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Chuck Lorre on Making Up With Charlie Sheen: ‘A Big Weight Off My Heart’

The last time Chuck Lorre and Charlie Sheen were co-workers was early in 2011, when the producer-actor duo were in the middle of making the eighth season of the CBS smash hit comedy Two and a Half Men. Sheen’s addiction problems flared up again, landing him in the hospital, then in rehab, and then giving a series of incendiary interviews — notably one with Alex Jones where Sheen derisively called his boss “Chaim Levine” (Lorre’s birth name is Charles Levine). Sheen was eventually fired from the show, and his character, Charlie Harper, was killed multiple times, and at one point briefly replaced by a ghost played by Kathy Bates. All the bridges were burned, and all the grand pianos dropped from a great height. The two collaborators were done. 

At least until today. Lorre’s newest comedy, Bookie, just began streaming on Max. Stand-up comic Sebastian Maniscalco plays the title character, Danny, a Los Angeles-based bookie whose clientele ranges from sad divorcees to the hugely famous. And to have someone fill the latter kind of role in the Bookie premiere, the Big Bang Theory creator decided it was time to mend fences with his former leading man.

Earlier this week, Lorre spoke with Rolling Stone about how he and Nick Bakay built this show around Maniscalco, the reason he wanted to work with Sheen again, and the rapid transformation of the TV comedy business that Lorre has dominated for so long.

Was the show written for Sebastian, or did you and Nick write it and then think of him for the part when you were done?
I met with Sebastian about a year and a half ago or so. He was looking for someone to build a show around his stand-up persona. I saw the stand-up. He’s a master of that craft. But then I saw him in a small scene in The Irishman, playing crazy Joe Gallo opposite Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci. I’ve always wanted to do something in that grey zone, not with psychopath, psychopathic killers and whatnot, but something in that gray zone where people are working off the grid and not good citizens. And I liked what I saw with Sebastian’s choices that he made opposite two of the greatest actors of all time. And I talked to Nick Bakay about it, and Nick was a talking head on ESPN years ago about gambling, betting on sports before it was fashionable, before the NFL and all the major sporting conferences decided to vet gambling. And he suggested a bookie, and I thought that was perfect. We went back to Sebastian and said, “Instead of your stand-up act, what if we were to do a single-camera gritty, somewhat dark comedy, about a couple of bookies trying to survive?” And he jumped at it. So we started writing. And we wrote the first script on spec, I guess you’d call it, and HBO Max stepped in and said, let’s do it.

This is a very different kind of show from Roseanne or Grace Under Fire, but you have a lot of experience writing for stand-up comedians who had minimal prior acting resumes. Is there a way you can tell from watching someone perform at the mic whether that will translate to the other kind of performance? 
No. I don’t know that you can just surmise or guess at that. Seeing Sebastian in that scene in The Irishman was all the education I needed. He has chops. He makes good choices as an actor. And I think it wasn’t really, I don’t mean to make this a pun, but it wasn’t really a gamble. He was terrific in that scene opposite Pesci and De Niro, and there was no question that he could do this. And he and I had some conversations along the way about me alerting him as to whether or not he’s sliding into his stand-up persona, which he’s very well aware of, and to make sure that it doesn’t sneak into the performance on Bookie. And it worked great. I thought he did a spectacular job.

How did you come up with the idea to have Charlie Sheen come back and do this cameo?
When Nick and I wrote the first episode, we had a “To Be Determined” scene where Danny and Ray, the two bookies, go to collect a gambling debt from a famous person. He’s in Los Angeles, and he’s running a book. It seemed like a simple idea that some of his clients can be rather well-to-do people of note. So we wrote the scene without actually naming the person, just sort of a placeholder. Early on one night, it just kind of hit me that Charlie was perfect for this. I called Nick and I said, “I know who should be our successful celebrity gambling degenerate.” And then the question was, “Well, how are we going to go about doing that? And is that a good idea?” Charlie and I, obviously, have some blood under the bridge.  I called his representative, and I got hold of his phone number and I called him. And he’s in a good place — he was, and he still is, as we speak — and it just unfolded really easily. We worked together for eight and a half years. We made around 170 episodes of Two and a Half Men together, of which I’m very proud of. I think they’re really funny. And we had a good time until it all came apart. And we’re both in a place, thankfully, to say, “Let’s do this. Let’s have fun with this.” And he was a really good sport about making fun of himself because obviously, we’re asking him to play a fictional version of himself. And when we actually got together, the first time I saw him was at the table read for the first episode, and it was really kind of wonderful. It was a big weight off my heart to embrace this man as a friend and move on.

A lot of the things that were said during that time, a lot of people would not be willing to forgive that and embrace that person.
Well, the things that were said were, I believe, the result of stuff he was going through. I don’t believe that those things that were said are his true nature. And so there was a time where it would’ve been impossible, but that is not now, or when we did this last winter. I just had to ask myself, Can I do this? And the answer was yes. The hurt that was caused was gone. And Charlie’s in a good place in his life, and he’s terrific in this. His chops are uncannily correct, as they were many years ago. And he’s in the last episode as well, giving marital advice to Sebastian’s character, which was great to look at.

With this show and Kominsky Method on Netflix, you now have some time in the streaming business, so you can do a scene like the one where Danny and Ray go to collect money from a porn star and wind up watching him film a threesome scene. If you had gone to an ABC executive in the late Nineties and asked about doing a similar sequence on Dharma & Greg, what would the response have been?
Well, you wouldn’t ask that question. The parameters of network television get beaten into you pretty firmly and early if you’re doing a half-hour comedy for ABC or CBS or any of the major networks. The real danger is you become your own censor because you have so many baffles with what they call “broadcast standards,” instead of censorship. But it’s the nature of it, and to rail against it is ridiculous. This is what it is. The rules were set up long before I started working, and they weren’t going to change for me. Although, I must say we did push the envelope on Two and a Half Men quite a bit, and we drove them crazy at CBS. They gave us a lot of leeway because the show was doing so well. But it was a pretty risqué show given the nature of network television. But again, it’s pretty simple. Something like Bookie was never meant to be a show for a network, and if it couldn’t find a home in any of the streaming universes, then it doesn’t get made.

But now you have no censor at all. Are there ways in which the freedom creates its own complications, as much as having to work within standards and practices did?
I think there’s no question of that when you’re working with all the restrictions that are imposed by network television, that occasionally, those restrictions force you to become more creative. And the nature of what you’re writing, it’s frustrating. You think you have something wonderful, and you’re told, no, you can’t do that. And then you have to go, “OK, if we can’t do that, what are we going to do?” And something good comes from that. And that fits into the nature of that distribution system. I don’t know what else to call it. But yes, we would bitterly complain about censorship constantly, and yet somehow we were able to make a show that we were proud of.

But with this show or Kominsky, did you ever find yourself saying, “Well, we can do this, but should we?”
Oh, sure. Freedom can be a hand grenade in your pants, absolutely. But the guiding idea for whatever I’m doing, whether it be CBS or Max or Netflix with Kominsky, is the eternal question of, “Is this funny?” I’m very much a believer that comedy is supposed to provoke laughter. And if it doesn’t, it might be something wonderful, but it’s not comedy. So I still hold to that as what am I trying to do. Shocking the audience is not the goal. I actually watch dramas. I rarely ever watch comedies. I love to watch dramas and wonder, how do you do that? I just finished watching The Crown. It’s extraordinary — the production values, the performances, the words. It’s a masterclass. And so far afield from what I do.

Finally, CBS just announced that this season of Bob Hearts Abishola is going to be its last. That’s going to break a streak of yours, that goes back to the late Eighties, of you having at least one traditional multi-camera sitcom [shot on a stage in front of a studio audience] on broadcast TV every season. But you also made seven seasons of Young Sheldon, three seasons of Kominsky, and one season so far of this, all of them in single-camera [shot on film on sets and real locations, like a drama series or a movie]. In transitioning from one format to the other, how long did it take you to figure out what would work when you didn’t have the studio audience there?
There’s a strange thing that happens after 30 years in front of an audience. The audience is in your head — or at least they’re in my head. One of the things that happens when you’re working in front of a live audience is failure. Resounding failure, the soul-shattering silence of jokes that fail. When comedic moments that you had high hopes for just do nothing. At tapings of four-camera shows, you see the manic scurrying of the writers trying to fix a scene that isn’t working, and doing it right in front of the audience!

There’s that panic, that horror, the silence that says you are wrong, that your instincts are wrong, and is part of the process. It’s a weekly education in humility. You think you’re really smart? Go and put yourself in front of an audience and watch. I don’t know, even if you’re at your best, 20, 30% of it will fail — just maybe get some polite chuckles because the audience is uncomfortable with its own silence. And you do that for a few decades, and it gets in your head. And you can kind of anticipate when you’re out shooting in the single-camera format, you can hear that silence. You can tell, oh, this isn’t going to work. Again, working is defined as, “Is this comedy?” And comedy is supposed to provoke laughter. I try and keep it as simple as possible because I’m a simple person.

Source: Rollin Stone