Behind the Screen: Long Road to Sitcom Success

Jan 10, 2005  •  Post A Comment

When veteran sitcom showrunner Chuck Lorre, co-creator and executive producer of CBS’s “Two and a Half Men,” was asked about the media lament that there aren’t any more hit situation comedies like “Seinfeld,” “Friends” and “Frasier,” he was barely able to suppress his laughter. “That clearly isn’t true,” he said, laughing out loud as he spoke. “Our ratings are going up and we’re getting an enormous audience on a weekly basis. So that’s simply not true.”

“You know,” he continued, “Jon Cryer [who stars on the show with Charlie Sheen] likes to say that we blew the narrative-the story that sitcoms are dead is a good story to tell, but you had to ignore us to tell it. … Every writer that writes about the death of comedy on television had to ignore us in order to write that story. We’re thriving.”

Now in its second season on CBS, where it inherits the huge “Everybody Loves Raymond” audience on Monday night-and then often improves on it-“Men” is poised to become one of the most lucrative investments in show business-a hit sitcom. It is already a hit on the network and will likely be in broadcast and cable syndication for fall 2006 or before. It is poised to spin off hundreds of millions, even billions, of dollars for the producers, principals and distributors, led by CBS and Warner Bros. Television. That seemingly perpetual stream of revenue will also include overseas sales, merchandising and DVD releases.

It is that rare show that works for both adults and youngsters. “It speaks to the best fundamentals of television,” said Peter Roth, president of Warner Bros. Television, producer of “Two and a Half Men.” “A great script. A good idea. The right timing. That incredible alchemy of success which nobody can ever actually define. You hope for it every time.”

Where did the magic come from to create the biggest sitcom hit since “Will & Grace”? The answers came in more than a dozen interviews with some of those behind the show. The most common answer was that while the premise is no more complicated than “The Odd Couple” with a kid, the writing, acting and production make a difference.

“The show is so consistently well executed,” said Nina Tassler, president of CBS Entertainment. “The writing is smart every week. And no two episodes are quite alike. The storytelling is unique, specific, funny. You feel like you can tune in every week and see a really new and different kind of story.”

“Initial testing CBS did showed focus groups who watched [“Men”] found it different because it was funny,” explained Lee Aronsohn, the former stand-up comic and “Love Boat” writer who co-created and co-executive produces the show with Mr. Lorre. “I thought that was a great comment on the state of television, that a sitcom which is funny is thought to be different.”

“Most great sitcoms are the product of one person or one team’s creative vision,” Mr. Aronsohn said, “not watered down with a lot of network or studio notes. And both the network and studio have been incredibly supportive with us. Chuck [Lorre] is the guy with the vision. And Chuck’s vision has been allowed to flower.”

Mr. Lorre was born in Brooklyn and raised in Plainview, Long Island, N.Y., where he began playing guitar in bands while still in high school. He dropped out of state university to become a journeyman musician for 17 years. It was music that brought him to Hollywood. “I wrote a song for Debbie Harry called `French Kissing in the USA,’ which was a modest hit,” Mr. Lorre recalled in his Burbank office. “Then I co-wrote the music for `Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ back in the 1980s. But my first break in television was in children’s programming, writing Saturday morning stuff.”

He was making a living, but “I was eager to write for human beings,” said Mr. Lorre, who got his big break when some spec scripts led to a job writing and producing the “Roseanne” sitcom beginning in 1990. “That’s where I learned to write,” Mr. Lorre said, adding that Roseanne could be difficult.

“Yeah, but it was also a tremendous experience,” Mr. Lorre said. “I wouldn’t wish it on anybody, but she had a … kind of laser-like ability to say `Bullshit’ and `Truth.’ She wanted to tell the story of the truth of a family and not take the glib situation-comedy approach. You either rose to that or you got killed on that show.”

Eventually, he was fired in one of many staff purges, but he walked away, Mr. Lorre said, “a better writer because the bar came up on the show. … That crazy woman was unwilling to do anything that smacked of the tried and true. And that’s good. … It was a nightmare, but I’m glad I did it.”

As it turned out, it prepared Mr. Lorre to deal with other strong women, with whom he created a string of hit comedies beginning with “Grace Under Fire,” starring the formidable Brett Butler, in 1993. That was followed by “Cybill,” starring Cybill Shepherd, in 1995 and then “Dharma & Greg,” with Jenna Elfman, from 1997 until 2002.

He made “Dharma” at Fox, where he had been signed to a contract when Peter Roth was in charge. By the time it ended Mr. Roth had moved to Warner Bros. TV, and one of the first deals he sought was with Mr. Lorre. “It all begins for me,” Mr. Roth said, “with Chuck Lorre and his presence on our lot.”

At a time when expensive writer/producer deals are out of favor, Warner made a huge deal with Mr. Lorre, noted Bob Broder, his agent at Broder Webb Chervin Silbermann.

“Peter Roth had enormous respect and enthusiasm for Chuck,” Mr. Broder recalled. “He and [Warner Chairman and CEO] Barry Meyer lured him away from Fox. They made an outstanding deal to bring him to Warner Bros.”

Mr. Lorre did two pilots in two years, but they didn’t go anywhere. He was busy developing a series around a stand-up comic when Eric and Kim Tannenbaum called Mr. Roth with an idea.

“We’d been talking about doing something in the area of two brothers, one divorced, one having a kid, living together,” recalled Mr. Tannenbaum. He and his wife/partner are now executive producers on “Two and a Half Men.” “We talked to a lot of people, but Kim and I really got excited when I sat down and had breakfast with Chuck Lorre, who was on the [Warner Bros.] lot under a big term deal. Chuck was already doing a pilot and at first people at CBS were a little hesitant about putting too much on his plate, because they considered the pilot he was doing important.”

At that first meeting the idea took hold, even as Mr. Lorre tried to dismiss it. “I immediately said `no,”‘ he recalled. “We were still dealing with what could have been just a horrible premise, which is an `Odd Couple’ brother story.”

“It was a long time trying to convince the powers that be, at the studio and CBS, to please let Chuck do this,” said Mr. Tannenbaum. “We kept talking to [Mr. Lorre], sort of off the record, and each time we had a conversation he would have [the show] further developed. We kept saying to everybody, `He’s got an unbelievable take on this. Please let him do it.”‘

A plan developed for Mr. Lorre to supervise but not produce or write the show. “I had been working with Chuck on and off since `Grace Under Fire,”‘ said Mr. Aronsohn, recalling the origins of “Men.” “Chuck didn’t see a need to get involved in something else. But at that particular time-and Chuck has written about this-my Writers Guild health insurance was going to lapse because nothing we had developed had gotten picked up. So I said to Chuck, `Look, if you don’t want to write it, supervise me.’ And because he’s a good friend, and because we’ve got a relationship that goes way back, he agreed. Then when we started talking, he got more and more into it.”

“I very distinctly remember sitting in my office with Lee and deciding that this series would be more challenging and more interesting if the child had a real impact on the narcissist, apparently got-it-all-going-on brother. We wanted to go a little bit beyond the cliche of the playboy and see who he really was, if he would reach out and say, `I need this kid in my life.’ That his life would have more meaning and be more worthwhile [with the child]. That’s an interesting character to write about.”

The next key was casting. Almost immediately Charlie Sheen’s name came up. Once Hollywood’s bad boy, he had become in recent years a sober and dependable performer with considerable comedic skill, as evidenced in his work during the final two seasons of “Spin City,” which won him a Golden Globe.

“We roughed out the characters and the relationships and we presented it to Wendi Trilling at CBS,” Mr. Lorre said. “We used Charlie as an archetype for this kind of a guy. Because you have a guy who’s vulnerable enough to be impacted by this child, but he could be a horrible character, a lounge lizard lothario. I didn’t think the audience would care for him. I certainly wouldn’t if he was that one-dimensional. But there’s a vulnerability Charlie brings to anything he does. … He’s a good man and that comes across, so the audience will forgive him almost anything.”

Mr. Sheen was immediately a popular choice at the network. “[CBS Chairman and Viacom co-President] Leslie Moonves has been so smart in making his choices about actors,” said Ms. Tassler. “I think Charlie is a reflection of that skill and talent in determining who’s got the sort of broad appeal and long-term sustainability. Leslie had been a fan of Charlie’s for years. It all fit.”

Mr. Tannenbaum told Mr. Lorre he wanted to get him in a room with Mr. Sheen. That led Mr. Broder to call Rick Rosen at the Endeavor talent agency, which represented Mr. Sheen. “Charlie had talked about doing TV,” Mr. Rosen said. “He was open to it if the material was great. We talked to all the networks and everybody was really interested. CBS was really interested. But so was everybody.”

Mr. Sheen was offered a big-money studio or network holding deal if he would commit to work with that company exclusively. “We decided ultimately the best thing was let’s not make any deal. Let him just read scripts and see what’s out there,” said Mark Burg, who manages Mr. Sheen along with his partner, Oren Koules. “Charlie, Oren and I read probably 20 different pilots, any of which would have been greenlit with [Mr. Sheen] saying yes.”

“Broder had called me to say his client [Mr. Lorre] was thinking of this idea which was very interesting,” Mr. Rosen said. “They wanted to meet with Charlie and they did.”

“Very quickly we were in a room with Charlie and Mark Burg,” Mr. Lorre said. “We presented the idea to them and they were prudent and cautious and said, `Well, sounds nice.’ Charlie hears ideas every day. People are constantly wanting to get in business with him. He was cautious and that was appropriate. So we basically wrote the script on spec and showed it to him a couple weeks later. We jammed out a first draft really fast and said, `Here it is. The lead character’s name is Charlie. Read it.”‘

Mr. Lorre was no longer just supervising. He and Mr. Aronsohn created “Two and a Half Men” together. “The script was pretty easy to write once we knew who the characters were,” Mr. Aronsohn said. “And it was a fun thing to write. We certainly knew who we were writing it for.”

“After Charlie left,” Mr. Tannenbaum said, “the guys got really excited and said, `Look, we want to write this for him. We don’t have to go through all the business dealings and holding him. We’ll hand him a script in three weeks.’ And they did. They wrote the script for him and completely captured his voice.”

“Charlie said to them what he had been saying to everybody else,” Mr. Burg said. “`When it’s finished, I’ll read it and whichever one I like the best is the one we are going to do.”‘

A Cut Above

Then they read the pilot for “Men.” “The script was that much better than everybody else,” Mr. Burg recalled.

“It was terrific,” added Mr. Rosen. “The question became should we lock and load and just do this, or wait until other things are out there? We ultimately decided you have a great showrunner and a successful network that’s been getting better and better. It was a really good piece of material. So we negotiated a deal, which took a while. Charlie gets paid a lot of money. This is an expensive show. But between Warner Bros. and CBS it all kind of worked out.”

To support Mr. Sheen, Mr. Lorre and his team went after mostly veteran actors. For the child’s role, only one actor read for the part-10-year-old Angus T. Jones, whom Mr. Lorre had seen in “The Rookie” with Dennis Quaid. “He came in to read with Charlie and we all just fell in love with him,” Mr. Lorre said. “We never read another child. We said, `This is a gift from God. … This young man is remarkable. He’s truly gifted. His timing and his instincts are uncanny for a little boy.’ And then the second lighting bolt was Jon [Cryer].”

He was a harder sell, Mr. Lorre recalled: “There was a raised-eyebrow response to Jon Cryer because he had been in several failed series. The unfortunate fact is when an actor is in a lot of series that don’t work, their face is attached to those failures. But the reality is when you see an actor get a lot of work like that, there’s only one reason: He’s really good. But there is this perception: Oh, that actor is a show killer. Nonsense. Actors don’t kill shows, unless they are miscast. Generally the show fails.”

James Burrows, who has an almost legendary ability to help shape new comedies, was hired to direct the pilot. His resume includes “Cheers,” “Friends” and “Will & Grace.”

“Things really became interesting after the pilot was shown,” Mr. Rosen recalled. “It was one of those nights when you felt, `This is really working.’ About a week [before CBS announced its fall schedule for 2004] I got a call from [then CBS Entertainment President] Nancy Tellem. `I’m calling you. I’m calling Broder. I need help with some Warner Bros. stuff. If we can make this deal happen, we’re going to put this show on in the post-“Raymond” slot, which is obviously a very coveted slot.”‘

CBS ended up owning part of the show with Warner Bros., Mr. Lorre’s company and the Tannenbaums. The Broder agency and Endeavor split the agency commission package.

“This was a large investment that was a risky proposition but one that I would say was not even close to my riskiest,” said Mr. Roth, who declined to say how much each episode costs. Outside experts peg it at between $950,000 and $1.1 million per episode. The network orders about 24 per season.

It quickly began to look like a bargain. The show didn’t wow critics but did find an audience. It was the top-rated new comedy of 2003-04 and won a People’s Choice Award. Over summer 2004 it got even stronger, ranking as the No. 1 comedy in total viewers, adults 18 to 49 and adults 25 to 54, according to CBS.

In its second season, it has gotten even stronger. According to CBS, since September 2004 the show is up 7 percent in viewers and 12 percent in adults 18 to 49. It retains 99 percent of its lead-in and some weeks does even better than “Raymond.”

Mr. Lorre loves to drop in guest stars. This season they have included Sean Penn, Elvis Costello, Camryn Manheim and Mr. Sheen’s wife, Denise Richards, who appeared along with their new baby. That was the highest-rated episode of the season and coincided with the release of a pictorial of Ms. Richards in Playboy magazine.

“Two and a Half Men” is “probably the most successful comedy in the last four, five years,” Mr. Tannenbaum said. “In a time when everybody says it’s difficult to do comedy on TV, you’ve got to be different, you’ve got to reinvent the wheel. What Chuck proved is … it doesn’t have to be so unique if it’s really well-written, funny and well-cast.”

The production atmosphere is by all accounts collegial, and production runs on schedule. Mr. Lorre writes every episode, with input from a team of about eight writers, including Mr. Aronsohn.

“Mark and I get these scripts and we start laughing out loud,” said Mr. Koules. “It’s just unheard of how good Chuck and Lee and the whole writing staff are, and what they do week in and week out.”

“They never go later than 8 p.m. It’s a well-oiled production operation,” Mr. Broder said. “He’s got a wonderful group of writers who kind of look like `The Dirty Dozen.’ But every script is well-conceived
, well-executed and well-cast. That’s why the audience has come and respects it.”

“I think that speaks to the experience of these people,” Mr. Lorre said. “They’ve been around, and they know for a show to succeed it has to be a family. It really does.

“I’ve been on shows where it was torturous and malignant and going to work was the last thing you wanted to do. But there are also shows where there’s a certain quality off camera that when you capture it on camera, the audience gets it. They can feel that these people like each other and there’s a certain spirit that comes across that is not on the page. I think that is happening here as well.”

While ageism is alive in Hollywood, Mr. Aronsohn pointed out: “This is a show that was created and is executive produced by guys who are well over 40. The conventional wisdom that once you hit 40 you can’t do comedy anymore that will appeal to people between 18 and 49 is a myth.”

“If you’re not grateful for this opportunity, the way the business is going right now, you aren’t paying attention,” Mr. Lorre said. “The failure rate [for series] is extraordinary and there are so many variables that are out of your control that could be the death knell of a show. So to have a great cast like this, an experienced writing staff of real pros, the challenge for us is to raise the bar and do work we are proud of.

“It’s not just a job. It’s an opportunity to do a television show that we really love. It has to rise to that to succeed, frankly. You can’t mail it in. It’s really obvious that unless we do the best were capable of, we will get knocked off the air.”

Players Behind the Screen

Co-creator and executive producer Chuck Lorre provides the vision for “Two and a Half Men.” He has won an Emmy Award, a Humanitas Prize and a WGA Award, among others. He also received Golden Globe and Peabody awards as a writer/producer on “Roseanne.”

Co-creator and executive producer Lee Aronsohn, a native New Yorker, came West to pursue a career as a comedian. He worked with Mr. Lorre previously on “Grace Under Fire” and “Cybill.” He also wrote for “Murphy Brown,” “Who’s The Boss?” and other series and pilots.

Eric Tannenbaum and wife Kim Tannenbaum, executive producers, are both natives of Los Angeles. Eric Tannenbaum’s late father, Tom Tannenbaum, was a top Hollywood executive. Eric served as president of Columbia TriStar Television, where he met his wife, who was a Columbia executive. Together they ran Michael Ovitz’s ill-fated Artists Television Group before forming their own company nearly three years ago. They had two other series, each of which lasted one season, and currently also produce CBS’s “Center of the Universe.”

Mark Burg and Oren Koules, executive producers and “Two and a Half Men” star Charlie Sheen’s personal managers, have numerous feature film producing credits. They are partners in Evolution Entertainment, formed in 1998. The company has a first-look TV deal with DreamWorks SKG.

Nina Tassler has been president of CBS Entertainment since September 2004, reporting to Nancy Tellem, president, CBS Paramount Network Television Entertainment Group. Previously, she was head of drama development at CBS, where she is credited with helping launch the “CSI” series of shows, “Judging Amy,” “Joan of Arcadia” and other series. She also worked as a talent agent and in development at the former Lorimar Television.