Chuck Lorre has been writing and producing comedy for TV for over 25 years, from his days on “Roseanne,” “Grace Under Fire” and “Cybill” through today, when he helms “The Big Bang Theory” and “Mom” as part of his overall deal with Warner Bros. TV. Here he talks about why he relies on the multicam format, what he’s learned from producing legend Norman Lear, and why he calls “Mom” the hardest but most rewarding job he’s ever had.
You’ve had an impressive string of successes. What’s your secret?
I really believe that the foundation of a good show is characters, and the jokes come second. If you don’t care about the people, it doesn’t really matter what’s on the page. Situation comedy is a misnomer. I think for a long time, the situation has just been life. It doesn’t start with a contrived situation or a joke. It starts with human beings that you can feel compassion for. I think when I’ve been successful it’s because the combination of words and casting, characters and relationships that people can care about.
Your shows all rely on multicam, which others have struggled to duplicate. What is it about the format that works for you?
There’s a terrific vulnerability when you’re working in front of a live audience. There are no tricks involved. There’s no editing or post-production magic. It’s very vulnerable. And I would guess that vulnerability is part of the appeal. When it truly works, it’s great. When it doesn’t work, it’s dreadful. But there’s no failure like a four-camera failure. It is hard to watch. It’s perhaps part of the reason that there’s this negative view of the whole genre.
Bob Newhart once told me he couldn’t imagine doing it any other way because he needed to know where the laughs were.
The audience is a litmus test. I’ve always believed those 200, 250 people. It’s ridiculous to assume it’s [going to be] funnier at home in your living room. So when we shoot in front of a live audience, when something’s not working, when it’s not generating a visceral laugh, we rewrite it. But we don’t put it on television if it’s not working in front of a live audience. It’s very humbling. Some of the words you write that you think are so beautiful are not as magnificent as you might think. An audience will tell you that. They will tell you when it’s not the comedy moment you thought it was. And that’s just the nature of it.
|“I had to take a chance and do a comedy that tackles issues that are really happening in people’s lives.”|
On “Mom,” you’ve been able to balance comedy with tackling deeper, more difficult subjects like sobriety and addiction.
One of the reasons to do “Mom” at this point in my career is to try to tell different kinds of stories. Stories that are more in the atmosphere in the Norman Lear world, but have fallen out of favor. Stories that I actually started to learned how to do on “Roseanne,” 25 years ago. Stories that are much more in line with what really goes in a person’s life. That was the reason from the very beginning, to do a series that tackled areas that were maybe lacking for comedy. And almost as an experiment, to find out if we could mine comedy from some of this darkness. I’ve got to tell you, it’s been really hard, but it’s been one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done in my career. We’re not just tackling addiction, we’re tackling cancer, and teenage pregnancy, and adoption. There was an overdose death in the series this past year. It was hard to do. It was hard to write. It was hard to shoot. It was hard to edit. It was painful because it got so real sometimes. I had to walk out of the room because it was too much. But doing it felt worthwhile. It felt like I had to take a chance and do a comedy that tackles issues that are really happening in people’s lives.
You’ve talked before about how much you admire Norman Lear. What have you learned from him?
He showed me the way. I’d never seen anything like this in comedy growing up. When “All in the Family” started, comedies were really broad on television. And he basically said, “Here’s real life, here’s real people.” He made it OK. I learned it growing up watching it as a kid, and I learned it again working on “Roseanne.” Maybe a lesson forgotten and learned again. You can do a television comedy on areas off-limits.
Do you think audience’s tastes have changed?
The desire to be told a story, and in our case, to laugh at the human condition, is a universal premise. I don’t know that that changes. I think we still like to sit around a campfire and tell stories, and laugh at our foibles. The means by which it’s communicated might have changed, we might be telling these stories on Oculus Rift. You’ll be sitting on the couch next to Sheldon watching this scene play out in the living room with the “Big Bang” characters, but it’s still the “Big Bang” characters. And you’re either engaged in the story and their lives, or you’re not. But no, you will not be sitting in Sheldon’s spot.