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
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.