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“I thought he was really serious for a comedy guy,” Ashton Kutcher recalls of his first meeting in April with Chuck Lorre, 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.” Lorre chatted with The Hollywood Reporter‘s Matthew Belloni in connection with the year-end Rule Breakers issue.
THR: How did you first hear Ashton’s name as a possible replacement for Charlie?
Chuck Lorre: To the best of my recollection, it came through CBS.
THR: They said, ‘What do you think of this guy?’
Lorre: Yeah, and I think—it was a long and difficult year, so forgive me—but I think Ashton, through his representatives, put it out there that he would seriously consider it. The chain of events is difficult [to remember], but I’m pretty sure it came from CBS, and then I had a conversation with [CBS CEO Les] Moonves at some point in April.
THR: What was that conversation like?
Lorre: “You really need to meet this young man before you make a decision.” And he was right. When you meet Ashton, you understand immediately you’re in the presence of a remarkable young man.
THR: Was the flirtation with Hugh Grant ever real?
Lorre: Yeah, we talked with Hugh about the possibility of coming on-board, because I was fixated on the idea that if we were to bring in a new character, he should be mid-40s to 50 years old. I couldn’t let that idea go. It got easy to let go once I met with Ashton. Because this was an opportunity to work with a pretty big talent, and it just became apparent to figure it out and let go of the old idea.
THR: Were there other names that you considered?
THR: In that initial meeting with Ashton, what did you guys talk about?
Lorre: We talked a little bit about his extraordinary life in the high-tech world, with social media, and investing in emerging companies. His enthusiasm was contagious, and he was speaking way over my head. I understood 20 percent of what he was talking about, because he actually understands this stuff in depth. He can talk about computer code, as opposed to just the hype.
THR: Did you leave the meeting investing in a startup?
Lorre: No, basically because I’m a coward. But after the meeting was over, I called [writer-producers] Lee Aronsohn and Edward Gorodetsky and the other people who are deeply involved in making Two and a Half Men and I said, “We have to make this happen, this guy’s amazing.” Also, I looked at his movies, and episodes of That ‘70s Show, I looked at Punk’d. But what really touched me was, there were a couple moments – and I can’t remember which film it was, because he’s made quite a few— aside from his abilities in comedy, he also has the ability to do really poignant and heartfelt moments. I thought, ultimately, that was the key to creating a character that we could care about. We introduced him as a heartbroken man. And there’s a sincerity and an authenticity to the actor, to the man himself, that allows you to care for him, because he can wear those real emotions on his sleeve. It’s pretty powerful.
THR: At what point did you let the rest of the cast in on the decision?
Lorre: The first thing we did before we really made any firm decisions, we had a talk with Jon [Cryer], and we arranged for Jon to meet with Ashton– they needed to discover what that dynamic was, and what that relationship was. The greatest part of that process was the relationship between the two of them, both on-screen and off-screen, happened very quickly. Writing for the two of them, putting the two of them on a couch and giving them material to work off against each other, it felt very natural very quickly. Frankly, without that, we were kind of doomed.
THR: Before the premiere in September, were you worried whether anyone would show up to watch?
Lorre: Worried doesn’t begin to cover it. It was a terrifying experience because everything was being scrutinized, parsed, analyzed and condemned. It wasn’t just a television show, it had become something else, and the pressure was unpleasant.
THR: Did you think you might get criticized for killing off Charlie in the first episode?
Lorre: Of course.
THR: Was there ever any debate about that?
THR: Your holiday card this year features a picture of you being mauled by a gorilla and the tagline, “Oddly enough, not my worst day this year.” What was your worst day this year?
Lorre: There were probably about 150 or 160 of them. You know, it was a long, dark tunnel for many months, trying to understand what was happening and how to respond [to Sheen]—or not respond. Trying to decide whether to continue the show or let it fade away. There were many, many days, honestly. I don’t think I could pick one.
THR: You’ve said that you offered to quit Two and a Half Men when Charlie began attacking you ni the media and that you regret not quitting when Charlie was arrested for assault. Has Sheen reached out to you at all since the show has gone back on the air?
THR: Do you anticipate that happening?
THR: With the show doing so well, do you feel like you’ve been vindicated?
Lorre: I don’t quite think in those terms, so I don’t know how to answer that question. I know this is going to sound like a lot of nonsense, but I’m just grateful that we were able to re-launch the show and keep the crew together and have a good time doing it. We’ve had a lot of fun so far. Is it a flawed process? Absolutely. Did we get it right every time? Not even close. There were many missteps along the way, and I assume we’re not done screwing up, but we’re trying our best to put on a good show and make people laugh.
THR: Ashton is only signed for a year, have you talked to him about continuing?
Lorre: I have.
THR: And what are his thoughts on that?
Lorre: I can’t get involved in conversations like that.
THR: But are you optimistic?
Lorre: You know, optimism and comedy writing are not necessarily things that go hand-in-hand, but I’m as optimistic as I possibly can be about the show right now. There are so many other factors involved, I really can’t think about [next year] right now.
THR: Ashton’s had his own personal stuff going on this year, do the tabloid headlines ever get discussed on set?
Lorre: Clearly, Ashton’s got stuff going on in his personal life, but it’s never impacted the work, and he’s a consummate professional. He shows up and does his job with a great deal of grace.
THR: What’s the most surprising thing about him that you’ve learned?
Lorre: Good question. He’s kind of fearless. And his enthusiasm is – it’s not recklessness, it’s a willingness to take risks, creative risks, and his joyfulness is kind of infectious. It kind of filtered through the whole production. I mean, just taking the job alone was an enormous risk, and he took that risk with a big smiles – he said, “Let’s do this thing, let’s give it a shot.” His enthusiasm and his determination was really infectious. It really helped me, because this was somewhat of an unnerving process.
THR: Charlie is off doing a new show, Anger Management, which is going to be on FX. Since Two and a Half Men reruns also air on FX, your show might actually be his lead-in or his lead-out. Are you planning to check out the show?
Lorre: I have made no plans.
THR: Any messages for Anger Management showrunner Bruce Helford?
Lorre: No. I’ve known Bruce for many years – I wish him all the luck in the world. It’s a hard job to create a show and keep it going.
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