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Chuck Lorre insists he was consumed with gratitude when he found out his passion project, The Kominsky Method, had been Emmy-nominated for its third and final season. “That people thought well enough of the show to include it, how can you not feel grateful?” he says. After all, Lorre is exceedingly aware of the seemingly infinite choices TV viewers have today, and it was he who had convinced Netflix to let him continue after co-star Alan Arkin decided to step away. “To be singled out in any way, shape or form has to result in gratitude,” he continues, “and if you’re not grateful, you’re not paying attention.”
In this final season of The Kominsky Method, Michael Douglas’ character wrestles with what happens when your dreams come true — when doors you never anticipated opening are opening, in his case as an actor — and the fears that come with that. In what ways could you relate?
I didn’t set out to be a TV writer. My journey into TV came after 15 years of banging my head against the wall trying to make it in the music business. There’s a moment in the last episode where he’s talking to Roz, played by Kathleen Turner, and he’s staring up at that billboard talking about dreams deferred and that this wasn’t supposed to happen. He says, “I’ve lived my life with a broken heart,” and without going too deep into this personally, my music career didn’t happen — I had a bit of luck along the way, but there was a broken heart associated with that and there still is because it was my first love. Growing up as a kid, music was everything. TV was I Dream of Jeannie and Gilligan’s Island, music was The Beatles — a fairly different world of inspiration and aspiration. The idea of a broken heart connected with me personally. The career I’ve had in television is far beyond anything I could’ve ever imagined, but it wasn’t the dream I had.
Do you remember your “billboard moment”?
Well, the billboards for The Kominsky Method — they put my name on the goddamn things, and that’s astonishing to me. I don’t take that lightly.
Your name had never been used to sell a show on a billboard?
No, nor should it. I’m not the show. The actors, the people in front of the camera, are. Your name is supposed to be irrelevant. It’s about Jim Parsons and Kaley Cuoco [of The Big Bang Theory], it’s about Melissa McCarthy and Billy Gardell [of Mike & Molly] and Allison Janney and Anna Faris [of Mom] — that’s the show, and your job is to make that work. And when your name becomes something that adds value in the advertising and promotion, that’s a moving experience. If I were to say, “Oh, it means nothing to me,” I’d be lying.
I’ve heard you say you didn’t know what closure would be like on Kominsky until you sat down to write it. What happened as you began to put pen to paper?
It was in the beginning of quarantine, and it was a lot of false starts. Writing a script and then throwing it out and starting over again. But I did want closure. We knew this was the end of the series, and it was a difficult sell to Netflix to give us this opportunity to bring the show to some kind of closure because we weren’t going to be doing this with Alan Arkin, who had an enormous impact on the first two years.
Were there moments in there when you thought, “Maybe we shouldn’t continue”?
I can’t tell you how many times I was ready to call [Netflix co-CEO] Ted Sarandos and Michael Douglas and say, “Hey, guys, can we not do this? I was wrong, forgive me, can we still be friends?” But I didn’t make that phone call, and I’m really glad I didn’t. The odd silver lining of a plague was that everything was delayed by many months, and that time was a gift. I was never under the gun writing; I had the time to write and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite, and that’s never the case in TV. The metaphor for TV, for me, has always been running down a tunnel with a train right behind you and you can’t stumble because the train will crush you. I had six months to write this, which was an unbelievable gift.
You shot during a pandemic. How nervous were you and your older cast about returning to production?
There was a cloud of fear and darkness over the whole procedure because you’re being tested three times a week with a stick up your nose and you’re swimming in a pool of Purell on a daily basis. And people think I’m making this up, but there were actually these young women on set whose job it was to walk up with a 6-foot-long stick and hold it up when you’re talking to somebody to remind you of what 6 feet looks like. I remember saying to one, “I know what 6 feet looks like. I just imagine myself lying down and then subtract an inch.” She did not think I was funny.
I’m sure she didn’t.
And you had to wear a mask, obviously, but if you wanted to talk to the actors, you also had to put on a face shield on top of the mask and I was constantly forgetting that. And these people, the health commissars, were chasing me around with a shield, and on top of that, there is a legitimate fear that someone might get sick and it could be dangerous. Thankfully that didn’t happen. We had people test positive, but no one got seriously ill. But I lost [actors] for two weeks at a time because [people in their orbits] tested positive, so there was a little bit of crisis management required — and by that, I mean [curling up in the fetal position] and praying to God to please help.
How were you impacted creatively during the pandemic?
I made a judgment call early on that I wanted to write about things that were meaningful to me and resonated with me emotionally and that would not have a time stamp on them. I did not put the show in the COVID world — there’s no mention or indication of it at all. I just wanted to write about the issues that had been the reason to do The Kominsky Method in the first place, which is an examination of aging, without the high concept of “Let’s get on a motorcycle and rob a bank.”
Which has been done many times.
Yes, [most comedies] about people in their later years have been about them trying to be young, and I didn’t want to write that. It had been done well, it had been done poorly, but certainly it had been done. I wanted to write about the minutiae of getting older, without any of the hijinks, as it were. I tried very much to stay focused on what the show was about from the onset and not get distracted by the darkness of the time we were doing it in.
You’ve also expanded the definition of comedy, at least in terms of how you’ve approached it in the past. Was it freeing not to rely on the joke, joke, joke sitcom format?
Oh, absolutely, and “freeing” is a good word for it. I grew up in this business and every performance was in front of a studio audience, every one for 30 years, and that studio audience was your litmus test. If they didn’t laugh, you’d failed. And I was never of the mind-set of, “We’ll put some fake laughs on it and it’ll work at home.” If it’s not funny when you’re there watching the actors, it’s certainly not going to be funny in your living room. The audience is part of the [writing] process — the actors are holding for the laughs, and the rhythm of the show changes because of that laughter or the lack of laughter. It’s like trying to compare the javelin toss with the shot put; they’re different skills.
You have 27 network shows, but you’ve been clear that this was the one closest to you and the one for which you’ve written every word. Are you working on something else?
Are you enjoying not working on something else right now?
It’s a little disorienting. I’m trying to find my way through. There are four shows that are in preproduction or production right now for CBS, and I’m doing the best I can to be supervising and/or supporting and/or getting out of the way of whatever needs to be done to get those shows to debut in the fall and do well. But as far as doing something new, I don’t know what that is yet. I’m hoping someone will tell me — wait, actually, I’m not.
I’m guessing Warner Bros. has a massive library of IP that you could reboot at a moment’s notice — which I’m also guessing sounds awful to you.
Yeah, it does. It really does. (Laughs.) I want to do something because it’s exciting and I feel driven to do it, which was the case for The Kominsky Method. I don’t want that to change. I certainly don’t want to do something just to do something.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
And the Odds Are…
Comedy king Chuck Lorre has, confusingly, never won an Emmy. And after many, many mainstream sitcoms over the years, Kominsky seemed to be his best chance when it premiered in 2018 — almost tailor-made for TV Academy tastes with its more art house approach and focus on veteran actors. But the loss of co-lead Alan Arkin in its third and final season took a bit of wind from its word-of-mouth, and its merits, however great, seem likely to be overshadowed by fellow insider comedy Hacks and well-meaning Ted Lasso. — Mikey O’Connell
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