The latest issue of the New Yorker contains a profile of Chuck Lorre by Tom Bissell (gated), which answers a question I’ve never asked myself until now—namely, who is Chuck Lorre? Turns out he’s the human force of nature behind the most popular sitcoms of our time, Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory, as well as not-exactly-classics like Grace Under Fire and Dharma and Greg. It’s a well-written article that has some nice behind-the-scenes details—did you know that all of those shows are actually filmed in front of a live audience?—but it also works amazingly hard at dancing around the fact that no matter how successful and hard-working Lorre is, he’s also a hack.
Ahem. Maybe the polite term for hack is “populist,” or “sitcom traditionalist,” or whatever phrase the New Yorker used to describe him. What Lorre has done throughout his career is create TV shows that are to television what Top 40 hits are to music and McDonald’s is to food. Two and a Half Men is a program for people who want to watch television but don’t care what they want. They want something comforting to rest their eyeballs on, something that won’t challenge them or force them to have an emotional or intellectual response. Fine, I guess. I’ve drunk too much cheap, shitty beer to question anyone’s taste. But the New Yorker, perhaps out of an instinct to not throw profile subjects under the bus, doesn’t quote any of the many, many people who hate Lorre’s lowbrow shows, and halfway defends his work with lines like:
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.
There’s little discussion about those “shifts” in sitcom writing, maybe because if the piece delved into recent sitcom history, Lorre’s attitude would come off as stodgy and willfully ignorant. The sitcoms of the 1980s, watched today, are astonishingly slow-paced and predictable, even the supposedly “good” ones like The Cosby Show. The reason for this is that the last 20 years have represented a revolution of sorts in sitcom writing, which resulted in shows from both sides of the Atlantic like Seinfeld, Newsradio, The Larry Sanders Show, The Simpsons, The Office, Spaced, The Office (again), Curb Your Enthusiasm, Arrested Development, the first seasons of Malcolm in the Middle and 30 Rock, Peep Show, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and most recently, Louis, Parks and Recreation, and Community, which competes in the same time slot as The Big Bang Theory, the first of Lorre’s shows to be acknowledged as non-terrible by critics. For a sitcom writer to “not care all that much” about that list of shows is fucking insane, like a film director ignoring all films made after 1970, or a writer refusing to read anything published after 1900. And for Bissell not to find someone to put Lorre’s attitude in context is a bit of a problem for the piece.
Another thing Bissell might have done is to get a critic to point out that, okay, the four-camera sitcom is out of fashion among comedy geeks right now (mostly because all that audience laughter slows the pacing down to a crawl), but it’s not like critics are racist against traditionally structured shows or anything. Newsradio and Seinfeld were four-camera shows, and those are beloved shows whose fans will buy the DVD sets of. Louis CK’s Lucky Louie has less of a following, but there are still a bunch of folks who swear it was brilliant. Who’s clamoring to buy the DVDs of Dharma and Greg? Critics don’t like Lorre’s shows because critics love good sitcoms, have been watching good sitcoms for years, and Lorre’s shows aren’t good sitcoms.
Like most purveyors of critically-reviled pop culture, Lorre hates the critics who revile him. Bissell’s article quotes a message Lorre hid in his production company’s “vanity card” that flashes on the screen for a second after the credits roll:
You [critics] 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.
Beyond the somewhat bizarre sexual imagery (“flailing” at a “welcoming” vagina? Like the penis is being whipped against a woman’s wet pussy lips in some vaguely kinky impotence fetish fantasy?), this is a fairly revealing statement. Lorre defines “success” for his shows as “high ratings.” He wants as many eyeballs as he can to be glued to his shows, and that’s the extent of his ambition. Is it any wonder critics don’t like him?
See, Chuck, sitcom critics—those poor schmucks—did not get into the business to influence ratings. They don’t care much about ratings, by and large, unless low ratings cause a show they like to get cancelled. They became critics not to tear you, Chuck Lorre, down personally, but because they watched way too much TV as children and fell in love with the sitcom form. That’s a bad thing to love, because the sitcom form doesn’t always love them back, but they can’t help it. They want to write about the shows they love seriously and analytically, and they hope to spread the word about these shows to other people, who might also fall in love with these shows. They want, at bottom, for sitcoms to be taken seriously as art, or at least not dismissed by intellectuals as 22 minutes of content indifferently occupying space between ads for erection medication and cars.
That’s why people like Todd VanDerWerff praise shows like Community and why every comedy geek I know puts Arrested Development on a pedestal. Those are some great, densely-layered shows that reward you when you rewatch them and sometimes have some emotional depth to them. They inspire love and occasional debate among they’re fans, and they actually have fans, unlike your shows, which have viewers. People love all of the shows I listed above—how many people love Two and a Half Men?
Finally, the people who worked on Arrested Development don’t think the show “failed” because it got cancelled. They’re proud of having made one of the funniest shows of the past decade. And the people working on Community, which is getting beat in the ratings nightly by your Big Bang Theory, aren’t worried about “failure.” Donald Glover told me during an interview I did a while ago that it’s an awesome feeling to work alongside a talented ensemble on a really funny show that inspires really passionate fans. What I wonder, Chuck Lorre, is if the folks working for your show have that feeling.