Chuck Lorre has experienced the lows and highs of network TV situation comedies, from the challenging situation with Grace Under Fire (1993-98) and Cybill (1995-98) to his current status as co-creator and driving force behind a trio of CBS comedies: Two And A Half Men, The Big Bang Theory and Mike & Molly. It doesn’t sound like it’s gone according to any kind of plan, and in fact that’s the case, as the sometimes fiery, always funny, veteran showrunner makes clear. If he deserves at least a humanitarian Emmy for surviving the ordeal of Two And A Half Men star Charlie Sheen’s three-and-a-half men meltdown the previous season, he’s been in the game long enough not to expect much.
AWARDSLINE: Let’s start with Two And A Half Men. Why was it important to you to keep it on the air even after part of that eighth season got scratched?
CHUCK LORRE: It wasn’t simply my decision. There were a lot of people involved and so forth. Including, you know, you’ve got Warner Bros. who had a great deal with it, economically, at stake. But by and large there was a family of people that had worked together for eight years and a lot of people were counting on the show continuing for a number of reasons. One was it was a livelihood for a lot of people and we had a great time on it and had a lot of fun doing the show all the time.
AWARDSLINE: When did you know that this was going to work?
LORRE: I think when I first met with Ashton [Kutcher] I got a sense he was a remarkable young man and a remarkable actor who had a tremendous amount of charisma and skill as well. He really knows what he’s doing and we had lots of conversations, and over a period of time he started to see that there was a way to do this and there was a way of arising from the ashes as it were.
AWARDSLINE: And what was the most gratifying thing about this season for you, after you were put in the center of the whole tumultuous situation?
LORRE: Keeping this large group of people together. A lot of the folks on Two And A Half Men go back to ’95 on Dharma And Greg. So there are long relationships with lots of people and the fact that we could keep going and have a good time. We had a terrific time making the show this year. It’s exciting, it was frightening, no one really knew if it was going to work. It was one of those things where everything we did was under a microscope. It did seem at a certain point that there was no harm in trying.
But we could have slunk off and called it a show after eight and a half years. But it didn’t seem like there was any down side to trying to keep the show alive or what people might think of it. We certainly weren’t going to hurt anybody by trying.
AWARDSLINE: It sounds like you were close to tossing in the towel. Was there some extra determination of not letting another person dictate whether this show lived or died?
LORRE: It was just this hope that we could write something that we could believe in and have fun building and it was actually pretty exciting last June sitting in a room with [series co-creator and EP] Lee Aronsohn and [writers/producers] Eddie Gorodetsky and Jim Patterson and Don Reo. We sat in a room and said ‘OK let’s figure out how to do this.’ Going into the ninth season of something and being frightened — that’s a remarkable place to be. I’d never obviously experienced it because we were ending a series and starting one in 22 minutes. That first episode had to, in a sense, end a series and start a series and somehow have closure and open up a whole new world of possibilities. And how do you do that? Frankly I didn’t know. There were a lot of false starts.
AWARDSLINE: You’ve often said that you didn’t feel that the show got the respect it deserved in Emmy season and from critics, even though Jon Cryer won the Emmy a couple of years ago. Do you feel like the love increased after the debacle?
LORRE: No, I don’t feel anything like that. I actually feel what an idiot I was to even say that. It’s just ridiculous, you know, to not be grateful for the success of the show and not to focus on what’s not happening. I mean that’s just preposterous. That’s indefensible. If I could eat those words — please.
AWARDSLINE: I wonder, is it better to create shows around established stars like Charlie [Sheen] and Cybill Shepherd or come up with a great concept like The Big Bang Theory and let the casts become stars? You’ve obviously had both experiences.
LORRE: Well, they’re both valid approaches to development, to try and find the essence of an established star. Capture a voice that already exists and fictionalize it the way that makes it palatable and makes it part of an ensemble. That’s a nice thing to do but I enjoyed doing it. It kind of gives you a little bit of a leg up in a way ’cause you’re starting with a voice in your head. And the other way to go is what we had with The Big Bang Theory, which was also a wonderful experience and feel the false starts and miscues and attempts by [co-creator/writer/EP] Bill [Prady] and I to find these characters and that’s a journey into darkness because you really don’t know – you’re hit by lighting one afternoon when you’re sitting in a casting room and Jim Parsons walks in.
And, you know, then there’s that casting moment that is a wonderful experience where it’s literally like feeling your hair is blowing back because you’re really okay, you’re in the presence of someone remarkable and can we be this lucky? It was a great experience when that comes together when Jim and Simon [Helberg]walked in the door and Kunal [Nyyar] walked in the door and we were fortunate enough to get Kaley [Cuoco] and Johnny [Galecki], who I’d worked with when he was 12 years old on Roseanne. He was really the rock that we were building on.
AWARDSLINE: Well, you talk about a discovery like Melissa McCarthy, who might be the most gifted physical comedian to come along in I can’t even remember how long. Did you see all this in her when you cast her for Mike & Molly?
LORRE: No, because it wasn’t called for in the pilot. Melissa walked in and she has her own voice. Melissa is not trying to emulate anyone. She has her own comic voice and her own distinctive rhythms. And then the writing has to adapt because that takes everything up a notch.
AWARDSLINE: What to you is most gratifying about the way that this show has flourished?
LORRE: Once again, there’s a series of events that occurred that in hindsight are just remarkable. How lucky can you get when you start with Melissa and
Billy [Gardell] and then you add on the rest of that ensemble? There are so many pieces of this ensemble that are gems. It’s such a rich bench. It’s a fun team to manage. It’s a great opportunity to work with that kind of an ensemble.
AWARDSLINE: With Big Bang this season you’ve gone beyond the core cast, with Melissa Rauch and Mayim Bialik. It has given the show such a fun dimension. How did that evolve?
LORRE: That’s the key word: it evolved. There was no master plan. I wish we were that clever. For Mayim it began with the idea of what would have happened if Simon and Kunal’s character as a prank entered Sheldon’s character into a dating website and logged in all his information to see if it spat anything out, spat anyone out. And lo and behold it was a match. And when we did that in a season-ending story, again, you got hit by lightning when Mayim Bialik walked in and said ‘I love it.’
AWARDSLINE: When you look at dramas, cable and pay-cable seem to have an advantage in pushing the envelope. How much do you think that network programming loses by having to adhere to the confines and standards of the network?
LORRE: Well, oddly enough I’ve griped about the restrictions on television as much as anyone has, and the uncomfortable truth of it all is that the restrictions can sometimes force you as a writer to dig a little deeper and find a way to work through or around or in spite of their restrictions. And sometimes good things come of that. It can be very frustrating when we can’t do our best work because of these restrictions but sometimes when we’re patient and we’re sitting there in the room and we have to throw something out because it’s unacceptable for broadcasts, very often something better comes about — better than we originally imagined. So I think it’s a wash. And, yeah, it’s frustrating in the moment that some things are not acceptable for broadcasting. It does make you work harder and that’s rarely a bad thing.