Why This Man Has 40,000,000 Million Viewers
“Two and a Half Men,” “The Big Bang Theory,” “Mike and Molly”: How perfectionist Chuck Lorre became primetime’s top populist and what it all means
CONFESS TO SOME FRUSTRATIONS
On the Warner Bros. lot, Lorre’s production offices have taken over a two-story building.
Men (CBS’ veteran hit) occupies the second floor. Big Bang (launched three years ago and equally successful) shares the first floor with Mike & Molly (the season’s highest-rated new comedy).
There’s a mock family crest on the stairway joining his two floors. The crest heralds the following traits: “Self Obsession, Neurotic Anxiety, Unfocused Rage.”
That description echoes the Brooklyn native’s reputation. A few years ago, he was dubbed by one publication “the angriest man in television.” At the time, it was easy to understand why. Few had been charged with handling a more chaotic string of high-stress shows than Lorre.
During the course of a broadcast TV season, a showrunner will manage 22 episodes. Lorre has made 30 episodes in less than four months, darting from office to office within his building, and from stage to stage on the lot. The level of focus this requires, while maintaining Lorre’s standards, is enormous. There are times, he confesses, “when you want to rip your head off.”
To get an idea, this Big Bang table read is the same day as a Mike & Molly taping. In a couple more days, Lorre will shoot an episode of Men. By Saturday morning, he’ll “crawl in to a prenatal ball and weep.” He has no plans, he says, to produce a fourth show. Three, he says, is already “unreasonable.”
The day-to-day pressure, however, seems to stem mostly from Lorre himself. He tells himself that all it takes is one unfunny episode to permanently damage a show’s relationship with the audience.
“There are showrunners who care about being right, Chuck only cares about the show being good,” Gorodestsky says. “He gets the bad rap of being blunt or hard, but he treats everybody the way he treats himself. He does not have patience for coasting.”
Unlike some of Lorre’s early shows such as Roseanne, most headline-making drama on the CBS sitcoms are largely external -- most notably the recurring bouts of Charlie Sheen shenanigans, such as his recent trashing of a New York hotel room.
During a recent Men taping, Sheen was all smiles, fist bumps and high fives, nailing his lines the first runthrough. A publicist nonetheless quickly ushered a reporter away from the actor’s proximity.
Lorre has credited Men with being the foundation of his current success and it’s notable he has never publicly criticized Sheen — even after the actor threatened to quit Men during his contract negotiation this year. Earning an estimated $2 million per episode, Sheen is the highest-paid actor on TV.
“He’s a worker amongst workers,” Lorre says. “His personal issues don’t come onto the stage, and he’s been a good partner for a long time.”
And then there’s the less worrisome criticisms about Mike & Molly — ranging from the show being cruel to overweight people by relying on fat jokes, to being cruel to skinny people for daring to show fat people on TV.
"We decided early on that if the jokes are mean spirited, they’re probably wrong and if the jokes are self-deprecating, they’re probably OK,” Lorre says. “These characters have a sense of humor about themselves that says something that’s valuable.”