Chuck Lorre and Bill Lawrence Sound Off on Comedy During COVID, the Fate of Sitcoms, and Their Very Different Charlie Sheen Experiences

·17-min read

Chuck Lorre and Bill Lawrence have known each other casually through the years, whether it be bumping into each other on the Warner Bros. lot or at an awards show. But put the two veteran writers together, and they begin to realize they have a lot more in common than just rubber chicken dinners at the Golden Globes.

Both have enjoyed lengthy careers and multiple successful (and syndicated!) comedies over the years. Both worked with Charlie Sheen — although those experiences ended up very different. And the two scribes are also currently enjoying perhaps the biggest acclaim of their careers: Lorre with Netflix’s “The Kominsky Method,” which just launched its third and final season, and Lawrence with Apple TV Plus’ breakout hit “Ted Lasso,” now entering its second season. Both “Kominsky” and “Ted Lasso” have been lauded for mixing comedy with a deeper look at the relationships that drive us and what it means to be a human at life’s crossroads.

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Here, Variety brought Lorre and Lawrence together to compare notes about producing during the pandemic, mentoring the next generation of comedy writers and this era of reboots and remakes.

What was it like to produce television under such unusual conditions and COVID protocols?

Chuck Lorre: It was like running with weights on. Everything we do in writing and producing a television show was many times harder because we were doing it with masks and shields and Purell and gloves. And then there were these people running around, I swear to you, with 6-foot-long sticks on “The Kominsky Method.” If you were talking to someone on the stage, they would hold the stick up and say, “You’re not 6 feet apart!” Everybody was doing their job, but when Michael Douglas’s hairdresser tests positive, I lose Michael because he was in contact with the hairdresser. And that was happening over and over again during the winter. There was a darkness to it. And then of course, [for] the shows that I’m doing that rely on a studio audience, there is no studio audience.

Bill Lawrence: I did a multi-camera pilot during all this. And I found it so surreal. I found myself going [to the cast], “I’m not a fake laugher but I’m going to try when you guys nail moments, in order to create the pace of a multi, at least.”

That must have been difficult with your new shows, where the stars haven’t had a chance to do it in front of an audience.

Lorre: Right, they never get that theater experience that is a four-camera show, which is, “Hold for laughs.” All we could do was [have] a couple of people on the stage laughing like idiots, trying to slow the pace down. So that the infernal laugh track can be added later. I spent my entire career running from that and being accused of [using laugh tracks] forever. But here we are, and we’re actually using it this year.

Lawrence: I used to go crazy on “Spin City” back in the days because they’d go, “Oh, I love the show, but I hate the laugh track.” And I would want to reach each of those people and go, “Not only is there not a laugh track, we’re cutting the laugh spread so that we can meet the network time!” And we don’t cheat. Go to a show like “Big Bang” and see the manic enthusiasm from these audiences. You don’t have to like it. But it’s real. And Chuck’s shows are real that way.

Lorre: I’ve had journalists sit in the audience, listen to the response, experience the live performance and then write about the laugh track. And I’m like, “You were there!” But it’s a trope and this year, it was true.

Lawrence: “Spin City” shot in New York, and my mom came to 100 consecutive tapings. This is how I would prove it wasn’t a laugh track. If there was ever a joke that wasn’t huge, the only loud laugh you would hear is my mom’s fake laugh.

Writers’ rooms also had to switch to Zoom rooms this year. How did you and your writers adjust?

Lorre: Part of the joy of the job is the room — to be around smart, funny people. And that was gone. There are still six, eight smart people in the little boxes. And the work gets done. But the interaction is sorely missed. There’s time when you’re just fried from staring at the screen.

Lawrence: People always ask me, “Why didn’t you go to write movies?” I think TV writers are people that love being in a group and who think writing alone by yourself is something that only sociopaths enjoy. And so, to have that taken away, it’s really hard. Kudos to Zoom for making it so you can still have a gig. But I will tell you, Ashley Nicole Black is a lovely, super talented writer that we added to “Ted Lasso” and she is a voice on an animated show our company is doing. I was talking to her yesterday and she said, “Do you realize that we’ve never met in person?” That’s weird. That is summing up the bummer of it all.

Neither of you are incorporating the pandemic into your storylines. How did you come to that decision?

Lawrence: One of the things that we got really stuck on with “Ted Lasso” was, as we’re doing the second season, are we going to have the stands empty and people wearing masks and being 6 feet apart? Or is that, for a show like this, going to be putting too much reality into the world?

Lorre: What I thought is if we do the show with masks and social distancing and Zoom and whatnot, then the show will have a time stamp on it forever. And maybe a year from now, maybe five years from now, the show will be a relic of a time that’s gone and won’t be as interesting to watch. The warning for me was “Murphy Brown.” It was one of the best shows ever 30 years ago, but it was peppered with Dan Quayle jokes. And while they were great 30 years ago, they have no meaning now. The judgment call was to make a show that that has a lifespan that might continue beyond this time. I wanted to make a handkerchief, not a Kleenex.

Lawrence: I think people are watching “Ted Lasso” to get a little hopefulness and optimism, and that [feeling of], “No fans can come to these games, everybody’s got to wear masks” would kind of undercut that.

Bill, where did the idea of leaning into optimism come from?

Lawrence: We’re grateful and gracious to people that have found helpfulness in a show that we know is about empathy or forgiveness — the things that we really cared about. We knew it would not work unless it had pathos in it as well. And when you take the episodes apart and say, this is the most optimistic and upbeat and hopeful show in the world, what happens? This poor guy’s wife that he’s desperately in love with leaves him and he is prone to massive panic attacks that he can’t deal with unless he’s helped through them by another kind soul and he doesn’t know why they’re happening. Jason [Sudeikis] wrote the seventh episode of “Ted Lasso” and said, “I’m going to write a real rendition of what it’s like for this guy to face overwhelming anxiety and a panic attack in a way that makes you know he’s not Mister Rogers.” I think that’s what cracked the show.

Lorre: [When] I was watching it, I was thinking, “It’s certainly an entirely different level of work.” And I’m not comparing it qualitatively, but when I did “Dharma & Greg,” the effort was to see if a character who is life affirming, generous of spirit, loving could carry a show. Because prior to that, I’d done shows with Roseanne Barr and Brett Butler. And there was a sort of a, let’s say, negative quality. What I’m loving about “Ted Lasso” is first of all, Jason’s perfect. Admittedly, I went into it very cynically. There’s a high concept element to the premise. And I went, “It’s maybe a movie.” What happened was, I fell in love with him.

Lawrence: I love snarky character comedy. I really enjoyed “Veep.” If I met someone like Ted Lasso, I would assume that it’d be two weeks until he revealed that he was actually an asshole. It’s how cynical our discourse had gotten. And then, two weeks later, if he turned out to be someone kind of spirit and empathetic and forgiving, then you have to look at yourself. And so that’s where we started.

And Chuck, what was the breakthrough moment in writing Season 3 of “Kominsky”?

Lorre: I think it had to do with Kathleen Turner as Sandy’s bitter, angry first wife — and the reconciliation between the two of them. Not a revisit to romance but a reconciliation where the wounds and the injuries and the crimes that he committed as a husband are to some extent forgiven. And they become friends in a wonderful way that I didn’t anticipate happening. And I was really grateful for it. Because to carry on with that bitterness at this point in life — he’s playing a 75-year-old man, and she’s in her 70s as well — I don’t want to write that anymore. I don’t want to shoot the story of people who are at each other’s throats. I’ve done it. This felt like this was an opportunity to go a different way.

How do both of you balance the uplift and the comedy with the drama, specifically in these two shows?

Lawrence: One of the things I think that we sometimes have in common is that, Chuck, even though he lives predominantly in the world of multis, doesn’t shy away from pathos and having substance in depth and comedy. I look at a show like “Mom” or “The Kominsky Method,” a single-camera version where someone dies right in the pilot. Is that something that you’ve always done? “Dharma & Greg” had some pathos in it too, especially with their relationship. You made that decision early on in your shows, was it a conscious decision? Or did it just happen?

Lorre: I wanted to find out if I could sit down by myself and write. That’s how “Kominsky” really began — it was kind of a challenge for myself. And, as I was writing it, life happened. It became apparent as you’re writing that this has to happen now. That this journey through grief, in the first season of “Kominsky” of losing a beloved spouse, was a meaningful way to tell the story. Part of that was, I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned this before, but I was lucky enough to get to know Tom Poston and Suzanne Pleshette. They had both lost long-term spouses — 40 to 45 years of marriage — to illness. And Tom looked like he was just fading away. We really thought when his wife died that he was not long for the world. And he ran into Suzanne Pleshette, who he had dated during the Eisenhower administration. And they started dating and they fell in love and they got married. And it added 10 years to his life. And he blossomed. And so, I got to tell a story like that, which I wouldn’t have otherwise had the opportunity.

What inspired the friendships at the heart of both “Kominsky” and “Ted Lasso”? There’s the bond between Sandy and Norman in the first two seasons of “Kominsky” and what Ted has with Beard and forms with the Diamond Dogs in “Ted Lasso.”

Lawrence: All my shows seem to have these male friendships with guys that are open and honest with their feelings, fears and insecurities in ways that I, as a repressed WASPy type dude from Connecticut, wish I could be. On “Ted Lasso,” Jason Sudeikis and I were talking when we were breaking down the show, and I’m like, “These guys should talk way too honest and openly about their feelings so that you don’t have the toxic masculinity.”

Lorre: I didn’t know where I was going when I knew that we were going to have a third season without Alan Arkin, who is one of the great comic geniuses of American film. He’s astonishing. But then as I started working on it, I realized that even posthumously, he affects everyone through the third season. He impacts very much on Michael Douglas’s character — he makes a huge impact on him. He makes Sandy’s lifelong dreams come true after he passes.

What do both of you make of reboot and remake culture? Because you’re both going to be asked the question for the rest of your lives about revisiting “Big Bang Theory” or “Scrubs.”

Lawrence: My “Scrubs” answer has been [that] those people on the show are so talented that we all said as a group that no one’s in economic hardship [so we don’t need to] reboot it. But if five years from now, everybody’s like, “Hey, let’s get together and do something and see where all these characters are, because we haven’t gotten to spend any time together as human beings,” we’d do it. I am rebooting “Head of the Class.” It was in the Warner Bros. library and Rich Eustace and Mike Elias, who created it, gave me my first job ever. So I would say I’m not living in the reboot world except for personal reasons.

Lorre: I’ve been real lucky that I’ve done really well. So the choice of doing something from the past and trying it again has to be because creatively it feels exciting.

Something the two of you have in common is Charlie Sheen.

Lorre: I had eight really good years with that [“Two and a Half Men”] cast, and with Charlie. I’m over that whole fiasco to the point where I can watch the reruns now and laugh. We did good stuff. And we had generally a good time for eight years. Before it went south.

Lawrence: Charlie hit our world at a different time in his life and everybody on that crew, just because it’s a specific bottle of time, remembers him as generous and care-taking and lovely.

Lorre: The sobriety issue made for a wonderful stage. The show was just ruthlessly about going for laughs, how hard can we hit these jokes, and then it worked and the audience embraced the show. He was terrific. And great with the crew. It was a really wonderful experience. And I like to say it out loud to remind myself that it wasn’t all darkness. It was a lot of good stuff.

Multi-camera comedy continues to be on life-support. Can it maintain relevancy?

Lorre: I hope so. The greatest comedies in the history of television were multi-cam shows. I grew up watching “The Honeymooners,” and [“I Love] Lucy” and Dick Van Dyke and then the Norman Lear shows. It’s the closest thing we get to putting on a little show every week. Those Friday night nerves. There’s going to be 250 people there and shit, I hope this works. You don’t experience that in any other thing except live theater.

Lawrence: I see myself grasping to it because I love it and don’t want it to go away. But it seems like there are outside forces trying to trying to push it aside.

Lorre: There’s certainly no more need for the 100-episode thing. That’s gone. We don’t have to make shows in bulk anymore. You work just as hard making 10 episodes.

Lawrence: At “Spin City” we did 100 episodes in the first four seasons. It’s awesome. But man, what a slog.

Lorre: Whenever I start working with somebody new, in a co-creator situation or they’re going to be the showrunner, the half-joking question is, “How strong is your marriage?” Because the work tears you up, the exhaustion tears you up. And if you bring it home, it’s going to tear up your family.

Is the lack of next-day ratings in streaming freeing for both of you? Are you used to not having to look at those Nielsen, at least on these shows?

Lawrence: I personally don’t care about any metrics anymore. And I would say I find it freeing in the sense that I always had a psychological problem of equating success with ratings and financial success when I was a younger writer. One of my favorite shows ever was this cartoon I did with Chris Miller and Phil Lord called “Clone High.” It went away after 10 episodes, and we all talked about it as a failure. But Chris and Phil are the ultimate examples of young people that you mentored that became huge. They’ll have to give me a job when I’m no longer hirable.

An important element of where this industry is going is more representation, finding new voices, finding more inclusive voices. How does that inform the way you staff your shows?

Lawrence: I love it. I have been around long enough that when I started, some of these shows would be eight guys that looked like me, and maybe one person of color, one woman on the staff, and that was sometimes the same person. The positives are how much that shit has changed. I’m doing an Apple show that we’re staffing that has Cuban American characters and storyline. The amount of talented Cuban American writers that I’ve met that are going to be huge voices for that show, it’s super fun. “Head of the Class,” the way it’s reinvented, it’s co- created by a young first-generation Indian woman and it’s about what it means to be a young, smart POC in the world of private and public education.

Lorre: That opens up a whole other world of stories that couldn’t have been told otherwise. So in a way, it’s getting out of the way, creating some room for other voices to speak. It’s exciting to see what happens because stuff happens you could not anticipate. When I started, everybody in the room, we were all the same guy. It was Roseanne who said, “You need women on this staff.” One of the women that got hired on that staff as a writer was Amy Sherman [-Palladino]. She’s done pretty well. It was a great big voice, waiting to be heard. And it’s just been remarkable to watch how that’s changed television.

Both of you have mentored many writers who have gone on to create their own shows.

Lorre: None of these shows that are on my résumé are even remotely a solo effort. There is that dynamic where work gets better, whether you think you’ve written a bulletproof script or not, when it’s subjected to other people’s insight. When I look at a cut of “Young Sheldon” or “Bob Hearts Abishola,” it’s wonderful. I didn’t do anything except enjoy it. It’s maybe more fulfilling that the show has its own voice and it’s not mine. The last couple of years of “The Big Bang Theory” would never have happened if I didn’t step back. I would have destroyed it.

Lawrence: The gift of this gig is getting to meet new voices and live in a world that’s a meritocracy. Because that’s the one thing about TV writing that I don’t think exists in any other business: once you’re in that room, even though people outside the room will go, “Who’s the supervising producer, who’s the executive story editor?” it doesn’t even matter. People speak up and you get to let their voices be heard. It’s an unbelievable blast.

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