Lorre’s contract carried out by hit ‘Men’

CHUCK LORRE DOESN’T CARE whether Peter Roth wears a tie to work, but he didn’t want to become the proverbial albatross around the Warner Bros. TV chief’s neck.

Back when money flowed freer in TV land, Roth gambled on Lorre — who created or co-created “Dharma & Greg,” “Grace Under Fire” and “Cybill” — to dream up another hit, shelling out more than $30 million for a multiyear development pact. Until this fall, the result was a string of passed-on pilots, causing some sages (OK, me) to wonder about the fallout should Lorre strike out with his first and last scheduled at-bat under that deal, “Two and a Half Men.”

Even without the nattering of negative nabobs, Lorre knew there was plenty riding on his agreement. Comedy hits have been scarce, after all, culminating in this season’s symbolic gut-punch, when NBC tapped “The Apprentice” to become the anticipated linchpin of its “Friends”-less Thursday lineup.

“I felt an enormous amount of pressure,” Lorre said. “I wanted very much to honor the deal. I didn’t want it to be a weight around his neck.

“I was raised to believe if a guy pays you a dollar for your work, he’s got to make $1.01…. I’m happy Warner Bros. is going to make money off this.”

INDEED, BANKROLLING LORRE suddenly doesn’t look like such a bad idea. Granted, “Men” is still outfitted with the TV equivalent of training wheels, otherwise known as an “Everybody Loves Raymond” lead-in. Yet cushy real estate couldn’t coerce people to embrace NBC’s “Coupling” and, given the dearth of syndication-worthy sitcoms, the CBS show has the potential to refill Warner Bros.’ coffers and then some.

Recent sitcom survivors have generally fallen into two big “but” categories: “Ratings challenged, but critically popular” (such as “Arrested Development” and “Scrubs,” which has exhibited marginal stand-alone ratings appeal); or, “Doing OK, but no one in L.A. will admit to watching” (think “According to Jim” and “Yes, Dear”).

Against that backdrop, “Men” has the distinction of often being flat-out funny in a package that’s about as conventional as a sitcom gets. Despite critical slobbering over alternative formats from “Curb Your Enthusiasm” to “The Simple Life,” the action transpires in a living room, demonstrating that laughs are about more than set decoration and gimmickry.

Lorre insists there’s nothing inherently wrong with sitcoms. The way he figures it, a modestly successful comedy can repeat on the network and play in near-perpetuity in syndication, amassing far more eyeballs and revenue when all’s said and done than the top “reality” shows, a live-for-today proposition.

“Everybody keeps trying to make these things,” he said. “There has to be economic sense in them.”

LORRE DIDN’T EXACTLY SLACK OFF during his time in the wilderness, developing a Fox prototype, “Nathan’s Choice,” which still strikes me as a brilliant idea: Present the protagonist with a big decision in each episode, then shoot two different endings. The rerun would have showcased the alternate conclusion, yielding what amounts to a value-added repeat.

That said, Lorre confessed that his deal weighed on him, and that he might have lost his focus on execution — “Be funny, stupid,” to borrow Clintonian terms. So he teamed with Lee Aronsohn — a friend about to lose his Writers Guild health benefits — and concocted “Men.”

Blessed with a budding hit, Lorre has no plans to do anything but tend to it. As inspiration, he cites “Raymond” creator Phil Rosenthal, who walked away from a lucrative development deal at Disney to stick to his kibbitzing.

“I’ve learned a lot from Phil,” he said.

Maybe it’s the millions, but Lorre also hasn’t succumbed to TV’s viral epidemic of “reality” envy, suggesting that such programs are “about editing. You watch a reality show and you’re watching editing. There’s nothing wrong with that, (but) personally, I’m more intrigued by acting and writing and directing.”

Sitcoms have been written off before, most famously two decades ago — until “The Cosby Show” exploded, jumpstarting a genre that Lorre says people should “accept for what it is: It’s theater, with do-overs.”

In hindsight, Lorre can even derive illumination from the remnants of those crashed pilots. “You learn from the failures,” he said. “You either learn craft or humility, but you learn.”

Based on that theory, practitioners of TV comedy should be feeling savvy and humble by now. As for applying lessons in hard knocks to a “Friends,” “Frasier” and eventually “Raymond”-less world, they could start by looking for a few more good “Men.”

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