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
“You still arguing about whether tanning beds would kill vampires?”
“No, we decided that was silly.”
It’s mid-November and The Big Bang Theory cast, writers and producers are gathered around a table on Warner Bros.’ Stage 25, reading through a draft of their latest script. Seated among them is showrunner Chuck Lorre, who’s also responsible for two other CBS comedies, Two and a Half Men and Mike & Molly.
Lorre is TV’s most successful, and busiest, sitcom producer.
As the actors perform their lines, the 58-year-old Lorre sits at the head of the table, wearing his black leather jacket, laughing along with his team. Nearly every joke is playing well in the room, and it should — in one week, this episode will be shot before a live audience.
“Are you suggesting we live our lives guided by philosophies found in cheap science fiction?” says Mayim Bialik, who plays neurobiologist Amy on the show.
“Why not?” counters series star Jim Parsons. “Tom Cruise does it.”
Later, in private, Lorre is asked how the Big Bang table read went.
He looks mystified by the question, and almost offended by the obviousness of the answer.
Lorre says: “Terrible.”
JUST ONE JOKE, ON ONE SHOW
The comedies of Chuck Lorre collectively bring nearly 40 million viewers to CBS each week and many in Hollywood do not understand why. His shows are not critical darlings (though Big Bang gets positive reviews). They don’t win many of the top awards. They don’t have the aging hipness of NBC’s The Office, the fresh acclaim of ABC’s Modern Family or cultural buzz of Fox’s Glee.
Lorre’s shows simply have legions of fans, often overlooked; not in the country’s elite margins but the expansive middle. And in a fall season where so many broadcast shows are sinking in the ratings, Lorre’s comedies rule their time periods, unfazed by competition.
“None of us need any more hipness points,” Men executive producer Eddie Gorodestsky says.
Which shouldn’t lead you into thinking Lorre’s comedies are somehow easier to make than others, or less of an accomplishment. Success on broadcast TV is rarely accidental. A showrunner actively managing three simultaneous and unrelated hits is nearly unheard of. And for some reason — and this is what we’re going to try and figure out — Chuck Lorre makes these broad comedies better than anybody.
The first hint as to why he’s been successful is back at that Big Bang table read. By day’s end the “terrible” script has been rewritten. Lorre is quick to point out the writers didn’t do anything wrong. This is the process. Or, at least, Lorre’s process.
“We’ll work on it over the weekend if need be,” Lorre says. “And if we’re not happy with what we shoot next Tuesday night, we’ll rewrite it and shoot it again. You can’t allow it to go on television until it’s the very best thing you can make, because it’s a fragile relationship with the audience. There’s no reason for them to tolerate a bad show and come back.”
What about, say, the Tom Cruise joke? That drew a big laugh.
"It's almost cheating,” he says. “It’s very unlike us to do a reference joke like that. It was funny and the moment was appropriate, it had Amy questioning Sheldon’s reliance on pop fiction — that part seemed right, for another scientist to question this man’s obsession. So that moment was, I thought, nice. But to throw a hand grenade at Scientology? We probably don’t need that. We probably stepped over a line there. I think maybe it was self-indulgent. It will probably fall out of the script.”
And that’s Lorre, thinking about just one joke, on one show.
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.”
SECOND-STRING GUITAR PLAYER
Born Charles Michael Levine, Lorre’s the son of a restaurant owner and stay-at-home mom, who grew up watching I Love Lucy, Abbot & Costello and stand-up comedians on Ed Sullivan. He dropped out of SUNY Potsdam college in 1972 to become a songwriter. For more than a decade he was a “second-string guitar player in third-string bands playing fourth-rate clubs” who didn’t even own a TV, though he did manage to pen Deborah Harry’s 1986 hit “French Kissing in the USA.”
That same year, Lorre changed gears to pursue a writing career in Hollywood and endured the requisite list of indignities — he once had to undergo a colonoscopy at a teaching college in front of a group of students when short of cash, and was fired from kids shows like My Little Pony and Muppet Babies.
His first major gig was in 1990, getting hired as a writer on ABC’s legendarily tumultuous Roseanne, starring Roseanne Barr. That was followed by the creation of ABC’s equally tumultuous Grace Under Fire, starring Brett Butler, followed by CBS’ quasi-tumultuous Cybill, starring Cybill Shepherd.
Lorre once said he got through those diva-filled days with a “primal scream and bourbon combo.”
What came next was a transformative show for the writer. He created ABC’s Dharma & Greg, a sweet 1997 sitcom about a New Age girl who falls in love with an uptight lawyer. Lorre started reading Zen philosophy as research into Dharma’s character and says the teachings changed his life, giving him methods to manage unpredictable stress.
In 2003, Cybill writer Lee Aronsohn and Lorre fell into a conversation about how “a child might be a positive influence on the life of a degenerate.” “For some reason, the words ‘Charlie Sheen’ came to mind,” Lorre says. The two men met. “He had a great sense of humor about it and we built a show around him.”
Four years later, Men was still a ratings powerhouse (despite critical barbs), but the show didn’t have much company. With new hipster wannabe comedies bombing left and right (anybody remember Four Kings or Knights of Prosperity?), networks were embracing reality TV and writing off traditional multicamera sitcoms.
Lorre and CBS never did. The problem wasn’t that viewers didn’t want to laugh anymore, but that networks kept clumsily attempting to replicate the success — and format— of Friends and Seinfeld.
Dharma writer Bill Prady told Lorre about some computer programmers he knew who “could figure pi to 80 decimals but couldn’t figure out the tip in a restaurant because there were too many variables.” At the same time, the duo were mulling a comedy about a young woman who moves to the big city. Then inspiration hit -- why not combine them together? Enter Big Bang.
Lorre’s trio was filled out last year with Mike & Molly, when Men writer Mark Roberts had an idea for a show about an overweight couple, two people who have “given up hope they’d ever find somebody, then found each other.”
Together, the shows represent an extraordinary source of revenue for CBS and Warner Bros. Men and Big Bang rank near the top of the chart for advertising rates on broadcast — pulling $207,000 and $195,000, respectively, per 30-second spot. Plus, there are lucrative syndication dollars that Lorre enjoys along with the studio — Big Bang sold for about $1.5 million per episode this year, and Men just resold for another seven years into syndication after initially going for a record $2 million per episode.
Moreover, Lorre’s shows have boosted CBS’ ratings just as CSI and its spinoffs reinvigorated the crime drama genre for the network. Men is the linchpin to CBS’ top-rated Monday comedy block. Once the network paired Men and Big Bang together, the geek-friendly comedy grew into a ratings monster, ranking as last season’s highest-rated scripted show. This fall, Men is being used to fuel Mike & Molly, which has grown into the fall’s highest-rated new comedy. Big Bang was moved to Thursdays to establish a comedy beachhead on NBC’s comedy turf and is the night’s ratings leader, beating NBC’s Community by 8 million viewers.
Today, Lorre is single (he’s been married twice), lives in the Pacific Palisades, has two grown kids and says he’s happy. Probing questions often illicit a Zen-like response:
On what he has sacrificed to work on three shows: “I’m not making sacrifices. I’m exhausted a lot, but I don’t look at it as making sacrifices. I try and take a moment as often as I can to stop and recognize how lucky I am.”
On whether money is still important: “The answer to that is ‘no.’ It’s about doing good work, it’s doing something I can be proud of.”
On his lack of Emmy love: “It’s an unnecessary luxury to focus on.”
On Big Bang being moved to Thursdays: “I don’t want to think about the competition. That’s time misspent. No matter where they put you on television, there’s going to be other choices for the audience.”
One gets the sense that Lorre’s answers are idealized. He expresses how he wants to feel, and how he sometimes does feel, but there’s more to it. The truly Zen rarely need Zen philosophy, after all. It’s those with neurotic anxiety and bouts of unfocused rage who find such teachings most helpful. Even so, who is to say which is Lorre’s more accurate response — his emotional reactions or active management of them?
Despite his Zen side, Lorre will confess to some frustrations.
AN UNSEXY ANSWER
Lorre has reached a point in his relationship with CBS where he only takes notes from his writing staff, many of whom he’s worked with for years.
“We never talk,” Lorre says, when asked about working with the network. “I’m not one to applaud network executives in general, but CBS doesn’t screw around with shows when they’re working. We’re telling good stories, they leave us alone.”
Yet Lorre’s team is in “ongoing” discussions with CBS about content standards, particularly on Men.
“No one really knows what’s appropriate for broadcast, so the word ‘arbitrary’ keeps coming up in my mind,” he says. “They’ll say you can’t do this on this show, but it’s OK on this show. This word is inappropriate, but this word is fine. That’s frustrating. I really like these characters and it’s hard to constantly fight a rear guard action against people who have an agenda to not make any waves. To cut all the corners off, to make sure every thing is safe, simple and if anything sticks out that might be edgy or offend someone.”
For example, in an upcoming episode there’s a line about a big-spending girlfriend of a character who’s “sucking him dry.” Another actor replies, “I should hope so.”
“If I were at the network I would kill that line so fast,” Lorre says. “But they didn’t say a word.”
Another scene has a character using the term “shag and release” when referring to a one-night stand. CBS standards refused to allow it, insisting it sounded like the character was talking about ejaculation. “We gave up on that battle,” Lorre says. “It was hopeless.”
“If somebody is artistic, they wear their emotions on their sleeve more than the next guy,” CBS entertainment president Nina Tassler says. “What Chuck feels is always in defense of the material, and I respect that.”
What about doing a dark, profane comedy for a network like HBO? Would that be an attractive future project?
"Two and a Half Men isn’t profane enough for you?” Lorre counters. “I would love someday to be able to work on a different canvas. To tell a story with an ending would be amazing.”
Asked what gives him the most fulfillment nowadays, Lorre’s answer is a second clue to his success. What do you suppose would give a comedy showrunner the greatest gratification? The laughter of a live audience? Watching finished episodes at home with his family? Getting big ratings?
"It’s those moments when you can find the right moment that makes the story work,” Lorre says. “Or solve what seems to be an intractable problem in the script-writing process.”
It’s a tremendously unsexy answer, but also what’s necessary. If you derive the most fulfillment from solving problems, what will that do for the quality of your work?
ONE PERSON LEFT TO ASK
It’s a live taping of Mike & Molly, and the heavyset stars are visiting Mike’s mother, who’s limping with a bandaged foot.
“You shouldn’t be walking around on that broken toe,” chastises Billy Gardell (Mike).
“What’s the worst than can happen?” gruffly replies Rondi Reed, who plays his mother. “It turns black and falls off? I got nine more.”
A few minutes and some brief discussion among the producers later, the actors perform the scene again, this time with a slight tweak.
“You shouldn’t be walking around on that broken toe.”
“What’s the worst that can happen? It turns black and falls off? I got eight more.”
Lorre grins as he watches the monitor. Nine toes was math. Eight toes is weird, mysterious, sad, funny. The audience laughter rolls on a bit longer than you might expect and you sense that some are giving the writers an appreciative nod — Oh, I see what you did there.
The next scene has the stars re-creating a driving scene that was previously shot on a greenscreen stage without the audience. Using only chairs and a prop steering wheel, they re-enact the scene so producers can capture the audience’s laughter. It would be easier to add canned laughs into the footage, but Lorre says “that’s cheating.”
“Nobody likes to hear this, because it doesn’t make for a good story, but we mostly take laughs out because it steps on dialogue,” he says.
Yet not one of his characters seem precisely to reflect Lorre’s personality. The saturated, sunny vaudevillian world of The Chuck Lorre Comedy seems more than a few degrees removed from the man who creates the content. Lorre doesn’t watch other TV comedies (they remind him too much of work) and prefers dramas and Jon Stewart’s Daily Show. Pressed if he is the type of person who would watch Men and Big Bang if they were not his own, Lorre says, “I’d like to think so — I’m ultimately putting on shows every week that I laugh at.”
Men co-star Jon Cryer, who says Lorre has “a combination of rare talent, control freakishness and authoritarianism,” ticks off the differences among Lorre’s shows: “Men is cynical and debased, yet antic. Big Bang is all about the quirkiness of the characters. Mike & Molly is very humanistic about two people trying to connect. They’re each completely different and Chuck allows each to find their own style.”
While there might not be a singular Lorre stand-in (like Larry David’s George Constanza on Seinfeld), Lorre says he finds ways to relate to his characters.
“The character who’s frightened to talk to women? Easy, right?” he says. “The character who feels like he wants to belong to the mainstream of society and participate but doesn’t know how? Got it. The character who arrogantly believes he’s better than everyone else and wants no part of what’s going on? Yeah, OK.”
Notes Tassler: “You could take the same stories that he crafts in comedic form and you could tell the dramatic version of the same story. He’s found a way to capture what is uniquely real and honest about human relationships and then create characters that are universally appealing.”
Add “focus on character” to the reasons behind Lorre’s success, along with enjoying solving script problems and his perfectionism.
But if one is to answer why Chuck Lorre has three hit sitcoms, there is still one more person left to ask.
IN THE SANDBOX
“I’ve had an opportunity to learn on the job for a long time,” Lorre says. I’ve been really lucky. I managed to keep working. I’ve made mistakes — I’ve made them on television. I don’t know if that’s an answer to your question. The only thing I can point to is I’ve had time. I got to work 17 hours a day. I stumbled in to this at exactly the right time. I got to sit in rooms with brilliant guys and watch how they worked and learn from them how to do it and how not to do it. I watched great actors and how they took material, what they did with it, and what they didn’t do with it. I’ve seen the behind-the-scenes maneuvering and the power and the money drive people mad and misbehave — and the damage people can do around this kind of stuff.”
For those who read Malcolm Gladwell (Lorre is a fan), this answer, focusing on the amount of time Lorre has worked, is the best of all. In Outliers, Gladwell writes that the key to mastering any field is the “10,000-hour rule”; that from The Beatles to Bill Gates, starting a profession at precisely the right time in history and spending 10,000 hours developing a skill is a hallmark of many who rise to the top. Total all those hours writing and polishing comedy scripts, and it’s a safe bet Lorre has clocked past that tally.
Again, the reason for Lorre’s status is illuminating, if hardly surprising. Nor is it unexpected that Lorre, for all the strain that running three shows brings, is perfectly content to continue doing them.
“I love to be able to play in the sandbox,” he says. “I don’t want to go home yet.”
After the final interview, Lorre returns to the set and takes his chair in front of the monitors. His eyes stay on the actors, one ear cocked to listen to the audience. Their reactions, he says, are key. The images on the monitors shift — Mike & Molly becomes The Big Bang Theory becomes Two and a Half Men. The actors and sets change, Lorre doesn’t. The audience laughs. Sometimes, he laughs with them.