Chuck Lorre, executive producer and creator of CBS’ “Two and a Half Men” and “The Big Bang Theory,” may seem quiet, but he’s definitely not shy with his opinions, whether doling them out in person, online or after every episode on his production company’s vanity cards.
He’s tussled with critics who deride his shows as low-brow or indecent. After the Parents Television Council complained about “Men,” he sent the group cupcakes when “Men’s” ratings increased the following week.
Yet despite (or because of) the criticism, “Men” continues to perform well in its sixth season on CBS and its second in syndication. “Big Bang” also is gaining viewership, with strong buzz revolving around its entry into syndication in 2011.
TelevisionWeek reporter Andrew Krukowski sat down with Mr. Lorre to talk about the PTC, his risque humor, his vanity cards and how he deals with a rapidly growing half-a-man in “Two and a Half Men.” To watch video excerpts from this interview, go to TVWeek.com.
TelevisionWeek: Why do you think “Two and a Half Men” has caught on so well in terms of syndication?
Chuck Lorre: I can only guess that funny is a big factor. I think that we’ve developed a relationship with the audience that promises real laughter. Consistently, I hope. That’s a reason to watch it at 7 o’clock, 7:30, wherever it’s running. I think it’s that simple and that the actors in this cast are remarkable and there’s a reason to make them part of your life on a regular basis. You have to fundamentally care about the characters in order to go to the trouble of watching a show. That gets to Charlie Sheen and Jon Cryer and Angus [T. Jones] and Holland Taylor and Conchata [Ferrell]. Unless you have a tremendous cast, no one is going to check in—you have to start with that.
TVWeek: In terms of the syndication marketplace and in terms of broadcasting, “Two and a Half Men” is one of the bigger successes in the last 10 years. What sitcom do you think is poised to be the next big…
Mr. Lorre: “The Big Bang Theory!”
TVWeek: Of course!
Mr. Lorre: Don’t be silly. The next big success in syndication is “The Big Bang Theory.” It has all the elements: an unbelievable cast, a unique concept and, I humbly suggest, the writing is pretty darn good. I think it is going to build. … I think it’ll help our first-run stuff just as syndication has helped “Two and a Half Men” on CBS. More people discover the show in reruns than they would necessarily when it is up against nine dramas, football games, dancing amputees and whatnot.
TVWeek: You’re expecting around that fourth season for “Big Bang” to hit its stride when it reaches syndication maturity?
Mr. Lorre: I think it was our fourth season on “Two and a Half Men” that started to overlap with reruns. Last year, last calendar year, even though it was broken up by the strike, “Two and a Half Men” was running in syndication for the first time five days a week, six, I don’t know, seven? It depends on the market, I guess. Our ratings went up on Monday night. I don’t follow the numbers, I don’t crunch the numbers, I’m just trying to make a good show. But I get the feeling that when it’s on every day in different time periods, new people discover it for the first time.
TVWeek: Speaking of sitcoms, you’ve refuted the idea that right now is the death of the sitcom.
Mr. Lorre: I didn’t refute it. “Two and a Half Men” in and of itself has refuted the idea that the genre is dead. Its very success refutes that as a premise. You can’t say that birds don’t fly if you see a bird flying. This sucker is doing real well.
TVWeek: But the quantity of sitcoms has definitely decreased.
Mr. Lorre: That’s probably a good thing.
TVWeek: Why aren’t we in the heyday of sitcoms anymore?
Mr. Lorre: I think you have a discerning, intelligent audience and they pick what they want to watch. And that’s the litmus test. They tell you if they’re laughing by their attention, by the fact that they come back each week to watch your show or to watch it in syndication. It’s not a mystery; if they’re not watching, they’re not laughing. And the same thing would hold true for a drama. If they’re truly captured by the tension in the drama, the conflict, and the dramatic tension created between the characters and the ongoing storylines, then they’re there. It’s not a mystery.
I think when shows fail, it’s because more likely they have failed to do what their fundamental thing is they’re supposed to do. That being said, there are shows that maybe are on at the wrong time or wrong place, and there is programming issues that can kill a show unfairly because it wasn’t showcased properly. I’m sure there’s a reasonable argument. And in some cases, it’s not the show itself, it’s the way it’s presented or where it’s presented or when it’s presented. There’s been terrific shows that didn’t succeed and that will continue. It’s not a perfect system.
TVWeek: Do you feel that “Two and a Half Men” and “Big Bang” have been marketed correctly?
Mr. Lorre: I can only speak to the way that we’ve been treated on CBS. We were lucky enough to be in the jet stream of “Everybody Loves Raymond” when we started. And we had two seasons behind a classic hit show. A great show. One that will run forever. And it gave us a chance to find our voice and build an audience over time. We didn’t have to do it right away. We did well after “Raymond”—you can’t underestimate the power of being in the slipstream of a great show like that.
“The Big Bang Theory” never had that opportunity. It was on at 8:30, and it was a weak situation. And the strike hit after eight episodes—the strike knocked us out of production. And when we came back, they put us on at 8 o’clock to start the night. I thought it was premature, but the show is doing great at 8 o’clock, so what do I know?
TVWeek: Speaking of the strike, in terms of a possible actors strike, do you think Hollywood could withstand another 100-day strike?
Mr. Lorre: I can’t even wrap my head around the idea. I don’t even want to entertain it with a hypothetical discussion of what might happen. I’m just going to light a candle and say a little prayer that they’ll figure this thing out. Last year was so hard for so many people. The ripple effect of these things is unbelievable.
TVWeek: Have you felt any economic pressures in producing these two shows?
Mr. Lorre: There’s always a budget argument—even in success, there’s always a budget. It’s the nature of this business that they want you to do what you do for less so that they can make more and go make “Speed Racer 2.” I shouldn’t have said that out loud. (Laughs)
By and large, both CBS and Warner Bros. have been unbelievably supportive. They’ve been good partners. When we spend money on these shows, it’s to put something on the screen that we think is important to put on the screen. Something that will increase the value of the show. If a scene is expensive, it has to be justified that it’s really funny and worth doing. I think we’re fairly prudent on both shows.
TVWeek: Two of your vanity cards have been censored in the past month and a half. One of them was about censorship, which included a list of words that “confused” CBS censors.
Mr. Lorre: They were all legitimate words, like “titmouse.”
TVWeek: The other one was a letter to Sumner Redstone. What about these cards riled up Standards & Practices?
Mr. Lorre: You know, Standards & Practices is a mysterious alchemy kind of situation where the line is always moving, so you never quite know what’s going to be offensive from one moment to the next. I can guess that the Sumner thing was a little close to home. I’ve made fun of Rupert Murdoch and CBS didn’t have a problem with that. I wasn’t surprised that they’d rather not air them. It was just a shout-out to him to say that now that he’s single, he and I can go out and hit the bars. You know, he’d be a good wingman. (Laughs)
TVWeek: Do you think this is a trend that is increasing, in regards to censorship?
Mr. Lorre: “Two and a Half Men” is always in an ongoing struggle to push the envelope a bit. It has become a little bit of our voice that this show goes where no shows have gone before, at least in four-camera network comedies. As far as the vanity cards, I don’t really concern myself with it too much. If they don’t want me to air something, it’s fine. It’s not what I do. It’s the liner notes on the album. It’s not the album.
TVWeek: Speaking of indecency, in one of your vanity cards just recently, you responded to complaints from the Parents Television Council. They said your show crossed a “broadcast indecency line.” Do you feel that’s the case?
Mr. Lorre: I personally think that none of this is worthy of the attention of adults. I think there’s enough going on in the world to be concerned about. I really think this is trivial. I truly do. I just can’t believe we would waste time and energy and money to worry about risque humor. I hope and pray that we are at some point going to get beyond this in arguing about things that are irrelevant to our survival and our well-being. This is meaningless whether Charlie says something off-color. So what? (Laughs) I’m sorry, I just don’t see the point.
TVWeek: With your “half a man” growing every year, is there any discussion about changing the name of the show?
Mr. Lorre: Oh, gosh, I don’t think you can rename the show going into our seventh season.
TVWeek: But you’ve got three men.
Mr. Lorre: In all likelihood, as [Angus T. Jones] gets older and grows taller, Charlie and Jon will start to shrink. So the aggregate will stay two and a half. But the title sequence we shoot every year, and you see Angus growing. We morph him from the age he was when we did the first episode to where he is, well, when we shoot it in August of every year. And he’s pretty much off the screen now if you watch. When we have enough time and show the full opening sequence with three guys singing, if you watch closely, you watch Angus start at 8 and he’s at 14 now. He’s looking them dead in the eye. Now it’s getting interesting. It’s three guys now. It’s very quickly becoming the story of three men.