With 2 Hits and 2 Errors, Writer-Producer Will Bat Again


Chuck Lorre helped create what were once two of television's most popular comedies, CBS' "Cybill" and ABC's "Grace Under Fire." You'll see his name on the credits every week.

What you won't see is Lorre, who lasted roughly a year on each show, quitting because of differences with "Grace" star Brett Butler and being fired by Cybill Shepherd. Before that, he was ousted from "Roseanne," a distinction he shares with a few dozen other writer-producers.

Nearly two years later, Lorre is back with a series he hopes to stay with: "Dharma & Greg," a new comedy created by Lorre and producer Dottie Dartland that premieres tonight on ABC.

The show represents a significant test for both the producer--a self-described journeyman guitarist who made the transition to television writing a decade ago--and News Corp.'s 20th Century Fox Television, which has spent more than $100 million signing producers like Lorre, Danny Jacobson ("Mad About You") and Joss Whedon ("Buffy, the Vampire Slayer") to production deals in pursuit of the next syndicated hit.

Such agreements--fueled by Fox as well as new competitors such as DreamWorks and Brillstein-Grey Entertainment--symbolize the burgeoning demand for writing and producing talent in television.

Fox has stated that one hit show will pay for its investment, citing the estimated $800 million a series like Walt Disney Co.'s "Home Improvement" is expected to gross from the sale of reruns. Several hit-starved studios, as a result, courted Lorre after he left "Cybill" in 1995, before Fox signed him to a four-year, multimillion-dollar deal to create TV programs.

The question now is whether those expenditures will actually bear dividends, with Lorre, 44, an interesting candidate to help put the wisdom of such deals to the test, given his association--albeit tumultuous--with successes.

In his unadorned office on the Fox lot in Century City (Lorre said he doesn't believe in dressing the walls until he's sure the show will last), the producer expressed bewilderment that he could have developed "a reputation." Though he admits to bristling sometimes at interference from executives, Lorre stressed that he has always endeavored to make his performers feel comfortable and insists that the two previous situations were not of his making.

In the case of "Grace Under Fire," he said, "I asked to leave. Nothing I could do was going to make Brett happy. The show was No. 2 and she wasn't happy, and I asked to leave after the season was over [in 1994]. . . . I just didn't have the emotional or physical constitution to do anymore after the first season."

By contrast, Lorre was fired the following year from "Cybill." At the time, reports swirled that Shepherd felt the show was skewed too heavily in favor of Maryann, the character played by Christine Baranski.

In an interview last year, Shepherd said, "What Chuck wanted to do with the show is not what I wanted to do. It was time for him to move on."

According to Lorre, "The bottom line is, I was trying to make Cybill a star. The show is called 'Cybill.' I knew what my marching orders were: to create a show that features her in the best possible light.

"I can't pretend to know someone else's mind, but whatever it was, it was not satisfactory, and it got very contentious there toward the end. It was hard for me, because I truly did love being part of that show, and I loved that cast. It was a joy to be part of that series."

"Cybill," "Grace" and "Roseanne" all come from the Carsey-Werner Co., which also is responsible for "3rd Rock From the Sun" and "Cosby." Carsey-Werner has its own reputation for allowing stars to run roughshod over producers, leading to its nickname as the House of Frankenstein, a place that creates monsters.

One of the principals, Tom Werner, disputes that Carsey-Werner allows its stars to exercise more influence than do other production entities: "I would say that whole tag is ridiculous. Do we always side with the stars? Absolutely not. We always try to do what we think is best for the shows."

Lorre--who also created the short-lived comedy "Frannie's Turn" through Carsey-Werner in 1992--said he's a better writer for having worked there and can't quibble with the company's results.

"They do business the way they think it's right to do business, and if you look at their track record, you can't argue with them. From a business perspective, they are doing it exactly right," he said.

Lorre called exiting "Cybill" a learning experience as well, forcing him to deal with "a lot of emotions as a result of leaving a show that I was passionate about."


His focus now, however, is squarely on "Dharma & Greg," which stars Jenna Elfman (from ABC's "Townies") and "Chicago Hope" 's Thomas Gibson as the mismatched daughter of hippies and son of upper-crust WASPs who meet and marry the same day. Lorre calls the series the "crowning achievement of my life" and the free-spirited lead character a far cry from his recent experience.

"I'd been doing characters who are neurotic and angry and bitter and cynical. There's a lot of comedy there, but I'd done that," he said.

Because Dharma, with her hippy upbringing, "sees the world as full of opportunity [and] trusts people," Lorre noted her comedy comes from a different source. By being so positive and life-affirming, he said, she becomes a sort of alien, "a stranger in a strange land."

The Fox network has its own stake in Lorre's hit-making prowess, having bought another series from him, "V.E.N.U.S. on the Hard Drive," about two guys who create a virtual woman. The network initially planned the show for this season, but the project--which mixes live action and computer animation ("V.E.N.U.S." stands for Virtually Encrypted Neuro-Universal System)--has been delayed until next year.

Sandy Grushow, president of 20th Century Fox Television, said Lorre has "great commercial instincts" and, unlike many writer-producers, embraces the TV business' commercial imperative as well as its artistic side.


Perhaps that's because Lorre maintains he hasn't forgotten growing up in Plainview, N.Y., where he occasionally worked as a soda jerk in his late father's diner.

Lorre worked odd jobs to supplement his years as a musician and songwriter, playing clubs and private parties. His songwriting credits include the theme to "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" animated series.

Ten years ago, he said, "I was playing at the Sportsman's Lodge, doing 20th anniversaries and bar mitzvahs. . . . I was watching television and thought, 'I could do this.' "

He began writing on his own and landed an agent. Freelance work followed, leading to a staff job on the series "My Two Dads," with Paul Reiser. Lorre then got "a really huge break" when Carsey-Werner hired him in 1990 to work on "Roseanne," at the time television's top-rated program, which went through writers as if they were Kleenex. He lasted two seasons.

"It was like someone had given us the keys to a Rolls Royce and said, 'Take it around the block,' " Lorre said. "That was when I learned to write this stuff. Everybody who wrote for that show became a better writer."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World