Running A Comedy Machine: How Chuck Lorre Makes Hits

Nov 27, 2012
Originally published on November 27, 2012 5:51 pm

On Tuesday's Morning Edition, NPR's Neda Ulaby has a story about Chuck Lorre, the producer whose name is attached to three of the five highest-rated comedies on American television last season: The Big Bang Theory, Two And A Half Men, and Mike & Molly. (Mike & Molly is both the newest of these shows and the underachiever, being only the fifth highest-rated comedy and the twenty-ninth highest-rated show on all of broadcast prime-time television in total viewers for the 2011-12 season.) Men and Big Bang are both massive syndicated moneymakers, to the point where TBS has been very nearly rejuvenated just by being able to boast the rights to the latter and FX has been so boosted by the former that it signed on to air ex-Man Charlie Sheen's Anger Management.

Lorre probably got his biggest dose of public exposure during the Sheen epic, which culminated in the star leaving Two And A Half Men, seeing his character emphatically killed off and literally burned to ashes that were then thrown in the air, and being replaced by Ashton Kutcher. But Lorre has been around sitcoms for much, much longer than that. He worked on Roseanne and produced the reasonably well regarded Grace Under Fire, the clearly troubled Cybill, and the very sweet Dharma & Greg. Those – particularly if you combine them into a body of work with the three Lorre works on now – are actually very, very different shows, despite the fact that they all have, to varying degrees, a pretty traditional sitcom feel.

In one sense, there is a Chuck Lorre brand; call it "50 percent sweet and 50 percent vulgar, plus or minus 30 percent depending on the show," or possibly "the comedy that the plurality of Americans like, whether you personally think it's clever or not," or possibly "comedy for people who hate critics." (In fairness, both the leads on Mike & Molly and the cast of The Big Bang Theory are often spoken of kindly even in critical circles, even when the shows they're on are less so.) But in another sense, Lorre executes a kind of comedy that can vary enormously in both tone and quality – in part because he created these shows with different collaborators.

Two And A Half Men is a product largely of Lorre's collaboration with Lee Aronsohn, who was behind the "enough lady jokes!" controversy that happened this spring. Aronsohn displayed at that time (and essentially acknowledged) a distrust of women that comes through loud and clear on the show, which he agreed during that controversy is about damaged men and the women responsible. Men remains a pretty nasty, angry show, and by far the one with the most consistently juvenile sensibility. The Big Bang Theory is much warmer and more optimistic about humanity. It was co-created by Lorre and Bill Prady, who used to work for – of all people – Jim Henson, and whose Twitter chatter is with people like Wil Wheaton and other geek superstars. Mike & Molly, which has a genuinely sweet romance at its center and some very brittle supporting characters, was co-created by Lorre and Mark Roberts, who used to write for Men but uses a much lighter tone these days.

All three shows come from the Lorre machine, and there are rhythms and stylistic qualities in common. Lorre is effectively the primary architect of what became the distinctive feel of CBS comedy in the post-Everybody Loves Raymond era. But the three shows are actually quite different, aside from the basic fact that they're all popular (two of them are massively so) and none of them are critical darlings.

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You know, some of the biggest comedies on network television have the same producer. Chuck Lorre created both "Two and a Half Men" and "The Big Bang Theory." They're seen constantly in new episodes and reruns.


Lorre became more famous when he was publicly attacked by his former star, Charlie Sheen. These days, Sheen is gone, and you can only say Lorre is winning.

INSKEEP: He talked about his craft with NPR's Neda Ulaby.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Chuck Lorre knows what'll make 12 million people laugh on Thursday night when they watch "Two and a Half Men." Then he'll make almost 17 million people laugh during "The Big Bang Theory" immediately after.


MELISSA RAUCH: (as Bernadette Rostenkowski) So I was taking a shower this morning, and when I got out, I started to dry off with what I thought was a towel. It turned out to be Howard's mom's underwear.

ULABY: "The Big Bang Theory" was last week's top-rated scripted show for adults.


RAUCH: (as Bernadette Rostenkowski) I had to take another shower.

ULABY: "The Big Bang Theory" is so popular, the cable network TBS built an entire strategy around airing its reruns. So how did Chuck Lorre figure out what so many Americans find funny? Lorre claims to have no idea.

CHUCK LORRE: There's an alchemy to this thing, and to presume you have control over it is arrogant and foolish. It's fraught with error. It's just - it's a mess.

ULABY: Lorre says the only way to pull off the Herculean task of running three top comedies simultaneously is ceding a little control to his writers. For example, he takes no credit for a scene in "The Big Bang Theory" when one character, a socially inept scientist, starts playing the online game "Words with Friends" with Stephen Hawking.


JIM PARSONS: (as Sheldon) Ooh, my friend Stephen just played the word "act" for 18 points. That's right. I call him Stephen now, because I checked, and he was not OK with Wheels.

ULABY: But when Hawking dropped Sheldon as an opponent, he's comforted by a friend.


JOHNNY GALECKI: (as Leonard) Here's the problem: You can't beat Hawking like that. He hates to lose. Everyone knows the guy's a big baby. I mean, forget the wheelchair. He should be in a stroller.

LORRE: It was a brilliant scene. I had nothing to do with it, except I laughed. These things have a life without micromanaging them, without clutching them tightly and squeezing them to death because I'm frightened that it's all going to go away.

ULABY: That's the darkness that powers Lorre's light comedy. He grew up in Long Island where he inherited a punishing work ethic from his father.

LORRE: My dad had a luncheonette, an eight, 10-stool little diner where you had hamburgers and scrambled eggs. And we'd get up at 5 o'clock in the morning and go in on the weekends and holidays and summer and stuff. So, yeah, he taught me to work.

ULABY: Lorre intended to be a professional musician, but he married young and ended up selling gifts door-to-door in Los Angeles to support his family. One day, he walked into an animation studio and thought, hey, I'll pitch a script.

LORRE: I had no idea what I was doing.

ULABY: But he sold it.

LORRE: Don't underestimate stupidity as an asset.


ULABY: Lorre went on to write for, produce and create some powerfully female-centric comedies, including "Roseanne," "Cybill," "Grace Under Fire."

LORRE: These were angry women who were, you know, kind of at war with various parts of their lives. So the idea was: What would happen if we created a woman who was in love with life?

ULABY: So, in 1993, Lorre and a producing partner went in a totally different direction.


JENNA ELFMAN: (as Dharma) Shower inspector.

THOMAS GIBSON: (as Greg) Dharma, I'm going to be late for work.

ELFMAN: I'm sorry about that, sir, but I have a job to do.

ULABY: At its peak, Lorre's show "Dharma and Greg" drew 20 million viewers. But it never became the pop culture phenom that was "Two and a Half Men."


JON CRYER: (as Alan) What's going on?

ASHTON KUTCHER: (as Walden) She kneed me in the nuts.

ULABY: Lorre says he's always mindful of what's acceptable, family-friendly fare in primetime. For him, the bottom line is whatever he finds funny. And, sure, that might be a dad who's overly impressed when the mom of one of his son's friends takes off her jacket.


CRYER: (as Alan) Oh, you must be Boober's mom.

ULABY: A studio audience might lose it over boob jokes and wheelchair jokes, but critics remain generally unimpressed. It's Lorre's fault that so much television comedy is low-hanging fruit salad, says TV scholar Myles McNutt.

MYLES MCNUTT: What is sort of the cost of being broad? What is the cost of trying to appeal to large audiences if you're creating these offensive representations?

ULABY: Networks, of course, don't care about that kind of cost as much as massive payoffs. And in a television ecosystem ever more independent on syndication, Chuck Lorre is basically his own food chain. The explosion of Internet and cable means endless outlets for CBS to sell his shows.

MCNUTT: You know, those characters aren't going to change. If you catch an episode of syndication from four years ago, it won't be that different from the show you were to watch on CBS on Thursday night.

ULABY: Which helps explains the magnitude of the problem last year when "Two and a Half Men's" biggest star, Charlie Sheen, started cycling out of control with rants about tiger blood.

LORRE: We were concerned that he was going to die, or someone might get hurt.

ULABY: Sheen was so perfect playing a lecherous bachelor, local stations are paying two million per old episode for reruns through the next eight years.


CHARLIE SHEEN: (as Charlie) I'm a big old, bourbon-soaked cigar-huffing ass, as God in his infinite wisdom meant me to be.

LORRE: Charlie had this elegant, Dean Martin, Teflon ability to be unbelievably raunchy, and it was totally OK. It was totally acceptable. It was not ooky. The wrong actor delivering some of that material - the one-night stands and the bimbo of the week - it would have been - ugh, it would have been awful.

ULABY: Without Charlie Sheen, "Two and a Half Men" is doing fine. And it remains the second-most-watched scripted show in syndication, right after "The Big Bang Theory." Still, Chuck Lorre, a titan of network comedy, does not feel his success.

LORRE: When you go and watch a rehearsal of something you've written and it stinks, the natural feeling is: I stink. I'm a fraud. I need to go and hide. The silence is deafening, and it's a horrible experience. But it's humbling, and it happens every week. It doesn't matter how long you've done it.

ULABY: Still, Chuck Lorre has enough faith and enough ego to make vanity cards his trademark. He recently published a book of the personal musings he shows very briefly after episodes of his shows. Here, he's reading the very first one.

LORRE: (Reading) I believe that everyone thinks they can write. This is not true. It is true, however, that everyone can direct. I believe that the laws of karma do not apply to show business, where good things happen to bad people on a fairly regular basis. I believe that what doesn't kill us makes us bitter. I believe that the obsessive worship of movie, TV and sports figures is less likely to produce spiritual gain than praying to Thor.

ULABY: And, Chuck Lorre believes in moving on to bigger screens. He's recently signed a deal to start making movies. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.