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Chuck Lorre on His Broadcast Future and Reuniting With Charlie Sheen (on Max’s ‘Bookie’)

Welcome to the 239th episode of TV’s Top 5, The Hollywood Reporter’s TV podcast.

Every week, hosts Lesley Goldberg (West Coast TV editor) and Daniel Fienberg (chief TV critic) break down the latest TV news with context from the business and critical sides, welcome showrunners, executives and other guests, and provide a critical guide of what to watch (or skip, as the case may be).

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This week, we’re joined by the king of broadcast sitcoms, Chuck Lorre, who in an extended interview opens up about burying the hatchet with his former Two and a Half Men star Charlie Sheen on Bookie, which marks the Big Bang Theory creator’s streaming debut for Max. The gambling series starring Sebastian Maniscalco marks Lorre’s entry into the world of dark comedy after nearly three decades of broad fare. Lorre also discusses his status on broadcast TV with both of his remaining CBS comedies, Young Sheldon and Bob Hearts Abishola, coming to a close in 2024.

Other topics discussed in this week’s podcast include a December TV preview as well as scores of renewals and cancellations, plus Critic’s Corner, in which Dan offers a guide on what to watch (or skip) in the week ahead.

Below is an edited and condensed version of our interview with Lorre. Listen to the full conversation in this week’s TV’s Top 5.

Both of your remaining broadcast comedies, Bob Hearts Abishola and Young Sheldon, are ending next year. What does your future in broadcast look like?

In the words of Douglas Adams, “Thanks for all the fish.” I think it’s goodbye. I don’t know. I still love the medium, whether it be working in front of an audience or the single-camera approach, I still think it’s a wonderful way to create an ensemble of characters that then you can attach to and care for.

How have the economics of doing broadcast changed?

Economics have obviously changed. The business side of it is not my business. I just try and make a good show, and then I hope for the best. How these decisions are made in terms of the fiscal nature of making TV, if I approach it that way, I’m doomed to failure. That’s not the way to approach storytelling. You tell the story because it’s worth telling. If you make a comedy, you make it because you think laughter will ensue. If you don’t think that, you’re just trying to make a buck, and that’s a wrongheaded approach.

How much more story did Young Sheldon and Bob Hearts Abishola have to tell?

They’re very different situations. We have reached the time in the cycle of Young Sheldon where Iain Armitage is 14 years old now. He’s pushing 6 feet tall. We’ve told that story, and the remainder of his path leading up to The Big Bang Theory happens at Caltech in California. Following him from 8 to 15 seems like the natural life span of the show. That was a feeling that was shared between myself and Steve Molaro and Steve Holland, who have been instrumental in keeping this thing as extraordinary as it’s been. Bob Hearts Abishola is a different story. There’s so many more stories to tell.… I don’t necessarily feel we were done. But that was not my call.

Speaking of the economics of broadcast, the cast of Bob Hearts Abishola — save for the two leads — was demoted from series regular to recurring…

It wasn’t a demotion. There were fiscal restraints imposed on the show in order to continue making the show. The cost of making it had to be reined in, and that was the only way to do that.

How much of the decision to end the show was because of the cost of the show?

That’s a question you’d have to ask CBS. These are things that I learned as you learned them. It’s not my call. I’m grateful that we’ve had five years.

Are you pitching anything new that’s designed specifically for broadcast?

I may be pitching a little. I don’t want to go too far down that road. I still feel pretty lucky. I have a great deal of fun playing in the sandbox, and until they tell me to go home, I’m going to keep trying. But some of [the shows being developed are for broadcast], yes.

What have you been hearing as you take things out in the post-strike, post-Peak TV landscape about what streamers and networks are looking for?

In the past, production companies were able to justify carrying these huge deficits in hopes of recouping the deficit and making a profit in syndication. Syndication may be a thing of the past. If it is, then how you finance these things and the logic of financing them is an open question. I don’t know what the answer is. It’s a little scary. I’ve worked for Warner Bros. now for 24 years. They’re in business to make money. All these companies are in business to make money, and that’s fine. If you pursue money, it’s still upside down. If you pursue making a great show or movie, hopefully money follows. You don’t put the money first. If you’re pursuing money first, it’s pandering; it’s cheating. It’s condescending to the audience. It’s just not the way, at least for me. I get excited about a great idea for a character and for relationships. Bookie was worth writing about. A couple of guys who are dinosaurs, who are pursuing what was a career for thousands of years and now is perhaps coming to an end with Internet gambling being pervasive and encouraged.

Bookie is your first comedy for Max, where you’ve also got the next iteration of Big Bang Theory as that franchise segues from being a CBS original to a Max original. How did Bookie wind up on streaming? And was there a version of this show that you wanted to do for broadcast?

Bookie was never meant for broadcast. I wanted to do a dark comedy. I wanted to do something that exists in the gray zone off the grid. Violence has never been a part of anything I’ve done. For 30 years, I’ve been having characters sip coffee and talk on the couch. I love watching shows that are edgy and gritty and entirely different from what I’ve been doing. I wanted to try and do something where the character is struggling to survive in this criminal netherworld. I ran the idea past Nick Bakay, who I’ve been working with for years on Mom and Young Sheldon. He used to be a talking head on ESPN about sports gambling. Nick suggested he be a bookie in California because California still hasn’t legalized online betting. We pitched the idea to Sebastian, and he was game.

Criminality hasn’t had a role in the shows that you’ve made, but a couple of years ago, you did a show about marijuana [Netflix’s Disjointed] as it was on the eve of legalization. This, of course, is a show about sports gambling as it’s becoming more mainstream and less taboo. What interests you about the idea of these things that used to be taboo but now are entering the mainstream?

The transition from criminality to legality is an interesting place in time. We had a very difficult time making Bookie. We tried to get footage from the NFL to put on TV monitors in the background. And the NFL said, “No, we don’t support illegal gambling.” Which, to my definition is illegal gambling that they don’t have a piece of because they do have a piece of DraftKings and FanDuel and Caesar’s and MGM and all of these things that are advertised as being a legitimate pastime but not with bookies.

How much research were you able to do?

We talked to a lot of bookies all over the country who have asked to not be named because they’re bookies. But they’re wonderful, colorful characters who’ve been running books for decades. There’s a scene where a surgeon is mid-surgery, and a nurse is holding a phone, and he’s placing a bet while he’s in surgery. We didn’t make that up.

You explored the world of addiction with Mom. With Bookie, how did you approach how clean those characters come out looking versus people who have gambling addiction?

We made a very purposeful choice to start this series with a scene of a family being torn apart by gambling. Sebastian’s sweet spot is not playing a predator. His sweet spot is as a victim. He’s victimized when he gets money that is questionable into where that money has been. He’s victimized by his wife, he’s victimized by a guy who owes him money, who no longer identifies as a guy. Everywhere he goes, things do not go well for him. He is not by any means a predator. He may think of himself as such, but the world is working against him. And that’s one of the ways we identify and empathize with the bookie. He’s trying to make as legitimate a living as he can. He’s not out to hurt anybody. He’s continually paying a price for the terrible things happening as a result of the world he lives in. And that’s an entry point for identification or empathy by the audience in that he’s well-meaning, but things don’t necessarily go well. And I think that’s something I think we all deal with that regardless of what your job is, or your family life is. Nobody sets out to be malicious.

How did you look at the parts of Sebastian’s comic persona that you wanted to bring out in this star vehicle for him?

It begins with identifying with a profession that is on its way out. I’m not quite sure that I’m also not in a profession that’s on its way out! I could very easily be the dinosaur with my feet in the tar and watching a meteorite coming down and going, “This doesn’t look good.” We were talking about how the business is changing, and how these companies operate, and what constitutes success, and how do you finance this stuff? It all seems to be changing really quickly. It’s hard to get a handle on it. And it may be changing in a way that says, “Thanks, Chuck. Bye.” And that’s something I recognized in telling a story about a guy running a book. He’s clearly a guy that technology is pushing out the door. And that’s something we all recognize as a threat to us that even a couple of years ago you wouldn’t have anticipated — I certainly wouldn’t have anticipated a few years ago that we’re having a conversation about how artificial intelligence might write scripts. Are you fucking kidding me? This happened last year! It’s happening quickly to the point where it caused two major strikes because technology is moving at such an incredible pace and perhaps moving us aside. That’s the case for a bookie.

At what point in the process of developing and making Bookie did it occur to you to bury the hatchet with Charlie Sheen?

When we wrote the first episode, Nick and I realized if he’s running a book in Los Angeles, he’s probably got some serious heavyweight celebrity clients. We wrote a scene with a celebrity to be named later. I remember one night thinking, “I know exactly who should play that part.” I called Nick and said, “It’s got to be Charlie Sheen.” I know from our eight and a half years working together that Charlie was very much engaged in betting on football, and he knew all about that world. But the question was, given all the stuff that went down way back when, is this something I could do? And the answer was, yes. It’s old news to me.

In the last couple of years, I’ve been able to start watching the reruns [of Two and a Half Men] and laugh. I’ve watched the reruns and really enjoyed them and enjoyed his work. The question was if it was something Charlie would consider. I managed to get him on the phone, and he was gracious. He was grateful, and he was eager to put all that behind us. He came to the table read and just killed it. He was terrific. Angus T. Jones is in that scene [in the pilot of Bookie] as well. It was almost 20 years after we shot the pilot of Two and a Half Men where Angus was 8 years old and annoying these guys who were playing poker. This time, he was in the poker game, and it was really quite wonderful. It was healing to put all that craziness behind us.

Was it an easy call to make to Charlie?

We were friends once. He was in a great place when we spoke and was warm and open to the idea.… He recognized the comedy of his journey. He could step outside of that whole story and see the craziness of it and make fun of it. The first time I saw him — after many, many years — was at the table read for that first episode. We hugged. It was something I never could have dreamed could happen, but it did, and I’m grateful for it. That was a time in my life that was dark and frightening and infuriating and all kinds of horrible things. And it was all gone. That was something.

You wrote and shopped a script called Sex, Drugs and a Sitcom about a year ago that explored everything that went on behind the scenes at Two and a Half Men. Did the work that you put in on that script play a factor in your decision to reunite with Charlie?

Writing that script was me just venting, and getting that out on paper was therapeutic. I showed it to a couple of people, and then I put it in the drawer and forgot about it. I guess on some level, I needed to write that in order to put all that behind me. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but it was very much a therapeutic process of spilling out all my venom and anger and frustration onto these pages, and then putting it away.

When you bring up the idea of casting Charlie Sheen to a studio executive in 2023, what is the reaction that you get?

I’ll tell you, [Warner Bros. Discovery CEO] David Zaslav was over the moon. He was absolutely thrilled at the idea. He thought it was spectacular, and that was very, very encouraging.

Not a lot is known about this other Big Bang Theory spinoff you’re doing, but it was announced as being for Max rather than CBS. How did you get to this point where you are doing another spinoff — let alone for Max and not CBS?

But we have nothing in place at Max. Zero, nothing. No one knows anything about what this is, other than the people that have been working on it with me; nothing’s been pitched, nothing’s been placed. It’s all very prenatal.

So, it could be for CBS?

Or it could be for no one, I don’t know. We haven’t presented this to anyone. I’m not a big fan of spinoffs unless it feels fresh. This could conceivably be very different and also very funny. That’s the reason to go forward — not to keep digging in the same mine for the same precious minerals.

For much more from Lorre, including his thoughts on Sheen’s role in Bookie after the premiere and the actor’s notes, plus vertical integration and streaming transparency, listen to the full interview, above.

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