Chuck Lorre is currently the sitcom’s reigning king, producing four CBS comedies, including “The Big Bang Theory.” John Wells might have stewarded the last genuine dramatic mega-hit in “ER,” as well as acclaimed series such as “Southland” and “Shameless.”
Both call Warner Bros. home, which was where they convened to discuss the TV business and the writer/producer/showrunner’s lot — including the unique camaraderie of the writers’ room, their discomfort with suits labeling what they do “content,” and a mutual love of the medium behind all those hugs they’ve received (understandably, given their successes) from Warner Bros. TV honcho Peter Roth.
Variety: How do you generally feel about the state of the TV business now?
John Wells: I always say the same thing, which is we just tell stories. The way in which they are distributed changes, but as long as people are interested in hearing stories about their lives and other lives and worlds, for the writers and for the
people who are creating this material there are many more opportunities because there are more places to do it and allow you to do it for a much smaller audience.
The thing that’s in peril — and it’s been in peril forever, so I don’t want to overstate it — is the state of what network television’s going to be, which has supported the entire ecosystem forever with syndication. The pressure that it’s under means the whole rest of the ecosystem is ultimately going to be under a lot of pressure, which people don’t talk about a whole lot.
Chuck Lorre: It makes me think of something (producer) Marcy Carsey said to me 20 years ago. I was developing for them, and I said, “What network would this go on?’” and she said, “What difference does it make? Those are trucks. They bring the product to market.” I always loved that. They’re just trucks. What’s inside the truck is the only thing that matters.
Variety: We’re also seeing this wave of mergers. As guild members, how much does that concern you?
Wells: I’ve lobbied. I’ve actually testified. I don’t think wildly massive conglomerates — I understand why they want to be big and what the advantages are for them — are an advantage for the viewer and the people making the content. I don’t see how it’s going to be beneficial to anyone other than the larger company to have that kind of control over the means of distribution. It doesn’t lead to better material, which is what we’re always really concerned about.
Lorre: The first thing you learn when you work for a big company like Warner Bros. is synergy’s a myth. Human nature is self-interest and the agendas of these little fiefdoms are doing what they just normally do, which is pursuing what’s good for their careers and their little part of the company. When I came into this, I had this very naïve notion that we’re all in this together, like a big club. It’s not a big club. It’s medieval is what it is.
Variety: Chuck, in terms of sitcoms, do you feel like the last man standing?
Lorre: No, I really don’t. I was very much influenced by what Phil Rosenthal did, because he brought it back to the basics of two people talking. When it’s well written, well produced and acted, it’s fascinating. Two people talking on a couch can pull you in. “Everybody Loves Raymond” did that. Jon Cryer and Charlie Sheen sitting on the couch talking about something that was interesting and funny was enough. That brought me back to what I learned on “Roseanne” way back when — 25 years ago — that it’s a play, really. What we do is putting on a play, except we get do-overs.
Variety: Do you see value in the development process? Or would you rather just go shoot it?
Wells: Well, I’d always rather just go shoot it, just because it removes a lot of the anxiety in the middle of it. But there’s tremendous value to seeing it and changing it. Even if you just go and shoot it, you’re going to make a number of adjustments based on what you actually see. Once you start something, you have an idea of what it’s going to be and then you see what it actually is, and oftentimes a character changes completely, somebody interacts with someone in a different way, stylistically it changes.
Lorre: But you don’t necessarily know the show until, God, really, episode six, seven, eight, nine, 10. You start to get a sense of what’s the tone, what’s its voice, what’s its comedic rhythm? And the characters do change. You learn how to make them better, but also you learn about the actors’ strengths and write to the strengths.
Pilots are so misleading. If you looked at a pilot for any successful show, go and look at it two years later. You’re looking at a different show because there’s a learning curve, and that involves time, and time is in short supply in a business that’s running scared.
Variety: Does the fact that you’re getting immediate public feedback have any value, or is it something that you just have to shut out?
Lorre: You have to block it, otherwise you’ve turned over the writing and producing of your show to who? At the end of the day, you put on a show you love and hope people agree with you. It’s that simple. It’s the only way it can have any integrity.
Wells: It’s a very self-selective group. I pay some attention to it primarily because the younger writers like to come and tell you what they read. But I always say, “Alright, we had 2.5 million viewers this week and you read 140. Is that representative?” Plus a lot of times the reaction is what you want it to be, even if it seems negative, like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe they did that” and “I hate them for doing that.”
Variety: Has determining what you made on a show become an issue?
Wells: Some of the things that were put in place during the strike have been very helpful in figuring some of that out. But the reality is the way in which shows are valued changes because the audiences are smaller. It’s a matter of people making less money overall but more people are working. So that’s been the tradeoff.
Lorre: The old model was producing 100 episodes and then selling it to syndication. Quantity drove business models. It’s not necessarily the most creative approach. Would you want to make 100 episodes of “True Detective?” Because what happens is it immediately becomes “The Perils of Pauline.” It’s almost
impossible to sustain that level of drama and quality when you’re going for quantity.
Variety: If you had to pick one advantage cable has, what is the most important?
Wells: What makes the most difference in dramatic television is time and money. You look at a wonderful show like “Game of Thrones,” they’re shooting 16, 18, 20 days. “The Good Wife” has got to do 22 episodes and they have to do it well, which they do, but they’re doing those in eight days. There’s a huge difference in what the budget is, but also the amount of time you have to kind of handcraft the product. So the time and the money are connected.
Lorre: A couple of years ago I ran into Larry David and I said, “What’s it like doing 10 as opposed to 24?” and he goes, “Same amount of time.”
Variety: How do you maintain your passion for doing this?
Wells: I get asked all the time what do I like to do most. I like walking into that writers’ room. I just never get tired of going in there with a bunch of lunatics and trying to figure out some stories. It doesn’t matter whether you’re doing a drama or a comedy. It’s your group. You get a community that you go to and that you participate with and struggle with.
Lorre: The nice thing about television that succeeds is it creates a family environment. You grow old together. The crew on “Two and a Half Men” — a lot of those people go back to 1990, ’91. Babies got born. Babies grew up and went to college. There’s a sense of continuity with the people you work with over a long period of time.
Variety: Lastly, just ballpark: Who’s been hugged by (Warner Bros. TV chief) Peter Roth more times?
Lorre: With or without clothes on? As long as I’ve known him, he’s been one of the most enthusiastic supporters of loving television. He comes to a shoot or a rehearsal and he’s laughing. He’s not there with a script with the dog-eared pages trying to tell everybody how to do their job. He’s just watching and enjoying it. That’s really valuable, having somebody who actually loves what we do as opposed to just making it a commodity and a unit or content. Boy, I hate when they say content. It’s not content. It’s a story. It’s acting. It’s words.
Wells: I’ve dealt with so many different network executives over the years and there were plenty that I came to discover didn’t really watch television and were apologetic about it when they did. There are a lot of people who are in the business who don’t know or love television. It’s very hard to take notes from and deal with someone who’s not moved by the medium itself and doesn’t truly enjoy it.