Many observers declared the sitcom dead when “Everybody Loves Raymond” signed off the air in 2005 and creator Phil Rosenthal joked, in turn, that it was the end of laughter everywhere.
But somebody forgot to tell Chuck Lorre, whose “Two and a Half Men” eased into “Raymond’s” spot as the No. 1 comedy and has remained there since. By then, Lorre had earned his place as the most successful sitcom producer of his time, but that wasn’t enough.
With the future of the genre in question -- even powerhouses Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton couldn’t sustain a show on Fox -- Lorre set out to create another sitcom that would not only survive but thrive. “I never bought into that,” Lorre said. “ ‘Men’ was very much alive when those declarations were made. It can’t be dead here and alive there. There’s no reason to think the genre doesn’t work.”
Last month, CBS and Warner Bros. signed a multimillion-dollar deal with Lorre to produce three more seasons of “Men” and two more of “The Big Bang Theory,” a solid hit in its sophomore season. While CBS is currently the only network airing sitcoms, its rivals, citing Lorre’s shows as motivation, are giving the format another shot with 19 sitcoms in the works potentially for fall.
“I think Chuck has a great mind for stories and characters and a great sense of humor,” said actor Johnny Galecki of “Big Bang.” “It’s got to be true to the characters and it’s got to be very, very funny. And those sound like two simple rules but they’re really not.”
It’s an achievement that TV critics, or the Emmys, for that matter, haven’t always recognized, and Lorre hasn’t been shy about complaining. Although “Men” is also the No. 1 show in syndication, it has never become a pop-culture darling. “Big Bang,” however, with its cast of fresh faces and unusual subject matter, is increasingly being spotlighted and Lorre, finally, seems to be relaxing.
Not everything in Lorre Land has been jokes and laugh tracks. His career, like his life, has met with many challenges and disappointments, which he admits he didn’t handle well at times, turning to alcohol and becoming depressed. His reputation as an angry man still dogs him, even though these days he seems softer and more satisfied.
“We all have our demons and Chuck is not immune to them, but I look at Chuck and I see the perfect and real deal,” said Peter Roth, president of Warner Bros. Television. “He’s a wonderful writer. He’s a great leader. He has vision and ear for comedy the likes of which I have never seen. Don’t let his success fool you. He struggles. He’s remarkably hard-working.”
Lorre, 56, grew up in Plainville, N.Y., and his first love was music. He was moved to write by Bob Dylan’s “magical musical journeys” and the “little worlds with characters and viewpoints” created by Randy Newman.
“I also saw Jimi Hendrix light a guitar on fire when I was 17 and that kind of explosive power -- what rock and roll can do -- it made a big impact,” he said. “Music was everything back then. TV was nothing. TV was ‘Bewitched’ and ‘My Mother the Car.’ When you had the Stones, the Beatles, Dylan, Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Airplane, the Doors and the Who -- television? Come on!”
He pursued songwriting and spent a decade touring the country as a guitarist for hire until he had children and needed a stable income and health insurance. Intuitively, he believed he could make it as a comedy writer, so he wrote scripts and begged for pitch meetings.
That Lorre began his TV career in 1987, when he was 35, speaks volumes about his work ethic. His list of credits is long and storied, having written, produced and/or created eight sitcoms in 22 years. Only one was a failure and five were considered hits, including “Roseanne,” on which he got his big break in 1990.
Lorre’s track record earned him a kind of prestige last month not usually bestowed upon television writer-producers: a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame near Dick Van Dyke’s.
“It’s staggering,” Lorre said a few days before the ceremony, adding that he hadn’t processed precisely what the honor meant to him. By the time his star was unveiled across the street from the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, he had figured it out.
“Chuck talked about how all of his success is ultimately the result of his promise when he was a starving musician that he would find some way to feed his two children,” said Bill Prady, co-creator of “Big Bang.” “It was very clear that the star was a reward for taking care of his family rather than his achievements in show business.”
The product of a “childhood bereft of love,” Lorre -- whose birth name was Chuck Levine -- has been divorced twice and doesn’t like talking about those times publicly anymore, unless he’s writing about them in his popular vanity cards. It’s a tradition he began on “Dharma & Greg,” using the few seconds of air time that other producers use to display company titles as a journal. They’re also available on his website, ChuckLorre.com.
“With his vanity cards, I think Chuck has exposed his psyche pretty clearly,” Prady said. “I would say that Chuck is a sweet curmudgeon. He has mellowed. Sometimes I’ll go into Chuck’s office, especially on show night when there’s a little odd break after dinner and he’ll be playing some blues riff on his guitar. And there’s a genuine sweetness to Chuck, which I think, at times, he works to conceal.”
Then again, Prady, who was a writer-producer on “Dharma,” has only been around for the professional good times. That comedy marked a sea change for Lorre, who had spent eight years working on emotionally explosive sets with Roseanne Barr, Cybill Shepherd and Brett Butler.
“I used to liken it to trying to produce a sitcom in Hitler’s bunker in 1945,” said Lee Aronsohn, who co-created “Men” and worked with Lorre on “Cybill” and “Grace Under Fire.”
But Lorre, who was fired from “Roseanne” and “Cybill” and quit “Grace” over creative differences with Butler, doesn’t cast all of the blame on the actresses. “If you’re in a really difficult environment over a sustained period of time, you become part of the problem,” Lorre said. “You become an emotional wreck and you’re hard to work with and you’re anxious and you’re angry. Insanity is contagious. But so is sanity.”
That epiphany came during the second season of “Dharma” when, during a rehearsal, he realized there was no need to be afraid of visiting the stage.
“It just hit me: We’re just going to show up and work?” Lorre said. “What a concept. Nobody’s going to throw anything at you and there’s not going to be any screaming and crying. Wow. The worst that you do is try to anticipate problems and defend against somebody’s ego-driven outburst of fear and anxiety. That’s not writing. That’s defending, and so your scripts get claustrophobic and you don’t take chances. It’s a recipe for disaster.”
Fortunately for Lorre, “Dharma” wasn’t an anomaly. He has enjoyed professional and courteous relationships with the cast of “Men” since the beginning, and the same holds for “Big Bang.” “I am immensely grateful for how it is on these shows because I know how unhappy people can be in success,” he said. “It’s nice to be around people that are successful and grateful.”
Especially when you’re a college dropout, another sign that Lorre’s life has taken a turn. On May 17, his alma mater, the State University of New York at Potsdam, is giving him an honorary doctorate of human letters and has invited him to give the commencement address. If it’s anything like what Lorre posted on a vanity card recently about the professor who tried to dash his dreams, watch out, graduates.
“Well, I think I’ll point out that when I was there I was told I’d never make it as a writer,” Lorre said. “That might be the kickoff point of the speech.”