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
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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.