TV Article

It Hurts to Laugh

Why is Chuck Lorre so angry? -- The creator of ''Two and a Half Men'' talks about the pain of comedy

It's hard to fathom why a guy like Chuck Lorre would be unhappy. At a time when TV comedies have been declared all but dead, he's at the helm of CBS' Two and a Half Men, which averages 15.5 million viewers each week and is TV's most popular sitcom. His résumé is peppered with some of the most successful half-hour hits — Roseanne, Dharma & Greg, Grace Under Fire — of the past 20 years. And the 54-year-old boasts a contract so heavy with zeros that he could conceivably buy a fleet of Lamborghinis for the entire Men cast, snag one for himself, and still have plenty left over in pocket change.

''When you do research on him, you realize how prolific he is in the annals of TV history,'' says Men star Charlie Sheen. ''So you're expecting a much older guy when you walk in the room. When I first met him, I asked, 'When did you start all this, when you were 18?''' Adds Men co-creator Lee Aronsohn, ''You look at some of the sitcom creators who have been lionized, and they have one successful show! Chuck's had four.''

Yet Lorre is not content, and he'll openly rail against injustices like Men's lack of awards-show attention (though it's earned 16 Emmy nominations and two wins) or his ongoing problem with TV critics, who he contends ''hate'' him. And he is certainly keyed up about EW's lack of enthusiasm for Men — a comedy about commitment-phobic bachelor Charlie (Sheen), who lives with his fussy brother, Alan (Jon Cryer), and precocious nephew, Jake (Angus T. Jones). (In an April 2004 review, for example, Gillian Flynn said the show ''ain't edgy'' and has a ''nasty'' take on the differences between men and women.) Lorre's well known in the industry for lashing out about this perceived lack of respect — whether by venting his anger on chucklorre.com (in September he said this of EW's writers: ''They hate our success and believe that if they martyr themselves they'll wake up in show business with real jobs'') or grousing about the show's woes to his cast. (''Not getting [nominations] from the TV academy rankles him,'' says Men costar Holland Taylor.)

Given all this, it was not surprising that Lorre was initially reluctant to talk to EW about his career, his critics, and his choler. ''You're gonna get a lot of hate mail if you say you like this show,'' he scoffs. ''It's going to take a real act of courage to say this damn thing is funny.'' What did catch us off-guard, however, was the story of his rise to prominence. It's a tale filled with lousy luck, unhappy childhood memories, and tantrum-throwing sitcom divas — with one seriously painful stomach ailment thrown in for good measure. And it goes a long way toward explaining how Chuck Lorre became the angriest man in television.

It doesn't take much to drive Chuck Lorre crazy. Combine Larry David's flustered misanthropy, David E. Kelley's prolificacy, and a smidgen of Streisand's perfectionism, and the result looks something like Lorre, a boyishly handsome Brooklyn native whose list of industry pet peeves is endless. Network censors? ''You can show maggots crawling out of a bullet hole, but God forbid we should talk about human sexuality!'' The much-discussed death of the sitcom? ''[It'd be] a great story...if our show didn't exist!'' The massive appeal of American Idol? ''Humiliating someone for being incompetent or untalented is not my idea of entertainment.'' You get the point.

''I wouldn't say Chuck is a happy guy,'' says Taylor, who plays Charlie and Alan's shrewish and withholding mother, Evelyn. ''Life is a real roller coaster for him. He truly does have an artistic temperament.'' Even CBS comedy exec Wendi Trilling ends a discussion about Lorre by joking, ''Don't make him mad at me!'' Lorre doesn't fight his cranky rep. ''Put me in paradise and I will focus on the one thing that will make me angry,'' he says, sitting in his office on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank. ''I am wired on some deep level to seek out something to be worried and obsessed about.''

Lorre's misery is so overt, so constant, that it almost seems like a shtick. To understand that it's not, you have to go way back — to his childhood home in Plainview, N.Y. Born Charles Michael Levine (he changed his name at 28), Lorre watched his father, Robert, struggle to keep his luncheonette afloat; his stay-at-home mom, Miriam, had to take a job at a department store to make ends meet. ''My life changed dramatically,'' says Lorre, growing visibly upset. ''My dad struggled, and it hurt her very much. Anger was a big part of who she was.'' Robert left his business around 1970, and Lorre says his dad died ''brokenhearted'' six years later. (Miriam passed away in 2001.)

Lorre fled from the pathos and attempted a college stint at SUNY Potsdam — where he says that he ''majored in rock & roll and pot and minored in LSD'' — before dropping out in 1972 to pursue a career as a songwriter. He spent the next decade touring the country as a guitarist for hire. In 1976, he began experiencing a searing pain in his gut. Desperate and broke, he found his way to a Los Angeles hospital, where — adding insult to injury — he was diagnosed with colitis, a disease that can cause dangerous ulcers.

By 1986, Lorre gave up the music business and turned his attention to TV. ''I was always enamored of telling stories as a songwriter,'' says Lorre. ''And it was a natural inclination to make them funny.'' Though he had no formal screenwriting training, Lorre broke into the business by writing for animated shows before parlaying that experience into the sitcom world — ultimately scoring a supervising-producer gig on Roseanne in 1990.

His big break had arrived. But the high-profile position was also extremely high-pressure; it led to a new, more painful round of abdominal pain, and certainly didn't help his first marriage. (Lorre has also hinted about drinking around this time, but was not willing to address it with EW beyond saying, ''I led a dissolute youth until 47.'') On the Roseanne set, Lorre was getting an introduction to a quintessential Hollywood type: the demanding diva. ''She was ferociously determined to tell us how the story should be,'' says Lorre of Roseanne Barr (who could not be reached for comment). ''One of the benefits of working 70 hours a week in hell is that the mind covers itself so you can't remember it.''

He departed after two years to develop his own projects, and quickly learned that he's something of a magnet for difficult women. In 1993, down-home stand-up comedienne Brett Butler broke out as the star of Grace Under Fire; the following year, he left to guide Cybill Shepherd through her TV comeback with an eponymous 1995 sitcom. The shows earned a combined 14 Emmy nominations. And they both nearly drove Lorre off the deep end with their behind-the-scenes dramas, which ranged from a sour relationship with Butler (who declined to comment) to dealing with Shepherd's reported resentment of her costars. Says Lorre, ''Unfortunately, [Cybill costar] Christine Baranski won an Emmy after 13 episodes...so I got fired after 17.'' Counters Shepherd, ''I would have liked to have won, but I didn't hold it against Christine!'' As for Lorre, Shepherd remembers him as collaborative but says he became ''so angry, he couldn't function.'' Despite the angst, Lorre is appreciative of those turbulent years. ''I don't regret them. All that toxicity, ugliness, and anger was the reason to create a character like Dharma.''

Dharma & Greg, a comedy about a happy-go-lucky hippie (Jenna Elfman) and her straitlaced husband (Thomas Gibson), did bring Lorre something resembling bliss when he co-created it in 1997. Two years later, though, Warner Bros. TV signed him to a multi-million-dollar development deal, and he left the series after its fourth season. After toiling over a rash of failed pilots, he teamed with fellow Cybill writer Lee Aronsohn in 2001 to pen the pilot episode of Men. The sitcom was an immediate hit when it premiered in September 2003. ''It's no accident, and he'll even tell you this, that Chuck finally decided to do a show about men,'' says Sheen. ''I'll leave it at that.''

High ratings and a peaceful work environment haven't changed Lorre; if anything, he's still just as willing to risk his bosses' ire by, say, inserting lots of lewd jokes into every episode. On one late-October day, CBS standards-and-practices exec Sylvia Miller approached Lorre during rehearsal over a joke about oral sex and Abraham Lincoln. She was willing to barter: if Lorre would remove the Lincoln quip, she'd overlook some other raunchy joke. He wouldn't budge. The two of them did come to an agreement (the Lincoln line stayed), but Lorre remained dissatisfied: ''It's like, Oh God, don't make me cut the stuff that makes people laugh! It makes you crazy.''

To balance out the agita, Lorre is keen on using the show as a cathartic outlet to tackle the demons of his past — most notably with the character of Evelyn. ''Chuck is absolutely using me as a weapon to bludgeon the memory of how he was brought up,'' says Taylor, who earned an Emmy nomination for her witheringly funny performance. ''It's not a secret at all.'' (Lorre says that he made peace with his mother before she died.) But his preferred method of purging comes at the end of the show each week. After the closing credits appear on screen, he spouts off via his production company's title card, usually with a text-heavy diatribe about things like his disdain for TV critics who he says are so jealous of him, they would probably ''eat a hole through their loved ones and crawl through it if it meant they could get my job.'' (These screeds are available for your perusal on chucklorre.com.) Even Cryer wonders if he's overreacting: ''I don't agree that we haven't been treated well by critics. I guess he just feels [the show] hasn't gotten its due.''

Now that Men has proven itself, Lorre is busy working on a pair of pilots for CBS: The Big Bang Theory, about two socially inept physicists, and a romantic comedy starring Allison Janney as a fortysomething dentist. ''I have mellowed,'' argues Lorre, who's also in a happy second marriage with actress Karen Witter. ''When we do get out and meet people who are genuinely enthusiastic about Two and a Half Men because it makes them laugh, that's gotta be enough. The other stuff is juvenile ego. It's not defendable. It's ridiculous.... I'm trying to get better.''

But it's not easy. Well aware that this is his big chance to demand redress from a magazine that's never given his show the respect he feels it deserves, Lorre offers EW a helpful suggestion for a headline: ''We were wrong. And this show is terrific.''


Ladies and a Not-So-Gentle Man
Chuck Lorre on the key women in his career

(1) Roseanne
1990-92
COEXECUTIVE PRODUCER
''There were a lot of crazy meetings. I had the great fortune of not being directly in the firing line, which was good because I wouldn't have lasted six weeks.''

(2) Grace Under Fire
1993-94
CREATOR
''Brett Butler didn't like me. And I couldn't do anything to make it better. I hung in there, and then just before Christmas I went into the office [of producers Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner] and actually cried. 'I can't do this anymore! It's just too hard!'''

(3) Cybill
1995-96
CREATOR
''How do you create a show around a woman who is beautiful, glamorous, and who the audience will care for? It was much easier [for the viewers] to care about Roseanne and Brett because they had a tougher journey.''

(4) Dharma & Greg
1997-2001
CO-CREATOR
''I had just done Roseanne, Grace, and Cybill, so I wanted to design a show with a female character who is loving and filled with joy. She might as well have been a Martian. It worked out quite well.''

Originally posted Dec 08, 2006 Published in issue #911 Dec 15, 2006 Order article reprints