'Rock Star' of Sitcoms
Chuck Lorre learned the right notes from working with Tartikoff
By Melissa Grego -- Broadcasting & Cable, 1/26/2009 2:00:00 AM
At the very beginning of Chuck Lorre's primetime career, Brandon Tartikoff showed Lorre that he could leave the music business for television and still grow up to be a rock star.
Lorre—who at one time pursued a career as a guitarist, singer and songwriter—is now best known for having his hand in some of the most successful multi-camera comedies in the history of television. Right now, of course, that includes his duties as the creator/writer/showrunner of CBS sitcoms Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory.
But his first TV staff job was on the NBC show My Two Dads, which debuted in 1987, and was a project in which Tartikoff showed a personal interest.
“When we were shooting the pilot, he was standing on the stage with us and pitching ideas for how to make it funnier,” Lorre says. But Lorre was terrified. “Brandon Tartikoff was correctly perceived as someone who could make or break your career without breaking stride,” he remembers thinking.
Lorre had an idea about how to improve a scene. Paul Reiser and Greg Evigan starred in My Two Dads as a pair of opposites raising the daughter they both may have fathered; they were both ex-boyfriends of the girl's mom, who had recently passed away. Reiser was Michael, the straight-laced dad; Evigan the wild-child artist Joey. In one scene, Joey throws Michael's day-planner out the window, making a point about how dependent Michael is on the meticulously kept schedule.
Lorre thought that to further both the point and the punch line, Michael should pull a backup day-planner out of his briefcase. “I took a breath and decided to say something out loud,” which in that setting could have been taken as a young punk having some serious temerity, he says. “I thought, 'What the hell, go for it.' I said something. [Tartikoff] turned and said, 'That's funny, put that in the script.'”
'In Awe' Of Tartikoff
Lorre's lasting memory of Tartikoff is the way he could get caught up in the executive's enthusiasm “to make great television and shoot from the hip. It was exciting and it made you feel like you could be part of something special,” he says, adding that he was “in awe” of Tartikoff.
Tartikoff's apparent chart-topping swagger showed Lorre that making hit TV could be like being a rock star. Lorre says, about Tartikoff, “There was a little rock 'n' roll to the guy. He wanted everything he touched to be number one. I'm really touched and honored to have anything associated with Brandon Tartikoff [in any way]. It means a lot.”
Lorre got his first real break in TV while doing some part-time work in door-to-door sales at the same time he was playing clubs and private parties. He stumbled into the offices of DIC Entertainment, at the time located in a tiny suite above a hair salon on Ventura Boulevard. He convinced the company to give him a chance to write and pitch stories for animated fare that was running in syndication, he says: “That was my first shot at writing television.”
And that was the beginning of the end of the music career. He still loves to play, he says, but sometime in the 1980s he had an epiphany that he did not have the tools to play at the level of his musical heroes. He quotes a line in Dirty Harry: “'A man has got to know his own limitations.' At a certain point, I recognized mine.”
On the other hand, he has not accepted certain other limits. He has convinced CBS's standards and practices department to clear myriad jokes over the years that it deemed indecent. Two and a Half Men in particular has become known for its risqué dialogue and situations. Recently, for example, Lorre fought to keep a scene in which Jake, the teenage son on Two and a Half Men, uses Google to look up “Hummer” because he wants that kind of car when he's old enough to drive. Jake's laptop search produces Website options that, any viewer would have inferred, were pornographic. The scene aired in the last episode of 2008.
Sticking Up For His Shows
He is no stranger to the idea of fighting for his shows, or making a statement. (He still ends his sitcom with sometimes off-the-wall vanity cards that flash momentarily, requiring a pause button to read. They're archived at www.chucklorre.com.) And he knows how to make hits. Lorre wrote for, produced and/or created such hit comedies as Roseanne, Grace Under Fire, Cybill and Dharma & Greg before creating Two and a Half Men and Big Bang Theory.
Today, he is proving that the 30-minute network comedy can still draw big audiences. Two and a Half Men is the No. 1 comedy among viewers in primetime (averaging about 15 million) and second by a hair in the 18-49 demo. Even without the boost of a cable run, it is the top-rated off-network sitcom. And The Big Bang Theory has continued to grow over its freshman season among total viewers and the demo.
In fact, Lorre is personally responsible for a third of all multi-camera comedies on the networks that are shot with a live audience. His success makes competitors jealous. At the Television Critics Association press tour earlier this month, Fox Entertainment President Kevin Reilly said his network is focused on rebuilding Fox's roster of live-action comedies because “across the dial, people still love comedy. Two and a Half Men is not only a tent-pole for CBS, it's the most successful show in syndication.”
Indeed, NATPE CEO Rick Feldman calls Lorre “the master of his world.” “Right now, the number one person generating revenue for stations is Chuck Lorre,” Feldman says. “He's iconoclastic, he's independent, interesting, he's passionate for the business, and he's the biggest factor in multi-camera, traditional sitcoms, which other people think are dead. He's proved it doesn't have to be.”
In short, Lorre is a TV rock star. And he admits to feeling that way.
“When you manage the magic trick that is a television show, it can become part of the cultural landscape and that's really exciting,” he says. “You've got it on, and then you actually know people are looking forward to watching your show. Like a song you listen to all the time.
“It's what it must feel like to be part of a band for a long time,” he adds. “You have a sense of how to play together. It's not making music, but it's the closest we can come to it.”
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