Chuck Lorre Dissects Dark 'Mom' Twist: "This Is a Life and Death Issue"

'The Big Bang Theory' co-creator also discusses running out of stories after six episodes on that CBS hit.
Darren Michaels/Warner Bros. Entertainment
CBS' 'Mom'

[This article contains spoilers for Thursday's episode of CBS' Mom, "Diabetic Lesbians and a Blushing Bride."]

From the death of Kevin Pollak's Alvin to Marjorie's cancer to Bonnie's relapses to the regular maintenance of addiction recovery, CBS' Mom has consistently tackled dark subject matter with emotional seriousness, while never losing a broad approach to comedy.

That balance explains how Thursday's episode could include a wedding, a red velvet penis cake and the introduction of Rhea Perlman as Victor's oddball conservative Russian sister Anya, only to end with the main characters shaken by news that Emily Osment's Jodi, a recovering teen addict, had overdosed and died.

Jodi was only introduced at the beginning of the third season, but in the frequent absence of Sadie Calvano's Violet, the character had become almost a surrogate daughter to Christy (Anna Faris), who also served as Jodie's AA sponsor. Since the episode found Christy unable to talk to Jodi in an apparent moment of need, it seems inevitable that this tragedy will hit her hard in the weeks to come.

The Hollywood Reporter talked with Mom co-creator Chuck Lorre about why it was important that the show take this sad turn and how Jodi's death will be approached in the episodes to come. The Big Bang Theory co-creator also discussed why he thinks Mom has a strong enough narrative engine to have a long run and explained the particular gratification of having shows with different tones and learning the ways that Mom differs from Big Bang and Big Bang differed from Two and a Half Men.

From the time Jodi was introduced, was her fate on the show always set in stone?

Yeah. It was made more difficult when the time came because we all fell in love with Emily, but the idea was all along to keep the show with at least one foot in the real world where these things happen.

I thought Emily was very touching in the role. Was she able to impact how Jodi's character was shaped?

To begin with, she's a magnificent actress and she was able to find all the comedy that we were looking for, but she was also able to portray a broken young woman who had a great wall built around her in the beginning and then slowly melted over time. There's something about the actress that pulls you in. Certain actors can do that and I think it's just innate in the person — to create empathy just by their very being and she's remarkable.

The show has never shied from the consequences of addiction, but why was it necessary to show this extreme and to show it now?

I don't know how to answer that question other than that it felt important to the entire writing staff, including myself, that you don't lose sight of the fact that this is a life and death issue. Even though we're doing a comedy and our first issue is to somehow cause laughter, from the very beginning we've tried to make this show about recovering from alcoholism and drug addiction, and to do that without ever acknowledging the harsh reality of it seemed to be a cheat. It would be easy to do on a network sitcom — to walk blithely through the mine field — but it didn't feel like the right thing to do. It was pretty much planned from the beginning that mortality had to be dealt with. The potential of becoming a glib, junky show about something as devastating as alcoholism and drug addiction, what it does to people and families, I didn't want to be part of that.

This episode has the devastating end, but it also has jokes about red velvet penis cakes. You mentioned that the first goal is causing laughter — is that particularly hard when things have to get this serious?

Not necessarily. What it really changed was how we deal with this in the following episodes. The episodes that follow this one are impacted deeply. It would have been impossible for these characters to carry on as if nothing happened, as if they hadn't experienced this terrible loss. The episodes that followed this one, they just dive right into [questions like] out of a loss like this — I don't want to use the cliche "silver lining" — but what can be taken away from this? In the following episode, there's a scene in the second act where we deal exactly with that, where Anna's character articulates her need to find some meaning in this loss and find some way for it to have some usefulness, as opposed to simply a dark, gnawing hole in her soul, and that was a challenge. That was a challenge, finding a way to keep the series going beyond this point. That was riskier than the episode itself in some ways.

Last season had Alvin's death, which was set up Bonnie's crisis or emotional experience. How did you approach the impact of this death on Christy?

The priceless gift of sobriety was embraced in the following episode, recognizing that it's a vulnerable and fragile gift, to be relieved of the obsession to drink and use drugs. And recognizing the fragility of it, I think, may be the whole point of this exercise. It's not a guarantee. It's not a slam dunk. The cliche "one day at a time" is horribly true. There's no "flip the switch and a person is cured of addiction." It really is a daily reprieve, as they say. 

It has never felt like you've had to cut corners and like you've been able to attack things like this head-on, but are there conversations you have to have with CBS before you do an episode like this? And then after you've done it, in terms of how you promote an episode like this?

No, there have been no conversations whatsoever as far as the subject matter is concerned. None. As far as how to promote it, all I've asked of the promotion department was that ... There's always that danger of stumbling into making the Very Special Episode, what used to be done in comedies, which was every once in a while there's that episode that's just dripping with treacle and sentiment and it seems to be some way for the writers to vent and be dramatic. That always lingers there as the danger when you're doing something like this. The hope is that you're always leading with the idea that this is, in fact, a comedy and we're never going to fall short of that, hopefully, but inside that comedy, there's the sometimes harsh truth of the subject matter. It's difficult. I don't envy the people who have to say, "Watch Mom Thursday Night!" I don't know how you do that other than to suggest ... Boy, even talking to you about it would be to suggest that I know how to promote something like this. I just hope that people watch and get what we're trying to do.

The screener I watched didn't have the PSA that I understand will accompany the episode. Talk a bit about the approach to that and what you wanted that to accomplish.

That was the surgeon general spot, with Anna and Allison [Janney]. It's basically just a very simple, direct-to-camera acknowledgement of the reality of alcoholism and drug addiction and gives a phone number to call for help and information. It's only 30 seconds or something, but you never know. If it helps one person, it's worth it.

You're nearing the end of your third season here. Big Bang Theory just hit its 200th episode. Do you think Mom has the kind of engine to let it run that long or do you think the subject and seriousness might limit it?

I think it's a wide open arena for storytelling. People trying to repair their lives and change their lives doesn't seem like a finite arena. These are characters who are undergoing some sort of evolution and that's a difficult process. It's fraught with trial and error and hopefully trial and error means comedy. I don't see why the stories couldn't continue. The characters are continuous in flux and I think that's the heart and soul of series to continue. If characters and their relationships are dynamic and are open to change, they're not one-joke characters, they're not one-story characters. They can embrace as many stories as anyone's lives can tell. 

By the way, when we started The Big Bang Theory 10 years ago, we had no clue that there were 200 episodes. I think we hit the wall at six originally, we were up to six episodes and we were like, "Oh my God! There's no more story. Who's gonna call [then-CBS president and CEO] Les Moonves and tell him we're out of ideas?" But there turned out to be more ideas. For me anyway, you slowly fall in love with these characters on The Big Bang Theory and Mom and in doing so, you find ways to talk about them and tell their stories. You don't start with a situation. You start with the characters.

Mom is a tonally different show for you, from what you've had all of this success doing. I'm wondering how gratifying and maybe rejuvenating it's been for you on a personal and professional level to have this as a tone and voice you can work in, in addition to the other things you do.

It's extremely gratifying. It's really difficult. To try and find a comic path through some of these stories is ridiculous at times, but the degree of difficulty, when you get it right and you find there's a way to do it or a way to tell this story that feels honest within the limitations of what we do, it's really gratifying. For many years you'd never dream of tackling these subject matters. The very words themselves wouldn't even be mentioned in a situation comedy because they're anathema, they're radioactive to comedy. To say the words and to tell the stories that go along with these words like "drug addiction" and "alcoholism" and "cancer" and "teenage pregnancy" and "premature death and overdose" —  these are poisonous words, phrases and ideas to comedy, at least the way I was raised in this business. To tackle them now, to see that there's a way to do this — and I can't tell you how frustratingly difficult it is at time — when it works, it's really rewarding.

It's probably made me a bit of a nuisance when I'm working on The Big Bang Theory, because I'm now going, "Wait a minute. Can't we go a little deeper? Can't this be a struggle that's a little more consequential?" But the show has its own tone and language and rhythm and I always keep in mind that they are very distinct and, by design, they're meant to be distinct. They're not the same show, so I have to switch hats when I'm working on the different shows. One of the first lessons we learned on The Big Bang Theory is the risque, edgy stuff we were doing on Two and a Half Men was completely wrong for The Big Bang Theory. These characters are innocent and naive, to some extent, and to go for that kind of humor was disastrous. You learn that really quickly when a studio audience sits there not only quietly, but you can hear them sharply gasp when you try for comedy that's on the edge. They just wouldn't have said those things. So there was a wonderful learning curve where you start to understand the parameters of each show.

Mom airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on CBS.

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