The TV sitcom: A Simple Medium

Chuck Lorre and the rules of the network sitcom.

By Tom Bissell – November 28, 2010 – for The New Yorker

My cmnt: I include this article because it covers Chuck Lorre and his sitcoms in some detail. I say that because I’m about to criticize Lorre and want to be fair in my assessment of him. I’ve edited the piece for space and brevity.

My cmnt: Though this piece was written in 2010 “The Big Bang Theory” went on to run for a remarkable 12 seasons. It was and remains one of my wife’s and my favorite sitcoms.

My cmnt: The two lead characters in “The Big Bang Theory” are Leonard Hofstadter and Sheldon Cooper. They were named by Lorre in tribute to the great writer, director, actor and producer Sheldon Leonard.

“Making people laugh was what I enjoyed doing,” says Sheldon Leonard, whose stable of sitcoms dominated prime­time television during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Leonard’s classics, which ranked in the Top 10 shows during the mid-1960s, include The Andy Griffith Show; The Dick Van Dyke Show; Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.; Mayberry, R.F.D.; and The Danny Thomas Show.

An unequaled 17 pilots directed by Leonard were sold as series, and he was the creative producer responsible for I Spy, The Real McCoys, Lassie, My Favorite Martian, The Joey Bishop Show, The Bill Dana Show, and many others. – From

My cmnt: Another little known piece of trivia in “The Big Bang Theory” is Penny’s last name. It is never given directly anywhere. It was supposedly seen on a package delivered to Penny as Teller. My guess would be that Lorre is paying homage to the magical team of Penn & Teller. Teller even appeared in an episode of the final season as Amy Farrah Fowler’s father.

My cmnt: Some of “Two and a Half Men” episodes are brilliant and hilariously funny, many are vulgar and trashy, and no one ever wins, at least not for long. In contrast to this “The Big Bang Theory” is mostly funny, has wonderful, interesting characters, and they are all decent people eking their way through life and romance. Also because I read physics books (not text books but popularizations by real physicists) I understand and relate to most of what the main characters are saying and doing.

My cmnt: The most important component in “The Big Bang Theory” is simply this: Love triumphs in the end. This is the constant theme of the “Harry Potter” movies (and books). Modern science, whose methodology only developed in a Christianized Europe, is an outgrowth of the magical desire – to manipulate the natural world to do wonderful things for us; yet in the end Love is what makes our lives worth living.

Stage 24 on the Warner Bros. lot, in Burbank, California, is a sand-colored, pyramid-like hangar identical to the many stages that surround it, as though the pharaohs had developed an air force. Some time ago, Stage 24 was designated the “Friends” Stage, in honor of the decade-long residency of Rachel, Phoebe, Joey, Chandler, Monica, and Ross, and their improbable Manhattan apartments. According to an engraved plaque near one of the entrances, “Blade Runner” was filmed there, too, in 1981. So was the ABC sitcom “Full House,” which ran from 1987 to 1995. The ghosts of actors, directors, and audiences past linger in these curious structures, and, when a new show is assigned its stage, cast, crew, and visitors alike can sense them.

“Mike & Molly” is the sixth sitcom to go on the air that Lorre has produced, created, or co-created. His two most recent shows, “Two and a Half Men” and “The Big Bang Theory,” are the No. 1- and No. 2-rated comedies in America, and have been for some time. Not since Norman Lear—who revolutionized the American sitcom in the seventies, with shows like “All in the Family,” and who, at one point, had seven hit shows on the air—has one man so dominated the genre. When “Big Bang” was picked up by CBS, in 2007, Lorre went to see Lear and asked how it was possible to do more than one show at a time. According to Lorre, “His answer was, basically, you run around like a madman.”

Once a television show has become successful, most executive producers ascend to a cloudier level of involvement. But Lorre works closely on anything that bears his name. He runs the writing rooms of “Two and a Half Men” and “Big Bang,” and is volubly present for every table read, network run-through, camera run-through, pre-shoot, live taping, and sound mixing for all three of his shows. Lorre’s daily agenda, which he refers to as Chuck’s Inferno, slots in five-minute pauses to pee, identifies potential nap opportunities, and issues a final, joking directive to go home. Most shows, “Two and a Half Men” included, operate on a Monday-through-Friday schedule. The production schedules of “Big Bang” and “Mike & Molly,” however, are compressed and staggered through the week, which essentially creates a Lorre workweek made up of nothing but Mondays and Fridays. During the month of August, he had only two days in which he was not tied up in some aspect of production.

All of Lorre’s shows are multi-camera sitcoms (also known as four-camera sitcoms). The genre is distinguished by a few core features, such as the obviousness with which they are staged, how heavily they favor the written over the improvisational, and the fact that most are taped before a live studio audience. This is in contrast to audience-less, location-shot, “one camera” shows like “Arrested Development” or “30 Rock.” If single-camera sitcoms are effectively short films, the multi-camera show is more like a short play, and it is the baseball of network television: old-fashioned, American, rule-bound, and deeply resistant to change. (“I Love Lucy” and “Everybody Loves Raymond” are, formally, about as different as their titles suggest.) The critically acclaimed sitcoms of the past half decade have tended to be single-camera shows with niche audiences (such as “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “The Office”), and many television critics regard the multi-camera sitcom as a retrograde, even defunct, form. At the same time, mass audiences have been deserting comedy altogether for shows like “C.S.I.” and “American Idol.” Twenty years ago, eight of the ten top-rated television shows in America were multi-camera sitcoms. By 2006, only one was in even the top twenty: Lorre’s “Two and a Half Men.”

The apparently unstoppable success of Lorre’s multi-camera sitcoms in an inhospitable television climate seems mysterious, but Lorre’s belief in the format is boundless. “It’s a very intimate genre,” he told me. “There’s no music. There’s no camera magic. There are no editing tricks. It’s not a visual medium. It’s about people and words.”

These men had seen thousands of sitcom rehearsals between them. Hearing them laugh at such easy slapstick felt a bit like encountering Henry Ford, near the end of his career, whistling in awe as another Model T came off his assembly line. Lorre’s laughter was the most distinctive: high-pitched, desperate, I-may-be-dying laughter. It had chord changes and movements, sometimes turning into a coughing fit or terminating with a foot stomp.

Lorre laughs like this during every run-through and rehearsal and filming, even when it is a joke he heard just moments before, in a previous take. My first thought was that Lorre was laughing for the benefit of the network people who were there to watch a new, untested show. When I asked him about it later, he maintained that his laughter is completely sincere, but that it is also a useful mechanism to get the actors to imagine the audience. “But it’s got to be genuine,” he said. “If you laugh and there’s no laugh there, you’re preparing them for disaster.”

Lorre claims to have learned how to work hard from his father, who ran what Lorre describes as “an eight-seat luncheonette” in Bethpage, on Long Island, and Lorre does not remember him ever taking a day off. Lorre was born Charles Levine in 1952, and by the time he was twelve he was working in the luncheonette as a short-order cook and soda jerk. At night, he and his father watched television together, usually comedians like Jackie Gleason, Jack Benny, and Bob Hope. Lorre told me that one of his “most formative” television moments occurred while watching “The Ed Sullivan Show.” “Henny Youngman came on and said, ‘I went to the doctor and said, “Doctor, it hurts when I do this.” And the doctor said, “Don’t do that.” ’ It was the funniest thing I ever heard in my life. Don’t do that. The logic of it was astonishing.”

After high school, Lorre enrolled at suny Potsdam, but dropped out to play the guitar professionally. Photographs of him around this time show a young man with the smeary mustache of a nineteen-seventies porn stallion and a stupendous head of black curls more cowl than hair. At the age of twenty-eight, he changed his name to Chuck Lorre. “My mother hated my father’s family,” Lorre explained. “ ‘You’re no good; you’re a Levine’ was routinely thrown my way.” Today, he wishes that he had remained Chuck Levine.

My cmnt: What a terrible thing to say to your child. Lorre echos this pain with Leonard’s mother.

Lorre admits to having lived hard and unwisely during seventeen years spent playing cruise ships, bat mitzvahs, weddings, and “Big Daddy’s Lounge in Miami Beach from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m.” He did manage to write a pair of songs that stuck to the sneaker sole of American pop culture: the theme song for the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” animated series, which he co-wrote; and “French Kissin’,” Deborah Harry’s biggest non-Blondie hit, which Bill Prady, who co-created “The Big Bang Theory” with Lorre, has described—accurately—as “remarkably average.”

Lorre turned to television writing in the mid-eighties. Although he claims that his only ambition was to get health insurance for his family, it was, in some ways, a natural outgrowth of his music career. Many of the songs Lorre wrote were dark-edged, purposefully comic “story” songs. “I was enamored of Randy Newman,” he told me, especially the persona songs in which Newman sang in the voice of an ugly, unlikable person. In Lorre’s mind, television had something else going for it: it appeared to be easy. In music, Lorre said, “the bar seemed much higher. I mean, McCartney and Lennon and Springsteen and Stevie Wonder and the Rolling Stones—just in pop music!” He now describes his confidence as “arrogance fuelled by stupidity,” adding, “I had no idea what I was doing when I started.”

Lorre’s first steady television jobs were in animation. At Marvel Comics, he wrote “Muppet Babies” scripts and was fired from “My Little Pony.” (“I didn’t have that ‘Pony’ voice,” he explained.) At night, he wrote spec scripts for prime-time comedies and used what few connections he had to get them read. He managed to get a “Golden Girls” script into the hands of Betty White, whose neighbor he knew. White told Lorre that she liked the script, which prominently featured her character, and that she would take it to the show’s producers. The script was returned with a form letter, but it led to freelance work for lesser sitcoms, such as “Charles in Charge” and “My Two Dads.”

Lorre’s prime-time break came with “Roseanne,” on which he worked from 1990 to 1992. The first time Lorre set foot on the “Roseanne” set, he experienced a sudden, confidence-building epiphany. “Roseanne was doing a scene with Laurie Metcalf and John Goodman,” he told me, “and I turned to one of the writers and I said, ‘They’re saying what we wrote!’ I was stunned. They were big stars.”

Lorre’s work on “Roseanne” impressed the producers, who offered him the chance to create a show about, in Lorre’s words, “a fifty-year-old middle-class woman coming into her own.” “Frannie’s Turn” premièred in 1992, and was cancelled after five weeks. But it inaugurated Lorre’s long, incongruous stint developing sitcoms about women of a certain age. His next project, “Grace Under Fire,” revolved around a struggling single mother. He was pleased with the pilot, which, he said, “managed to bring in some elements that I don’t think had ever been in a sitcom before,” including domestic violence. Much of that material was drawn from the standup act of the show’s star, Brett Butler, with whom Lorre often battled. “She was dissatisfied with almost every line of every script,” he told me. “It was an impossible situation. I began writing defensively, which isn’t writing—it’s predicting the future.” He left the show after one season.

In 1995, Lorre created a vehicle for Cybill Shepherd that explored an erstwhile ingénue’s identity crisis when she learns of her impending grandmotherhood. “Cybill” had a hugely successful first season—Christine Baranski won an Emmy for her role as Shepherd’s rich, alcoholic friend—but, once again, Lorre found himself struggling with a show’s star. One legend holds that Shepherd had Lorre fired because he clapped too enthusiastically for Baranski at the Emmys. Lorre says that this is not accurate, and characterizes his removal as being more a matter of Shepherd’s unhappiness at “how the humor was being apportioned out” in the second season. (Shepherd demurs: “Chuck knows why he was fired.”)

By this time, he had begun to acquire a reputation as a difficult person. A television show provides hundreds of people with steady employment in an industry not celebrated for its stability, and successful shows are defined by their longevity. Television is thus a more or less congenial industry. A brooding artiste or tantrum champion may thrive within a short-lived film production, but television rewards those who are able to meet deadlines and get along with their co-workers. In 2007, an Entertainment Weekly profile that emphasized Lorre’s combative history described him as “the angriest man in television.”

The characterization still irritates him, and yet, to hear Lorre tell it, anger drove him through much of his early career. The success of “Dharma & Greg,” his sitcom about a mismatched couple which ran from 1997 to 2002, helped him learn to relax. For the first time, Lorre’s distinctive sitcom voice was not forced through the mediating comic funnel of a headlining star. But it was not until “Two and a Half Men,” a show about a womanizing ruin of a man and his fussbudget brother, that Lorre found comic focus: men behaving like idiots.

When I first met Lorre, he told me what he had been “slowly learning” during the past eight years: “If I’m not frightened and angry and obsessed with anything other than doing good work, then maybe an environment gets created where people can do good work.”

Lorre remains annoyed about one thing, though—his shows’ lack of critical recognition, especially where “Two and a Half Men” is concerned. He once said of television critics, “They hate our success and believe that if they martyr themselves they’ll wake up in show business with real jobs.” He does not say such things anymore, at least not publicly, and prefers not to talk about television at all. Lorre’s standing among critics is not helped by his staunchly traditional approach to the sitcom. He is well aware of the shifts that have taken place in sitcom writing during the past twenty years, but he does not care all that much about them. “The comedies we really love, they’re not situational at all,” he said. “ ‘The Honeymooners’ was just a man struggling to get respect in the world. Archie Bunker was a man out of touch with the culture.” In place of “sitcom,” Lorre uses “character-com” or “half-hour comedy.”

By whatever name, the sitcom is an oddly purgatorial form of entertainment. The same characters appear week after week, displaying the same tics, and having the same arguments, in the same rooms, hallways, stairwells, and offices. Within the traditional sitcom, there are complications but rarely solutions; challenges but rarely triumphs. Indeed, when sitcoms attempt to do more dramatic stories, a show can come unmoored, as Lorre learned on “Dharma & Greg.” Faced with pressure from ABC to feature “promotable” story lines, Lorre eventually capitulated, which he regards as “one of the more regrettable actions in my career.” At one point, Dharma toyed with an extramarital relationship; at another, an accident consigned her to a wheelchair for several episodes. “I couldn’t have been dumber,” Lorre said. By listening to ABC, he told me, he undermined “the very nature of what’s great about a four-camera, audience show, which is an opportunity to get to know these people.” Lorre believes that the “magic trick” of the traditional sitcom is that “the characters make very small, incremental progress without ever really changing.”

Bill Prady told me that Lorre hates stories of unnecessary—or any—narrative intricacy. “And he’s right,” Prady said, “because a sitcom is now down to about twenty-one minutes. If you’re going to fill it with plot, with events that must occur, there’s no room for people to talk.” He described the number of events that happen in any “Big Bang Theory” scene as “one or zero,” and said that what Lorre most loves is a story in which the driving force is one character buying a birthday present for another.

Visiting the set of a sitcom you enjoy is like witnessing the exposure of a large and organizationally complex lie. The familiar and comfortable sets, once you are standing within them, seem cramped and flimsy. Touch a door and the wall shakes. Carpets turn raggedy wherever the cameras do not reach. Behind every wall is a world of chicken-coop fencing stapled in place and dark, narrow passageways somehow redolent of asbestos. Someone says, for the purposes of lining up a shot, “Lose the wall,” and suddenly half the set is folded away upon undetectable hinges. The area between the sets and the audience seating area is called “the floor,” but it is more like an alley. What little floor there happens to be is dotted with inscrutably marked pieces of tape.

During tapings of “The Big Bang Theory,” the audience sits at an angle from several of the sets, which means that it watches a good deal of the live proceedings on television monitors. Meanwhile, Lorre and his battery of writers and producers—hidden from the audience by long black curtains—sit crammed within one of the sets, watching their own monitors. Everything that is not part of a set, not bipedal, and not a chair has wheels, because throughout the night it is continually being moved to whichever of the sets is not being used.

“The Big Bang Theory” is Lorre’s best show to date. (“Two and a Half Men,” though funnier than its detractors admit, too often allows its characters to stand there and trade unrealistic sitcom barbs that in just about any other context would get someone punched.) “Big Bang” ’s main characters, Leonard and Sheldon, are physicists, and not in the vague sitcom way that Ross, from “Friends,” was a paleontologist, an occupation with which he seemed as conversant as a randomly selected eleven-year-old boy. Leonard and Sheldon drop references to Richard Feynman and to Asimov’s three laws of robotics, explain how Schrödinger’s cat is applicable to dating, and open episodes with lines like “Here’s the problem with teleportation,” before going on to reveal what, from a physicist’s perspective, the problem actually is.

The show was not an immediate hit. I happened to catch the pilot the night it aired, in September, 2007, and heard, in the first minute, references to Papa Doc Duvalier and Vladimir Nabokov. Its prospects appeared to me valiantly doomed, like those of a dog walking a tightrope. But when the writer’s strike that year crippled production CBS ran the first batch of episodes several times, which played to the show’s gabby strengths. Before long, it had earned a huge and devoted following.

My cmnt: I remember the “original” pilot with Leonard and Sheldon sitting in the waiting room of a sperm bank. It was decidedly cliche and unfunny. They then created a new pilot that starts with the two men meeting Penny. It was much better and the beginning of something marvelous.

In the show, Leonard and Sheldon live across the hall from a beautiful aspiring actress named Penny, for whom Leonard pines. Leonard wants more from life, which is his tragedy. Sheldon does not, which is his tragedy. A man of Vulcan arrogance and deeply hidden vulnerabilities, Sheldon says that as a child he did not have imaginary friends; he had “imaginary colleagues.” Not many sitcoms would permit Sheldon’s unpleasantness to be so emphatic, but CBS maintains a relatively hands-off approach to Lorre and his shows. Dave Goetsch, a writer on the show, says that “edges that get sanded over in other network sitcoms” become, in “Big Bang,” the “cornerstones of comedy.”

A typical episode of “Big Bang” takes around four hours to film, with lulls that can last twenty minutes or more. The many things that slow the process down include the frequency with which Lorre and his writers send the actors revised or new jokes; the banter among the actors between takes; the announcement of a guest star; and the patter delivered by a standup comedian (“Which side of the room is having a better time? This one or . . . this one?”) who is thanklessly tasked with keeping the audience’s energy up.

At the taping I saw, lines that the actors had grown visibly sick of during the camera run-through, lines that even Lorre had stopped laughing at, were getting huge laughs. Everyone seemed lightly narcotized by the audience’s presence, the audience included. Lorre’s shows are sometimes condemned for using a laugh track, a charge that infuriates him. His shows, Lorre insists to anyone who will listen, never use laugh tracks. When, later, I sat in on a sound edit for “Two and a Half Men,” I witnessed several occasions in which Lorre requested that the laugh be brought down from its recorded level.

For much of the night, the rewriting tasks were mild. “You keep tweaking until you run out of time,” Lorre explained, adding that he found this way of working nerve-racking. “I like to write in a room, privately, not in here with two hundred people waiting for us to finish. The danger is you might come up with a new line that gets a big laugh not because it’s better but because it’s new.”

We came to the episode’s central scene. Sheldon and his girlfriend, Amy, a neurobiologist, sit down with Leonard and two other friends in the physics department cafeteria. Sheldon explains that he has brought Amy to see his work, which Amy concedes is “very impressive,” before adding, “for theoretical work.” Sheldon asks Amy if she’s being condescending. Amy responds, “Compared to the real-world applications of neurobiology, theoretical physics is . . . what’s the word I’m looking for? Cute.” What follows is an argument that Prady, who worked on it, described to me as “very technical” and “jargony.” He first showed it to Lorre to see if it needed to be shortened. “No,” Lorre told Prady. “This is great. In what other comedy do you see this?”

Sheldon asks Amy how a neurologist like Joseph Babinski could ever aspire to the significance of great physicists like James Clerk Maxwell or Paul Dirac. Amy’s scripted response:

Oh, Sheldon. My colleagues and I are mapping the neurological substrates that subserve global information processing, which is required for all cognitive reasoning, including scientific inquiry, making my research ipso facto prior in the ordo cognoscendi. [to the other guys] That means it’s better than his research, and by extension of course, yours.

In the script, Leonard responds to this Latinate avalanche with a curt, startled “Sure, I got that.” But the audience responded with a restive, uncertain chuckle, and so the writers went to work. First came the dead spot of Amy’s opening, “Oh, Sheldon.” Steven Molaro quickly came up with a line for Amy that had Lorre slapping his knee: “I’m stating it outright. Babinski eats Dirac for breakfast and defecates Clerk Maxwell.” Next came Leonard’s “Sure, I got that,” a line about which Lorre said, “There’s nothing there.” The writers lowered their heads, and a few moments later the rewritten line—Molaro’s, once again—was sent out to the floor. Now when Amy finished her rant, and turned to Leonard, his line became “I’m still trying to work on defecating Clerk Maxwell.” It got the biggest laugh of the evening. I asked Molaro how it felt to experience something like that. He said that changing jokes on the fly, working under all the lights, and before a live audience, had a definite “athletic” component. He then added, “It’s the only athletic component.”

As we moved to another set, I asked Lorre whether single-camera sitcoms suffered by not having this audience-writer feedback loop. Lorre was hesitant to say yes, but he pointed out the biggest danger for sitcom writers whose material was not vetted by an audience: “You never find out if you’re wrong.”

Lorre’s house is one of his neighbor hood’s more modest, and his car one of its least obviously Viagral. Most of the homes nearby stand behind walls or hedges. Lorre’s can be seen from the street.

“Welcome to the sitcom house,” he said, opening the front door.

While he made tea in the kitchen, he asked me to look at some text on the screen of his laptop. I recognized what I was reading as one of Lorre’s vanity cards. Vanity cards are the production-company logos that TV producers flash up onscreen just after the credits have rolled. On the first episode of “Dharma & Greg,” Lorre pushed the name of his company, Chuck Lorre Productions, up to the top of the screen to make room for a message far too long to be read in its brief moment of screen time: “Thank you for videotaping ‘Dharma & Greg’ and freeze-framing on my vanity card. I’d like to take this opportunity to share with you some of my personal beliefs.” An eclectic set of convictions followed—“I believe that Larry was a vastly underrated Stooge”; “I believe my kids are secretly proud of me”—and continued on the card for the next episode, and the next, and the next. Soon, a vanity card announced that Lorre had run out of beliefs, and the texts started to range more widely.

My cmnt: Some of Lorre’s rants are funny and some are insightful and many are revealing of what Lorre believes about life. In a separate post I will include one of Lorre’s hundreds of vanity cards and what I think it reveals about him.

In the twelve years since then, they have included elliptical fictions, rueful musings about his life and the state of the country, and jeremiads against CBS censorship. (Sometimes he relays obscene jokes that he was prevented from using in an episode, and sometimes CBS ends up censoring the card, too, in which case he posts the unexpurgated version on his Web site.) If any single mode predominates among the more than three hundred cards Lorre has written, it is probably the rant, and it is hard not to see these compressed, intense utterances as a rebellion against the constraints of TV writing—moments of id, on the run from the superego of network programming.

The vanity card that I read on Lorre’s laptop was directed at television critics: “You have absolutely no power to affect ratings and the likely success or failure of a TV show. In that arena you are laughably impotent. You are not unlike a flaccid penis flailing miserably at a welcoming vagina.” Lorre had just decided not to use this vanity card for the first broadcast episode of “Mike & Molly.” I told him that I thought he had made an extremely wise decision. He wound up using it, minus a few genital references, on “Two and a Half Men.”

We went out onto Lorre’s red brick back patio, its small pool surrounded by a dozen deck chairs. When he was married, Lorre told me, there had been rose gardens outside and the house was much more elaborately decorated. He has been married twice, a topic about which he has sensibly little to say, and has two children from his first marriage. His daughter works with him on “Big Bang,” and his son is a nurse.

My cmnt: By now (2022) Lorre has been married a third time. Each wife is younger and prettier than the previous. Lorre is now 69 (nearly 70 actually) and his wife is 36. I call this the Hollywood spread. You see it often with older male actors playing opposite ridiculously younger and attractive female actors. It echos what many of the highly successful Hollywood types (Michael Douglas 77 and Catherine Zeta-Jones 52), and other men with wealth (latest example is Jeff Bezos) do in real life.

My cmnt: To be fair Michael Douglas celebrated 21 years of marriage with Catherine Zeta-Jones on Thursday by sharing an emotional video tribute. Page Six. Kirk Douglas, his father, was married to his second wife, Ann Buydens, for 66 years!

We talked about things I had found surprising when I watched him at work. I mentioned having seen Kaley Cuoco, who plays Penny on “Big Bang,” sitting on the couch in Leonard and Sheldon’s apartment during a rehearsal, apparently checking her e-mail on an iPad. The sight of Cuoco engaged in nonfictional behavior within fictional surroundings, I told Lorre, was strangely distressing.

“After all these years, when I watch the actors on one of my shows go on Leno or Letterman and talk about the funny thing that happened to them while they were building a sauna in their Beverly Hills home or whatever, it just breaks my heart,” Lorre said. “I want to protect the fiction. I don’t want to know what goes on behind the screen.”

I asked if this accounted for his inability or unwillingness to delegate more of the responsibility for his shows.

“It’s a body of work,” he said. “Whether you like the body of work or not, it’s a body of work that I have accumulated, and I want to stay close to it and protect it.”

Later, he expanded on the point. “This is the shot I’ve been given to communicate as a writer,” he said. “This is my shot. This was the door that opened, and if I take it for granted then it’s ridiculous.” He went on, “When I started out writing, in the late eighties, I heard guys say, ‘Aw, screw it. It’s just a sitcom,’ or, ‘It’s just TV. We’ll add laughs to it in post, and it’ll be fine. No one will know.’ I heard guys talk that way and it was really offensive. It was really offensive.”

Films, perhaps, show us who we want to be, and literature shows us who we actually are. Sitcoms, if they show us anything, show us people we might like to know. Because of this, the sitcom is a medium designed to reassure. The more reassuring the sitcom, the better its chances become at winding up in the financial promised land of syndication, where multi-camera sitcoms fare far better than their single-camera brethren. Most sitcoms are about families, and, for the millions who watch a sitcom, it becomes a kind of mental family. Week after week, your couch faces the couch of characters you feel you know, characters whose problems can never quite get solved.

A lot of sitcoms are, in fact, darker than you realize. At its core, “Two and a Half Men” is about loneliness. “The Big Bang Theory” is about alienation. “Mike & Molly” is about self-hatred.

My cmnt: The assessment of the three sitcoms above is incorrect. There are essentially two types of sitcoms. One is built around the selfish narcissism of the main characters and the other is built around the main characters showing love to each other. “Two and a Half Men” is at its core about selfishness and obsession with women without really caring about the women. “Mike & Molly” is similar with all the male and female characters, other than Mike and Molly who express uneasy love for each other, acting, thinking and talking selfishly and perversely. “The Big Bang Theory” is in the later category of sitcoms. It is a throwback to people learning to value the right things in life and in each other. It reminds me a lot of “The Andy Griffith Show”. Sheriff Andy is wise, just and charitable in a town of people who mostly live by Judeo-Christian values while often exhibiting human foibles. Deputy Fife is the comic foil who keeps everything light and funny (and won numerous Emmys doing so).

My cmnt: I don’t want to mislead my readers unfamiliar with “The Big Bang Theory”. A lot of the situations and humor are built around sex and lust and promiscuity. The difference is that these traits and actions always lead to misery and failure. Learning to value love over lust is a key theme of the show.

I arrived at the “Mike & Molly” taping, a few days after the network run-through, to learn from a smiling Lorre that the live audience had loved the show’s pilot. There was always a risk, he said, in showing something new to an audience. “These are brand-new faces, and they really responded.” Early in the taping, the audience laughed hard at things that were not even intended to be funny. I wondered what might have happened if the bowling-ball gag had survived into the live shooting, and asked Lorre if an audience can ever be wrong. “Sure they can be wrong,” he said quickly. “We need to ask if the experience will translate to a person sitting alone on their couch. And that’s a judgment call.”

Published in the print edition of the December 6, 2010, issue.

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