldest of three siblings. However, he got his first big break as an actor at the age of 12, appearing on a miniseries called Murder Ordained on CBS.
Shortly after, Galecki dropped out of school at age 14 to pursue acting full time. It wasn't long before he got the role that many fans remember him for -- David Healy on Roseanne. He was in his late teens throughout his time as Darlene's boyfriend, so his "awkward" years have already been pretty well publicized.
Still, this picture of Galecki before he got famous is a far cry from the Dr. Leonard Hofstadter we know today. The 42-year-old actor might be one of TV's most recognizable geeks, but his career has shown that there's much more to him than that.
Next year, Galecki will reprise his role as David Healy when Roseanne returns for a reboot season on ABC.
Like her character, Mayim Bialik is a real-life neuroscientist. Doubtless, this lends some credibility to the role -- not just in her use of medical jargon, but it means Bialik has experience being the smartest person in the room. As nice as it sounds, it can also be alienating and lonely, which is something the showrunners explore a lot between Amy Farrah Fowler and Sheldon.
Like Galecki, Bialik was also a teenage actor in the 90's, appearing on NBC's Blossom from 1990 to 1995. When the series ended, Bialik had a chance to choose between two ivy league colleges. Instead, she went to UCLA so that she could remain in California.
Needless to say, Bialik's high school photo shows a much less reserved person than Amy Farrah Fowler. She can be seen throughout her youth wearing her heart on her sleeve as an actress, practically the polar opposite of the stone-faced genius she portrays on screen.
Still, the feeling of quietly judging the people around you must be a familiar one for Bialik. Otherwise, she really is just that good of an actress.
Simon Helberg plays the nerd archetype people fear the most in the real world: the try-hard. His endless quest for validation makes him constantly vulnerable and socially clumsy in a way that audiences can relate to and cringe at together.
Even Howard Wolowitz's career is emblematic of his yearning for approval. As an aerospace engineer and former astronaut he has literally spent his life shooting for the stars, yet it's never enough to make guys like Sheldon stop talking down to him.
Wolowitz's most defining feature is probably his perfectly managed bowl-cut. His 70's reject hairstyle calls to mind hundreds of real-life nerds we've all met, for better or for worse. Fans may be pleased to learn that, in high school, Helberg's haircut wasn't that far off from his sitcom counterpart.
For many fans, Sheldon Cooper is The Big Bang Theory. His antics and one-liners are the reason they tune in every week. He represents and evolved form of nerdiness -- a calculated, thoughtful approach to being strange. It was enough to earn him a spin-off.
By all accounts, Jim Parsons may have occupied this same role in his own high school. He was the star of the Klein Oak High School theater department, with a major role in nearly every production during his time there. In the pecking order of geeks, theater geeks can be the scariest of all. They can articulate awkwardness, and amplify it for a local play.
Young Parsons looks a bit more expressive than his character, and a bit more thoughtful about his wardrobe. Where Sheldon would likely be in one of four super hero t-shirts for a portrait like this, the real Parsons pulled out all the stops with his tuxedo.
Ironically, it might be that the real life Parsons has more in common with his Young Sheldon counterpart than the character he portrays every week. After all, it's the younger Sheldon who wears a bow-tie every day.
Christine Baranski plays Leonard's brilliant psychiatrist mother, Beverly Hofstadter. She's like a walking talking awkwardness origin story, explaining all of Leonard's neuroses just by existing on the show. Audiences love her overbearing mother bit, especially as it adds depth to the way Leonard interacts with other people onscreen.
Turns out Baranski has a bit of that over-achiever streak in her just like Beverly does. She was named class president in high school up in Buffalo New York. Once she determined that she had a passion for acting, she went off to Julliard, one of the most prestigious institutions for actors of all time.
Baranksi's high school picture reveals a totally different person than she portrays on the show. The only thing that translates is that self-assured smile -- something Beverly wears from time to time. For everything else, Baranski must be digging deep into her acting chops, finding the motivation for playing America's favorite Freudian nightmare.
Melissa Rauch walks a fine line on The Big Bang Theory, playing the wife that often Howard doesn't seem to deserve yet convincing the audience they belong together anyway. She puts up with his hair, his gaudy fashion sense, and his constant clumsy dialogue, but that might be because Rauch has some real life experience.
Rauch's high school photo is about as 80's as it gets -- a white dress with shoulder pads, a big huge scrunchy, and, and big hair begging to burst free. This might explain how Rauch can convincingly portray a character that looks past Howard's insistence on 70's apparel.
Before she landed The Big Bang Theory, Rauch worked as a stand-up comedian. The world of stand-ups is notoriously riddled with awkward stops and verbal pitfalls. It's a line of work predicated on spoken nerdiness -- and it was likely the perfect preparation for portraying Bernadette.
John Ross Bowie plays Barry Kripke -- the rival of Sheldon, Leonard, and their friends. Kripke is a genius on the same level as Sheldon in many respects, yet his social ineptitude manifests more as bullying than awkwardness.
Bowie is no slouch in the classroom either. He earned a degree in English and Education from Ithica College, though he may have been more focused on his band and his sketch comedy than his studies. Bowie was a member of a punk band called Egghead, and he made sketch comedy with comedians such as Rob Corddry.
While his physics cred might not be on par with that of his character, his childhood photo is nerdy enough to land him on the show. With his huge glasses and collar-sweater combo, young John Ross Bowie wouldn't look out of place on the set of Freaks and Geeks or Super 8.
In the beginning of The Big Bang Theory, Penny is present as the foil to all the dysfunction in the world of these high-powered nerds. She's the touchstone for the audience, a cool kid trapped at the math club's table.
As the series goes on, Kaley Cuoco brings much more than that to her character. Penny helps reveal that everyone has a little bit of a nerd in them, for better or for worse.
Cuoco grew up not far from Hollywood, and she couldn't be different from the Penny we meet in the series' pilot. Rather than having a resentment for academia and knowledge, Cuoco graduated high school early. At the age of sixteen she was a high school graduate, an amateur actress, and a regionally ranked tennis player. So she did the logical thing -- jumped head first into an acting career.
Cuoco has built a lot of success outside of The Big Bang Theory, appearing in long-running ad campaigns and movies -- recently earning a punchline-heavy role in Why Him alongside James Franco and Bryan Cranston.
Yet there's something honest in her portrayal of Penny, and it's clear she's helped steer the character into a more compassionate figure, like the thoughtful girl who graduated early, dropped her tennis racket, and started a career.
Photo Credit: Getty / Smallz & Raskind