Chuck Lorre on Comedy Ingredients: Corporate Chicken, Deep-Fried Running Shoes and A Dash of Bitterness
WHO: Chuck Lorre, creator/executive producer/writer, Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory
WHERE: Executive Dining Room, Warner Bros. Studio, Burbank, Calif.
WHEN: Wednesday, Dec. 10, 2008, lunch
THE DISH: Chuck Lorre says he is in the middle of “corporate chicken” with CBS over a joke in the year’s last episode of Two and a Half Men as we sit down to lunch.
The standards and practices department is taking issue with a scene in which the “Half” character on Men, 14-year-old Jake (played by Angus T. Jones), is fantasizing about getting a Hummer as his first car. While sitting with his laptop, Jake Googles “Hummer” to some surprising search results.
It’s Wednesday. Final mixing is Thursday, and the show airs Monday. “I can’t re-edit the show at this point,” Lorre says. “But you know it’s a legitimate thing. If you Google ‘Hummer’ you will get pornographic sites.” I take his word for it.
Lorre ultimately wins this fight, much as he is winning a bigger one on behalf of network TV: He is proving the 30-minute network comedy can still draw big audiences, not just big buzz. Two and a Half Men is the No. 1 comedy among viewers in primetime (averaging about 15 million), second by a tenth of a rating point in the 18-49 demo and, even without the boost of a cable run, the top-rated off-network sitcom.
The Big Bang Theory, the promising CBS sophomore comedy that Lorre also runs, delivered its largest audience ever two days before our lunch, racking up 10.5 million viewers in its 8 p.m. Monday time slot. It’s up 10% in viewers and up 6% in adults 18-49 over its freshman season.
Lorre is personally responsible for a third of the remaining multi-camera comedies shot with a live audience on the networks, and he’s been associated with hits in this form many times in its heyday—with Roseanne, Grace Under Fire, Cybill and Dharma & Greg.
But he insists he doesn’t have any big secrets to success. “I just try really hard to put on a show that we find funny,” he tells me. “And hopefully the audience agrees with you.”
Despite his track record, comedy has not gotten any easier: “I’ve always likened it to running down a tunnel with a train behind you. You can’t stop, you can’t even look behind you; you have to keep running.”
Time is the only protection against putting something on TV you are not happy with, he says. “If you have time you can work with it, polish it, fix it, cut it, throw it out, do it over, whatever,” Lorre tells me. “I’ve been on shows where you put on something that you know could be better but you ran out of time.”
All signs point to Lorre’s time management skills paying off. While you can’t chase ratings, “if you do a good show, the ratings follow,” he says. Ratings are “a reflection of whether we’re doing it right,” he says.
VIDEO Lorre is not known for goosing his shows’ ratings with celebrity stunt casting. In this video from our interview he explains why.
Extreme reaction is also a sign of success, he says. He reads the good reviews as well as the bad and he’s ok with the fact that “you cannot be the cup of tea that is appreciated by all. It’s okay. I love the work, but I am not the work.”
The fact that he gets all kinds of response to his shows gives him satisfaction, having achieved “cultural status of being either loved or hated,” he says. “There’s not a lot of middle ground, but I actually think that’s the definition of success. … If you engender passion one way or the other you’re probably doing something right.”
Lorre was a rock musician before he was a sitcom writer and tells me that definition of success goes back to the advice of a pontificating, cigar-toting music manager he knew.
“He said, ‘Boys, if halfs the people loves ya and halfs the people hates ya, you’re a star,’” he says. “Roseanne caused passionate reactions one way or the other but there was not mistaking that she was a huge star.”
When I ask if he remains in touch with his former sitcom collaborators such as Roseanne, he quickly corrects me—he wouldn’t call Roseanne a collaborator. “I would call her the boss, the undisputed empress of the entire domain of all she beheld, wherever she looked, whatever she touched. Thy will be done,” he says.
And yes, he still talks with her on occasion as he does with several people from Dharma & Greg – but not Cybill Shepherd of Cybill or Brett Butler of Grace Under Fire. “Those didn’t ended well,” he says.
“I was fired by Cybill. After five or six episodes into the season, the show was a huge hit too,” he says. “That was heartbreaking. I mean it was unbelievably successful right out of the gate from the first episode. Being thrown overboard was really tough.”
He quit Grace Under Fire “because it was an impossible task,” he says. “There was nothing I could do to satisfy Brett and the show was the number two show in the country at the time. … It did really well but I needed to get away from it.”
The day before our lunch, Lorre appeared on the Hollywood Radio & Television Society’s Hitmakers luncheon panel and said: “That which doesn’t kill us makes us bitter.”
So I ask about anger’s role in good comedy. “There’s a certain amount of anger in comedy, but to the extent that the anger is tearing you up personally then it becomes counterproductive,” he says. “If you can utilize it in the writing it serves a purpose.”
He says he thinks personally he is mellowing. “It might just be a factor of age,” he says. “Or exhaustion.”
Speaking of exhaustion, he is running ahead of two trains now, Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory. But considering he “gang writes” with his staff, and Men is in its sixth season, perhaps he could turn over some day-to-day reigns on that show in order to pursue more projects.
“I’m learning to delegate; it’s a slow process,” he says. “I kind of have an internal struggle. It’s hard to let go. I feel really protective of both shows. At the same time there’s ample evidence that it would be healthy for both myself and the shows to have a looser grip.”
He says he would like to try his hand at “something feature-length, theatrical in form that actually has an end.”
Does he have a particular story in mind?
“I don’t know I just want to be able to say ‘f*ck,’” he says.
That’s of course a word he can’t use on broadcast TV. Other than that and a few other outlawed words, however, broadcast content standards are evermore confusing to Lorre, making the primetime comedy game no less challenging than it was in the past.
“We push the envelope a little bit, but the envelope is entirely arbitrary. There’s nobody who gives an actual definition of what that envelope is,” he says. “To the best of my understanding, the FCC doesn’t have any real guidelines—they tell you what you’ve done wrong after you’ve done it.”
He’s particularly bothered by the nudity question. “Of course, we’d all die if we saw frontal nudity—unless it’s a dead body because then it’s OK, which frankly I find offensive,” he says. “Procedurals can show autopsy bodies and they’re ripped apart by saws and whatnot.”
He says the content issues speak more to society “than the FCC or CBS or any other lettered entity.”
VIDEO In this video Lorre elaborates on what is so wrong with content standards.
While S&P routinely requests Lorre take things out of his shows, he says network brass does not impose too often on him to put things in – like products. He did, however, find the most recent product placement request for The Big Bang Theory ridiculous.
“A CBS executive called me and asked if I could have the cast on The Big Bang Theory eating Healthy Choice dinners. And actually talk about it,” he says.
He shot it down on the basis that it didn’t make sense for the twenty-something physicist characters. But he is open to product placement if it does not disrupt the show.
“It’s not inherently wrong for a character to pick up a product but maybe it would be easier if (CBS) came to us with a computer product. Maybe. Something technological that would be part of their lives,” he says. “That has yet to occur.”
Of course, makers of the sort of technology his characters would most likely use aren’t necessarily the biggest advertisers in primetime. “They don’t advertise particle accelerators, do they?” he says.
LORRE ON LATENIGHT
Though he may not have much time to look up from his work of outpacing network trains, Lorre is well aware of the state of the world around him. We meet the same week that NBC says it will strip a Jay Leno vehicle at 10 p.m. and Tribune, whose stations carry Men in syndication, announces it is filing for bankruptcy.
He calls the Leno move “kind of sad. If they had developed one good drama, one good show, I don’t think they would have done that move. And it impacts a lot of people.”
As far as Tribune going bankrupt, Lorre is hopeful that the company will come back leaner and meaner. “I’ve never seen anything like this before and I don’t think anybody has, so everybody’s guessing at what’s going to happen,” he says.
Although he wishes the S&P process weren’t so confusing, he says he is content with his relationships at CBS. “I’d be an idiot not to be grateful and want to protect and nurture the relationship,” he says. “Things can go away so fast.”
That said, if he were a network boss, he would do one thing right away: Tap Jon Stewart for primetime. “To me he’s the heir apparent to Johnny Carson,” he says. “I would give him a primetime show if I were in charge of anything.”
Lorre tells me to eat my veggies—and keeps after me about it until I do.
Maybe it’s the guilt about his own order. He has a grilled steak sandwich, with fries. He apparently enjoys every minute of it.
“It’s greasy and fried, how could I not like it? You could deep-fry running shoes and you’d be all right,” he says.
He adds that the heavy fare is a departure from his typical lunch out of a to-go container: “I usually eat a salad. I make an effort not to commit suicide during lunch.”
VIDEO We didn’t have dessert, but did end lunch on a sweet note – with this custom Chuck Lorre Prods. vanity card for Mel’s Diner. He’s known for the missives at the end of each show that you have to use a pause button to read. And while this one won’t make it on the official vanity card archives on ChuckLorre.com, it is good advice.
BE A SUPER FLY CORRESPONDENT, tip us off to where the TV biz eats — industry bigwigs, talent, anybody working in TV in your town — with a note to email@example.com. We’ll keep your Fly on the Wall tips anonymous, just ask.