Q&A: Chuck Lorre
Inside the frenzied life of television's reigning sitcom kingFor a self-proclaimed misanthrope who dropped out of college to become a songwriter, Chuck Lorre has done pretty well. When his musical pursuits fizzled, the New York native discovered a talent for penning sitcom dialogue that would land him writer-producer gigs at "My Two Dads" (1987-90) and "Roseanne" (1990-92). Lorre went on to co-create, produce and write for "Grace Under Fire," "Cybill" and "Dharma & Greg," earning a reputation as a prolific and thick-skinned survivor. Even though his long-running CBS sitcom "Two and a Half Men" hasn't achieved the esteem its creator believes is due, "Men" has been the most popular TV comedy virtually since its premiere in 2003, pulling in 15 million viewers a week. Lorre added a second show to his stable in 2007, "The Big Bang Theory," which weathered a slow first season during the WGA strike but eventually become a modest hit, and both shows recently added multiple-season pickups. Before receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Lorre spoke with The Hollywood Reporter's Ray Richmond about life at the top.
The Hollywood Reporter: What's a typical day like for you?
Chuck Lorre: I start with a table read for one show and rewrite the script; then, I'll do a table read for the second show and rewrite that. Afterward, I do a casting session for one while I'm editing the other. Then I run back into the other writers' room and break a story for next week. After that, I'm on the phone with Broadcast Standards because they don't think discussing blowjobs is appropriate for CBS.
THR: Do you have time to watch any television yourself?
Lorre: I'm addicted to Jon Stewart. He's brilliant. He's my Johnny Carson.
THR: How have you gotten sizable audiences for two traditional multicamera shows at a time when sitcoms have been declared all but dead?
Lorre: That depends on how you use the term "traditional." The four-camera live audience goes all the way back to "I Love Lucy," but in the 1960s they were also doing single-camera shows like "Get Smart," "Bewitched" and "I Dream of Jeannie," all of which were shot like movies with laugh tracks. It's never about the amount of cameras you have; the show doesn't get more or less funny if it's one or four.
THR: What are you doing differently to make multicamera work now?
Lorre: We don't waste money -- it's just guys on a couch. We also make sure the show isn't too referential, so none of the episodes are stuck in time. That's why "Two and a Half Men" has been rockin' in syndication. We try to avoid the "Murphy Brown"/Newt Gingrich conundrum.
THR: Is that a philosophy you've formed from experience?
Lorre: The first lesson I got was at "Roseanne," which wasn't so much a show as a truth serum. You can say a lot of things about Roseanne, but her lasting legacy is she wanted to be honest. She would beat the shit out of you to bring your game up, so the family dynamics on the show resonated as genuine, and I'm forever grateful for that boot camp experience. Producer Bob Myer refused to compromise and would sit there until 4 in the morning until he was satisfied. You could cry and whine, but he'd just shrug and keep going.
THR: Let's talk about the on-air vanity cards that appear at the end of your episodes. You've posted about 240 of them on ChuckLorre.com.
Lorre: I never expected anyone would actually read them, but it's been cathartic to have the freedom to write, stream of consciousness, whatever I wanted within certain obvious boundaries. I've always thought of them as liner notes on albums.
THR: You've had your knuckles rapped a couple of times and had the title card censored on-air.
Lorre: Those are the times when our Web site hits really spike. We have to go through the CBS censors, as with any other content, and it's surprising what's considered objectionable. It's all right to poke some bears, but not others.
THR: Are you referring to Viacom chief Sumner Redstone, whom you offered to take clubbing as your "wingman" on a vanity card last year, following the breakup of his marriage?
Lorre: Yeah. I poked that bear and got dinged immediately. But poking Rupert Murdoch is totally OK. Every so often, I get called in by (CBS Paramount Television Network Entertainment Group president) Nancy Tellem to be told I'm out of my fucking mind. I never fight it; I save my censorship battles for the shows. I'm delighted they still let me write the cards. I keep waiting for the phone call telling me to stop.