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.