8:30am PT by Daniel Fienberg
'Kominsky Method' Boss Chuck Lorre on Overseeing Five Shows in Zoom Writers Rooms
After earning Emmy nominations for stars Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin for its first season, Netflix’s The Kominsky Method added an outstanding comedy series nomination this year, making it creator Chuck Lorre’s third series to earn that lofty recognition.
Like all Netflix shows, The Kominsky Method exists in a ratings-free zone, so Lorre spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the added importance of awards recognition, his dress-up plans for September’s virtual Emmys and the myriad challenges of writing the third-and-final Kominsky season in quarantine along with overseeing Young Sheldon, Mom, Bob Hearts Abishola and the new sitcom B Positive at the same socially distanced time.
Congrats on the Emmy nominations. Did you, Michael and Alan get on a big celebratory Zoom call?
Well, we communicated with one another. We didn't go the Zoom route, but it was a wonderful morning for everybody.
How important does something like awards' recognition become when your show is on a service where you don't necessarily know exactly how many people are watching, just in terms of giving you a sense of how people are reacting to the show?
You are in a bit of a vacuum, not understanding or seeing ratings and things like that, so the nomination is a terrific acknowledgment that maybe somebody is watching and enjoying it. Season two debuted last fall around Thanksgiving, and I for one thought it was largely forgotten by the time Emmys rolled around, so it was really a great and terrific surprise.
Has the show generated different reactions from your friends and colleagues compared to other things you’ve done?
In my entire career, I have never experienced a response like the one I've gotten and continue to get on The Kominsky Method. People really seem to be responding to it and it's ridiculously gratifying. You have to remember that for many, many years, I've been working in front of an audience. The shows we have done over the years have been in front of a live audience, so that's your immediate feedback as to whether the material is working or not, so shooting this film style, it insulates you from the response, so when people tell you they're watching it and enjoying it or you get an email from somebody or you just meet somebody and they talk about it, that's the, I don't know, I can't think of another word other than the incredibly gratifying end results of doing something like this, but that it is landing with people, at least some people.
You come, as you say, from a multicam world with audience responses and from a broadcast world where the game is to make as many episodes as possible as fast as possible. How naturally has the small-batch storytelling on Netflix come?
It was a learning curve because you're right, my background has been in doing 22 or 24 episodes a year with the expectation of generating a hundred episodes or more and this environment doesn't have anything to do with quantity, which is a great relief, just make the best show you can, and the fact that they're all available at once, for me, anyway, allowed me to approach the writing of the episodes in a serialized fashion so that they're chapters in a book as opposed to standalone episodes.
In network television, my training has been that you don't take for granted that the audience saw last week's episode. It's a bad idea. Even if your show is very successful, the likelihood that the audience is familiar with each episode and can follow a storyline that is serialized is maybe the road to disaster, or at least the pride before the fall, and when all the episodes appear at once, you know that if the audience is watching episode three, they've seen one and two, and so the story can evolve over the eight episodes, as opposed to each one having to be wrapped up and finished.
You obviously have these two massive and Emmy-nominated stars, but it felt like the second season in particular, with Sarah Baker, with Jane Seymour, with Paul Reiser, it began to feel more and more like an ensemble as it was going along. Is that your natural writing instinct, towards that rather than star vehicles?
I was gifted with an extraordinary ensemble and it was always the goal was to slowly develop the ensemble and give them more opportunities to be front and center and adding Paul Reiser, that was a gift from God. I mean, he is amazing. I've been a huge fan of Paul's going back to Diner and so getting to work with him and seeing how he interacted with Alan and Michael, that was just remarkable. He's an amazing comic actor and dramatic actor as well. There's a scene in the second season where he's forced to examine his life in front of the class and it was one of the most moving things I've ever seen.
Now, you have these two stars who have this high level of familiarity for viewers, many of whom have grown up with them, aged with them, et cetera. How often do you still find yourself, though, being surprised by things that Michael and Alan do on set during the shooting?
Oh, all the time. Both men are masters of their craft and they're very different in how they approach the material and how they approach the performance, but they both arrive in a remarkable place that you can't anticipate. The good news is that regardless of how they do what they do, the final product is better than what's on the page. They make what you write better and what else can you ask for than to see a performance take the written word and make it better, make it more substantial, more meaningful? They find moments between the words, between the lines, between the exposition that you don't anticipate as a writer, and that's an education, and it's nice to get an education these days. It's nice to go to work and still be learning by watching other people do what they do, yeah.
Changing gears a little bit, the Emmys this year, they will, of course, be virtual. Is an Emmy show where you don't have to put on a tux and you don't have to leave your house at all kind of your dream Emmys, to some degree?
Well, I have been wondering whether or not maybe I can just dry clean the top half of my tux and just wear the top half and maybe some cargo shorts or boxer shorts on the bottom because it's a Zoom thing, right? I guess. I don't know. I have no way of understanding or anticipating what this might be like. I'm just grateful that we were included, really, truly grateful.
Any aspects of the in-person big Emmy gala that you're actually going to miss?
I've always found it to be a very nerve-wracking experience. It's exciting, I enjoy it, I like to see people I admire, and if possible, summing up the courage to go over to them and say, "I admire you. I'm a fan of your work." Just to meet people whose work is extraordinary, that's the gift of going to these things. The downside is it's frenetic, it's confusing, it's overwhelming. I think it balances it out. It is an exciting experience to be at these things and by and large, I enjoy it. I'll miss it this year. But again, missing it is one thing, but still grateful to be having this conversation with you. I didn't anticipate any of this.
How have you been holding up and remaining productive these past few months?
The writing for the different shows began in earnest in June and I've been working on season three of Kominsky since April. Writing is essentially a solitary activity, although the shows like Young Sheldon and Mom and Bob Hearts Abishola, and we have this new thing called B Positive, which is looking terrific, the sheer quantity requires a writing staff and a writing room and that works on Zoom, but it doesn't work as well as being in a room with people and trying to find your way through a script or even what's this series about, who are these people, why do we care. Sitting in a room with other talented writers — or, “Sitting in a room with talented writers,” let me put it that way, because the first time I said it presumed something I didn't like — but sitting in a room with talented, funny people, there's an alchemy that happens, the material gets better. The things on the page improve ideas, the collision of ideas, the arguing over what's right and what's wrong and what's funny and what's not, that friction actually causes things to get better. The Zoom thing is the best we can have right now.
With all of that happening, how have you been managing your time?
I think the only challenging thing has been self-discipline because we don't know when we're going to start shooting. We don't know when our start date is. We don't know when the cameras and the sound crews and hair and makeup and obviously the cast arrive on stage. So not knowing that means we're writing in this strange vacuum where there are no deadlines or the deadlines are hunches, yeah. It's a wild guess as to when we'll start, so the self-disciple is writing anyway, generating scripts that you believe in and you think are worthwhile, generating those scripts despite the fact that you have no idea when or if they'll get made, so that's the challenge right now. TV's all about deadlines. I mean, it's like running through a tunnel for nine months with a train right behind you. You just keep going. You cannot stop. There's no train now. You have to run for the love of running.
When it comes to Kominsky, you have stars who are 75 and 86. Is it going to be particularly hard to get the conditions right to get that back into production?
Oh, absolutely. There's no question that regardless of whether you're in a higher-risk group or not, creating a safe work environment is paramount. It's the essential ingredient that I don't know has been resolved yet as to how that might happen, but obviously, it's more pressing for people in a higher-risk group. I'm in a high-risk group, so... There's a lot of prayer and hoping and wishing going on.
What are the conditions that would have to be there for you to say, "OK, I feel OK about this"?
Oh, gosh. That's a tough question. Well, a vaccine would be great or some sort of therapeutics that would make this treatable so that we're not dealing with mortality or the risk of mortality. I mean, like anybody else in the world right now, you can't possibly go back to work if you're putting people at risk and when that risk is mitigated, when that risk is removed will be determined by, I don't know, the state of California? Certainly not a sitcom writer.
As you've been breaking these stories, which of your shows are actually going to acknowledge the change to state of the world, the pandemic, et cetera? I mean, obviously, Bob Hearts Abishola at least in theory has the setting for you to bring it up if you want to, but are you going to be doing that?
For the time being, we're working in an alternate universe. My personal fear is that generating scripts in the summer of 2020 that might not get made till January of '21 and might not air until the spring of '21, all those questions exist, putting a timestamp on a story risks making it irrelevant when it finally appears. That's the danger. If you try and do current events and incorporate current events into fiction, then you risk making the show dated immediately because when it finally does get made and it finally does air, what you've written about might not be at all relevant to what's going on at the time. Because we're not capable of seeing the future, it seems that the more prudent approach is to incorporate current events into these stories. Young Sheldon is absolved from that concern because Young Sheldon takes place in 1990, so, that's in a time bubble of its own, but for the most part, the only way to go forward and not try and anticipate... Well, how can you possibly anticipate what might be the state of the world nine months or a year from now?
Or a week from now.
Or a week from now, that's very true. I've always felt that way about everything I've done. When you make your show about current events, you may have relegated it to being useless going down the road. One of the greatest shows that I was a big fan of back in the late '80s and early '90s was Murphy Brown. If you watch Murphy Brown now, you've got to work your way through a Dan Quayle joke every few minutes, and while those were fantastic 30 years ago, they're not fantastic now, so as great as it was at the time, and I never missed an episode, it caused it to become time-sensitive. I've always been a big fan of handkerchiefs as opposed to Kleenex. A handkerchief you can wash and use again.
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.