Hillary Atkin

Why Does Comedy Matter? Two of Television’s Top Creators Offer Their Take

Jun 6, 2016

They are both undisputed kings of comedy on CBS, with years of number one shows between them. And although Norman Lear and Chuck Lorre came up in the business during different generations, many of their core values are very similar — especially when it comes to making people laugh.

Lear and Lorre were interviewed onstage at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills by journalist Pete Hammond June 2 as part of programming by the Guild’s diversity department and its career longevity committee, although the idea to pair them during this FYC season was apparently hatched by the Warner Bros. publicity department.

Lorre’s “The Big Bang Theory” has long been an awards magnet, and the newer “Mom” has also garnered acclaim. Lear, who at the ripe young age of 94 is working on a Cuban-American version of his classic comedy “One Day at a Time” for Netflix, is the subject of a new feature documentary that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.

And when it comes to longevity, you’d be hard-pressed to find many people who could beat Lear’s 60+ years in the business, during which he’s also become a standard-bearer for liberal causes.

Lorre, meanwhile, started as a musician and songwriter more than 40 years ago before transitioning to television. So yes, remarkably, we are talking about more than a century’s worth of active, productive careers between these two men.

The evening began with a clip reel with scenes from “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You,” which will be released theatrically next month (and will air later this year on PBS’s “American Masters”) along with scenes from some of Lorre’s shows including “Two and a Half Men” and “Mike & Molly,” which — sadly for many — has been canceled.

The two television creators entered the packed theater to a standing ovation, with Lorre donning an identical straw hat to Lear’s as they took the stage.

“It’s possible that this is the whole secret,” Lorre said as the conversation got under way and both men talked about the joys of working multicamera in front of a live audience in this age of the predominance of single-camera comedies.

Lear’s new version of “One Day at a Time,” which features three generations of a family and stars Rita Moreno, is also being shot before a live audience. The original series aired between 1975 and 1984 and followed a recently divorced mother and her two teenage daughters.

Hammond and Lorre noted the groundbreaking and lasting impact of Lear’s early shows, including “All in the Family,” “The Jeffersons,” “Sanford and Son,” “Good Times” and “Maude.” Demonstrating the huge influence of Lear’s shows during the days of just three broadcast networks on the air, one episode of “Maude” that dealt with abortion drew an estimated 63 million viewers at the time.

“He made it obvious that comedy wasn’t predicated on situations — just the comedy of life,” Lorre said. “I got a taste of it on ‘Roseanne,’ and working on that show was like boot camp. Everyone there got better at what we did.”

Lear discussed the challenges of getting “All in the Family” on the air in the late 1960s. It was originally sold to ABC before it landed at CBS, where there were frequent struggles with network standards and practices about which lines could get on the air. He mentioned that his father, who used to call him lazy and stupid, was like Archie Bunker, the character so memorably played by actor Carroll O’Connor. Lear also told the story of how Mickey Rooney was interested in the role.

Touching on the racism spewed by Bunker, the conversation suddenly turned to presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, whom Lear called “the middle finger of America’s right hand” and concluded, “Everybody knows this is bad news.”

Lorre mentioned that the pendulum swings and certain sensibilities of an era go out of fashion on television, pointing to the prevalence of sarcasm in the ’90s. He talked about the genesis of “Mom,” about a mother and daughter who both struggle with recovery from drug and alcohol abuse — not a typical theme for a network comedy.

“The only reason to do a new show is to go back and tell stories of how life happens,” Lorre said. “I wanted to discuss recovery — because addiction is not funny — but this is a story of hope, that recovery is possible.”

The conversation segued again into Lear’s family background and how his father was arrested and his mother had to sell the furniture in the house to help make ends meet. Lear was just 9 years old at the time. “I was told I was the man at the house. I got it, even though I thought the person who told me that was an asshole,” he said. “Wherever you find human frailty, you find laughter.”

Lorre agreed that his shows are all about seeking laughter, and although he wouldn’t discuss the Charlie Sheen fiasco that marked the end of that chapter of the popular comedy “Two and a Half Men,” he said the voice of the show was bawdy and that it worked because it was specific. “I wanted to protect it. That’s why we always had an open bar for the censors when they came to the set,” he recalled.

“I’ve gotten away with … nothing,” Lear interjected, to laughter from the audience. He then traced some of his television history, including working on the “Colgate Comedy Hour” with Dean Martin and Danny Thomas, and he told a funny story about Jerry Lewis that involved the comedian surprising him by being naked in a hotel room with a birthday candle inserted into a body part — just for laughs. “No one made me laugh harder,” Lear said about Lewis.

Lorre related how he came to Los Angeles in 1973 wanting to be like Randy Newman with a Stratocaster — and once cold-called the performer’s record company, agent and manager asking for him, until finally Newman called him back. Lorre had some songwriting success before he shifted gears and started writing and producing for television.

Hammond questioned why neither man had directed much — and both agreed the reason was they wanted to spend more time writing.

Lear said he’s excited about working with Netflix, especially the fact that there are no censors in streaming and no commercial breaks to write into and out of, and Lorre said he wouldn’t rule out working in the medium after all of his decades on broadcast television, which include showrunner stints on “Grace Under Fire,” “Cybill” and “Dharma and Greg.”

“’Fuck’ would be the first word out of any character’s mouth after 30 years at the network,” he said.

Lear closed out the conversation on an inspirational note — how much each of us matters. After asking rhetorically what a Jew in his 90s has in common with hip-hop, he said the point was driven home two years ago when he participated in a hip-hop conference and Russell Simmons told him that seeing a black man write a check on “The Jeffersons” was a life-changing experience. He said Common was affected by seeing child abuse portrayed on “Good Times,” and realizing he was not alone in experiencing it.

“This convinces me,” Lear said. “We all matter.”

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