James Hibberd
February 19, 2015 AT 12:00 PM EST

Charlie Harper was still alive, yet Charlie Sheen was nowhere to be seen on CBS’ Two and a Half Men series finale. The comedy closed its record-setting 12-season run with an ultra-meta one-hour episode Thursday night, which brought back many familiar faces from the show’s past, a few celebrity guests, a rather unexpected dose of animation, and a shock cameo by the show’s co-creator. But Men‘s former star, who was fired from the series after a spectacular falling out with producers and CBS four years ago, was entirely absent despite being the focus of much of the episode’s humor. 

Below executive producer Chuck Lorre, who appeared at the end of the episode to utter a single word—”winning”—before being smushed by a falling piano, took our questions about the finale, which was full of self-referential one-liners—including Walden Schmidt (Ashton Kutcher) telling another character, “It’s amazing you’ve made so much money with such stupid jokes” (followed by a knowing look at the audience), and Breta (Conchata Ferrell) declaring that if Charlie moves back into the beach house, “I believe we can keep this going for another five years.” But there may have been no greater target than Charlie—both the fictional Harper and real person—with characters poking fun of the actor’s history of womanizing, drug use, and recent career (“Has [Charlie] tried anger management?” Alan: “Yeah, but it didn’t work out”).  

The set-up: Alan discovered his brother has been alive these past four years, having been held captive in a basement by his obsessed ex Rose (Melanie Lynskey). The revelation and the promise of $2.5 million in Charlie’s mysteriously claimed songwriting royalties triggers a slew of figures surfacing from the show’s past (mostly the Harper brothers’ ex-girlfriends) as well as appearances by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Christian Slater, and John Stamos. 

First, Lorre explained Sheen’s absence to viewers in his final post-credits Men vanity card: “I know a lot of you might be disappointed that you didn’t get to see Charlie Sheen in tonight’s finale. For the record he was offered a role. Our idea was to have him walk up to the front door in the last scene, ring the doorbell, then turn, look directly into the camera and go off on a maniacal rant about the dangers of drug abuse. He would then explain that these dangers only apply to average people. That he was far from average. He was a ninja warrior from Mars. He was invincible. And then we would drop a piano on him. We thought it was funny. He didn’t. Instead, he wanted us to write a heart-warming scene that would set up his return to primetime TV in a new sitcom called The Harpers starring him and Jon Cryer. We thought that was funny, too.”

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Can you talk about having the last word of the series, being said by you, and it’s the word that Sheen made famous after his departure from the show. What was the meaning of that inclusion to you?

CHUCK LORRE: Oh, it felt funny. It felt like the funniest and must succinct way to end the damn thing. And dropping the second piano also felt like an appropriate response—perhaps nobody wins, but hopefully we laughed along the way.

Were you hesitant at all to put yourself on camera for that key moment? 

I’m not unaware of the meta nature of the show and all the drama and tabloid chaos that swirls around the show. I got to be part of that and I didn’t want to be. It was never my goal. I got to live through that. And having that last moment was like, “Please God, let that be over now.” You have to remember all we set out to do 12 years ago was to do a funny show, that was the only goal.

Why was the episode so heavily self-referential? It was almost like after ignoring the critics for all these years you did an episode that turned to face them and tackled everything they’ve said about the show.

I think the answer to your question is, “Why not?” It was our last swing at that bat. Why not throw the rules out and do everything we can imagine that might be funny and acknowledging the meta elements of the show? We’re not going to find out how he met his mother. This isn’t about how did they get on the island.

If you had known that Charlie wasn’t going to make an appearance, would you still have gone with this storyline?

This was a storyline we were excited about doing for a long time. One thing had nothing to do with another. Several months ago, I could feel there was a palpable amount of pent-up desire to see Charlie, to have closure in the finale. We reached out to him four, five weeks ago. He would look in the camera and have his moment. The whole idea was for him to have a monologue into the camera. That felt like a radical final moment for the finale. I thought that was an appropriate way to do it, but he didn’t like the idea and that’s the way it goes. We were hoping we could make it work. It was not meant to be. 

Your vanity card read like you were concerned viewers might be disappointed.

We tried to come up with an ending that would be fun for us and for Charlie and we wanted to provide closure for fans of the show. We were very well aware there was this desire to see him, but it didn’t work out. And what can you do? 

Was there anybody else besides Sheen who you wanted to get but didn’t?

I think we were pretty much able to get everybody we reached out to. All of our wishes came true, for the most part.

What was it like having Arnold on board?

It was one of the most fun days I’ve ever had in this business. He was such a game participant in this lunacy. He showed up and made every moment work. He had a great sense of humor and was very willing to have fun with his own persona.

There were a couple jokes about Ashton being very done with the show, was that based in any reality as well?

We were just having fun. 

Now that the show is wrapped and the last episode has aired, how are you feeling about the show having finally come to a close?

I’m still trying to wrap my head around the idea we’re not making any more of these shows. It just becomes part of the air you breathe for 12 years. It’s been a strange process of letting it go. But I’ve been too busy working my ass off getting the finale right to think too much about it.

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