Richard Cartwright, Cbs
NEW YORK — Chuck Lorre — whose trio of hits includes "Two and a Half Men," "The Big Bang Theory" and "Mike & Molly" — isn't just a towering comedy mogul.
He's also one of the most widely distributed writers in the world. His tart, often darkly funny dispatches reach a weekly audience of more than 30 million.
Granted, the number of people who actually read these tiny treatises is another question. Each of Lorre's posts appears on-screen for a single fleeting second at the end of his shows, in the form of so-called "vanity cards" — a graphic ID for the show's production company.
The "Chuck Lorre Productions" vanity card has been an outlet for Lorre's random observations since 1997, when alert viewers of the ABC sitcom "Dharma & Greg" began noticing fine print on the screen which, by freeze-framing their VCR, they could dwell on long enough to read.
Among Lorre's propositions on Vanity Card No. 1: "I believe that the Laws of Karma do not apply to show business, where good things happen to bad people on a fairly regular basis" and "I believe that when ABC reads this, I'm gonna be in biiiig trouble."
As the years passed, Lorre kept issuing a fresh card for every episode of each show with his latest reflections, revelations and rants.
On one, he listed "words that confused the CBS censor" (a frequent object of his ire). Among them: kumquat, manhole, cunctation and Dick Butkus.
On another, he recalled a long-ago encounter with a 16-year-old guitar prodigy named Pat Metheny. It was a reality check that led to his eventually ditching his music career to "find work in television. Nobody's a prodigy there."
Now 333 of those musings — including a few that were censored by the network — have been gathered by Lorre in a rather magnificent coffee- table book, "What Doesn't Kill Us Makes Us Bitter" (Simon & Schuster; $100), complete with lavish illustrations and even a sewn-in bookmark, a courtesy usually reserved for cookbooks and Bibles. (Proceeds will benefit Lorre's Dharma-Grace Foundation, which supports the Venice (Calif.) Family Clinic.)
In a foreword, Lorre explains that his vanity-card mission has been "to use prime-time television to chronicle an unraveling life and raveling career in subliminal, one-second increments." And with his output already available on his website, he decided the book should be graphically ambitious "in a desperate attempt to add value to something that was never intended to have any."
Lorre may come across as wryly self-dismissive. But in a recent interview he says he takes his scribblings very seriously.
"I started this because it was an opportunity to try and write prose, and I found it very satisfying, and very different than writing a script. This is much more personal. And at times," he adds with one of his frequent whatta-ya-gonna-do? shrugs, "it's gotten TOO personal."
You want personal? Just consider Card No. 337, first aired on March 31, 2011. "Never forget," Lorre wrote in part, "that God/The Universe is determined to kill you by whatever means necessary."
That sentiment was vented while erratic, hard-partying "Men" star Charlie Sheen was clashing bitterly with Lorre and the show's studio, Warner Bros. Only a few weeks earlier, they had been forced to fire Sheen and cut short the show's eighth season.
While being bashed by Sheen all over the media ("I think I'm fairly immune to name-calling now," he wrote in Card No. 345), Lorre was under the gun to salvage TV's top-rated comedy and keep his other shows on track.
How did he cope? "I threw myself into the work even more," he says. "The only thing I could do was work harder.
"It was a terrible time. It was awful," he goes on. "I was really heartbroken by how it all played out. And angry. He was my friend. We were all concerned about him. We thought he was going to die."
Sheen now stars in a TBS sitcom "Anger Management," while "Men" has entered its 10th season with Ashton Kutcher in his sophomore year as Sheen's replacement. Lorre insists that, despite that stormy period, the man once billed as "the angriest man in television" has found peace of mind.
"You need to get to know Chuck 2.0," he says when past reports of Combative Chuck are mentioned. "I look around sometimes and I can't believe all this has happened to a journeyman guitar player. Truly, I've been blessed."
He allows that there was a time "when anger was the fuel to fend off other voices that wanted control of the creative process. I've never been a big fan of creation by committee: a committee of other comedy writers, yes; network executives, no."
With a wiry frame, a trim beard and a head of tangled curls, Lorre is self-taught as a sitcom scribe. Now 60, the Long Island, N.Y. , native got the itch to write for TV in his mid-30s, after a decade or more spent touring the country as a less-than-wildly-successful guitarist-songwriter.
After writing a spec script for "The Golden Girls," he found his way to "Roseanne," then created the ABC sitcom "Grace Under Fire," starring comedian Brett Butler, and "Cybill," starring Cybill Shepherd. These were rocky stretches for Lorre, each marked by his premature exit.
"Dharma & Greg" proved to be a more pleasant experience. But it wasn't easy.
"Telling a story in a 22-minute sitcom is hard," Lorre says. "There was a lot of faking it while I was learning the craft. I didn't get the hang of it for 12 or 13 years."
That was around 2003, when he co-created "Two and a Half Men."
In 2007, he hit the jackpot again when he co-created "The Big Bang Theory."
Then, in 2010, he won the triple crown with "Mike & Molly."
All were huge successes and established Lorre as the biggest sitcom magnate since Norman Lear's reign in the 1970s with such blockbusters as "All in the Family" and "Sanford and Son."
No wonder Lorre feels a new level of confidence.
"I have more faith," he says in his soft, unhurried tone. "The difficulty factor has ceased to cause me to panic. I may not have the answer, but I know I'm surrounded by really smart people, and somebody's gonna have the answer."
Now Lorre's horizons are expanding further. He recently signed a four-year development and production deal with Warner Bros. that covers broadcast, cable and films. (Lots more reach for his vanity cards?)
"I'm developing a drama series, believe it or not," he says. "It's terrifying but exhilarating: freed from the tyranny of jokes."
But don't think he's renouncing the sitcom genre he is currently the undisputed master of.
"To make people laugh out loud, I think that's a noble effort," Lorre declares. "It's worth doing. I'm doing the best I can. And I'll try and be better."
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