'Men,' 'Bang' push producer to the top of deck

Leave it to Chuck Lorre to find the dark humor in even a career highlight like getting a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

“It’s great to have your name on something in the ground that you’re looking down at,” he says. “Because if you’re looking up, it means you’re dead.”

Both Lorre and his career appear to be in robust health these days. At age 56, the prolific comedy writer and producer finds himself at the helm of not one but two CBS hits: “Two and a Half Men” which, in its sixth season, still ranks as TV’s most popular half-hour, and relative newcomer “The Big Bang Theory,” a critically adored gem that rests comfortably in Nielsen’s top 20. (“Men” is expected to get a three-season renewal from CBS, while “Big Bang” is looking at a two-season pickup.)

Yet Lorre’s current status as the king of mainstream comedy is only the latest feather in his proverbial cap: Over the past two decades, he’s had a hand in some of the medium’s most successful sitcoms, including “Roseanne,” “Dharma & Greg,” “Grace Under Fire” and “Cybill.”

“In a town of make-believe, Chuck’s one of the real McCoys,” says Leslie Moonves, president and chief executive of CBS Corp. “There aren’t many people who’ve had one hit, let alone the number he’s had. In terms of track record, there’s Norman Lear and there’s Chuck Lorre.”

Adds Peter Roth, president of Warner Bros. TV (the studio behind both “Men” and “Bang”): “Without question, Chuck is the best comedy showrunner in the business. Nobody does it with more dedication, more success or more passion.”

By now, that passion is the stuff of showbiz legend. Over the course of his career, Lorre — a former songwriter and guitarist who broke into TV by writing for animated shows — has developed a reputation for being one of Hollywood’s most outspoken creatives. He has ranted against TV critics and Emmy voters for what he regards as a lack of respect for “Men,” and he’s taken shots at execs and network censors for vetoing the often-provocative content of the bloglike vanity cards that run at the end of his shows. Two years ago, one magazine even went so far as to label him “the angriest man in television.”

“I’m not angry in general,” Lorre insists. “It’s tough to get a show on, even tougher to keep it on, and for both shows to be working, I’m grateful. You’d be an idiot to be angry.”

Moonves, who’s been on the receiving end of some of Lorre’s jabs in the past, is nonetheless quick to defend his star show-runner. “Chuck is opinionated, but that comes from his belief in what he’s doing,” Moonves says. “And I’ll take that any day of the week over somebody who’s wishy-washy.”

Such an adjective could never be used to describe Lorre, who famously clashed with two of the actresses he created shows for. Behind-the-scenes battles with “Grace” star Brett Butler led him to leave that series, and he was fired from “Cybill” after tangling with its star, Cybill Shepherd.

Since then, Lorre has compared writing and producing those shows, as well as working on “Roseanne,” where he was a supervising producer, to the “pain and humiliation of receiving a colonoscopy in front of a classroom of medical students” (something he’s actually endured, by the way).

Perhaps it’s no coincidence, then, that both of Lorre’s current series revolve predominantly around male characters. The actors he works with now, Lorre says with obvious relief, “love what they do, and do it with great grace and dignity. There’s not a lot of ego.

“When things go wrong,” he continues, “and they always go wrong — that’s built into the fabric of putting on a show every week — you’re allowed to recover from (your) mistakes, because nobody’s getting upset and overreacting.”

Despite the relative professional calm, Lorre, perhaps not surprisingly, can still sound tortured. He describes juggling two series as “insane — sometimes, the brain just doesn’t want to do it,” and calls putting on a show in front of a live audience “nuts.”

“I keep believing every time we shoot one of these things that we’ve got it right, but we never really do,” he says.

And despite his vast experience and success, Lorre says writing remains an eternal struggle.

“I can’t believe that after all these years, it’s still like reinventing the wheel every week,” he says. “It’s really hard. The only thing that’s become easier is I’ve come to understand there’s a process at work and (to) let the process unfold.

“The panic attacks are fewer and further apart,” he continues with a dry laugh. “That’s progress, right?”

But make no mistake: Lorre is exactly where he wants to be, even if it may not always sound that way. “I learned something about myself during the (writers’) strike,” he says. “I’m not ready to quit. I need to do this. It’s exciting and challenging, and if I didn’t get to do it, I’d miss it. Terribly.”

TIP SHEET

What: Chuck Lorre receives star on Hollywood Walk of Fame

When: 11:30 a.m. Thursday

Where: 7021 Hollywood Blvd., across from Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel

Who: Charlie Sheen and Jon Cryer are among scheduled speakers.

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