The Sitcom Survivors

Brigitte Sire

Ashton Kutcher & Chuck Lorre

I thought he was really serious for a comedy guy," Kutcher, 33, recalls of his first meeting in April with Lorre, 59, a short chat orchestrated by CBS' Leslie Moonves that eventually led to the most improbable comeback story of 2011. At the time, Lorre had reason to be somber: Two and a Half Men, America's most-watched comedy, had imploded as star Charlie Sheen's drug-fueled tirades got him fired, leading to a $100 million lawsuit against Lorre and Warner Bros. Television. But rather than close up shop, Lorre took a gamble and chose to reboot the show around Kutcher. "After that meeting was over, I called [Men producers] Lee Aronsohn and Edward Gorodetsky and I said, 'We have to make this happen, this guy's amazing,' " Lorre recalls. The bet paid off: Men will end 2011 averaging 19 million viewers each week, up a staggering 22 percent over Sheen's last season. TV's top comedy showrunner (The Big Bang Theory, Mike & Molly) admits he was very nervous the night of the premiere, watching at his house with the casts and writers of all three of his shows. "It was a terrifying experience," he recalls. "Everything was being scrutinized, parsed, analyzed and condemned. It wasn't just a TV show, it had become something else." Now Lorre and Kutcher, who is signed for only one season, already have begun to talk about another. "Optimism and comedy writing are not necessarily things that go hand-in-hand," Lorre says. "But I'm as optimistic as I possibly can be about the show right now." 

Photographed by Brigitte Sire on Dec. 3 at Hollywood Center Studios in Hollywood.

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